My earliest real memories are of 1989. I can vividly recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had of course no understanding of the geo-political context, but the powerful images of people dancing on the graffiti covered wall as it was smashed down, have always stayed with me.
So too do the very different memories I have of that year’s Hillsborough disaster. I was not at the ground – as a family of Evertonians, our focus was on the simultaneous FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. However, though young and, again, not fully understanding, I do remember the mood afterwards, the grim television images of the empty terraces.
There for me, the two sides of what followed, in the 1990s and 2000s, are laid bare. The freedom and optimism, the darkness underneath.
One impact the fall of the Berlin Wall played out in Birkenhead, where I’m from, was the end of the Cold War meaning a cut in naval orders for the Cammell Laird shipyard. With the Thatcher government having focused so much of UK industry on defence, this meant the closure of the yard around which the town had been built. The year the yard closed in 1993, in parts of Birkenhead – one of the poorest areas in Europe – the male unemployment rate was 52%. Economic decline and its social effects ate away at the local fabric. Many people moved away to seek work. My father, who worked for British Rail as a maintenance engineer, itself being decimated by cuts, had to work away for several years in the Midlands due to a lack of local opportunities.
Of course, when something is all you know, it’s all you know. It was only as I grew older that I became more aware that others lived differently. Not only were we a poorer region, many people elsewhere thought it was hilarious that our community had declined, jobs had gone, poverty had increased, that decay eroded our buildings and infrastructure, and that our cultural institutions were run down and closing. Not only did they find it funny, they thought this had happened not because of a complex range of political, geographic and economic factors over a long period of history, but that it was our fault because of our deficient character. As I consumed more media I saw this was rife, from Loaded magazine to the Sunday Times to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who said in a speech as an attempt at a joke: “You know scousers, always up to something.”
His comments were symptomatic of how easy it was to get away with this sort of prejudice in that era. On the football terraces, meanwhile, you could hear: It could be worse / You could be scouse / Eating rats in your Council House. And much worse. The towns many of the football supporters who sang the above and similar lived in, these days have worse poverty and unemployment rates than Merseyside, but those fans continue to sing it.
This was of course fuelled by the right wing corporate media. It couldn’t be denied that Government policies had helped impoverish certain areas, that life in them was getting worse. So, it suited the Government and its media supporters to pretend that places like Glasgow and Liverpool were poor through their own choices and, as such, were irrelevant, not to be worried about, that they even deserved it. Places to be wholly dismissed, certainly in cultural terms. However, let’s not just blame hacks like The Sun’s Kelvin Mackenzie, that lets people off too easily. A large proportion of the British public lapped it up and ran with it. They wanted to be told, even if they were on a low wage elsewhere, that they were still better than the Scousers or the Scots. This reached its grimmest culmination in the public reaction to the Hillsborough disaster. Of course now, finally, after decades of hard grassroots campaigning, most of the public has a very different view of what happened in that disaster. Yet until the Hillsborough Independent Panel reported, this was not the case. Even as a young adult, long after the Taylor Report and Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough, upon hearing I was from Merseyside, random people would make snide comments relating to the disaster.
Looking back, I think it’s something to do with a particular deficiency of the British national character, the need to always think we’re better than someone else. Even those who consider themselves liberal-left often revel in sniffing at the tastes of others. This is fuelled of course by the fact that, in order to keep the current system ticking over, we need to keep buying into lifestyles that we think make us better or different from other people. From city centre dwellers who spend a lot in independent coffee shops to suburbanites straining to pay a mortgage they can’t afford for a double garage: We may be struggling but at least we’re not like them lot.
By the time Labour got into power in 1997, I was mid-way through my high school years in a tatty secondary modern in the Wirral suburbs. Educational resources in the borough were of course all diverted to the grammar schools in this 11 Plus area. My dad was a trade unionist. My family Labour. We’d been brought up to believe that things could only get better. Even in our school, not the kind to have a debating society, someone on the day after the Labour election victory stole a Vote Labour sign and propped it above one of the main doors.
It was a time of optimism, further fuelled by the opening up of many countries after the fall of the wall and other profound changes like the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Culture in many ways was booming too, especially the wild and hedonistic kind, embodied by the rise of dance music after the ‘second summer of love’ in 1989 and later the ‘Cool Britannia’ world of Brit Pop, all documented by a rising number of glossy magazines. All the sugar high joys of our consumer society, growing since the 1980s. Public spending went up after 1997. There were more university places. New technology it seemed would create new jobs to replace those lost. It doesn’t matter, we were told, if your old ways, your old towns, are doomed. Go to university, live in a regenerating city, get a new job in a new industry.
It felt like there was a new growing and exhilarating openness then. We could mix with a wider circle, helped by the ever expanding world of the Internet. With the advent of cheap flights, we could see more of the world. Borders seemed to be falling everywhere. It seemed too, we hoped, that racism, homophobia, misogyny, were at least on the retreat, even if still prevalent. Sexuality too was, a little, more fluid. What we lacked in declining security, was made up for in the appearance at least of more freedom, more options. The idea of a traditional structured life, deemed irrelevant, old fashioned, just as it was becoming slowly more unobtainable. The Government, media, society, did its best by and large to encourage you to look away from how shallow though a lot of this was and dream instead of the computer generated futures on the hoarding boards of regeneration projects.
Of course though, for people like us, in a place like Merseyside, things did not really get that better that much. Labour brought in Education Maintenance Allowance, but also Tuition Fees. It invested in the regions, but didn’t undertake serious economic reform, thus seeing ever more of the regional economic base of Britain slip away. Many Labour voters became sceptical of the party around the Iraq war. For those of us in small post-industrial towns, the scepticism began much earlier.
That era I think was never better described than by Sue Townsend, the creator of Adrian Mole, referring to it in the title of her book, The Cappuccino Years – it was all so much froth on the surface. While it seemed things were getting better, underneath, the rot of the 1980s continued to eat away at our economy and civil society. Those of us from working-class backgrounds were I think more sensitive to how thin much of all this was. Despite being just as into the cheap thrills on offer, we could not forget what happened to those at the vulnerable end of society in the 1980s and 90s, even if we had no faith in what had been lost returning. At the lower end of the economy where insecurity was normal, the gaps in the system were easier to see. It was also felt by many of us though, that we had fought, and we had lost. That some posh academics still wanted to pick over trade union banners and the like, tried to invoke a supposedly more glorious past, seemed tasteless. That culture, our culture, had been beaten to death. Leave it be, let’s embrace what little, unintentional good that came out of that destructive revolution: the dance music, the style, the freedom, the openness. We had no industries anymore, our towns had lost their reason to be, but at least we were no longer trapped by their traditional strictures. All we had was a small degree of liberation amongst the corruption and we were going to embrace it, because that’s all that was left.
Some would occasionally raise flags; the numerous unresolved injustices of the past, the unlikeliness, if you had even a scant knowledge of history, of this boom being sustained, that economies were still declining in more regions than ever, but so often to do so was to be seen as boring, a throwback, a crank.
On the eve of the credit crunch in 2008, I had a junior insecure job in the cultural sector, while Liverpool was caught up in the whirlwind of the being European Capital of Culture. It was all a lot of fun, much of the programme was really good too, but running around at the bottom of the cultural system, it was easy to see it was on shaky ground, with money being spent wildly with little thought to the long term. A booming culture sector built on the sand of money flowing into the economy from high finance. Of course, the culture sector saw only a fraction of the cash compared to what was being thrown around elsewhere. Culture was, as it does, merely reflecting the wider system, from the financial markets to the construction boom and all interconnected. Don’t stop that carousel! Because so many people deep down knew that as soon as the music stopped, everything would start to fall apart. And so it did. Those at the bottom were the ones to really suffer, while so many who had kept the Ponzi scheme going, ran off or had enough stashed to keep themselves afloat.
I wrote an article in 2009, soon after the credit crunch started to kick in, about what the future might hold for the UK. The recession was biting but the public cuts hadn’t come in, the wheels were still spinning just slowing down. I could not of course predict how long, how deep, how fundamental the decline would be, but I knew it was going to be a bumpy ride ahead. My piece was deliberately over the top, the theme of the publication was ‘apocalypse’, but I think I managed to capture some things that have, sadly, turned out to be true ten years on:
“Although many of these events have been happening on a global scale, the crisis has also served to highlight Britain’s inherent weaknesses and its seemingly terminal decline. Pretty much the same path it has been on for decades. We can now see the 90s as simply an opiated high amidst abject squalor.”
“Life would become much cheaper. Ignorance and disease would grow. Social mobility would become almost non-existent.”
I was far from alone in seeing some of this on the horizon. We couldn’t predict that the crunch was merely one of the more dramatic stages in a more fundamental shifting of tectonic plates. However, while people who had been spared the worst of 1980s and 90s thought it would just be a blip, like the dot com bubble of the early 2000s, then things would return to ‘normal’, those of us who could recall the bitter devastation of the 80s and early 90s to much of Britain could see the cracks spreading more easily. So much of the UK though was still in thrall to its supposed ‘betters’, the ‘leaders’ and ‘entrepreneurs’. They still wanted to be told the problem was that lot, over there and that lot would be the only ones to suffer. They wanted to be told that they would still be fine. Yet it all kept on falling, until it started to catch up with even those who’d been alright at the first hurdle. Those who thought they’d be okay.
For me, the tragedy of Britain in my lifetime wasn’t that Merseyside got worse, in many ways it has improved from the nadir of the early 90s. The tragedy is that so many other places have experienced the same decline or worse. The economic decline of the majority of UK regions and its inverse, the overheating of London on the gilded roulette wheel of high finance to make it increasingly unliveable for ordinary people, has spread to impact on everyone.
But don’t say people in places like Liverpool didn’t warn everyone more than 30 years ago about all this and were mocked for it.
Now, over 10 years further on from 2008, people are starting to turn around and say ‘no more’. But the battle is so much harder. So much has already been lost. The anger being felt across the nation is from people feeling cheated. However, many people were being cheated a lot more for a longer period of time.
I visited Poland soon after the credit crunch and, by accident, ended up being taken around Krakow by someone around my age. We talked of the horrors of the past. The new openness. That we would have not been able to meet just a decade or so previously. It felt good. Just another personal anecdote, but these are the things we need to cling too. We must remember the fall of the wall. We need to remember too though the decades of darkness that accompanied its construction and how it came to be. And, indeed, remember that there was an emptiness underneath all that openness after the wall came down. Many people were still getting thrown under the bus even during the boom. Often forgotten by the mostly well-meaning, well-educated technocrats who had become much of the political class. Those who had absorbed the idea and parroted back to us that ‘There is no alternative’. When that system did, as they all do in the end, collapse, they had no idea how to respond. Other than wasting years propping it up hoping the magic would return while they were overrun by smarter and more cynical disaster capitalists who wanted to make sure, as ever, that they benefited from the chaos.
Meanwhile the dreams of ordinary people lay shattered and ever further out of reach. At the same time though, as the propulsive positivity of the Berlin Wall falling receded, hope grew elsewhere. The unrelenting, never give up attitude of the people behind the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, who should to a man and woman get OBEs for fighting every prejudice; against football fans, against Scousers, against the working-class, managed to turn the tide around the Hillsborough disaster. A campaign driven and led by those at the bottom with the least resources. We should not forget that in the case of the Berlin Wall and Hillsborough, it was ordinary people who led the path of change, taking down walls of different kinds.
Really, a lot of what is happening in Britain, is the scales falling from people’s eyes. We as a nation have to face up to our problems, not ignore them. The previous model of allowing just enough people with ambition to get on and giving everyone else just enough to get by and not cause any trouble has collapsed. In the end it always benefited those with the most and abandoned those with the least. We don’t need to try and ‘get back to normal’ because, while things may have been much better than they are now, really there was just a thin veneer over a set of huge challenges that helped us avoid facing up to the issues. What we need now is to go forward, address those challenges, acknowledge that the race to the top, the throwing of whole communities under the bus has not only screwed them, but ultimately, screwed the whole country and undermined the wider world.
Drunk on the freedom of the individual, too many people forgot about those who were, one way or another, losing their freedom. The great feeling of loss that this country has experienced will carry on and get worse unless we realise we aren’t atomised individuals. We need to remember, acknowledge where things went wrong, who has suffered and goes on suffering. Brexit, whatever it ends up meaning, approaches and things are more uncertain than ever. They may well get worse. We cannot forget the need for solidarity though, the need for working together, fighting injustice, not letting the weakest be crushed, because, the alternative is unthinkable. Things can be turned around again. If I live for another 30 years at least, I dare to hope, we may get back some of what we have lost. Perhaps even, gain some new things as well. Walls will still be built of course, and we will still need to make them fall.
Text: Kenn Taylor
Images: Kenn Taylor and Kevin Crooks
Liverpool’s Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse is the largest brick built warehouse in the world and looms over all it surrounds. It’s now also at the centre of change in a largely post-industrial area north of the city centre. I’ve known this area since going as child to the now defunct market once held in the Stanley warehouse. While the much of the area was falling into decay, I’d be reminded by my dad who’d worked nearby, that this had once been a thriving hub of industry, how tragic it’s decline was and how that had negatively impacted on so many people. Merseyside had so much dereliction when I was a child, I’ve never seen urban decay as particularly romantic, or interesting, but shit. Something that needed to be changed. Yes, to preserve history, but also to create an economic engine for people in the area again.
Now plans for the nearby area include a new Everton FC stadium (the fifth such plan in my lifetime, but I remain an optimist – you have to be as an Evertonian) new port terminals bringing parts of the docks back to life, a slow-to-progress ‘Docklands-lite’ plan called Liverpool Waters, with the usual flats and offices, as well as the further redevelopment of the now partially refurbished Stanley Dock, described as “the biggest adaptive re-use challenge in Europe” in a Heritage England article.
