Revealed: The Thatcherite plan to abandon Liverpool

Trainers hang from telephone wires near the corner of Granby Street and Selborne Street where the arrest of Leroy Cooper sparked off the Toxteth riots.
Trainers hang from telephone wires near the corner of Granby Street and Selborne Street where the arrest of Leroy Cooper sparked off the Toxteth riots.

By Ian Dunt

The Thatcher government briefly considered leaving Liverpool to a period of "managed decline", according to confidential government documents released today.

Cabinet meetings in the wake of the Toxteth riots of 1981 saw then-chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe urge Margaret Thatcher not to waste "scarce resources" on Liverpool.

"I fear that Merseyside is going to be much the hardest nut to crack," he said.


"We do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East.

"It would be even more regrettable if some of the brighter ideas for renewing economic activity were to be sown only on relatively stony ground on the banks of the Mersey.

"I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill."

He said the term 'managed decline' should not be used even in private because it was "too negative".

The riots, arguably the worst disorder on the British mainland until the unrest of this summer, were prompted by the arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper on Selborne Street and lasted for eight days, leaving 70 buildings destroyed and hundreds of police officers injured as tensions between police and the Afro-Carribean community burned over.

Then-environment secretary Michael Hesaltine urged the government to spend more on the city before being despatched to Liverpool to report back the situation on the ground.

His reports saw him express horror at the tactics and "fortress mentality" of the police, who he said acted brutally towards all suspects.

"Mr Heseltine considered the behaviour of the police in Liverpool 8 to be quite horrifying," the Cabinet papers read.

"They were not acting in a racialist fashion. They treated all suspects in a brutal and arrogant manner."

Mr Hesaltine told the BBC this morning that his position protected Liverpool from plans to effectively abandon it.

"It never really got any traction for the simplest reason that the Cabinet minister responsible for so much of the policy that affected the city was me," he said.

"I simply wouldn't countenance that you could say that one of England's great cities, a world city, was going into managed decline here. That would simply be unthinkable to the approach that I believed to be necessary to a very important part of our history."

Lord Howe cast doubt on the reliablility of the documents.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t recall how that argument got into the discussion at all. It certainly doesn’t sound very considerate.

“But certainly I think the chancellor is so often arguing against spending money as being the only answer.

“As I say, Michael Heseltine and I together introduced enterprise zones in Merseyside as well as in many other places which was a better way if you like of making help available as quickly as possible.”

“Certainly, as a former Merseyside member of parliament, I am surprised to find myself ever having argued quite as I am quoted to have done on Liverpool.”

But the emergence of the paper sparked anger from local politicians, who drew comparisons between the Thatcher government and today's coalition.

Council leader Cllr Joe Anderson told the Liverpool Daily Post that "in 30 years nothing has changed".

He added: "That’s the reality of what people in Liverpool feel. Now, in these economic times we are being treated the worst in terms of spending cuts.”
 

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