By Kenn Taylor
This book tells the story of a century in the life of a radical city. One hundred years of turmoil, extreme change, alternative ideas and independent action. Different radical currents have flown through Liverpool over the years but underneath it all the city’s inhabitants seem to have developed a fiercely independent nature that defies any attempt to pin it down – a nature that mistrusts external authority, frequently defies conventional logic and seeks practical solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
If you talk about radical politics and activism in Liverpool, there is an inevitable harking back to the radical socialism that was a key component of the city’s identity after 1911 – especially during the 1980s, when a local authority dominated by the Militant Tendency infamously refused to set a legal budget as an act of resistance against a hostile Conservative government. This, along with the radical trade union activity throughout the city and the Toxteth riots of 1981, helped cast a view of Liverpool as a hotbed of revolutionary socialism that still persists today.
Yet, as documented elsewhere by John Belchem, this was far from representative of Liverpool’s grassroots politics throughout its history. If 1911 was the year that marked Liverpool’s shift towards a form of socialism, then the 1980s were perhaps its peak. And almost as soon as this aspect of the city’s character entered into the national consciousness it had begun to decline.
Contributing to this, no doubt, was the failure of the Militant council to bring down the Conservative central government and fund the municipal socialism they promised – not to mention distaste within the city for some of their methods. This, along with a decline in trade union membership and disappointment in thirteen years of New Labour government, has considerably reduced the influence of the labour movement in Liverpool at a grassroots level. It has been suggested in light of this that the city has lost its radical nature and become overwhelmed by apathy. Indeed, Liverpool has some of the lowest voter turnouts in the UK. However; this chapter will argue that this decline has seen an emergence, or perhaps a re-emergence, of a different type of radicalism in the city.
In recent years, large sections of Liverpool have been transformed, mostly in a positive way. But beneath this brave new regenerated city there are still many problems and, with them, a vast undercurrent of grassroots activism that is fighting to rebuild the city from the ground up. The radical spirit that has over the years fuelled protests, riots, strikes, occupations and takeovers, remains. As do the skills, in organising, protesting, publicizing and delivering action. Though much of this is still organised and influenced by those who were part of the labour movement, the landscape has changed.
This spirit perhaps harks back to something older and deeper in the psyche of Liverpool’s citizens: to the culture forged in the dire poverty of Victorian Liverpool, when the character that came to be known as ‘Scouse’ was being formed and the gulf between rich and poor was so vast.
Perhaps the best-known example of grassroots community activism in Liverpool during the last thirty years has been that surrounding the development of the Eldonian Village. Here, in deprived Vauxhall, a celebrated, self-organised community grew up on wasteland, against the odds and in the face of an actively hostile local authority. In Liverpool it has frequently been individuals rather than movements that have defined the city’s activism. This is exemplified by Tony McGann, who led the residents of the Eldon Street and Burlington Street tenements to develop the Eldonian Village. His actions were driven by a desire to prevent their community being broken up and dispersed to estates on the fringes of the city – the fate of so many other working-class communities in Liverpool due to successive slum clearance programmes from the 1930s onwards.
Encouraged by the then Liberal-dominated city council in the early 1980s to form a housing co-operative, the residents that were to become known as the Eldonians had their plans undermined when Labour gained control of the city in 1983. Coming up against a local Labour party keen that it alone should control housing and community development, the residents nevertheless battled on. Determined that they knew what was best for the community, they had come to mistrust the council, of whichever political stripe, for having failed to deliver the services they had promised.
In order to bring their plans to fruition, McGann and his fellow community association members worked not only with the labour movement but also formed alliances with everyone from Conservative ‘Minister for Merseyside’ Michael Heseltine to major construction companies, architects, social landlords and even royalty, developing the new ‘urban village’ over a number of years and many hurdles.
From a humble start the Eldonian Village has grown into a development renowned around the world, even winning the UK’s first United Nations World Habitat Award in 2004 for creating ‘an internationally recognized model of community-led sustainable regeneration’. The Eldonian Community Trust and its various subsidiaries have since expanded into many other areas beyond housing, establishing a local leisure centre, nursery and village hall. They have also worked with private developers and other partners on expanding the area and encouraging younger families to move in. The result is a ‘self-regenerating community’.
The Eldonian Village was a radical project at the time, but it was not Liverpool’s first attempt to create better lives through buildings. Poverty has meant that problems with housing have dominated the city for much of its existence, as have attempts to find solutions to them. Liverpool Corporation is noted as having built the first local-authority-owned housing in the UK in 1869, thus bringing new standards into the housing of the poor.