Perhaps the most interesting change though has been in the streets between Stanley Dock and the city centre. The cheap land, large ex-industrial spaces, as well as further development of the city centre, has attracted several arts and music spaces including Make Liverpool, Invisible Wind Factory, Drop the Dumbulls and more. The City Council has subsequently developed a Single Regeneration Framework for this area, named Ten Streets because, well, it’s ten streets from Saltney Street to Oil Street. The SRF envisages the further development of this area as a creative district. The involvement of the local authority and external planning consultants has provoked understandable scepticism in some quarters and the usual cries of gentrification. However, the situation with Ten Streets deserves unpicking further. While there have been some negative impacts of gentrification in Merseyside, the area faces far more fundamental challenges than that. While it has come a long way, the economy remains weak and with the resulting lack of decent jobs, young local people often still leave for better opportunities, and experienced locals often face long commutes. It also means the local tax base is low, reducing the city’s ability to pay for services for the needy and develop its economy and infrastructure. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that makes issues around urban change in Liverpool and other under-invested cities like it, distinct from that in the overheated global metropolises like London and New York which dominate urban discourse, who face the inverse issue of too many jobs and not enough affordable space.
So how to create quality jobs, that local people can access, develop a more sustainable economy and also save historic buildings decaying through lack of demand and funds, are a troika of huge issues for Merseyside. Jobs in creative fields could form part of a solution. Yet the potential for developing creative jobs in the area has been undermined in the past by low-grade property speculators driving creative organisations out of buildings, hence why many moved out to this north docks area. Most notably this has been seen in the Baltic Triangle which I wrote about here, where the promising development of studio spaces by a CIC and a subsequent growth in venues et al is threatened by aggressive speculative residential development. Some of what drove this plan for the Ten Streets is trying to stop that happening again. As Claire Parry, Liverpool City Council’s planning lead on Ten Streets, details: “One of the things we’ve learnt from with Baltic Triangle is that didn’t benefit from an SRF. While it’s got a mixed land used designation, the feel with that is that it has become very residential dominated. What we have tried to do with Ten Streets is retain the employment focused designation to try and retain the job creating focus of the project.” This SRF should help prevent speculation in the area, by controlling building heights, building styles, use designation etc. Having heard similar sentiments before, I ask Claire to state in black and white, if a speculator buys a load of old buildings in this area and wants to kick a creative occupier or traditional industrial business out for flats, they’re now going to come up against this framework? “Precisely that,” she says.
Parry thinks though for it to be successful as a creative area, a delicate balance is required between the Council protecting the area from speculation and being too heavy handed: “It’s a difficult thing we have to balance. If there was one of these documents in place for Baltic it might have actually helped, but it seems though if the Council steps in it all becomes very kind of clinical and the organic nature is lost. What the hope is with this is we can have the best of both worlds, it’s not too prescriptive, things can just happen, but within the parameters set in the document.”
Liam Kelly, Director of Make Liverpool, set up in the area because they a wanted long term base: “We wanted a big fat lease where we could put down roots and make it sustainable. We didn’t want to repeat the same old, same old temporary use of space with no exit plan, eventually get gentrified out, wash, rinse and repeat.” Kelly feels they have been brought on board with the Ten Streets plan: “There was no consultation pre giving it a name and an identity and all that sort of stuff. But then they obviously consulted on the SRF, that then came out. Then they set up a steering group to which we were invited to and we host in our building.”
This is echoed by Liam Naughton from Invisible Wind Factory: “They sort of said it’s all going to change, and they want to do this in the right way possible. A Councillor was getting involved and they were like, ‘can you contribute to the aspects you care about in this area and inform this masterplan document, the SRF?’”. Crucially Naughton feels that they have had impact in the process too: “I believe we have had a good influence on it. What’s added to it is they want to keep the creative industries at its core.”
Yet this positive vision could yet go unfulfilled. Liam Kelly feels the biggest threat to the Ten Streets idea is from speculators: “Concerns are really obvious,” he says. “Spiralling uncontrolled rising rents and property values before anything has actually happened. He continues: “It’s all pretty complicated stuff and the Council doesn’t really have the power that people expect it to. So, unscrupulous people who want to cash in are the biggest threat.”
Naughton feels if Ten Streets is given the opportunity to fulfil its potential, it could be powerful and have UK wide impact in terms of how such areas are developed: “I would love it if just doubled down on being an exciting place for culture and arts. If there’s opportunities, there we’ll fill them in this city. We could do something interesting here. Grabbing those challenges, we’re seeing in the arts right now. You could be ambitious with it.”
However, power imbalances remain, albeit with perhaps with a wider circle of involvement than most urban development plans, as Naughton details:
“The big players are quite clear, it’s the City Council, with Harcourt the main developer and then Peel [developer] as an important thing to factor in as they’re right next to each other. So really, they’re the major voices in the room as they’re the ones who can make the big decisions. That said, I’m not cynical. They have listened to us. [Cllr] Ann O’Byrne Chairs a meeting we get invited to which is about having our say on certain things. It’s an Advisory Group, so they don’t have to do it. But there’s so many important voices in the room, if you suggest something that makes sense, it will get explored on some level.”
The focus of the discussion and plans for Ten Streets have been the former warehouses and factories adjacent to the docks. While some people do live in the immediate vicinity, it’s always been principally industrial. Not far away though are residential districts that once relied on this area for their economic life. Vauxhall, Everton and Kirkdale are amongst the most historic areas of Liverpool and some of the most deprived parts of the UK.
Joel Hansen runs Scottie Press, a community newspaper which has long given a voice to the area. Joel too wants to see the decay in this industrial area reversed: “I’d like to see Stanley Dock and the Ten Streets put Liverpool on the map again. It would be fantastic to see a resurgence in those streets. I’d like to see all them abandoned warehouses flourish again.”
Crucially though for Joel, this must involve creating opportunities for people living nearby: “Where they talk about a collaborative approach and celebrating heritage, does that count Vauxhall and Kirkdale, or is that for the artists who are living around there? I think there could be more effort to include the further community.” He feels Ten Streets linking to its neighbouring districts will be vital to make it a sustainable success: “I think there needs to be something that’s going to integrate this changing time and hopefully educate people on what’s going to happen in Ten Streets. If there are these companies moving in, are community centres, training providers and schools putting the effort in to prepare the younger generation to get these jobs? There needs to be a lot more awareness.”
There’s a real opportunity with this plan for Ten Streets to do something different in terms of creating much needed jobs, protecting space for arts and culture and restoring important historic buildings, if managed carefully. Yet it could just as easily go the other way. The City Council needs to show leadership by focusing on the good work that has already been done by small, tightly resourced, organisations, and ensure that developers can’t have things all their own way. The creative sector itself meanwhile can no longer pretend does not have a role in gentrification and that naive ideas about ‘organic development’ only leave them open to being pushed out. All parties meanwhile need to ensure that this creative district offers opportunities to those living in residential areas nearby.
For Ten Streets to work, it can’t just be done on trust, even if it does currently exist, relatively, between the different parties involved, as the power imbalances remain huge. The SRF will help, but more needs to be done. Protected land ownership is the next step. If certain key streets or buildings could be passed to a Community Interest Company, as in Baltic Triangle, this would give a core base of locked in spaces for creative outfits. Beyond this, a formally constituted board with equal voting rights for all members and actual clout on planning matters covering the area, could help formalise the relationship between the stakeholders, protect and steer development in the area in the right direction.
Such a model could see a CIC as a lead ‘developer’ in the area, generating rental income to keep sustaining and investing in more creative space. Yet at the same time leaving room for other initiatives to set up and operate in other buildings within a wider protective framework. Combined with the SRF, these things could make Ten Streets a potential model for other places dealing with the now well-established cycle of post-industrial to creative. If successful, it could attract artists and creative outfits being displaced from elsewhere, helping the city develop. Any CIC or formal board with power in the area should also have baked into its constitution that having representation from and creating opportunities for residents in north Liverpool was part of its remit.
Ten Streets marketing talks about Ten Big Ideas. Really, for this area to be successful and sustainable, it just needs one big idea to work. That is to put formal structures and ownerships in place to give its mixed stakeholders a real say and control in how it develops. Ten Streets is just small enough to get some people with power and money to be bold and innovative, just big enough to test if it actually works. To help create a real and long-lasting creative district and in turn encourage some more inclusive economic growth. Liam Naughton feels that the opportunity is there, if the positive ambitions of the project are maintained: “It’s going to be a challenging one to please everyone in the Ten Streets and we sort of think, if people just do a good job of it and keep it to the ambition we all said it was going to be a while ago, and not retreating on the big ideas.”
This piece was published by New Start magazine in October 2019.
This is an abridged version of a longer piece you can read here.
I once had a pleasant, short lived freelance job researching the history of two twentieth century buildings for a property company. One of them was an Art Deco cinema, Grade II listed and well loved. I was amused to find in contemporary press reports from its construction period, people arguing against it being built. They complained about it being constructed over an old pub, about its garish modern appearance, of the negative impacts of cinemas proliferating in cities – which were opening pretty much week to week in the 1930s.
It made me think of the distaste many in our era have of say, chain coffee shops or supermarkets. It also reminded me of our very limited ability to understand how buildings either contemporary or of the recent past will be judged in future. Anyone advocating for the saving of say, a Victorian railway station in the 1930s, an Art Deco lido in the 1960s, or a concrete bus station in the 1980s, would have risked being laughed out of the room. But of course, here we are.
I used to joke when talking with people about this phenomenon that, at some point, there’d be a campaign to list a supermarket, which always raised a laugh. Now in 2019, Nicholas Grimshaw’s Camden Sainsburys has just been listed. “Ah, but that’s a rare, quality exception”, you might say. True, but also true that an awful lot of Victorian or post war Modernist buildings were crap and derivative. Far from everything is as good as St Pancras Station or Park Hill. After a certain point, age often confers a degree of grace and ‘authenticity’ on certain buildings even if they don’t have much particular merit, simply due to the virtue of having survived.
In my native Merseyside, important well-loved, Grade I listed buildings like the Albert Dock and the Royal Liver Building were, in the era they were built, deeply disliked by historians and many contemporary architects, who considered them crass and commercial. Similarly, Liverpool’s attractive Oriel Chambers, the first glass curtain walled building in the world, was memorably described as a “vast abortion” in a contemporary building magazine when it was constructed. Even the seminal Glasgow School of Art provoked upon its completion the suggestion that its architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh should be horsewhipped for having “shown his bare arse to the face of Glasgow.” And these critics were often the well-educated and well connected architects, academics and historians who you think may have been able to see past their own prejudices and personal tastes. But, to quote Eric Hoffer, “both the radical and the reactionary loathe the present.”
In general, we remain terrible judges of what will be valued from our own time in the future. This is of course why, Dinky Toys from the 1950s are worth a lot of money, while many ‘collectables’ that granny kept carefully in her cabinet, are worthless. Of course, much of this is to do with the unrelenting cycle of fashion, turning every 20, 30 or 40 years, depending on who you ask, which applies as much to buildings and politics as records and clothing. The current generation rejects the work of its immediate forbears and often looks further back for inspiration from a supposed better time. The trouble with buildings is, they can’t exactly be stored away when they go out of fashion. They remain right there our faces, reminding us uncomfortably of past failed dreams and now crumbling ideologies.
I’m of a generation that in the 1990s saw many concrete buildings as unfortunate reminders that we’d come a long way down from the optimism of the 1960s. It was a later generation that could see their beauty. Every age of architecture needs its revisionist. John Betjeman inspired in the 1960s a love for a Victorian era he never knew. More recently Owen Hatherley helped to popularise the architecture of a Sixties era he wasn’t born in either.
We need to protect architecture during its period of inevitable malaise, making sure the best of each era is preserved. This is of course why listing was invented, but it remains a flawed system. As highlighted, ‘experts’ don’t always get it right. Yet we must also be careful to protect the urban environment from those who think all change is bad and everything contemporary is awful. Those who now love Brutalism would have nothing to love if the Victorian preservationists, who really began their work as Brutalism was emerging, had wholly got their way.
One of the greatest weaknesses of the Brutalist era, was its arrogance, its desire to sweep away the perceived failure of what went before it. This rose its head again in the Blair era. Much of the architecture of that time now seems overblown and empty, associated negatively with the period I think best described by Sue Townsend as ‘the cappuccino years’. Yet I have no doubt it will be looked back upon more fondly in the future, as the product of a more optimistic age than the one that followed. Like the way we now view some of the decadent buildings from the first part of the twentieth century.
Cities must not forget their past, because they lose something of themselves if they do. Equally, a city which doesn’t change and develop in each new era, is usually a city that is dying, or becoming a living museum. The latter of which in the long term, also often results in the former. Because in the end, even the cleverest amongst us doesn’t know what buildings will be thought important in the future, what that is hated in the contemporary will be considered fit for preservation, or what future monuments haven’t even been thought of yet. Remember, the campaign to save a Costa or an Amazon warehouse is probably just a few decades away.
I’ve been working on arts and heritage projects with communities for nearly 15 years. In that time, I have seen community engagement shift from being, literally in an early role, down the corridor from everything else, to something that even the largest and most prestigious cultural institutions are trying to adapt their practices to include.
My interest in this field comes from having a working class background and getting tentatively involved in the arts sector; feeling that, as much as it was stimulating and great, how much of a disconnect there was between where I had come from and the world I was now entering. Working in community engagement seemed like an interesting way of bridging that gap.
It was clear that much of the wider cultural sector regarded us as ‘nice to have’ or, ‘necessary for funding’. Something that should not have the same recognition, space or budget as ‘real culture’. This was immensely frustrating when, at the coalface, it was easy to see how important and powerful such work could be at all levels.
Community engagement can mean many different things, so first of all it’s important to step back and ask, why do you want to do it? Being clear in this is key in deciding what approach to take. Do you want to diversify or perhaps increase audiences? Are you trying to understand audiences better? Do you want to work with people in the development of a new project? Make your programming more representative of your local area or wider society? Are you involving people in a more radical rethinking about what your organisation is and does? These things can intersect and crossover, but also all have distinctions.
If you want to engage a community of whatever form, you have to ask, what’s in it for them? Community engagement purely because you feel you have to for political or financial reasons or because it’s currently fashionable may work for a while. However, if there’s nothing underpinning such engagement, if it doesn’t, to a greater or lesser extent, influence and change how you do things, it’s a route to failure in the long term.
