In the 2000s there was a boom in new cultural facilities opening in the English regions, often in places whose economies had struggled since the 1980s. Many of them subsequently had significant challenges connecting with local audiences. Most of these new facilities were based around a particular model of art and cultural consumption that had its centre in London and other global megacities. Such organisations, when they opened, largely employed in their senior roles white middle- or upper-class people who were drawn from elsewhere and who often shared remarkably similar career backgrounds.
Nevertheless, some junior jobs were created in such places. I began my career in one of them in my native Merseyside on a zero-hours contract. Despite being passionate about art and culture, I soon became alarmed at how such organisations often seemed more focused on recognition from their peers than from the communities they were based in; as well as a wilful lack of acknowledgment that inequalities existed within and outside such institutions. Experiences such as these drew me to work in what was then called community arts, a field which seemed to at least try to address the relationship between key practices in culture and wider society.
Much of course has occurred since. Such community practices, once written off by the ‘mainstream’ cultural world, are now seen as part of the fore of contemporary culture. Class, for a time dismissed by many as irrelevant, has come back to bite.
There has also been a move away from that previous model of cultural development in the regions, with programmes such as Creative People and Places (Arts Council England) having shaken up things up a little. Yet much more needs to be done. Too many organisations still fail to employ people from working-class backgrounds and from the communities they’re based in, especially at management level. Even now, many organisations still struggle to seriously engage with many communities and cultures.
While class is our focus here, it is important not to privilege it over other inequalities. Nor by taking about organisations engaging with local cultures do I mean separating out the ‘white working class’ or a specific requirement to have been born somewhere. Class has had renewed attention recently, partially because it was almost written out of the conversation for 20-30 years. Notably it was removed from 2010 Equalities Act upon its introduction into legislation.1 Yet we must be careful not to fall into the rhetoric of divide and conquer when it comes to change in the cultural sector. I refuse to allow the exclusion of those from my socio-economic background as an excuse to further marginalise working-class people of colour who face even more barriers.2
The cultural sector more seriously engaging with class and regional identity is at its heart about social justice. It is also, though, about making cultural organisations more effective and sustainable. As is well established in business studies, having personnel from diverse backgrounds is a powerful driver in creating more successful organisations of all forms.3 Perhaps none more so than in the sector where culture is both the main input and output, and new ideas and perspectives are often vital to success.
Yet, as evidenced by an array of research and demonstrated in rigorous detail in the 2020 book Culture is Bad for You by Brook, O’Brien and Taylor the majority of the cultural workforce is still drawn from narrow sources and it remains one of the most elitist areas of work.4 This has real impacts on the culture that is produced by the sector, which in turn significantly impacts on how society views itself. Some of these inequalities are structural and beyond what the cultural sector can change in itself. However there remains much that the sector can do.
Currently the vast majority of culture workers have similar entry routes via university. While this works for many, to increase diversity in the sector we need to create more varied forms of entry. Requiring a degree is a class barrier in itself, especially as higher education has become more expensive. That divide is further widened for those who have to work alongside studying, to support themselves. There has been a positive movement away from unpaid internships in the sector, but some still remain and these are a major obstacle for those who can’t afford to work without pay.
Increasing school and college leaver entry into employment into cultural organisations is vital. There has been a growing array of initiatives for this, though the way apprenticeships were reformed in recent years has made it harder for some smaller cultural organisations to access them. However, too often things fall down in how staff are developed after they take up such entry-level roles. There need to be serious career development pathways put in place, especially in medium and large cultural organisations, where people can start as an apprentice and work their way up to senior management, especially in the ‘creative’ side of organisations where this is most often lacking. We need to develop sustainable routes to entry, including those with part-time study alongside on-the-job training, which is common in other fields, for those who cannot, or who don’t want to, take the full-time student route beforehand.