Later, between the wars, the city pioneered continental-style tenement blocks and developed out-of-town housing estates. As such initiatives moved from being radical to the norm in the post-war era, Liverpool also became home to some of the largest housing associations in the UK, these largely focused on regenerating older, abandoned city-centre properties that had been left to rot by the council. However, the well-meaning that had seen the city pioneer the first municipal housing eventually became lost among council bureaucracy and limited funds. Even the housing associations morphed to become huge public corporations, now often perceived as being as remote as local authorities themselves.
With the emergence of the Eldonian Village, Liverpool also became a test bed for large-scale co-operative urban development. For many years the city had searched for solutions to its housing problems and come up with groundbreaking ideas that were later adopted nationally; the Eldonian solution, however, was developed from within the community itself, not imposed by outside ‘experts’.
The Eldonians realised that rebuilding housing was not on its own enough to tackle deprivation and create a sustainable community. Control by local people over their own environment and long-term, multifaceted thinking were key. This was in contrast to the zealousness with which Liverpool city council had pursued its flawed modernist-influenced housing developments in the 1950s and 1960s. Whilst acknowledging that the dire post-war housing shortage contributed to this, these schemes, developed by outsiders with utopian ideals and often rigid beliefs, were frequently ill thought out and badly built. Such estates were imposed onto people with little thought for the fragile ecosystems that provided support in poor communities, creating untold damage, the effects of which remain today.
The failure time and again of such grand plans and ideologies dreamt up by outsiders to improve the lives of the poor in Liverpool, be they from politician, academic, architect or otherwise, has helped create a mistrust of such ideas in the city, fostering instead a do-it-yourself mentality where disenfranchised communities have taken matters into their own hands.
The work of Tony McGann and the Eldonians prompted Prince Charles to remark, ‘Men and women, through the power of their own personalities, can achieve more than millions spent through committees’ – a comment no doubt with which many citizens of Liverpool would agree.
It took the prospect of their community being broken up and dispersed to galvanise the residents of Eldon Street and Burlington Street into creating the Eldonian Village. A similar crisis in the Croxteth area of the city was to prompt equally radical action at around about the same time. In 1980, Liverpool city council stated its intention to close Croxteth Comprehensive School, doing so without consulting the local community or even informing the school’s head teacher.
Croxteth was one of Liverpool’s rapidly built, post-war peripheral housing estates and the school was one of the few facilities the deprived community had. Numerous intense protests against closure were quickly organised, but when these came to nothing, parents and local residents took the decision forcibly to occupy the school on the day before its planned closure in 1982. This radical action sent shockwaves through both the community and the authorities, as recalled by local resident Irene Madden: ‘I’ve never known an atmosphere like it … I think the Council and the government got the shock of their lives, you know when we stood up to them.’ Unlike the Eldonians, those involved in the Croxteth occupation were fighting the then Liberal-dominated council and had the support of the Labour group, but once again they were defying the power of a local authority they perceived as remote to try to protect the interests of the local community.
Soon after the occupation, the Croxteth Community Action Committee took the decision to open their own community school in the building, despite overwhelming odds and no real funding. The committee was led largely by Phil Knibb, like Tony McGann, another tough individual who commanded the respect of the local community. It organised and operated all aspects of the school and its round the clock occupation in partnership with parents and pupils. Volunteer teachers came from across the country, donations were successfully sought and supplies given by local factories.
They received widespread media coverage and even won celebrity backing from Vanessa Redgrave and UB40 – all this in the face of legal threats from the council and the electricity being cut off. The current UK coalition government are keen on ‘free schools’ and communities setting up and running their own educational establishments, but in 1982 Liverpool was once again pushing a radical idea that was attacked by many in politics and the media. The Daily Mail even suggested that ‘the strange Indian cult Anada Marga’ was at work in the ‘school of chaos’.
After Labour won control of the city council, Croxteth Comprehensive was taken back fully into local authority control in 1985. However, the occupation had helped create a new sense of community activism and empowerment in the area. Early in the occupation the Action Committee formed several subcommittees to work on wider local issues, including providing activities for young people, tackling the area’s heroin problem and providing support for older members of the community – work that was to continue long after the school campaign had ended.
In 1999, an old people’s residential home in the centre of Croxteth became available for purchase and a number of Committee members pooled their savings and redundancy monies to buy it and turn it into a community-based education centre. Since then, the now Alt Valley Community Trust, still led by Phil Knibb, has grown beyond all recognition.
The old people’s home has been turned into ‘The Communiversity’ and is the main base for the organisation’s work. Social businesses have been set up in local shopping units purchased by the trust and a vocational skills training centre for young people has opened in the former St Swithin’s Church – a project that is now entirely self-financed through contracts.16 Even the local leisure centre has been taken over by the trust through asset transfer.