Doing community engagement well can be hard work. So, why do it? Simply, the publicly funded cultural sector can no longer have any complacency about the broad communities it is intended to serve and still exist. This doesn’t mean every bit of culture will be coproduced in future, but it does mean more change. That many people, often the most disadvantaged, still feel alienated from the sector remains a huge issue. Furthermore, in a multimedia world, people are far less willing to be passive consumers of culture and want to ‘participate’ in many different ways. Many do still just want to see that exhibition/play/performance. However considering the many ways people might want to otherwise interact with the art and culture that is being made and those involved in making it, is vital for the future of organisations.
When I began to realise in the last few years, that participation, community engagement, the various other intersecting types of work and terminologies we use, had become à la mode, initially it felt positive. That this sort of work was finally being recognised. However, as people and organisations who’d never given it a passing thought started diving into it and shouting from the rooftops about how good they were at it, concerns emerged. For example, of the risks of organisations doing it with little experience and alienating the very people they’re trying to engage. Or of heavily funded traditional institutions adopting the ideas of smaller focused organisations and crowding them out from funding rather than trying to work in partnership. That more organisations are doing this kind of work though, does acknowledge the power of community engagement. However more still needs to be done.
Community engagement on the side is on the way out. This does not mean that specific and targeted programmes led by experienced practitioners can all be replaced by vague statements about how ‘community is considered in all things’. It does mean that such engagement though should impact right across what a cultural organisation does, from the toilets to the marketing. Crucially, the sector also has to make sure that the artists and other workers it employs are more representative of the diversity of British society: they will know best how to engage and indeed challenge communities that they themselves come from.
When I started in this field, I wanted to learn how to do community engagement as best as possible and perfect it. What I found out instead was that, as soon as you think you’ve answered it, you find another question to ask, another parameter to consider, another level of depth to go to. Criticality and theory is, quite rightly, catching up and taking the world of participation and engagement ever more seriously, but there still is, I think, no perfect model. Just different ways of doing things well in the context that you do them in. Though there is a world of good practice to take inspiration from. But tread carefully and slowly as this so often leads to better results. The more successful you do something in engagement, the main thing you’re likely to learn is how to do it better again next time. And for me really, that’s where the joy in it is. Working with people and trying to do it well around art and culture to make a difference in a very imperfect world.
Access is a fierce concern in the arts in the UK. Government cuts have dragged on for years, reducing equitable access to culture on all fronts and undermining the progress that had been made in recent decades. Couple this with a period of intense cultural shifts and the spotlight has been turned on access, not for the first time, and hard questions are rightly being asked.
Access to the arts, or lack thereof, has to be considered on different levels. This includes physical and sensory access to art and art venues, financial access to art or the tools to make it, and access to education facilitating the consumption, critique and creation of art. To this we can add access to the platforms that help define the art that is valued, paid for and consumed by large numbers of people, and lastly access to the time and space it takes to even think about art.
The challenges vary between access to the consumption of art and access to making and platforming it. In this multimedia age, these have to an extent blurred. However, a hierarchy remains. A large number of people may be able to put their pictures on Instagram or sell works on Etsy, but it’s not a meritocracy as to who gets their images selected by a major gallery or has their jewellery designs used in a shoot in Vogue.
Let’s talk first about who gets to consume. Though not impossible, it’s hard to produce art without having consumed a significant amount of it first. With the Internet there is ostensibly more access to all forms of visual culture than ever. There are also now more contemporary arts centres in the UK than ever before. So, there’s potential abundance. However, if your personal circumstances are such that you may never have been given the opportunity to think about what you’re consuming, to examine it in detail or explore beyond what major organisations want to feed us through powerful communication channels, access is not equal.
Not everyone is given the chance to explore and create art from a young age. For many reasons art is not just in the purview of a lot of families, often after parents have been denied opportunities themselves. With life getting harder for poorer families,Ilocal cultural services and youth support being shut, (II) and disability support services being axed,(III) fewer young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have opportunities to develop their interests and talents. So, the first layer of people who have been denied access to the arts falls away.
Schools once offered young people at least some chance to engage with different aspects of the arts. Now we see the stripping out and devaluing of arts education at all levels. Except of course, in the elite, private schools, which have heavily invested arts programmes.(IV) Meanwhile school trips to cultural venues – which for many are the first if not only opportunity to experience such things, my own first visits to a theatre and an art gallery were with school – are being hugely cut back.(V) Those who may have interests in creative areas and talents they’re not even aware of yet, are not being given the chance to develop. Instead they are pushed down narrow and often irrelevant paths of learning, and told they’re stupid or a failure if they don’t conform. Any attempt to change access to the arts further upstream are always going to have minimal impact unless things change within the mainstream education system. So, another layer of people denied access to the arts falls away.
Some have concerns about imposing art upon people. It is true that ideas of ‘high art’ have historically been used to devalue and undermine popular culture and those ingrained in it. Yet it can’t be ignored that there are always dominant artistic forms linked to power. People from all backgrounds should have the opportunity to get to grips with these and choose whether to adopt them, adapt them or to reject them. Those within the arts who care little about ensuring people’s access to it, who even see it as patronising, are usually those who have always taken it for granted. They have been fed enough art to be able to reject aspects of it even as others are barely getting their first taste.
It’s not just young people who are having opportunities removed. The slashing of Further Education colleges and other routes for lifelong learning has cut people’s chances to develop interest and skills in art in later life. Simultaneously, austerity and its resulting negative impacts on work, family and community life leave less space for other things. Even if you have a keen interest, the costs for visiting many exhibitions have soared as subsidies have been cut. Disabled people, who now struggle to access enough support even for their basic needs, find it even harder to find support to engage with the arts. More people denied access fall away.
We then need to consider who gets to create art. Making art requires no license, materials can be cheap and some people have made a success of this. However, for most people making art does require first having experienced it, as well as having the time, drive and, crucially, confidence to begin. Inevitably those facing the most disadvantages are cut off first. Without early opportunities, the field of those who may pursue art has already been narrowed. That’s before we get to the Governmental and growing societal narrative pushed even on those who do know deep down that they want to create, that studying the arts at a higher level is a bad or irrelevant thing. Thus, another layer of people who may have had a path in the arts falls away.
For those who do want to study, the cost of arts higher education in the UK is extortionate, our fees are now the highest in the world,(VI) while at the same time arts studios and facilities are being ‘value engineered’ out of institutions. The number of tutors and student contact time with them is also being reduced – time which is perhaps most vital for the more disadvantaged students. Some places have seen the de facto end of visual art higher education, leaving local young people with little option but long, expensive distances to travel should they want to pursue study. Yet another layer of people denied access to the arts falls away.
Then there are those who find it hard to make it through study even once they’ve started. Without significant financial support from their family many arts students have to work long hours outside study as well as having to live at home.(VII) Often this means having less time to devote to study and to develop practice and less opportunity to build a support network, and the extra independence and confidence this would bring. The dropout rate amongst students from disadvantaged backgrounds is generally higher than for their more comfortable peers. So, the next layer of people denied access to the arts fall away.
After study in the arts comes the difficult period when there isn’t a direct, clear or easily accessible path to develop and sustain yourself in the field. The pressure to make a living gets harder as the structural support of being a student disappears. Those with financial backing do not to have to fully support themselves at this stage. Those without disabilities, mental health challenges or caring responsibilities are inherently advantaged: able to focus on developing their creative practice, getting it out there and building further networks. Even if you can avoid some of these challenges, which have been powerfully discussed by Anna Berry on Disability Arts Online,(IX) what if you find networking hard? I myself have an anxiety condition that can flare up and make that essential networking exhausting, even at this stage in my career. Others face far greater challenges and prejudices. Thus, another layer of people who can’t sustain themselves through this period falls away from the arts.
Even for those who do make it onto the first rung of the professional ladder, how does an emerging artist get from a popup show in an empty shop to being exhibited at a major gallery? The path remains remote, distant, unclear. There are more arts centres around the UK than ever, and some do have programmes supporting emerging artists. Others feel the need to focus on artists already on ‘the circuit’ especially as they’re also dealing with funding cuts, which can make them risk averse and pushed to ensure popularity and critical support. Getting on this circuit is often an arbitrary and unfair process, which requires a lot of time and energy building networks and getting seen. It can also be difficult to apply for grants without some form of track record, not to mention draining and time consuming given the likelihood of rejection. Even for those able to create space in their lives to maintain a creative practice, trying to move beyond local recognition is difficult. Again, in this period of an artist’s development, those who don’t fear destitution and who have been taught how to sell themselves from an early age often win out. For those who struggle, another layer of people falls away from the arts.
Who gets to work for those cultural organisations and funders? The arts is a small sector and like all small sectors it can be a deeply interconnected world. People get to know each other and develop close working relationships as they move around organisations, compare themselves and try to impress each other. To an extent this is inevitable. However, it also leads to a narrowness of ‘how things are done’ and a circle of who knows who. While things are improving, diversity in the sector has a long way to go. Those from diverse backgrounds who do enter the sector are often moulded by very similar educational backgrounds, their ideologies dominated by whatever is current in universities at the time. Questions around ‘taste’, ‘quality’ and ‘relevance’ remain decided by a small circle, one that can be very hard to enter. There’s still an unspoken division between cultural organisations that are ‘taken seriously’ and the rest. As a recent article highlighted, burnout amongst arts leaders is growing.(X) There’s a constant battle to get enough funding, keep everything running, deal with unstable governments, a slashed public sector, ever more pressure and paperwork. Inevitably the burden of this falls on the smaller arts organisations who are less able to call on powerful friends, and who don’t have a team of fundraisers. Already things are deeply skewed against working in the regions: four of the richest areas of London received more National Lottery cash per person than any other part of the UK over 20 years.(XI) Even though this is slowly changing, the larger cities with big organisations inevitably benefit the most ahead of often poorer cities and towns. Climbing the ladder in the sector can be hard and slow, requiring difficult choices about moving around. Pay at all levels remains low.(XII) Many people leave the arts sector as they approach middle age, unable to support families in these situations. Another layer of people is lost from the arts.
Which brings us to who is left?
This country did very well after the Second World War: allowing more people from different backgrounds into the world of art and culture, helping lead to a revolution in everything from commercial design to visual art and music loved across the world. This has generated immeasurable benefits to the economy. Yet diverse access to the arts is now in decline at all levels. We seem to realise the importance of a rich cultural life to the wellbeing of society more than ever, just as galleries close, local colleges shut arts classes and schools are turned into privatised exam factories. It is certainly not all doom: there has been progress in the increasing acknowledgment of diverse perspectives, more effort towards meaningfully engaging the wider public in the arts and a growing number of places to show work. There will also always be a random and arbitrary element to who and what becomes popular or powerful in the arts. Lots of us want to create, not all of us what to consume what others create. Some people are just better artists or curators or whatevers than others. What we can avoid though, what we must work hard against now more than ever, is the compound unfairness at which every layer more people who don’t fit or who are facing disadvantages in life fall away from the arts. Many never even get the opportunity or space to think about art because so many of their other needs are not being fulfilled. These issues are not confined to the the arts sector. They are fundamental to the multiple challenges the UK faces as a society. This social decay started much further back than 2010, when public sector cuts following the financial crash of 2008 really began to kick in. It’s just grown to cover more areas and affect more people. Much needs to be done, but in small ways we can all do things to create better opportunities for access to the arts, so less people fall away before they have even begun.
Foreign travel was once something largely reserved for the well off. Improvements in transportation and communications in the latter half of the 20th century though, saw the opening up of international tourism for the masses. In tandem with this came the growth of the self-proclaimed ‘traveller’. Those who distinguished themselves from tourists by aiming to go variously; off the beaten track, to the edgier spot, in search of ‘authentic’ culture, while avoiding the popular or things that smacked of package style organisation.
Being such a traveller in the late 20th century usually required having surplus money and, perhaps even more so, surplus time. However, with those ever-advancing improvements in transport and communications and other factors such as borders being relaxed and increasing global economic development, the goals of the traveller became more accessible. Thus, with the world continuing to get ever smaller, ever faster, those who place personal satisfaction in self-consciously being travellers find themselves having ever less options. At the same time as this and deeply linked, we have seen growing critiques of tourism in parts of the press that, ironically, did very well for years from advertising selling foreign dreams to its readers.
Of course, this isn’t entirely new. In the 1970s, travel writer Paul Theroux talked of the typical curmudgeonly snobbery about travel, finding it going back to at least Evelyn Waugh’s When The Going Was Good of 1946 and even further to William T. Brigham writing in 1886: “Old travellers know how soon the individuality of a country is lost when once the tide of foreign travel is turned through its towns and by-ways.” Nothing new under the sun.
Even if going solo, off beaten tracks or engaging positively with locals, by definition you, I, are still tourists. There is of course deeply damaging tourism; landscapes destroyed by over development or over visitation, hooliganism, exploitation, local residents driven out. However to blame all tourists for this or to try and entirely distance yourself from all the issues tourism can create when you go on foreign trips by defining yourself as a traveller and ‘them’ tourists, is, frankly, silly. It’s also laced with class prejudice which can be seen in some of the articles emerging about ‘over tourism’.
Talk about the growing cruise industry is an example of this. Seen as a big symbol of over tourism, ships are inevitably described as ‘huge’, ‘monsters’ with their ‘tides’ of passengers, and usually more subtle references to the undesirable class status and habits of those passengers. There are some genuine environmental issues about large ships in certain, specific water bodies and big engines pumping out fumes close to urban centres. Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced that one large cruise ship with thousands of passengers is any more environmentally damaging overall than a dozen medium sized jetliners moving the same number of people to an airport in a suburb, out of sight, out of mind. With those passengers then needing various often individualistic forms of transport to get to the place they actually want to be. Not to mention the impact of the half dozen hotels they then occupy. But as cruising is generally more of a working class and lower middle class dream, it’s easier to single it out for blame than acknowledging the role that anyone who goes on holiday abroad plays in the damage that tourism can indeed cause.