A new model needs to be cultivated where people can develop their career both within organisations and within a region. This is especially important outside of London, where even the largest cities only have a modest number of cultural organisations and jobs and so the tradition is for key management and leadership positions to be taken by highly mobile people from elsewhere. Currently, to not move about like this is to significantly reduce your career options. This is something I had to face when, having spent my whole life in Merseyside, it became apparent to me in my late 20s that unless I was prepared to work in other places, I would hit a career wall, so I spent several years moving around. While this had many positives, it also meant losing connections with family and friends as well as much financial strain. At a structural level of the cultural sector, this reduces opportunities for development for locally based candidates. It also undermines the depth of local engagement by institutions, as personnel move around and constantly have to acquaint themselves with new situations.
Those who grow up in a particular place, even if they have lived away for a time, tend to be more rooted in its stories, its cultures, its complexities and its contradictions. Thus their understanding of audiences can be much more enhanced. It’s also vital for younger participants and junior staff to be able to see someone who is from a similar background to them in the top positions when they are starting out — both in terms of class and regional identity. This is not to ignore that there are also benefits of having worked in a few different places, for staff and the organisations they work for, but to argue for the need for more plurality in how people are recruited and developed in the sector than now. Of course, being from somewhere in the regions and being working class are not one and the same, but class and place have particularly important crossovers in the regions, in terms of access to opportunity, mobility, experience and connections.
Recruitment processes also need to take better account of socio-economic diversity. For example, removing the qualifications requirements for jobs unless they are actually needed and taking account of the challenges to career development that people may have faced due their backgrounds and circumstances; with cultural institutions taking up opportunities to collaborate with specialist organisations who can help with diversifying recruitment. As well as for staff, the same goes for the recruitment of artists. This means enough open application opportunities, but also enough direct support for artists to apply who may have less confidence and experience, including ‘payment for pitching’ when appropriate.
The need to recruit artists from diverse backgrounds is even more acute in collaborative projects with communities. Too often artists from middle-class backgrounds are commissioned to engage with working class communities. While this meeting of different experiences and ideas can be powerful, just like with management of cultural organisations, it reinforces the idea that a certain type of person gets paid to make culture and lead projects. While of course having similar backgrounds does not always result in equivalent understanding or equal power relations, some shared experience between an artist and a community they’re working with does tend to make the navigation of such intricate relationships easier.
It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking working class = better, as comfortable as it can feel given the unequal relations across the class sphere and the long tradition of dismissal of working-class cultures. This can be inadvertently patronising. Power, space and support is what working-class people need in the culture sector, not sympathy or awkward deference. I’m proud of my working-class background, its richness, vibrant culture and energy, but aspects of it, like all cultures, had its share of prejudice, narrowmindedness and exclusion. Employing and platforming working-class people and those from other structurally disadvantaged backgrounds helps create the conditions to tackle these issues and complexities in culture, because they have the direct knowledge and experience to do so. However, this then has to expand back out beyond specific projects to impact the wider operation of a cultural organisation, its relationship to its audiences and how it communicates its work.
One of the biggest issues stemming from the lack of diversity of those employed in the cultural sector is how this helps generate a kind of shared perception of ‘how things should be done’ and of what has value. Shifting organisations away from this is vital for change. That is not about completely abandoning professional practices built up over years, as these are often hugely effective in creating powerful culture. More, it’s about how cultural organisations, especially those distant from the biggest centres of cultural production, take on board what happens when their established knowledges and practices meet and intersect with different forms of knowledge and experience. I think of a quote from the Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey, who grew up in the same area as me, upon his retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain in 2019: ‘This is the world I belong to now. But at one point I belonged to another intelligence.’5
The current model places institutional ideologies and practices, which may cross national borders but tend to be governed by particular classes throughout, way above other perspectives, and this is increasingly being challenged. When a space can be created where different types of experience and intelligence can respect and acknowledge each other and find crossover, that is a really interesting place from which many great cultural productions have resulted. This goes back to the traditions of things like Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed6 but such thinking is now expanding into other forms of culture and I feel we’re just at the beginning of it.