Croxteth Comprehensive School was once more threatened with closure by the city council at the end of 2008. The decision again sparked outcry in the local community, which refused to accept the verdict. This time there was no occupation, but they became among only a handful nationally who managed to take their case to the High Court in an unsuccessful bid to challenge the ruling. However, having lost that battle, members of the community are attempting to turn something negative into something positive. At the time of writing, the Alt Valley Community Trust is in discussions with Liverpool city council to take ownership of the modern technology and sports blocks of the school to expand its own education provision. Croxteth is another example of a community being pushed into taking control of its own situation, no longer allowing itself to be at the mercy of external forces. This recurrent theme of recent activism has arguably filled the vacuum left by the decline and failure of the overarching ideologies and systems that such communities had come to rely on.
The mistrust of grand schemes within Liverpool has manifested itself most recently perhaps in campaigns around the city’s European Capital of Culture 2008 designation. Winning the status in 2003 was one of, if not the, biggest things to happen to the city in the last twenty years. Property values rose overnight and there was nothing short of euphoria in some quarters that Liverpool’s importance finally seemed to be officially acknowledged after so much decline and derision. In particular the city’s cultural community, which had struggled to survive through years of austerity, felt that its role was finally being recognised.
But it all soon began to slip. The Culture Company running the year was perceived as remote, the programme for 2008 was accused of not acknowledging ‘local’ culture and links between the title and wider development plans began to emerge. Rightly or wrongly, building developments such as Grosvenor’s Liverpool One and the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder programme instigated by the government were lumped together with the award as the city went through an intense period of growth it had not experienced in years. This development was fuelled not only by the culture title but by increased inward investment and the global easy-credit boom.
As rapid development continued in the build-up to 2008, the city’s artistic fringe found itself being pushed out of its studios and venues by the rapidly developing legions of bars and flats. Ironically, however, the Capital of Culture title also provided a hook for the city’s artistic grassroots to resist these developments, which, with the credit boom and the like, would probably have happened anyway, as it did in other cities across the UK. A loose anti-2008 movement emerged, questioning not only how plans for the year were being handled but the whole notion of regeneration and the Capital of Culture status in and of itself.
The big spark for all of this appears to have been the fight against the proposed closure of the Quiggins ‘alternative’ shopping centre to make way for the Liverpool One development. Ultimately, the campaign did not succeed, though the shopping centre has since been moved elsewhere in the city, but it became a powerful symbol and rallying point of the ‘independent’ and ‘local’ against the ‘corporate’ and ‘global’, even if the Liverpool One development has subsequently proved very popular in the city. Similar campaigns were mounted around the Picket music venue and the Parr Street Studios recording complex, both threatened with conversion into apartments. Angry words were raised in independent local publications such as Mercy and Nerve and pretty soon even the mainstream media began questioning what was happening in Liverpool.
The city then became a test case for contemporary urban regeneration ideas that had developed over the intervening thirty years. In the aftermath of the 1981 Toxteth riots, the Conservative-backed, quango-led regeneration initiatives around the Garden Festival, the Albert Dock and the Southern Docks meant that Liverpool was among the first cities to experience the sort of leisure and private-housing-led regeneration later adopted by former industrial areas around the country. And, in the build-up to 2008, what was happening in the city was to highlight the flaws in these ideas.
Liverpool subsequently began to attract considerable criticism from both academia and the broadsheets for its regeneration plans, with commentators questioning just how much of the city’s renaissance was trickling down positively to affect poor local communities. That many of the same people had previously talked up the triumphs of similar schemes in London, Manchester, Birmingham et al., despite the fact that these areas all retained similar levels of deprivation masked by redeveloped central areas, seemed lost. Liverpool was blamed for telling a wider truth about the UK’s situation that was soon to be exposed by the credit crunch. Many commentators who had previously backed such forms of regeneration subsequently washed their hands of these ideas in the same way as did zealous supporters of post-war modernist development when communities themselves highlighted the flaws of their new towns and high-rises.
The city again showed the rest of the country ‘the error of its ways’ and demonstrated the power of grassroots action. This perhaps is Liverpool’s greatest contribution to the wider world for having been awarded European Capital of Culture: to have been the place that questioned, even deconstructed, the whole concept, in the process changing the way many people think globally about concepts of culture, cities and regeneration.