Amsterdam is one key European city struggling with tourist numbers. Dutch writer Joost de Vries noted in his article in The Guardian his angst at it becoming “like Venice”, as he describes, shorthand for a city so flooded by tourists that it no longer feels like a city at all. Yet he is also self-aware enough to admit that, he too becomes someone else’s tourist problem when he leaves Amsterdam: “Someone in the south of France will be writing the exact same article I’m writing now (bonjour!). That’s the whole point of complaining about tourism. Are you staying home this summer? If not, you are someone else’s tourist.” Indeed, how many writers in major metropolitan centres even as they complain of the damage done to their city by visitors, are soon booking their next flight elsewhere? Most people want to go on holiday and for the majority, going somewhere abroad is the ambition. As the world has got generally richer, tourism has become the world’s biggest industry. I remain an optimist that this demonstrates our common interest in each other and the world. Which in the present political climate, now more than ever is a good thing. To quote Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
Some of the angst around tourism is about how it changes a place, becoming less ‘authentic’. It is true a certain kind of hipster aesthetic has proliferated in urban areas, washing outwards from London, New York and Berlin with diminishing returns. That however ignores that cultural exchange has always prompted change, especially in urban areas and that as the world got smaller, this was always going to speed up. Cities have always copied popular things from each other – witness the glaring similarity of most Victorian town halls and museums across the UK, long before people started shouting about clone towns. Not to mention that seeking ‘the authentic’ while deeply human, is also in itself, pretty inauthentic. A chimera given that, like in physics, as soon as you observe something, you change it.
The reason many people who live in areas popular with tourists work in the industry, especially in developing countries, is that it frequently has better pay and security than the traditional jobs that were available to them. Travellers may bemoan somewhere they once saw as authentic see its people move from say, farming, to running a hotel, but then I doubt many travellers ever had to experience the precarious life of being a sustenance farmer. Tourism also offers opportunities for areas with few other options for a sustainable economy. Venice may now indeed be over visited and needs to manage that, but its traditional economic powers (for all its beauty, much to do with slavery and exploitation) have long been in decline, with the city largely relying on tourism now for well over 100 years. After the last of its port and shipbuilding moved away in the 1950s as it became impractical to use its quaysides, without tourism, the city, with its huge maintenance costs, would have struggled to sustain itself at all. With its own population in decline well before the age of mass cruising.
City breaks to the likes of Venice, Amsterdam or wherever, were once the solid preserve of the middle to upper class. However, with the emergence of low cost airlines, the expansion of hostels, the Internet in general, an industry of alternative travel guides that rose out of the grassroots Rough Guides and Lonely Planet (now both part of global corporations) not to mention the general opening up of Europe through the EU, such city breaks become common place. Thus, the traveller now sees them as problematic, now that everyone visits cities rather than just ‘people like them’.
The potential negative effects of increasing tourism on existing urban residents are true, from stag do drunkenness to people being priced out of apartments for Airbnbs. But the traveller critiquing this is a hypocrite. All the disruptive businesses and technologies that made such travel increasingly possible and affordable to more people, were originally popularised by such travellers from the tech-savvy middle class. Airbnb was once talked about as a radical alternative to corporate hotel chains and a way to engage with local people and culture. So much so that it proliferated. Now the same people who helped it catch on judge others for using it. Of course, there’s a long history of the middle and upper class making something popular then judging others for adopting them, from microwave meals to out of town supermarkets.
That’s the thing with capitalism in general, however punk and radical you convince yourself something is, if it works, it becomes mainstream, see everything from Starbucks to Uber. As ever with such problems, the solutions are to use the power of democratic structures to reign them in. Not bemoan and blame that more people can travel than ever, but take hold of these changing patterns and technology. Tourist taxes, to make sure visitors contribute to local services; regulating the likes of Airbnb to stop it destroying residential areas; limiting visitor numbers to fragile sites; imposing taxes and environmental controls on transportation providers; ensuring local small businesses gain from tourism not just big chains, are all ways that we can reduce some of tourism’s negative impacts.
That more people want to see more of the world is a good thing. Don’t blame the desire, but those who exploit that desire with no thought for what they’re doing to these places or the planet. And even if you see yourself as a traveller, however you behave, accept that, in the end, you’re still just another bloody tourist.
An abridged version of this piece was published by New Statesman CityMetric in January 2019.
Liverpool and a new juncture of arts and regeneration
Words: Kenn Taylor
Images: Kenn Taylor and Kevin Crooks
Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse is the largest brick-built warehouse in the world. This fact though does not really describe just how striking and imposing it is as it looms over the smaller buildings and now largely abandoned quaysides at the northern end of Liverpool’s old dock system.
My own first memories of Stanley Dock were as a young child in the early 1990s when I’d regularly go with my family to the ‘Heritage Market’ held on part of its ground floor. The market was a bit of grassroots capitalism encouraged in the 80s by Liverpool’s brief Militant Labour administration after the building had shut as a warehouse. My dad liked to go to buy ‘second hand’ tools and my mum liked to buy meat joints that would be sold loudly by auction. I’d usually be kept placid by my parents buying me some form of plastic tat and a hotdog. The vast and decaying edifice, of which the market only occupied a fraction, fascinated me and I’d try and wander off to the abandoned bits, only to be dragged back.
From a young age I absorbed from my parents and the wider community, the huge sense of sadness about so much of the waterfront area of Merseyside falling into ruin and abandonment. Especially from my dad who’d trained as a railway fitter just north of Stanley Dock at Bankhall workshops, before they, like so much else, closed as the dock system and related industry shrank from the late 1960s onwards. My mum’s family too had lived in this area on Boundary Street before they were re-housed to Norris Green. My parents were older than some and remembered Merseyside in the post-war boom era. I inherited their sense of the essential tragedy of the area’s subsequent economic decline and of the terrible impact it had on people and the area’s culture. That more things could have been done to mitigate it. As well as a hope, desire, need, that one day things would improve and not be in such decay. That there would be opportunities for people again, that Merseyside would once again be somewhere that attracted people from all over the world not lost them.
Many years after this, after managing get myself a precarious junior job in the arts, just as austerity is beginning to kick in, I once again find myself in Stanley Dock. By now the Heritage Market was in decline. What brings me to the old warehouse this time is a party for the Liverpool Biennial art festival. There’s free booze, good music, dancing. Lots of people I know. Having grown up wanting to be part of the creative world, but worried I might never be able to, it feels great. I end up chatting to an arts person who isn’t from Merseyside. They say: “It’s great that Liverpool has all these abandoned buildings you can do stuff like this in.”
The sentence sticks a little in my craw. I let it go, but I always remember it, the tension it caused in me. On the one had, who doesn’t love a party in an old warehouse? But then, to not realise that while abandoned buildings are fun and adventurous for some, for many more who walk past them every day, they’re not exotic or interesting or an opportunity. They’re tragic. Palpable symbols of decline, of lack of opportunity, of deep-rooted decay. And while a warehouse to rave in might be more fun than a conversion into mediocre flats, neither really solves the underlying issues such an area has. But hey, it is a party. I go back to dancing.
Later, I read a quote by Marsha Cusic in Mark Binelli’s book The Last Days of Detroit which reminded me of that situation: “Some of the people coming here bring a sort of bacchanal spirit, like they’re out on the frontier and they can do anything…Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”[i]
As I grew older, I became increasingly interested in that hard question, what do you do with buildings, an area, a city, that has lost its original purpose? How can opportunities be created for the people who relied on a now vanished economy? Is it hopeless, will any planned urban change always result in worse outcomes for people already living there? Or is to just leave somewhere as it is to rot or be picked over even worse? Once, such questions were confined to certain regions of the world deemed to have ‘failed to adapt’, like Liverpool, who were often blamed for their own decline by the powers that be. However, in my relatively short lifetime such questions have, tragically, come home to roost for ever more of the UK and huge swathes of the Western world.
Rum warehouse to rum bar
A few years on again I find myself sat outside a now converted warehouse on Stanley Dock. It’s a beautiful sunny day and the new Titanic hotel bar has chairs on the quayside. The water in the dock glints in the sun. The sound of the reconstruction of the bigger, main warehouse across the dock carries over gently. I’m sat with a friend from a similar background who also remembered the Heritage Market as a kid and now lives in social housing nearby. We’re having a cold drink and talking about our experience of this building, how, as much as we enjoyed the market, most of Stanley Dock was barely used by it and was decaying around it. We both find the effect of sitting there almost surreal. While my parents never imagined all this could be ruined, we never thought we’d see this place no longer be a ruin. That was all we had known.
I thought then of that person in the Biennial party. How our views would probably offend them. The ‘interesting’ decay replaced by refurbishment and re-opened for this development. But to me and my friend who both well remembered Merseyside at its nadir, to see this building well out from the centre of town restored, lively, well used, and employing people again, was pleasing. The alleged glamour of the ruin, much like the alleged glamour of poverty, is the preserve largely of those who haven’t had to grow up with it.
But as Stanley Dock redevelops, it’s a prominent island surrounded by a series of initiatives, developments and grassroots initiatives which are increasingly attracting attention. Plans which suggest potential solutions to its industrial decay, but also raise thorny questions relevant to the further economic and social regeneration of Liverpool and further afield. Questions of power and place, creativity and capitalism, incomers and long-established communities.
In this piece, I’ll touch upon them all, but focus mainly on the one closest to the hopes and fears in my heart, the Ten Streets.
What is the ‘Ten Streets’?
The Ten Streets are well, ten streets, from Saltney Street to Oil Street between the Stanley Dock complex and the edge of Liverpool city centre. Streets once dominated by dockside industries and warehouses when the nearby quays were bustling. The buildings on them are in varied states from still thriving use to total decay and abandonment. ‘Ten Streets’ is now also the name of plan for this area.
Claire Parry, who’s worked for Liverpool City Council for 10 years in planning, has worked on the development of the Ten Streets Spatial Regeneration Framework (SRF)[ii]. I ask Claire to explain what this is actually is in simple terms: “It’s a planning policy document essentially, so it sets out land use designations and it looks at development principles, how you want developments to look. So it will describe heights, materiality, the style of building. With Ten Streets given that it’s located in part in the World Heritage Site, heritage is quite an important factor there. So, it looks at new development in relation to the existing fabric. It sets a bit of a vision.”
While plenty of people are increasingly interested in the whys and wherefores of urban regeneration, many switch off once the complex and often seemingly grey world of planning comes into it. However understanding the role, possibilities and pitfalls of planning is essential to getting to grips with such urban change. “We had a launch in Feb 2017,” Parry explains, “which was a vision for the area and ten big ideas, owing to these ten parallel streets which was initially the focus.”
Before there was a plan though, there was already change. The area had long been in decline. Although it retained a fair amount of small scale industry, a lot of this was slowly leaving for more modern business parks nearby. With land and buildings generally having low value, the area was increasingly derelict. So far so Western post-industrial world. And, like in many similar places before, including other parts of Liverpool, this combination of interesting old buildings, few neighbours, especially of an evening, and cheap rents brought creative people into the area.
One of them was Kazimier, which first emerged when some artists who’d moved to the city took over an abandoned night club in the centre. ‘The Conti’, once a haunt of Liverpool’s 80s footballers, was turned into a new independent venue called The Kazimier, where I had some of the best nights of my life. Their organisation grew to become much more than that, as its Director Liam Naughton explains: “We’re hands on artists. Pursing some ideological goals in output. A lot of those are to do with placemaking, showmaking, running venues and being vessels for other people’s artistic content. Doing something interesting and trying to blur the boundaries between leisure and social and artistic practice.”
It was practicality that first drove Kazimier to the Northern Docks area: “We came because we were expanding as a creative outlet and we simply didn’t have a big enough workshop in town,” says Naughton. “That worked out and we took on bigger projects that we could deliver out of this building. So we grew whilst still running the venue in town.” This need for space was what attracted them to the area rather than any wider potential, as he explains: “We never chose up here because we thought ‘it’s going to be an amazing, buzzing area one day’. We were just like ‘isn’t it great that nobody is up here, we can do our own thing and be completely left out of the rhythms of the city centre.’”
Soon though, they expanded their Northern Docks site into a venue and moved wholesale to the area after their city centre club was redeveloped: “We all miss the club because it was a magical room. But it was also holding us back,” says Naughton. Their new site, known as The Invisible Wind Factory, is now one of the largest creative spaces in the Liverpool, as he explains: “It’s a venue on two floors that’s delivering concerts and club nights and installations and immersive theatre, things along that nature. We have a basement venue underground which is more intimate and smaller and is for smaller, more experimental and weirder stuff. We’re a bit Bauhausian in that everything is under one roof. So, we have got a big giant workshop with electronic lab, music and video editing suites, resistant materials workshops. Project rooms were we’re making things and testing them out before we take them to their field. Then above the venue we run 22 artist studios upstairs. So, we have a community of people housed here in the North Docks. We have a café here, I’m probably missing some other things out…”
Very similar reasons drew to the Northern Docks another of its key cultural sites: “I was a remote worker for a sports governing body,” says Liam Kelly, Director of Make Liverpool. “Worked on my own from home full time away from the head office in London. On the back of achieving a life ambition, representing Great Britain, coming back to the stark realities of working from home, I ended up with poor mental health. One of the remedies for that being to work with and around people. So, I did a call out to friends about sharing office space, studio space, and several friends replied. We gave ourselves a name, became a collective, took a studio space. Then we sort of just scaled that up.” Make then wanted to expand beyond traditional shared office-style workspace: “We realised what our tenants needed was a pool of resources that they didn’t necessarily have to pay for but could pay to use,” elaborates Kelly. “We researched it, realised this was a thing, a maker space, part of a maker movement. So, we pitched the idea to a social investor, the Beautiful Ideas Company, they gave us seed capital to take over a building in the north of Liverpool.”
Make did look at investing in the area that had been their first home, Baltic Triangle. This had been developed over the previous 10 years as a creative industries area south of Liverpool city centre. However, as speculators moved into Baltic to capitalise on its new trendiness, this put Make off, as Kelly explains: “We looked in Baltic but because of the story of an area regenerating, there were buildings available, but they were landbanked and we didn’t want to do something temporary. We wanted a big fat lease where we could put down roots and make it sustainable. We didn’t want to repeat the same old, same old temporary use of space with no exit plan, eventually get gentrified out, wash, rinse and repeat.” So, having been introduced to a landlord in the area by friends at the Kazimier, they took over an old factory in the North Docks that had various times produced scooters and ambulance equipment.
