Edwina Currie: Isn't it time we Scousers admitted some home truths?

By Edwina Currie
Last updated at 1:16 AM on 14th August 2008

Edwina Currie: 'You seek energy, creativity, cutting-edge employment? Head for London, not Liverpool'

The policy Exchange, said to be David Cameron's favourite think-tank, has really set the cat among the pigeons with its latest report.
Northern cities such as Liverpool, Bradford and Sunderland are beyond saving, it says.

The millions spent on regeneration have been wasted; restrictions on building down south should be lifted and people encouraged to move to 'economic powerhouses' such as London, Oxford and Cambridge, otherwise they risk being 'trapped' in places which have 'little prospect of offering their residents the standard of living to which they aspire.'
Cue howls of protest, rather as one would expect.

David Cameron, touring the North this week, has denounced the report as 'insane'.

Regeneration, he declares, has been a key Conservative theme over the past three years. Of course it has.

After all, David is hunting votes beyond the Tory heartlands and is dangling the prospect of yet more government handouts as bait.

But since there hasn't been a Tory MP in Liverpool since I was a teenager, he probably shouldn't bother. I reckon the report is uttering only home truths, unpalatable though they may be to politicians of every hue.
If government efforts to help northern cities since the 1950s had succeeded, then there would be no gap in living standards, or employment, or educational achievement, or health - yet the gaps have persisted and in many cases widened.

You hope to live a long life? Try Hampshire, not Hull. You dream of a three-car household? That's Surrey, not Sunderland.

You seek energy, creativity, cutting-edge employment? Head for London, not Liverpool.

That's what I did, 40 years ago, and I have never felt the urge to move back to my home town of Liverpool.

I grew up in Childwall, a district in the south-east of the city, with Mum and Dad, and my brother Henry, in an ordinary semi.

My father had a gentleman's tailoring business in the heart of the city in Williamson Square, making uniforms for sea captains.

In 1994 we held a reunion of my old school, the Liverpool Institute High School for Girls, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its foundation, and I discovered that the entire sixth form of my day had migrated, most of them down south; only one girl still lived in the 'Pool, and she'd returned to live with her parents.

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Worst of all, the loony-Left city council under Derek Hatton had closed our wonderful school, and the companion boys' school where Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison had been pupils.

State grammar schools with their cult of excellence didn't fit into the council's 'regeneration' plans, did they?

When I was a kid, Liverpool had 800,000 residents and was still a world-renowned seaport.

It was a rumbustious place, with a fabulous music scene, majestic public buildings, international business such as insurance and shipbuilding; we watched the Cunard flagships setting off for New York and dreamed of sailing away ourselves some day.

Escape, that's what we had in mind. It was an extraordinarily prosperous place - and the sky seemed to be the limit.

But by the time I had my 'ticket to ride' in the form of a scholarship to Oxford, the port had lost its reputation as the Atlantic shipping trade died and endless strikes finished it off.

Meanwhile, Liverpool itself was haemorrhaging a thousand people a week. Now, the city's population is down to 439,000; a quarter of its residents are on benefits, the highest proportion in the country, while on a Saturday night Liverpool has the highest rate of emergency hospital admissions for alcohol-related injuries in England.

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I still go back occasionally. There's definitely still a lot to love about Liverpool.
Scousers are incredibly warm-hearted, funny and generous. And they certainly know how to have fun.

But it isn't long before I get a sinking feeling, and remember why I left my hometown.

Like emerging from Lime Street Station in February - at what was the beginning of Liverpool's year as the European Capital of Culture - to find pavements dug up and underpasses closed. Hardly a centre of cultural excellence.

'They'll be ready for it this time next year,' I muttered.

Or when international golf came to Lytham St Annes, up the road. I asked my taxi driver about it: 'Bloody Americans,' he complained, hardly the attitude to welcome high-spending foreign visitors.

In December 2006 I went to a Christmas dinner at the Adelphi hotel, once the Claridge's of Liverpool, only to find a notice in the bedroom saying, 'All electrical items removed from this room to be paid for' as if it were a cheap hostel where all its guests were thieves.

Hardly welcoming surroundings for the traveller searching out the legendary Liverpool.

My heart goes out to the local people. They've been conned by successive governments, both Tory and Labour, and by the Liberal Democrats who have run the council more recently.

Government money won't turn things round. Only your own initiative will do that.
And what the report says is so true it shouldn't need restating: that if a city has lost its raison d'être, whatever it was that brought it into existence in the first place, then shedloads of taxpayers' largesse won't turn back the clock.

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Far better, and cheaper, if workers go to where the jobs are, rather than trying to blackmail or subsidise business to move to where it does not want to go.
In fact, that's what many individuals have been doing for decades. Like me, they look at the lack of opportunities, and they vote with their feet.

The problem is, government interference makes things worse. Local politicians become adept at holding out their hands, palm upwards; the skills thus valued are how to fill in forms and how to spin a convincing tale of woe and continuing need, instead of figuring out what talents their residents have, or need to develop, to compete in the modern world.

Those with imagination or ambition or a determination to do things for themselves don't fit - take Liverpool's most famous living son, Sir Paul McCartney.
His success came to him only in London - and there he remains. I am not talking through my hat; I've been through this before, when I was an MP.

As the pits closed down in my South Derbyshire constituency, unemployment began to rise.

We had lived on state subsidies for decades and things had to change. But the locals were skilled, hard-working, and open to ideas.

They were also adaptable, and willing to take on whatever challenges were flung at them. They did not believe in going on strike and were determined not to live on handouts.

Along came car manufacturer Toyota, and hey presto! The new factory meant Derbyshire was making cars, and the area gleams with a new prosperity.

Population has risen so much that there'll be an additional parliamentary seat come the next election. And none of it was done with public money, not a penny.

If I were in charge in Liverpool today I would be reading this report with interest. I'd be making inquiries: what do outsiders come to Liverpool for? What do they like when they arrive? How can we persuade them to stay, and spend money here?

I'd be asking the two Liverpool universities to see what happens to their graduates, and what might persuade them to seek employment in the city.
I'd not be squeamish about asking what they hate, and taking action about it: the crime, the dirt, the ignorance, the shortage of decent places to stay and to eat, the dereliction on every side.

Plenty of cities set examples of revival through their own efforts, from Manchester to New York. It can be done.

And as someone who still loves Liverpool, my message to my fellow Scousers would be: get on and do the same.

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