The other big issue that has provoked intense community activism in Liverpool in recent years is the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI) Pathfinder programme. Instigated in the early 2000s by the Labour government, its intention was to regenerate areas where housing demand was seen to have failed and that were suffering from dereliction and the inherent problems it creates. Based on a report by academics from the University of Birmingham, the plan advocated wholesale demolition and reconstruction of many deprived areas of the UK.
Liverpool city council adopted the policy enthusiastically and began buying up properties, often through compulsory purchase orders, and instigating a demolition programme. This was perhaps understandable as after years of government underfunding the city was being offered a large amount of money for housing development. But the plans were fiercely resisted in parts of the city as once again the council was seen to be imposing its will unthinkingly on local communities. Some even accused the plans as amounting to ‘social cleansing’ and an attempt to drive poorer people out of the city.
As with previous demolition schemes, HMRI galvanised local residents into taking control of their own surroundings. In Toxteth, one of several areas where there was a reaction against the programme, committees and residents’ groups were created to fight the plans. Alliances were developed with politicians, heritage groups and even Beatles fans, since one house up for demolition in the ‘Welsh Streets’ area had once been the home of Ringo Starr. Partnerships were also formed with housing co-operatives and private developers who stated their intention to renovate rather than demolish the area’s empty properties. There have also been symbolic and imaginative responses against the plans. Poetry and art was daubed on the doors and windows of threatened houses in the Welsh Streets. Meanwhile, in the nearby ‘Four Streets’ area of Granby, residents have undertaken ‘guerrilla gardening’, planting flowers and vegetables among the empty buildings to create a veritable oasis of green in an area now blighted by urban decay. Local street markets and parties have also been organized to highlight the strength of feeling and community spirit, again powerful symbols against the might of a massive national government initiative and the council’s plans.
Campaigns against HMRI have had mixed successes across the city, and it must also be pointed out that a proportion of the residents involved did back demolition and reconstruction. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, the council had recently announced plans to refurbish rather than demolish some of the houses in the Four Streets area, while the Granby Residents Association hopes the demise of HMRI funding might now allow for more community-led refurbishment schemes to takes its place.
However, a question mark continues to remain over whether the high-profile campaign to save the Welsh Streets will be successful. Communities taking over and reusing spaces left abandoned by Liverpool’s economic problems can be seen time and again across the city.
Another example is in the Dingle area of Liverpool 8, where a high-profile campaign was instigated to take over, refurbish and bring back into use a prominent local building that had been left to rot. The Florence Institute was originally gifted to the area by Sir Bernard Hall, a merchant, Alderman and former Mayor of Liverpool. Named after his daughter, who died tragically at the age of twenty-two, ‘the Florrie’ was officially opened in Mill Street in 1890 and became a focal point for the local youth and community for many years. With funding running dry, the Florrie was eventually sold in 1987 with the intention that its charitable work should be continued by another body. Unfortunately, this never happened and the building became neglected, a target for vandals and the elements.
As the building decayed, the local community formed a pressure group, ‘The Friends of the Florrie’, to bring it back into use. A community-led trust was set up at the end of 2004 and completed a consultation on the building’s future. Denise Devine, chair of the trust and also managing director of the nearby Toxteth Town Hall, says the needs of local people were paramount: ‘There has been door to door and group consultation throughout and that will continue … It really means a lot in the hearts and minds of local people, the Florrie bettered people, it made them better, honest, hardworking people … It will fulfil that function again – from cradle to grave, Sunday to Sunday.’
The Florence Institute Trust has worked hard over the last few years to develop a regeneration plan for the building and to raise funds to restore it into a multi-ethnic community centre for all ages and abilities. The plan for the new Florrie includes exhibition and performance space, activities for young people and the elderly, an indoor/outdoor sport area, childcare facilities, workspaces for local business and a heritage resource centre.
Having raised over £6.4 million from a variety of sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund and the city council, in June 2010 it was reported that work was due to start on the new Florrie with a planned completion at the end of 2011. The trust has also formed an agreement with the main building contractor that wherever possible jobs on the project should be sourced from the local community.
As Denise Devine documents, once again this initiative was led by the community itself: ‘The Friends of the Florrie is a home-grown grassroots organisation that has had to take the lead when no-one else wanted to touch it with a barge pole. Now people are inspired and have had their faith restored.’
This chapter has attempted to show that grassroots radicalism is still a key component of Liverpool’s culture, and also to draw together some of the factors that link these different actions and initiatives. Rather than Liverpool adhering to an overarching radical ideology, there are instead many instances of the city’s deprived communities refusing to be crushed or to have their destiny controlled by external forces. If anything, that is the underlying radical undercurrent in Liverpool now, and possibly always has been.