So, for quite pragmatic reasons, this industrial area started to gain a creative bent. The pursuit and use of ‘marginal’ urban space has been deeply linked to art and culture since at least the 1960s. What’s changed in the last ten or fifteen years is where the margins are, and how long they stay margins. As in other places, such spaces were once found right in Liverpool’s centre, symptomatic of its extreme decline that buildings were so cheap in the city’s heart in recent decades. As things improved and the centre regrew, what was the fringe moved further out. This a localised version of more extreme urban change in bigger and richer urban centres.
It was the redevelopment of Stanley Dock by developer Harcourt after years of schemes never quite getting off the ground (A Historic England article described it as “the biggest adaptive re-use challenge in Europe”) and the start of cultural organisations like these moving to the area, that gave rise to the City Council putting together the Ten Streets plan. Claire Parry notes these streets have been in the Council’s eye for a long time: “This area’s always been looked at, and it pre-dates me, for the last couple of decades. But because it was so big and other projects got prioritised at the time, this one always got a bit left behind. More recently with Harcourt investing in Stanley Dock, that created a bit of a catalyst in terms of interest in the area. Then there was a lot of creative businesses that started to relocate there in the past sort of five years, so that kind of focused our minds.”
So, with this change already starting to happen, why does it need a plan from the Council? “To try and just coordinate it a little bit,” says Claire. “We’re certainly not responsible for this happening, it was kind of already happening anyway. It was to try I suppose to help it on its way. One of the things we’ve learnt from with Baltic Triangle is that didn’t benefit from an SRF. So, there was not really any kind of piece there for planners to use to try and shape development moving forward.”
Learning from the Baltic Triangle
This point from Claire is crucial when considering the role of the local authority and an SRF in the area. It’s worth touching on the related history of Baltic Triangle here at the other end of Liverpool, oft written about as Liverpool’s hip creative district.
Baltic first began to emerge around 2008 when, with Liverpool’s pre Credit Crunch property boom and the city’s European Capital of Culture status, creative spaces such as venues and studios began to be moved on by re-development from the ‘Ropewalks’ area, which had emerged as the new ‘alternative district’ in the 1990s, itself partially deliberately engineered by the authorities since the late 1980s. Ropewalks had grown as the city’s older 1960s-80s ‘alternative district’ around Mathew Street was redeveloped. A familiar pattern, although with Liverpool’s sluggish economy, this was a slow process that took almost a generation to happen each time in those cases, so was much less noticeable than now.
The Council and other authorities response to the issues of creative places in Ropewalks being pushed out was as it had been in earlier decades: ‘move to this new area’, which was named by the planners as ‘Baltic Triangle’ because it was, well, a triangle of land near the Baltic Fleet pub. Prior to that it was known as the ‘Waterfront Industrial Area’. I used to walk through it to my job in a call centre further down the docks when it was still very much a quiet, declining industrial area of small factories and depots. In fact, prior to its new creative status, Baltic was considered as being designated a ‘managed prostitution zone’ by the city.
It’s important to note, as Baltic’s development has sometimes been written about as ‘wholly organic’ that in fact, it was both deliberately planned as a new creative district and that also there was also scepticism from many in the creative scene that it would work. ‘You can’t plan something like this!’ was the mantra. Some of the first creative outfits to move to Baltic were publicly funded outfits such as Liverpool Biennial, who were encouraged to go there. Importantly though, the Baltic Creative CIC was set up around the same time with funding from the now defunct Northwest Development Agency. This created studio space that crucially was directly owned and controlled by a Community Interest Company committed to creative industries and reinvesting any surplus generated in the area and supporting creative industries. This along with other studio space held by the likes of Elevator, led the development of Baltic as a creative district with others, notably venues like 24 Kitchen Street and Constellations, following.
Crucially however, no planning framework was put in place at the time. So, as the district began to emerge as cool, Baltic was ripe to be picked over by property speculators and soon what were often poor-quality flats began to be thrown up, threatening the creative outfits in the area. Parry details the situation from the Council perspective: “I think what we realised with Baltic is that while it’s got a mixed land used designation, the feel with that is that it has become very residential dominated. What we have tried to do with Ten Streets is retain the employment focused designation to try and retain the job creating focus of the project. We’re keen not to get an imbalance where maybe the infiltration of residential in here becomes too much and the employment led focus of the project will be lost.” A SRF in the Ten Streets won’t prevent speculation entirely, but it will help a great deal.
Parry details the process of the SRF getting put in place: “We thought this would be something that would be good to do. But we needed a mandate to do that, so the consultation event in February 2017 with these ten big ideas was just a kind of starter for ten, literally, to see what people’s ideas and what people’s feedback on that. It proved really successful, everyone really liked the idea and the plan, so we used that to inform the SRF then moving forward.”
“That whole branding announcement and positioning of it came after we were here,” Liam Kelly details, “maybe a year after.” Although he does feel Make Liverpool were involved in the planning as soon as this began: “That all happened really quickly, and they came to us to talk about it.” Kelly continues: “There was no consultation pre giving it a name and an identity and all that sort of stuff. But then they obviously consulted on the SRF, that then came out. Then they set up a steering group to which we were invited to and we host in our building.”
I ask Parry if Ten Streets with its cultural and creative ideas, has made it different from the usual planning procedures? “We’ve tried to engage with social media a bit more, given that it’s got this creative district twist to it”, she says. “We tried to look through Twitter as a way of plugging that document and engaging with people that way and it’s got its own website. I think it’s got the most impressions on Twitter out of all the Council projects.”
Kelly feels this engagement has been meaningful: “I definitely think we have been listened to. I think our relationship with the Council is excellent. We put quite a lot of effort into that and I feel like we have benefitted from that.” Though he points out the challenges facing a Council engaging with an area like this: “I generally support what the Council are doing and think they’re sensitive to certain things but they’re a Council and they will inevitably upset some people. People will definitely make mistakes. City Councils are huge, they are always going to struggle to talk to the grassrooots of any community no matter how much they try so they’re always doomed to fail in certain aspects.”
Liam Naughton also feels Kazimier have been part of the conversation: “They basically kept us in the loop. They sort of said it’s all going to change, and they want to do this in the right way possible and these were early stages. As the months developed Ten Streets came as a name and advisory groups started forming. A Councillor was getting involved and they were like, ‘can you contribute to the aspects you care about in this area and inform this masterplan document, the SRF?’ So, we have been staying engaged without becoming fatigued really.” Crucially Naughton feels that they have had impact in the process too: “I believe we have had a good influence on it. Because this could have just been quite simply a development zone for industrial use. And in some level, that’s what it is, if you look at the SRF document. What’s added to it is they want to keep the creative industries at its core and they want it to have culture as a big part of these ten ideas. That was really from just a few of us being involved with that and saying, ‘well yeah you have a great opportunity here’. Liverpool is a capital of culture and is a city that’s negotiating culture in its devolution and it’s the only one in the country that’s wanted to fight for that. That’s got to follow suit with how it develops, and Liverpool relies massively on that. I think we’re very lucky to live in a city were the authorities recognise that and see the benefit.”
However, Kelly points out how thin some consultations on the project are: “I think the amount of returns they got from the feedback consultation stage were really low. I think it was in the hundreds. In terms of collecting feedback, it’s really high, but in reality it’s a sample and that sample goes and forms ‘well 99% of people support of this programme’. Well yeah, out of 150 people. So I do understand why people are cynical about it. But in general, I think they’re doing well. They’re doing a lot, considering how terribly resourced they are.”
This is echoed by Joel Hansen, Editor of Scottie Press, which has been a north Liverpool community newspaper for decades, as he details: “The Scottie Press is Britain’s longest running community newspaper, been going for 47 years. The paper was created directly from unthoughtful city planning almost. In the 1970s, the second Mersey Tunnel was essentially built through the last remaining community in Scotland Road. As a sort of protest against any further city planning destroying communities, the Scottie Press was created to unite locals, unite neighbourhoods and give a voice back to the working-class people who lived in those areas.”
Once again with Ten Streets and other developments in the area, planning has come back to the fore of their coverage: “I feel there’s an underlying feeling of scepticism in some regeneration projects,” says Hansen, “because of the negative consequences of regeneration projects in the past. It’s one of them, people want to see things before they believe it.”
While there has been discussion and dialogue between the arts community, the Council and developers about Ten Streets and media and online coverage of this, there has been less thought to how this plan will connect to nearby residential districts and what it will offer them. This is something that’s happened time and again in debates about culture-led regeneration and gentrification. Powerful developers and authorities are always heard and often so too are the usually well-educated, well connected and good-at-communication creative people, even if they have ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ power. While people who have lived and worked in areas for generations can get forgotten: “We’re talking about the people and their descendants, who worked on the docks and worked in them factories,” says Hansen. “They’re the people who made that area what it was today, and I think it’s a shame that there hasn’t been enough effort to delve deeper into the community and not just the surface area of maybe a few of the new arts companies that are starting to crop up.”
Hansen has featured Ten Streets in Scottie Press, but feels he had to do the legwork: “I’ve reached out to Claire and part of the whole project I’m trying to run through the paper is to maybe perhaps put a little bit more pressure on Ten Streets to include the community more, and make them more conscious of the people living here who have lived here all their lives. They didn’t approach the paper, which has a very good reach to people who might not see advertisements online or see these consultations.”
Close to the Ten Streets, it’s worth noting that neighbourhoods like the Eldonian Village are amongst the best examples of non-gentrification, community-led urban regeneration in the UK. For years Eldonian was the only place in the UK to have won a United Nations World Habitat Award. Yet this is rarely talked about, even in some of the architecture and urban studies press in the UK or the broadsheets. In fact, if Eldonian gets written about at all its often framed in contempt from the small coterie of quite privileged, London-based men who dominate such discourse: ‘The community rejected the visions in glorious concrete of architects, planners and theorists and built instead average looking houses with gardens. How bland. How dare they’ sums up usually how it goes.
As a result, positive lessons to be learned from urban development in Liverpool, which also built the first ever Council housing and had some of the first housing associations amongst a range of other urban innovations, are often ignored by the wider country and world. Crucial in the lessons being learned with Baltic Triangle and Ten Streets is that, if given the attention they deserve, they could help influence models for areas dealing with the same issues much further afield.
Optimism and scepticism
Liam Naughton feels if Ten Streets is given the opportunity to fulfil its potential, it could be powerful and have UK wide impact in terms of how such areas are developed: “I would love it if just doubled down on being an exciting place for culture and arts. Buildings assigned to just being artist studios or DIY gallery spaces, more places for performance venues. If there’s opportunities there we’ll fill them in this city. People will fill them. Working with the pressure groups and the Arts Council and interesting agencies up for helping with problems. We could do something interesting here. Grabbing those challenges we’re seeing in the arts right now. You could be ambitious with it.”
Yet this positive vision could yet go unfulfilled. Liam Kelly feels the biggest threat to the Ten Streets idea is from speculators: “Concerns are really obvious,” he says. “Spiralling uncontrolled rising rents and property values before anything has actually happened. One of the biggest pains we experienced in the Baltic was land banking and unrealistic expectations from landowners about value property was worth. Then all that crap student accommodation that went up really quickly and started threatening the grassrooots venues in the Baltic.” Kelly acknowledges that the Council only has limited powers to control developers, especially now their funding has reduced so much: “It’s all pretty complicated stuff and the Council doesn’t really have the power that people expect it to. So, unscrupulous people who want to cash in are the biggest threat.” Though he too remains optimistic: “In terms of the positives, we want to create a destination that really does actually do amazing stuff and attract the right kind of investment to be able to keep on expanding what we’re doing. Take the lessons that we learned in the Baltic and bring them here.”
It’s worth noting here the distinctions between culture and regeneration in overheated cities like London and New York and in under-resourced ones like Liverpool which I wrote about in more detail here[iii]. While the former usually dominates urban discourse and the latter experience some of the same phenomena, the challenge for cities like Liverpool is in some respects the inverse. Rents are rarely a problem outside of a couple of popular areas. An average house in Liverpool costs 1% less than 10 years ago[iv]. The real challenge the city has is the same it’s been for decades, a lack of quality jobs. An issue which sees a shortage of training spaces for young people and more experienced residents piling on trains to Manchester every morning to work. The city loses its talent to the wider world and then further struggles to attract companies and good quality investment because of it. In fact one of the reasons so many poor-quality private flats have been built in Liverpool in recent years, has been that it’s easy money for low-grade local developers. While owners of land that’s been often fallow for decades are keen to cash in on it quickly. With the general low demand, developing space for businesses doesn’t offer the same returns. So new businesses can’t find enough space, while bigger ones stay away from investing and it becomes a vicious circle, especially with public spending locked down. A development such as Ten Streets, if managed well, could help provide for the growing demand for creative business space and the people who use this space in turn support arts venues. However, such space must be free from predatory speculation, both for the creative scene and more pragmatically because the city desperately needs space for the new jobs being created.
I ask Claire Parry if she thinks the SRF can work as intended then, reduce landbanking and poor-quality residential construction? “Yes, that’s what it does,” she says. “The ten parallel streets are very much employment focused, so the development principles and the land use designation in that section of the document restrict residential development.” Having heard similar promises from others before, I ask Claire to state in black and white, if a speculator buys a load of old buildings and wants to kick a creative occupier out for flats, they’re going to come up against the framework? “Precisely that,” she says with confidence. “That’s where this differs to the Baltic, which has mixed used designation. This is industrial designation predominantly.”
How about those remaining industrial users? While over the years many have folded or moved to more modern premises nearby, some remain and provide important jobs. One of the worst aspects of the famous Docklands redevelopment in London was that it pushed out remaining industrial users, further shrinking the number of working-class jobs in London. Parry is also blunt that these should also be protected: “It’s retained its industrial designation in the SPD, so it’s not changed that.”
Parry agrees however, for the area to be successful as a creative centre, a delicate balance is required between the Council protecting the area from speculation and being too heavy handed as the project lead. She highlights the tightrope that must be walked between a free for all for creatives, only to end up being removed by the speculators, and a dry Council dominated scheme: “It’s a difficult thing we have to balance. If there was one of these documents in place for Baltic it might have actually helped, but it seems though if the Council steps in it all becomes very kind of clinical and the organic nature is lost. What the hope is with this is we can have the best of both worlds, it’s not too prescriptive, things can just happen, but within the parameters set in the document.”