Now more than ever, cultural organisations need to reconsider their traditional value and production systems, to be more responsive, more dynamic and distribute resources more evenly across all forms of programming; not just in terms of financial investment, but how things like time, space or personnel are allocated. If organisations are to be more engaged with the places they are based in and attract a wider range of people, a focus on a constant stream of big productions which need large audiences and significant media attention to justify them, is not always the best method. Projects at scale can be powerful, inspiring and popular, but often take up so much resource that other forms of programming can be held back. Allocating resources more evenly and working in a way so that the often artificial barriers between ‘types’ of cultural project are broken down would allow for a greater variety of more innovative and open-ended programming. This will also benefit less experienced employees in being able to lead their own projects at an earlier career stage and work with less experienced artists and practitioners, meaning organisations can invest more of their resources in new voices. Crucially, this will also aid those who enter the cultural sector from more diverse backgrounds in not being siloed into particular areas of work just focused on community engagement, so they are able to bring their ideas and experiences to influence across an organisation’s work.
Of course, any form of programming takes up resources and doing ‘lots more’ might not automatically result in more depth, more diversity or better relationships with communities, but rather in exhaustion and even audience fatigue. Yet as we need to look hard at how cultural provision is done, stepping back from the current model could mean that new and more diverse forms of programming can emerge in the space that is created. In doing this, some organisations will need to shift their focus from getting validation within their particular field to gaining recognition from the communities which surround them. Yet the two need not be mutually exclusive. Doing work more rooted in particular places can often create more original programming that in turn attracts more critical attention and wider interest, rather than merely replicating the sort of bourgeois contemporary culture that can be found all over.
Some argue that current cultural organisations need to be replaced entirely. The fact is, people have been calling for the traditional academies/museums/theatres etc. to be abolished for almost as long as they’ve existed and it never happens, rather they change and adapt under new influences. Even new and radical organisations, if they don’t burn out, have a tendency to solidify and become ‘institutions’ themselves soon enough.7 While funding should certainly go to new and different organisations and new cultural forms, this doesn’t negate the need to change existing ‘pillar’ organisations to make them more relevant to contemporary life, because they’re not going anywhere.
There are also arguments that too many resources have been put into buildings rather than programmes over the past couple of decades. Yet we should also not forget how many cultural facilities have also closed in recent years, in particular those in more underinvested towns and cities. Many people live a long way from good quality facilities where they can create or experience culture. Buildings are not bad in themselves, it’s about the right type of buildings being used in the right way to meet people’s wants and needs. If you find your building doesn’t fit your organisation’s mission, change the building, not the organisation.
In the regions the largest cultural funders were traditionally local authorities,8 however, many of them now struggle to do this. Thus as culture has become something increasingly set, defined and funded by people based in the largest cities, this has perhaps added to the alienation felt by some people from the cultural sector. Especially as cultural provision in smaller towns and cities and rural areas has in many cases become increasingly vulnerable if not closed completely. By changing how cultural funding is allocated and distributed so more power is put into the hands of the people in the regions themselves, they could better allocate resources to meet complex local structures and needs.
A not dissimilar feeling of alienation is often felt by working-class people when they enter the cultural sector and find organisations, even ones they are passionate about, have an awkward relationship with people from their background. If supported, they can be positive agents of change. Yet for now, as it says in Culture is Bad for You: ‘Those who have the most insight into the problems are often given the least power.’9
This is a process of both short and long-term change. As someone from a working class background who now has a relatively established position in the cultural sector, like many others I can bring a particular perspective that can hopefully contribute to this. Yet, getting a handful of working-class people into positions in the cultural establishment is not enough. There needs to be a pipeline created to ensure there is a constant renewal of people from diverse backgrounds, including socio-economic, entering the sector, and crucially, developing in and changing it.
Given the huge tectonic shifts presently shaking the very foundations of many cultural organisations, if more do not change faster, they will struggle. If the sector embraces some of the above though, it could become more sustainable and produce forms of culture that engage a wider diversity of people. It could also contribute more to our contemporary communities, encouraging greater understanding of our society, the issues it faces and changes we need to make.
Birkenhead was built around a shipyard, Cammell Laird. When I was nine years old it closed down. Our school was taken to the yard as the last submarine built there was launched. As we waved our little flags, we had little understanding that we were effectively waving away the local economy and our own future. That year, 1993, male unemployment in some parts of Birkenhead was 52%. Our town just a microcosm for the wider region around Liverpool, which faced huge challenges of economic decline and all the negative social impacts that cascade out from that.