Community activists in the city have always had general mistrust of external authority or anyone trying to impose anything on them, be it government, institution, trade union, political party or local authority. There is also an equal distrust of grand plans and ideas, usually because time and again they have been shown to fail the people they are most meant to help. The dreams of 1911 and of other attempts at rapid radical change in Liverpool – be they the slum clearances, Militant Tendency or leisure-led regeneration – have rarely brought the transformative benefits they promised.
Although disparate, all the actions I have described – everything from short-term campaigns to full-blown community takeovers – seem to have similar motivations: wresting control of the local environment from distant, unaccountable figures and working towards practical, long-term goals that reflect the needs of the city’s people. Such activism has filled the vacuum created by successive local and national government indifference or incompetence and the decline in trade union and Labour party support.
If deprived communities are to survive and prosper, it can only happen with local control and action that comes from the ground up. Some may find the city’s and its communities’ ruck for independence and self-determination exasperating, while it is also true that it can be hard to strike to strike a balance between this and Liverpool’s need to develop its economy and infrastructure; but when this spirit is directed to solid agency it can be magnificent and can transform the lives of those involved with it. Such communities have also time and again pioneered solutions to seemingly intractable problems and highlighted to the rest of the UK where it is going wrong. For doing so, Liverpool often gets the blame for spoiling the party. But, for that the country owes the city a debt, as it is frequently ideas formed in the turmoil of this radical city that become tomorrow’s ‘common-sense’ solutions.
Indeed, many of the campaigns and initiatives mentioned in this chapter that were once considered radical, even dangerous, ideas – self-organised housing co-operatives, community school takeovers and local control over facilities and services – are now in vogue, favoured by the current UK coalition government as part of its ‘Big Society’ agenda, suggesting that communities will be able to take over from the role of the state services for which it is withdrawing funding. In fact, just before the 2010 general election, Conservative leader David Cameron visited a Liverpool social enterprise called MerseySTRIDE on Great Homer Street in Everton – a furniture workshop that provides work for local unemployed, homeless and otherwise disadvantaged people – saying that it demonstrated his ideas for the ‘Big Society’ in action: ‘The biggest thing is to build a stronger society – we’ve got to help people who are unemployed for a long time and social enterprises like this help. It demonstrates where giving more power and control to projects like these works.’
Most people in Liverpool would agree that communities themselves know what is best for them. Is the city then not only leading the way in radical new ideas, but for once not going against the grain of the rest of the country? Yet, what promoters of the ‘Big Society’ do not acknowledge is that many of the most successful initiatives discussed here, from the development of the Eldonian Village to the Florence Institute restoration in Dingle, despite being community-led, have required a complex mesh of external funding and support. In a city that relies heavily on national government funding that is now being withdrawn, this is something that in future will be in short supply. And, despite the grassroots activism of the past thirty years often operating against the grain and with limited support, it was the withdrawal of such funding and support in the past that helped create so much damage in these communities and fostered the need for such radical action in the first place. It is also why it has taken so much work and extra money over the years to build things back up.
If all that disappears once again, it can only undo so much of what has been achieved. With the government refusing to admit that the voluntary and the community-led also requires financial support, it has to be asked how many of these projects will be able to continue their current good work, let alone replace the role of local and national government provision.
Indeed, despite Cameron’s pre-election support for MerseySTRIDE, once in power, the coalition government quickly axed the Future Jobs Fund programme that had provided much of the funding for placements at this social enterprise. It seems the ‘Big Society’ might end up just being another flawed, top-down ideology that Liverpool’s communities will have to resist, counteract and find solutions to.
What then is the future of grassroots activism in Liverpool? Much has changed since 1911, but much remains the same: the interconnected problems associated with poverty, housing, unemployment, crime, ill-health, education and opportunity. As the last hundred years have taught us, there are no easy answers to any of these. Yet something else we have learned over the last century is that Liverpool and its active citizens are resilient: they will not give up and will do whatever they can to look after their communities.
In many respects, the city should long ago have ceased to exist, let alone have managed to achieve what it has. And not only that, but also remain a place of radical action that is still influencing thinking globally.
Radical Liverpool today is perhaps the same as it has always been: a collection of tough, bolshie individuals and groups who share a passion for their beliefs and their community and will not be told what to do. There are radical grassroots activities being undertaken across many different communities and over many different issues, but what unites them seems to be what has united radical Liverpool since 1911 and before: a gritty self-determination to succeed against the odds – something that will stand the city in good stead for the inevitable challenges of the next hundred years.
This piece appeared in the book Liverpool: City of Radicals edited by John Belchem and Bryan Biggs and published by Liverpool University Press. ISBN: 9781846316470. A fully referenced version is available in the book.