As it moves on, if those behind Ten Streets can keep all its stakeholders on side and some of the optimism they have, it will go a long way to keeping the best intentions of the plan alive. Inevitably though, doesn’t a massive developer like Harcourt which has invested millions in redeveloping Stanley Dock have more influence that a couple of art school graduates opening a bar? “No that’s not really the way I work,” says Parry. “We have this advisory group, that has a representative from different types of businesses sat around it. It’s an open kind of talking shop for everybody. I wouldn’t say Harcourt have got any more influence that anyone else. I’d hope no one thinks that’s, but I’m sure they do, because it’s the general kind of misconception that you’re sided with a developer more than somebody else.”
Liam Naughton though thinks power imbalances remain, albeit with perhaps with a wider circle of involvement than most urban development plans:
“The big players are quite clear, it’s the City Council, with Harcourt the main developer and then Peel as an important thing to factor in as they’re right next to each other. So really, they’re the major voices in the room as they’re the ones who can make the big decisions. So, it’s more important than, us, in terms of who gets listened to, as that’s where power lies really. That said, I’m not cynical. They have listened to us. The Deputy Mayor Ann O’Byrne Chairs a meeting we get invited to which is about having our say on certain things. It’s an Advisory Group, so they don’t have to do it. But there’s so many important voices in the room, if you suggest something that makes sense, it will get explored on some level. In the end the big boys will get what they want. That doesn’t mean that not everyone is holding hands.”
Naughton thinks key to success will be putting in serious planning protection for culture, like in Berlin where music venues are now protected in law: “Planning policy just needs to protect music venues,” he says. “Seeing what’s going on with Agent of Change being debated in Parliament. That’s great. You have to protect arts spaces as a matter of policy otherwise you’d never really win against these powerful developers.”
Joel Hansen of Scottie Press shares some of the same tension I do. Not satisfied with the area remaining in so much decay, he wants it to grow and thrive again. Equally he remains concerned about the impact of rush building by speculators: “I’d really like to see it develop,” he ponders. “I’d like to see Stanley Dock and the Ten Streets and the Atlantic Corridor [A wider concept to revitalise the dock system] to put Liverpool on the map again. To put Stanley Dock on the map of the world. Which it once was, as a dock it was central to the world’s industrial process. It would be fantastic to see a resurgence in those streets. I’d like to see all them abandoned warehouses flourish again.” For Hansen though, retaining and more importantly, respecting the human heritage of the people who built and worked these docks and warehouses, is paramount: “We have to put in some effort to conserve the memory of thousands and thousands of people who worked in them areas. How that could be done, you could name a thousand different community projects that you could operate that could support that. I’m all for the growth of the city and in and around Stanley Dock.”
There remains concern from some though about how the Ten Streets plan may impact on arts spaces in the area. Drop the Dumbulls or ‘Dumbulls’ is a venue in a former pub that is the latest incarnation of a grassroots music and arts venue that has existed in several sites temporarily (one an old gym, hence the name) which subsequently got re-developed. In its latest incarnation the founders wanted a permanent base and so bought the shut down former Bull pub, opening around the same time the redevelopment of Stanley Dock by Harcourt began. When the Ten Streets plan came out, it appeared that Dumbulls was up for demotion and a petition was quickly issued to save it. I ask Claire Parry, does the Ten Streets plan threaten grassroots initiatives like this? She feels it was all down to confusion. “The team had gone round and done a heritage townscape assessment of the buildings contained within there. Grade C buildings were identified, which weren’t in keeping with the character of the area, which is the key statement. Which I don’t think the document clearly articulated. Because we had so many comments people’s whose buildings were red, thought the Council was going to come in and buy it and demolish it, which was absolutely not the case. And The Bull pub was, wrongly, coded as red. It was just an error on the plan, which we picked up, changed and I actually went and met with them for about two hours, talking it through and they seemed pretty happy. After that meeting, there was then some kind of online petition saying the building had been coded wrong, even though I’d actually said it had changed and gave them a plan showing that. It’s been changed, it was an error in the first instance, it should have been green from the start. Bit of a storm in a teacup.”
She continues: “The Bull is not a listed structure, but it’s one of the old historic character buildings in the area. We’d never, ever do that again. That’s one the things that through this process we have learned a fair few things as well. I just don’t think it was worded clearly enough maybe to the layman om the street that the red doesn’t mean that it’s a problem.”
I had several positive social media conversations with Jake from Dumbells about the Ten Streets and their venue, but we could never quite make an interview happen. In short though, Jake was keen to point out they had arranged the meeting with Claire and that it wasn’t them, but some of their concerned patrons, that started the petition when the plan came out.
Could this be a wider problem, I ask Claire. The language and structures of planning can seem impenetrable to the layman. Does this not need to change if you want to involve people and have the openness and collaboration that the Ten Streets seems to advocate for? “I think it just wasn’t explained well enough in the document,” she says. “Because there was a number of people who raised the same concern, you think ‘well hang on, it’s not translated properly is it.”
Liam Naughton feels that there’s an opportunity for the Ten Streets plan to work, if the positive ambitions of the project are maintained and it doesn’t just become another generic urban redevelopment: “It’s going to be a challenging one to please everyone in the Ten Streets and we sort of think, if people just do a good job of it and keep it to the ambition we all said it was going to be a while ago and not retreating on the big ideas.”
Beyond the Ten: Vauxhall, Everton and Kirkdale
The focus of the discussion and plans of Ten Streets have been the former warehouses and factories adjacent to the docks. While some people do live in the immediate area, it’s always been principally industrial. Not far away though are residential districts that once relied on this area for their economic life. Vauxhall, Everton and Kirkdale are amongst the most historic districts of Liverpool, some of the most deprived parts of the UK and at the heart of where the idea of Scouse culture was born. These areas have faced challenges with poverty since the industrial revolution and growth of the low wage, insecure work culture that dominated this part of the city of docks, processing plants, warehouses and ship repair. This has only been exacerbated though since these industries fell into decline.
Joel Hansen is keen to talk about the longstanding nature of the communities in these neighbourhoods, rare in our rapidly changing urban times: “The community here and the neighbourhoods are so long lasting. People tend not to move out of this area. There’s a lot of places don’t have those core families who have been there for generations and generations and that is definitely still the case and they’re very close-knit communities.”
Liam Naughton reflects on the past of the area: “That golden era when everyone had a job. Not that long ago. Every building thriving with work. The docks were active. That’s not happening at the moment. But you can bring some of it back.” While some fear economic development, most people in north Liverpool with its high unemployment and low wages, need it. The question is though, will projects such as the Ten Streets provide jobs for local people?
“What I’d like to see from Ten Streets,” says Hansen, “and maybe we will see this further down the line, with the idea of bringing new sort of creative companies in, new start-up businesses. What effort is going to be put into training local people to be in contention with getting these jobs? That was something I brought up with Claire [Parry] and it seemed there was some effort being out in with Liverpool in Work, work on further educational programmes that might start preparing people for the new roles that are developing in the area.”
Again, Hansen would like to see these residential communities more involved in the development of the scheme, even if they are outside the lines of the Ten Streets official plan: “Because when you talk about consultations, there’s not many people who actually live in that area. It’s essentially warehouses. So, who are you consulting? Some of the businesses who are there currently, but there’s not that many people.” He feels there’s a need to reach out beyond the creative community and the developers: “There’s artists, that’s a particular community. In terms of the Ten Big ideas, where they talk about a collaborative approach and celebrating heritage, does that count Vauxhall and Kirkdale, or is that for the artists who are living around there? I think there could be more effort to include the further community.” He feels making the Ten Streets development link to its neighbouring districts will be vital to make it a sustainable success: “I think there needs to be something that’s going to integrate this changing time and hopefully educate people on what’s going to happen in Ten Streets. If there are these tech-based companies moving in, are community centres, training providers and schools putting the effort in to prepare the younger generation to get these jobs? There needs to be a lot more awareness.” Hansen sees Scottie Press as potentially playing an important role in brokering that relationship: “I’d like to work with the likes of Ten Streets and all those creative companies, to connect that out to the wider community, in Vauxhall, Everton and Kirkdale, who might read the paper but not have any connection to Ten Streets. I’d like Scottie Press to become the bridge between these two worlds. Reach out to these creative communities, see if they want to connect to these further neighbourhoods.”
Liam Kelly says Make Liverpool are already offering opportunities to young people, not just from the surrounding neighbourhoods, but disadvantaged young people in general: “On Thursdays we teach a group of kids that would otherwise be NEETs [Not in Education, Employment or Training]. We teach them basic construction skills,” he says. “We’re very much focused on an expanding our education offer. We’ve employed someone to look after that stuff. The kids that come and the people that come on our courses are from all over the city, including north Liverpool.”
Liam Naughton thinks more could be done by Ten Streets to engage nearby residential communities: “I really think the Eldonian Village probably hasn’t been engaged with properly at this consultation level. Because that level was really about the Ten Streets within it. I imagine they’re oblivious to what’s going on.” Key for Naughton is that such redevelopment represents the first significant economic opportunity in the area for a generation: “If you speak to the local Councillor, Joe Hanson, he’s very positive about it [Ten Streets] all of this, because the city has not focused on this area his entire life. So now when people have got an axe to grind about something, it’s because there’s an actual opportunity to grab.” Naughton also highlights that Liverpool has a very long-established Traveller community on Oil Street, them being given this designated site when it was low value industrial land. Have they been involved in the Ten Streets plan? “I have met with them about five times,” says Claire Parry. “We have a Traveller Officer who went to every family with the feedback form and wrote it down on their behalf. So, I’ve had a number of meetings with those guys. It’s only the females that turn up, which is something else I’ve learned in this process. I’d not engaged with the Traveller community before.” What though do they think of the plans? “They’re pleased that there’s stuff happening in the area,” says Claire. “They were keen to know if the road was getting upgraded outside and it is. The initial conversation was they assumed they were getting jettisoned somewhere else, which isn’t the case.”
Ten Streets and bigger plans
While the Ten Streets is the focus of this piece, part of the deeper interest in this area is how it is surrounded by other developments of very different kinds. On one side the award-winning Eldonian Village mentioned earlier and adjacent the already started redevelopment of the Stanley Dock complex. Different again over the dock road is the long planned but slow to progress Liverpool Waters scheme on abandoned quaysides by property giant Peel Holdings, which promises modern flats and offices. Then at the northern tip of this, Everton FC are proposing a new stadium. If even half of these plans completes, it will be the biggest impact on this are since the rapid expansion of the dock system in the Victorian era. How will all these varied developments sit together?
“Hopefully complementary,” says Parry, talking of Liverpool Waters. “They’re two very different offers and very different styles. Tall buildings on one side then restricted heights on the other with Ten Streets. We’ve worked with Peel a lot, Peel are on that advisory group too and they’re obviously keen to see the area regenerated and improved. It’s quite different. What we’re trying to focus on with Ten Streets is the employment side of things. Whereas what they’ve got a focus on is a lot of residential across there. And offices, but different types of offices. So, we see that all as complementary uses being brought together near. Some of the new access roads going in are going to connect the area up in a much better way.”
Parry feels the Council’s involvement will help link things together: “What we’re trying to do and one of the reasons we extended the SRF boundary of Ten Streets was to pick up the surrounding development and regeneration context, so they’ll link to the Eldonian Village and then they’ll link to Liverpool Waters and the potential new stadium further to the north at Bramley-Moore.”
Liam Kelly however is more sceptical that Liverpool Waters will reach them any time soon (it covers the whole dock system between the modern operational port and the city centre) or impact on their plans: “Our tenancy in this building is fifteen years. I’d be shocked if they broke ground within the next fifteen years on the barren land that is opposite us. It’s just not going to happen.” He continues: “They’ve got the Isle of Man Ferry Terminal to build. They’ve got loads to do. So, it isn’t going to happen here in ten years. They will build, but they’ll slowly build down from the sites they’ve already got.”
In terms of the overall ecosystem of the area, Naughton feels the larger scale developments planned might actually help the Ten Streets get the infrastructure it needs, but would not be able to realise on its own scale: “The players like Everton have decided they’re going to move where they’re going to move and there’s things they need to have in place to make that work, they’re going to need access. Us winging saying ‘we need a train station!’ That’s not a reasonable demand, we’re not big enough and we don’t bring enough people. But Everton will need a station, no question, that’s a bigger catalyst.”
Naughton hopes the wider waterside developments will lead to a riverfront you can walk the whole length of, the first time since industrialisation: “Once it starts developing and it will open up. Things like access. Demanding people can walk along the river. That’s got to be a big deal. That area, the dockland, it’s never belonged to Liverpool. The wall was designed to keep people out.”
As regards to the stadium, Hansen like me is an Evertonian and as he says, “It’s hard to be unbiased.” He continues: “I think the Everton stadium is great, for Everton, but I truly believe it will be great for the city as well. Depending on what it looks like, but I imagine the architecture will be significant. I think the benefits it could bring to the further community is that Everton as a club have quite a strong consciousness towards the communities of Liverpool. Everton in the Community their charitable arm is very active all over Liverpool.”
I’m similarly a supporter of the new ground, especially as one of the world’s great stadium designers, Dan Meis, is working on it. Fandom aside, a high-quality modern stadium would be a great asset in such a football obsessed city and could be a catalyst for further development of the whole area. Especially as the planned stadium site is adjacent to a sewage farm, so isn’t likely to be developed for much else. However, as I’ve seen no less than three Everton new stadium plans collapse in my lifetime, I’ll believe it when I see it. Furthermore, very careful planning will be required to integrate it with all these other planned developments.
In terms of engaging the wider community, Liam Kelly thinks Everton’s long history of community and charity work and its Premier League funds might have more impact than the Council in social change in the area: “I’ve got more faith in Everton doing that with Everton in the Community than I would in the Council. Not because of intent, but because of resource. Everton’s community stuff has been amazing really, well documented. If the stadium came down here, I could see them being open to those kinds of conversations and doing more of that kind of stuff.”
Echoing Liam Naughton’s comments about decades of under-investment in the area, Joel Hansen notes the impact of the initial development schemes in the area already under way, such as heavy investment in the road system: “Already the new road networks are beneficial. I think these are all great signs, I think that things are improving. There’s also rumours for a new Vauxhall train station, that would be massive. This area is a little bit segregated, you must walk at least ten or fifteen minutes to get anywhere else. I think the new stadium and bringing new accessible routes to the area is great.” But he also sounds a note of caution. While the economic development is welcome, he fears possible negative impacts on local people being able to remain in the community: “In regard to the bigger sort of Atlantic Corridor, Liverpool Waters project, it sounds great. The future of the city. But again, there’s remains some fear that almost the dock area and the surrounding area are going to become more popular and potentially locally people might be priced out.”
The Ten Streets SRF is in place, a steering group is regularly meeting, things are happening. But what is the timescale for Ten Streets to develop as intended? “It’s a ten-year plan, moving forward,” says Parry. “It’s already happening, and it has already been happening for a number of years. The Titanic Hotel [In Stanley Dock] opened in 2013, the Dumbulls have been there several years, the Invisible Wind Factory. We’ve talked about the potential to develop up to a million square foot, if you look at the vacant sites or if you look were you could maybe bring stuff back into use that’s currently vacant. We have got down £200 million – £500 million development value to be brought forward over the next ten years.”
Where will this money come from, given the Council’s lack of cash?
“We’re trying to get as much money as we possibly can into the area and it will be easier to do that now we have got a plan in place,” says Parry. She suggests they’re seeking mixed funding model: “You have now got private developers putting applications in for a number of vacant sites. We’ve got access to things like Regional Growth Funding, local enterprise funds, Combined Authority funds. I know there’s little bits and bobs happening with the Beautiful Ideas Company, that people like Make Liverpool have been beneficiaries of, so that’s like small scale funds. The Invisible Wind Factory have got Arts Council funding to do certain stuff. So, it’s a cocktail of funding, that’s how we operate now, because the ways in which a Council can invest has changed massively.”
The plans for Ten Streets represent both Liverpool and wider ideas around culture and urban regeneration at an interesting juncture.
For Liverpool, it’s a sign the regeneration that’s been going on nearer the centre for some time is now, for better or worse, moving further outward. Even as Merseyside’s economy remains generally weak, it trundles on in a broadly upward direction compared to the situation when I was a child in the 1980s when it must not be forgotten, to many people it seemed like the area was in terminal decline.
On a wider level it demonstrates the growing complexities that have arisen in ideas around regeneration and redevelopment and their relationship to art and culture. Modernist ideas of mass redevelopment led by planners began to crumble from the 1960s onwards, influenced in part by Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and the movement which followed it, which argued for the value of ‘unplanned’ street level culture and historic buildings. What Jacobs didn’t anticipate was her work would also help make such urban areas more fashionable with the middle and upper classes, especially creative people. In short, more people like Jacobs would move in to such areas and this would slowly change the ‘mixed’ community that she valued. As the planners became ever weaker, it wasn’t neighbourhood people as Jacobs envisaged that took over, but developers and financiers. To quote urban theorist Sharon Zukin: “Jacobs did not call for stronger zoning laws to encourage a mix of housing, factories, stores and schools. She did not support more permanent rent controls to ensure a mix of poorer and richer tenants, of successful businesses and start-ups.”[v]
As public authority was sucked out of urban development, property developers took the power and initiative. The likes of London’s Docklands and Liverpool’s Albert Dock were examples of public money priming private development driven by powerful, unelected development agencies. In the UK today, such public funds have largely dried up and the development agencies have shrunk or disappeared. At the same time, deprived local authorities have long since, through desire or more often force, coshed by successive Governments to follow the Neo-liberal approach of Manchester, adopted many of the former development agencies’ ideas. The vast overwhelming reduction in central Government support for local authorities has made every city in the UK think about how it might pay for itself, especially given how low and weak local taxation is in Britain.
At the same time as these power structures have shifted, so too has the view of ‘what works’ in regeneration and re-development. The ‘post planner’ era 1980s schemes were amongst the first to start to value old industrial buildings, but still favoured large scale re-development aimed at large businesses occupiers and private housing. Arts, small business, the grassroots and ‘alternative’ were usually seen as a problem to these schemes, or at least something to be ignored. However, as such developments proliferated, middle class tastes began to shift towards the ‘small’, ‘authentic’ and ‘varied’, against the ‘soulless’, ‘bland’ and ‘corporate’ just as they had done against the Modernist schemes of the 1960s. Developers and planning departments began to increasingly realise the benefits of having certain types of small, independent businesses in areas, retaining cultural venues, the pull of things like street art and ‘just enough’ rough and readiness that made an area ‘interesting’ and developments started to change shape.
Sharon Zukin in her seminal Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, captured the role that arts and culture and artists, or more broadly, humanities graduates, have played in changing declining industrial areas. Often bringing back into popular use buildings, even districts, that had been deemed beyond saving and only suitable for demolition. Coupled with the emergence in the belief of the creative industries as traditional industries declined, this was increasingly piggy-backed on and facilitated by developers. As well as local authorities, which critics from the biggest metropolitan centres should not forget were, in many cases, desperately trying to find ways to keep their towns and cities alive. The speed and scale of such inner-urban change in the UK increased in the pre-2008 boom and indeed carried on in an even more unbalanced way after the Crunch as the power of the public sector was crushed and ever more organisations were pushed towards market-based thinking. Concurrently, the reduction in social security and traditional secure jobs for humanities graduates in colleges, charities and the public sector, pushed more of them also towards market-based thinking, setting up as sole traders or working in small businesses. As this happened, the issue of being disrupted through studios and venues being redeveloped became even more of an issue. Especially as the speed at which this happened seemed to keep increasing and in some major metropolitan areas, space became more of a premium.
Once young humanities graduates may have done ‘radical stuff’ in old warehouses or similar for several years, with little thought for the long term. Sustainability didn’t come into it, because surely the revolution was around the corner? When that didn’t come, most just moved on, getting a ‘proper job’ once they began to settle down. Increasingly though, those ‘proper jobs’ no longer existed, or at least in fewer numbers and far less lucrative than before. What was once the temporary action of the young increasingly became something that had to be framed within longer term thinking.
Developers and authorities have come to realise that crushing the creative aspects of an area can negatively affect the economic and social regeneration benefits they seek. Creative people too are now more aware than ever of their role in such urban change and indeed in urban life in general and what they bring to it. More aware also of the need to work to protect space and of their relative lack of hard power, even if they punch over their weight with their soft power. Similarly, while they themselves can often be exploited, creative people from more comfortable backgrounds can no longer be oblivious of the impact a developing ‘creative scene’ can have on impoverished and under invested neighbourhoods and those that have long lived in them.
We’re now in a mature phase when everyone, from artists to music fans to planners, developers and politicians, should be aware of the potential and pitfalls of inner-urban regeneration related to creativity and the arts. It is in this context that The Ten Streets emerges. While it retains some traditional industry, this will never again grow back in the same way. Thus, this huge swathe of industrial buildings need new uses or face crumbling to dust.
In a booming city, this would probably involve a simple conversion to residential and offices, with plenty of private capital going in because of the obvious return. But Liverpool presently has a limit to the number of flats and offices it needs and the margins on them are low. As stated earlier, it must be remembered that Liverpool is not an overheated city like London, New York or even Bristol. While theoretical discourse around art and urban change is dominated by looking at such places, the context for Liverpool and cities like it is quite different. Liverpool City Council knows well more than ever the truth that many choose to ignore: unless the city develops its economy more, creates better jobs and increases its tax base, it will always be at the mercy of the coming and going of external grants on the political winds to provide the services its people needs. It will continue to lose to many of its talented people and it won’t give its young people enough opportunities. Liverpool’s economy isn’t big enough to develop on its own and needs intervention, but the city has limited financial room to manoeuvre. As grants have been slashed, it’s often at the mercy of the interest, or lack of, external private capital, to develop. Meanwhile, the city is under internal and external pressure to preserve its historic districts, which is very expensive and increasingly hard because of the low demand for property and the slashing of grants. There’s no single solution to all this. Even while a change in Government may help things, it wouldn’t in itself solve the area’s long-standing economic issues which have their roots before WWII.
At the same time Liverpool, always noted, at least by those without prejudice, as an interesting and often radical cultural city, has much potential. It’s now a major centre for cultural tourism and its artistic output is growing in scale and recognition. However, this, like in so many places, has constantly been undermined by property speculation, short-termism and poor planning. Local authorities which claim to care about culture and the arts, in the Liverpool City Region’s case claim to have it at the heart of its focus, can no longer stand idly by when important cultural facilities are decimated in favour of poor-quality developments which, in some cases have shady origins and never get built anyway.
Liverpool is currently far behind in the stakes of getting big firms to move in. This kind of large-scale inward investment is important, not least in reducing unemployment in fell swoops and creating large enough numbers of training places for young people. However, it’s also problematic as big firms often come and go again, as Liverpool has learned to its cost. Encouraging smaller scale creative businesses, based around existing assets and organisations, can be a more sustainable model for economic development. There’s a real opportunity for the city here, but Liverpool has missed the boat more than once in recent decades. In the 1980s it had one of the biggest computer games design clusters in Europe, something that if nurtured may have transformed the city. But the Council navel gazed and never built on the opportunity. Much of it has since left. Similarly, as one of the most location filmed cities in the UK since the 1980s, only now, after many other cities have already done so, are we seeing the development of proper sound stages. Will Liverpool be able to take the opportunity presented by Ten Streets and build on it, generating more jobs in the creative and related industries, or will it squander the opportunity again? Ten Streets represents an opportunity for the city to do something different in urban development, in keeping with the city’s often radical history, rather than chasing generic ideas from elsewhere with increasingly diminishing returns.
With Ten Streets it’s clear that different voices are around the table and there’s some positive feeling about working together. Different people have different agendas, but the redevelopment of this area, if done well, could benefit all of them and benefit Liverpool far more than if it remains as it currently is. Whatever vibrancy exists in pockets, there is also plenty of dereliction that is beyond most grassroots initiative’s capacity to change. Not to mention the lack of infrastructure in the area. Ten Streets has the potential to seriously revive these streets as an economic area and offer space for the long term for the arts and culture scene in the city. It could make money for those that invest in it, create jobs and restore heritage. However serious notes of caution must remain. It could just as easily go wrong and alienate those who are currently putting so much energy into it at a grassroots levels.
A creative district wholly managed by the local authority, both the Council and artists admit would likely not succeed. Equally delusions about ‘just leaving’ the ‘organic’ development, essentially a lassiez-faire attitude, will only lead to the same driving out of creative outfits as the speculators move in, as has already happened in other areas of Liverpool and elsewhere. Thus, the Spatial Regeneration Framework, protecting the area in planning for employment use and restricting building heights, so making speculative residential developments less likely, could be key to seeing Ten Streets grow as a creative area. Such restrictions may also hold land values from skyrocketing. However, that isn’t guaranteed.
For Ten Streets to work though, it can’t just be done on trust, even if it does currently exist between the different parties involved, as the power imbalances remain huge. From hand to mouth creative outfits to impoverished local authorities and private developers with mixed records. The SRF will help, but more needs to be done. Protected land ownership is the next step. While it might not work for the whole of Ten Streets, if certain key streets or buildings could be passed to a Community Interest Company, as in Baltic Triangle, this would give a core base of locked in spaces for creative outfits and venues. However, the risk with this is a CIC would lack capital to secure space against bigger developers, so it would need some form of significant public financial backing to start it off, best leveraged by the City Council. Beyond this, a formally constituted board with equal voting rights for all members and actual clout on planning matters covering the area, could help formalise the relationship between the stakeholders. Such a group would have to be more than ‘advisory’ for it to have real teeth to protect and steer development in the area in the right direction. This could include looking at implementing rent controls in part or in whole in the area.
Such a model could see the CIC as a lead ‘developer’ in the area, generating rental income to keep sustaining and investing in more creative space. Yet at the same time leaving room for other initiatives to set up and operate in other buildings within a wider protective framework governed by a formal area board. Combined with the SRF, these things could make Ten Streets a potential model for other places dealing with the now well-established cycle of post-industrial to creative. If successful, it could attract artists being displaced from elsewhere, helping the city grow. The Ten Streets area being vibrant could help the larger developments nearby attract residents and other forms of business whilst keeping this area protected. While in turn such larger developments will help drive infrastructure improvements in the area beyond the scope and scale of Ten Streets.
Another paradigm needs to be considered though. Time and time again areas like this around the world have redeveloped, for the most part by creative people from middle and upper class backgrounds moving into them, but often they have ended up being cut off from the residential districts that were innately connected to such industrial areas and which suffered greatly when they shut down. A re-birth for the old warehouses of the Ten Streets will be great for Liverpool, but it will retain a terrible emptiness if this area thrives with artists and creatives from Liverpool’s comfortable suburbs and further afield while Vauxhall, Everton and Kirkdale continue to struggle. Much is made of the exclusiveness of certain private residential developments, while ignoring that creative communities can, even if inadvertently, have an exclusiveness all of their own. How can a redevelopment like this be leveraged to generate opportunities for local people as the growth of the dockside industries once did? It is incumbent on the local authority to manage this, but creative and other organisations must also do their bit, and indeed there are promising signs of this in Ten Streets. Any CIC or formal board with power in the area could have baked into its constitution that creating opportunities for residents in north Liverpool was part of its remit as well as protecting and developing creative spaces and restoring heritage buildings. While residents and community groups from these neighbourhoods should also be part of any area board and help steer its development.
At the heart of thinking about Ten Streets and other developments in this area, are questions of ownership and power. Who owns and who is responsible for such declined urban space? Property owners? The local authority? Developers who invest in it? The artists and creatives who’ve moved there? The established industrial occupiers? Or nearby long-time residents? There’s no one answer, though the power is as ever skewed to the developers, with local authorities, perhaps once the most powerful, now weaker than ever. Artists have soft power, but that is easily overwhelmed. Established residential communities may have numbers and longevity, but they have had their resilience battered over the years and need more economic opportunities. Everyone has a stake, everyone wants it to work, even if for their own reasons and some compromises will be inevitable. Can the structures be created and resources found to make it happen in the right way?
Ten Streets marketing talks about Ten Big Ideas. Really, for this area to be successful and sustainable, it just needs one big idea to work. That is to put formal structures and ownerships in place to give its mixed stakeholders a real say and control in how it develops. Not leaving it to chance or the whims of private developers. Ten Streets is just small enough to get some people with power and money to be bold and innovative, just big enough to test if it actually works. To help create a real and long-lasting creative district and in turn encourage some more inclusive economic growth. Perhaps in ten years I can revisit Stanley Dock again and see, not just a nice hotel where I can get a drink, but a restored building at the heart of something thriving and far more powerful. That is the kind of cultural urban regeneration we need to dare to hope for, but it is one that will only be achieved if those with the power keep listening, are brave and don’t lose sight of their big ideas.
Is wanting to be an artist of any kind, or otherwise work in the cultural sector, stupid? It’s often poorly paid, if at all, and achieving ‘success’ can be arbitrary, unfair. If you’re from a working-class background, it’s even harder. So why would you bother?
For me, art and culture are about ideas. If you control ideas, you control everything. If only a narrow stratum of society controls the ideas, only their views and experiences will be reflected in systems of communication and power. And a far worse society, especially for those with the least power, will result. Art is too important to be left to a privileged few. Yet year by year, it seems to get harder for people from working class backgrounds to find space in culture, media and the arts.
Working in the arts can be a risky option for anyone, but the risks are compounded for those without family money or connections to fall back on. For those who somehow must generate an income to support themselves and perhaps others. Those who’ve probably been told quite often in life not to dare to imagine other worlds they could enter because of the risks involved.
When architect of the NHS, Nye Bevan, wrote a book about the foundation of the welfare state he called it ‘In Place of Fear’. Over the last few decades, what has increased exponentially in this country is fear, and not accidentally. Fear helps keep people in their place and too overwhelmed and frightened to try and challenge the limited parameters forced upon them. Part of that, despite lip service to the contrary, is to return culture to a field dominated by a narrow circle.
It was difficult enough when I entered the cultural sector in the 2000s. The child of a railway fitter and a cleaner, I grew up on benefits when my dad got sick, in a deprived industrial town in Merseyside. I was the first in my family to go to university. In that era, I got help. I lived in one of the pilot areas for Education Maintenance Allowance. The Connexions service helped with university applications when I’d left education to work. There were waived university fees and top-up maintenance grants for those from poor backgrounds. After uni, paid entry-level arts jobs were available, like the one I got – albeit a low paid and zero hours one. Now, so much of that has gone, it’s unreal. I can’t imagine I’d have been able to get to where I am today without any of those opportunities – yet working class people in 2018 get none of this support.
The issues are not just economic. It’s important to talk about the invisible barriers that exist on entering the sector and remain even when you’re in. At its best, the cultural field can be a place that welcomes those from different backgrounds; creative, open-minded, full of ideas. However, sadly, at its worst it can be too convinced of its own radicalism that it can be blind to the prejudice and structural unfairness that exists within it. Despite some progress, too many cultural organisations suffer from the ‘groupthink’ that comes from being dominated by people with incredibly similar backgrounds and educations. It was recently revealed that the key art, music and drama schools in this country are more elitist in their student bodies than Oxford and Cambridge. This doesn’t surprise me, but it’s a damming indictment of inequalities in the sector.
Many people who have experienced an elite education from a young age are given constant reinforcements of their confidence, get taught how to network and how to ‘sell themselves’. Sadly, some of these things are more respected and important to success in parts of the cultural sector than talent and depth. I mentioned ‘imposter syndrome’ recently to a few people in the sector from a similar background. There was mutual acknowledgement of this and past experiences of being made to feel inadequate, talked over, or willfully ignored by those who think you can’t benefit them in their own ambitious trajectory in the arts.
This is, of course, not to privilege class over other forms of structural injustice within the arts. Intersectionality is vital when looking at diversity in the sector. However, class has been an area ignored for too long, especially as it cuts across other areas of inequality yet is not covered by the Equality Act 2010. Similarly, I don’t mean to privilege one class over the other. Working class cultures at their own worst can be oppressive, prejudiced, and suspicious of difference, but it’s clear that working class people are not well represented enough across the sector. In addition, while thankfully it’s a minority, the sector still has too many people from comfortable backgrounds ‘slumming it’. That is, adopting performative tropes of being working class in some strange grasp for authenticity, who then drown out the voices of people who have actually come from such backgrounds.
It’s important to note it’s not just big cultural institutions that have these issues. The artist-led grassroots sector is not immune. Often relying on tight, cliquey networks and people with huge amounts of free time, it can also be blind to its own unspoken exclusions and prejudices. The self-confidence of members from elite backgrounds often dominating groups despite their supposed ‘fluid’ or ‘no hierarchy’ structures.
Now I am the director of a small arts charity, part of the establishment, albeit at a low level. The air is even thinner in terms of those from working class backgrounds when it comes to leading organisations. Though as I’ve chosen to work regionally and in a socially-focused field, not as much as in some other areas of culture. I have achieved a modicum of ‘success’. What does sometimes keep me awake at night though, is, do I do enough to make a difference for others from disadvantaged backgrounds to be heard in the arts? Is it all just a waste of time when there are so many huge structural inequalities in society over and above that in the cultural sector? Especially now things are even harder than 15 years ago. This is perhaps again an anxiety that comes from being working class. You think that you can never do enough even as those leading some of the largest organisations pay lip service to diversity.
So, what can be done to make a difference? It’s not actually that complicated, but it would require change on a large scale beyond just the cultural sector itself. For example; free higher education at the point of access; arts schools reserving spaces for those from disadvantaged backgrounds; a stop to the stripping out of the arts from school curriculums; the Arts Council continuing to push organisations to diversify (while other areas of culture such journalism, film, publishing, games and heritage should do the same); ensuring volunteering is only supplementary support to paid jobs; serious government funding for multi-year creative apprenticeships and an end to the qualifications arms race in the sector – let’s have proper respect for on the ground experience and not raise the bar too high for entry level jobs.
Listen to people who are working class; employees, artists, fans, participants, visitors and especially those trying to enter the sector. What they have to say is crucial. It’s time to ensure people from all different backgrounds are given decent opportunities. It won’t just be better for individuals and society, it will be better for art.
These things might seem utopian now, but that’s how far we’ve fallen. I spoke to an older man once, who as a young working-class boy had applied to art school. He never heard back. So, he got a job, only getting into art after his retirement many years later, to his sadness. Only after his father had died did he find the letter of acceptance from the art school that his parents had hidden. Whose fault was this opportunity being denied him? His parents? Or this country, for creating the climate of fear that to work in the arts is to be destitute and especially dangerous if you’re working class? And here we are in those times again. Let’s start to say no more. Now.
This piece was published by The Double Negative as part of their #classisabigdeal series in October 2018.
The Pier Head – Tom Wood
Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool
12th January – 25th March 2018
“They were outside the groove of history and it was my job to get them in, all of them.” The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
The thing that gets me most in Tom Wood’s series of images on and around the Mersey Ferries is the intensity of the eyes. Across years, generations, genders, locations, so many of his subjects in these photographs either look intently into the distance or, more strikingly, straight into the lens and into you. I’m drawn to an old video clip of former Open Eye Director Paul Mellor – an early champion of Wood’s work in the gallery he has returned to with this show: “I think he has a care and empathy for the subject matter and the people. I think he’s a humanitarian photographer, if there is such a thing.”
Full disclosure, seeing Wood’s images years ago and how they captured places, people and an era so familiar to me in such a powerful way, was one of the things that drew me into visual arts. Merseyside, like many deprived areas, has had no shortage over the years of photographers keen to bob in and capture ‘poverty porn’. Which when you know a place well, its layers and complexity, can become deeply tiresome. Even if the photographer’s intentions are well meant, their ‘truth’ is usually two dimensional.
Wood is one of a few whose work stretches far beyond this, no doubt in part due to his deep familiarity with his subject, having photographed the area as a local resident over decades. In contrast to others, Wood captures his subjects not as types, but individuals as significant as in any high society or celebrity portrait. Sure, in some expressions or behaviour is humorous, but in others it is sad and still more it is powerfully dignified as he gets that shot of the confidence of youth, the resigned wisdom of old age, the cynicism of having been pushed to the fringe of society. And of course, the boredom of waiting.
Like his previous work that focused on bus travel, All Zones Off Peak, here Wood captures the commute and its varied humanity. His Pier Head images differ from All Zones though in that the ferries and their terminals were, much more than the busses, also a ‘sit off’. Somewhere for the young and old especially to hang around, mess about, chat, linger. He photographs friends, couples, individuals’ heading somewhere or just passing the time. Snapping different generations over several decades, Wood captures continuity and change. Faces seem ever familiar. In contrast, fashion and hair styles shift rapidly. It was a particular part of the poisonous stereotypes pushed to the area in the 1990s to attack Scousers for a fondness for sportswear. These images remind that was only part of the fashion story. Not to mention that the often unique ways clothes were worn in the area was done with an originality rarely matched when such looks were copied elsewhere. Again, the particular detail of fashion in cruder hands could become voyeurism, but not here. You look at his subjects and their styles, but they look back into you.
People are the heart of Wood’s images but the background detail is important as well, as much a part of their role now as social document as the fashions. While the images here span from the 70s to late 90s, the bulk are from mid 80s to mid 90s. This is a time in Merseyside history that artists, writers and academics rarely look too, preferring to tap into the swinging, for some, 1960s, the radical era of the late 70s and early 80s, or the more recent, if patchy, renaissance. Yet the period between the 80s and 90s that Wood captures so powerfully is important as well as it was perhaps Liverpool’s nadir. Coming as it did after the collapse of the brief Militant period when Merseyside was largely cut off and left to rot. Treated so often nationally with either contempt or indifference, negative stereotypes about the area came to the fore even in supposedly polite and liberal circles.
This was the Merseyside I grew up in. Almost nothing new was built. Most of the theatres and gig venues closed. So much seemed of the past, decaying, like the ageing, smoky 1960s busses and ferries we waited for, while opportunity, change, a positive future, seemed distant, if not impossible. The local media became deeply nostalgic for ‘the better times’. What radicalism existed largely retreated to educated urban circles and had little impact on the city’s poor and unfashionable fringes.
Wood, intended or not, captures this atmosphere. Both the crumbling grandeur of the Victorian docks and jetties, rusting, grassed over, silent. But also the decay of 1960s optimism as exemplified by the rotting Modernism of the graffiti covered Pier Head terminal. Today its concrete and steel would be lauded by fans of once-again fashionable Brutalism, its Formica’d cafe turned into a themed eatery. Then, it was just a reminder of how everything had fallen apart. The Merseyside of today still remains highly deprived and faces numerous challenges, but it has come far from being so unrelentingly crushed in a way that people who came to know the area later on struggle to grasp.
What Wood also captures though is that, despite the national mistreatment, life in Liverpool did indeed go on. People survived and even occasionally thrived despite the shit they had been given. Not crude stereotypes or even that other media trope, ‘sympathetic victims of a cruel system’, but individual human beings with their own stories, part of a culture that carried on despite seemingly impossible odds.
The landscape of the river and those who travel across it, as they have done so since around the 12th century, has now changed from that photographed by Wood. Just as the young, moody people in sportswear in 1987 confused and in turn were confused by the older people sporting headscarves and flat caps, so young people today must look these images with a distance hard to bridge. The differences in fashion and scenery though are just the visual demonstration of the bigger gap. That of experience and understanding between generations in an ever faster rapidly changing word, each one with its new sets of opportunities, joys, problems and challenges. Wood captures his subjects with dignity, young and old, but the generational gap remains for them as it does for all of us. We look at them, they look at us, but never quite understand what the other has seen and felt, like looking across a river into the distance.
This piece was published by Corridor 8 in March 2018.
My first regular job in the arts was as a zero-hours gallery attendant. Now I have the fancy job title of Creative Director, having done quite a few roles in between, including being a volunteer and a freelancer. Starting off around the peak of the ‘boom’ in the 2000s when money flowed into the sector, through the worst of austerity and to today’s mixed but still uncertain times. In my career, I’ve also seen many different types and styles of leadership and management. This mixture of experience, along with having had opportunities for various forms of training and development in my career, I think has made me better equipped for my current role.
During the same period, I’ve also witnessed a seemingly ever growing focus on leadership in the arts. This is something which I do think has been necessary. As the sector expanded and diversified and the operating environment became more complex, cultural leaders having training and skills beyond academic art form knowledge has become increasingly important. Especially given the challenges that many organisations have faced, high profile and otherwise. Speaking to older colleagues about their experiences in the 1970s and 80s in cultural organisations, challenges with management in the sector seems to have been an issue going back a long way and this new focus does seem to have improved things. In addition, programmes which seek to increase the diversity of leadership in the sector continue to be vital. As the first in my family to attend higher education and having spent my youth living on my father’s disability benefits, active work to ensure a diversity of voices is heard in the arts is something I am passionate about.
However I have also become concerned that the sector may now be placing too much faith in leaders and the chimerical concept of leadership as being able to solve all the challenges cultural organisations face. This is something I considered when researching whilst on the Arts Fundraising and Leadership programme. Good leadership is important and can help organisations through changes and challenges, but it isn’t a panacea. In a sector struggling to simultaneously deal with big funding cuts, education system changes, huge regional disparities, increasing societal deprivation, major cultural shifts and growing political turmoil, leadership alone will not solve all problems we face.
Individuals can only do so much, even with progressive styles of management, and this focus on leadership can create unrealistic expectations and encourage constant churn in the sector. Suitable financial support from different sources, actively working to increase diversity, collaborative working inside and outside the sector and, crucially, ensuring personal development opportunities are available at all levels are just as important. These things may need to be led, but we need to think beyond leadership if we want to create a vibrant and resilient artistic ecosystem that can deal with inevitable shocks and changes.
We need to continue to develop leadership and management in the arts, especially different styles and methods that suit different types of organisations. Yet this has to be part of much wider and long term support and development for the arts sector if it is to be sustainable and better reflect the diversity and talent of creative voices in this country.