What is the point of a shipbuilding town, or any kind of place, when the economic or strategic situation that brought it into being no longer exists? What happens to the culture of a place and its people when it is left to rot? Urban areas have always been the cradle of art and culture. These are also amongst the few things left when urban civilisations throughout history have collapsed. If culture is all somewhere still has, can a place survive on it?
As long as there have been cities, they have attracted artists. In fact, the professional artist, distinct from a member of a community who makes art only as part of what they do, is dependent on a wider superstructure to support them. To be a professional artist, someone, somewhere else, has to be growing the food, generating the energy, erecting the buildings and removing the rubbish.
With the rise of industrialisation from the 18th century onwards, nouveau riche cities that grew rapidly powerful on the back on industrial wealth were earnest to stress their cultural credentials by funding artists and major cultural buildings. Such buildings often adopted Neoclassical styles inspired by the ruins of the ancient urban civilisations of Rome and Greece. These new cities viewing themselves as the heirs to such power and culture. Aping Rome, Liverpool even wrote SPQL in its grand civic hall’s metalwork, such was the imperial confidence. These buildings were often built far from the factories, docks and warehouses that paid for them, industrial cities and towns wanting to avoid notice of the grime and ‘unsightliness’ of the very things that made them rich. Indeed, while some artists of the industrial period celebrated the rapid changes taking place, most initially sought refuge from it. Seeking out in their art an alternative to the dark satanic mills and the poverty of the over-populated city. These artists favoured the romantic ruin, the rural idyll, the ‘lost beauty’ of pre-industrial times, like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement which ironically found favour with rich industrialists in Britain’s urban North. This would not be the last time that an artistic protest against social and economic change ended up being consumed by those who were at the heart of such change.
In the later 19th and early 20th century, the movement against the urban blight and poverty begat by industrialisation grew. Figures such as William Morris and John Ruskin were influential in inspiring the likes of the Garden City movement. This, along with the development of public transportation and technological changes, led to an increasing movement away from industry and human habitation in the inner-city.
After WWII, a range of factors formed a pincer movement against the industrial city. Businesses wanted new, large single-storey industrial buildings, with ease of vehicle access and parking, close to new motorway networks. No longer brick multi-storeys near railway and river. Residents began to leave too. Where suburban rail lines led in the first part of the 20th century, the rise of the car accelerated the trend. Once only the wealthy could have their ‘house in the country’ and still get to a place of work, now this was open to many more people. Rising incomes, easier access to mortgages and record house building saw a trickle become a flood. Some people were forced to move though. Many architects and artists were desperate to make the world anew after the horrors of the two World Wars and the Great Depression. They saw the only possibility of getting away from such corruption and destruction in urban areas was pretty much starting from again from scratch: creating new urban areas along more ‘rational’ lines after mass demolition. With such Modernist planning ideas reaching their zenith in the mid-1960s, the development of New Towns and vast overspill estates far away from the centre saw a large inner-city exodus. With housing in inner urban areas often being replaced with high rises, further breaking up older urban patterns, their structures and communities.
By the late 1960s, all these shifts had created vicious circles which sucked away people, activity, wealth and power from central cities. Expensive infrastructure and services that had developed over decades became ever harder to maintain with the declining tax base that came with people and organisations moving away. This was starkly illustrated in the population changes of post war cities. From Detroit’s population height of 1.8 million in 1950 it is now down to just 700,000. Liverpool’s population meanwhile shrank from its 1939 peak of 857,000 to 439,000 today. In 1939 the population of inner London was 4.4 million, by 1988 it was 2.5 million. In 1980 New York City’s population had dropped a million from a decade before and the city narrowly avoided bankruptcy in the 1970s.
The solutions proposed to arrest this decline were again heavily reliant on Modernist planning ideas. The future of these inner cities, it was said, was for large, office-based businesses, while the remaining urban population were condensed into housing blocks. So huge new office complexes were built. Examples include the Renaissance Centre which today dominates Detroit’s waterfront, and the similarly grandiose but never built ‘Aquarius City’ office complex in Liverpool, which would have seen the now Grade I listed Albert Dock complex razed for it. However, as the western economy declined into the 70s, the funding and demand for such schemes dried up, leading to pockmarked and devastated urban areas and remaining populations with few employment opportunities.
Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities critiqued what had by then become orthodox planning, noting: ‘This is the most amazing event in the whole sorry tale: that finally people who sincerely wanted to strengthen great cities should adopt recipes frankly devised for undermining their economies and killing them.’[ii] Jacobs was incredibly influential in getting wider society and those in power to take a different look at the qualities of the older, inner-city. However, her passion and those she inspired, for such areas and their communities, would later have malign consequences around gentrification and development that Jacobs and her followers did not foresee. Or perhaps wilfully ignored, because of the role they played in them.
There was a point in the 1970s when London, Liverpool, Detroit, and New York all seemed to be on a roughly similar path, but from the 1980s there was a strong divergence between cities who re-forged a new base of existence, along finance and creative capital, even if it didn’t offer a new future for all these cities’ existing residents, and those cities who found it harder to adapt to the growing Neoliberal, ‘post-Fordist’ world.
‘Through its complex orchestration of time and space, no less than through the social division of labor, life in the city takes on the character of a symphony: specialized human aptitudes, specialized instruments, give rise to sonorous results’[iii] Lewis Mumford
Art and culture in industrial cities was traditionally bankrolled by either the city’s authorities or its wealthy industrialists, who were frequently one in the same, This was usually limited to ‘high culture’, with ‘grassroots culture’, consumed by those working in the factories, warehouses and dockyards owned by these industrialists, often existing on its own terms. This culture was paid for by its mass popular base rather than by a small number of wealthy individuals. Thus, the industrial city had two aspects of artistic production supported separately by its small number of very wealthy individuals and by its large, mostly poor mass.
Often there was artistic and social tension between these forms of artistic patronage. Just as the United Auto Workers were gaining strength in 1930s Detroit, Edsel Ford was sponsoring Communist-sympathising Diego Rivera to paint his Detroit Industry Murals. At the other end of the spectrum, occasional autoplant worker Berry Gordy later used his experience on a production line to influence the creation of Motown Records’ system of ‘hit’ production. In Liverpool meanwhile, dominated by its vast port, the arrival and departure of many different sailors brought musical influences from around the world, especially the US, helping to influence the sound of Merseybeat and The Beatles.
It was this flux between large, diverse mass populations and a relatively small number of extremely wealthy individuals that helped produce the vibrant cultures of industrial cities. But the gulf between these two parts of society fuelled increasing tensions between them, which were played out through the 20th century. The 1960s would see the start of a decisive break in culture, cities and industry. Merseybeat and Motown were at this time reaching their peak, their global influence far outreaching the impact of all the ‘high culture’ that industrialists had bankrolled in their respective cities the whole century previous. These Black and working-class, marginalised cultures, rooted in the cities they were created in, ended up far surpassing in importance the elite’s version of art in their host cities, so often based in replicating the past of other places and cultures. Yet even as this was happening, Liverpool and Detroit were already on the path to their economic decline. The increasing power, wealth and leisure time of the mass working class which helped fuel these scenes was also reaching its peak before it began to fall.
By the late 60s culture and artists were frequently seen as having a dangerous power by those in charge of increasingly challenged and struggling city authorities as the power of the patrician elite began to decline. The actions in Paris in 1968 were the most famous, but London too was rocked by art school occupations and anti-Vietnam and anti-nuclear protests. In Detroit the devastating 1967 riots were a key turning point in the city’s fortunes. In 1970s Liverpool, the city already by then desperate to develop its economy, gave little opposition to The Cavern Club being demolished by British Rail for a new underground line. Both Liverpool and Detroit becoming globally known for their vibrant music, which replaced their previous reputation as centres of industry, transitioned quickly to them being seen as bywords for economic decline and urban decay.
All this went in tandem with the continued thrust by civic leaders in the virtues of Modernist planning, but with diminishing returns and increasing opposition. In these cities, like many others, hard drugs like heroin and later crack cocaine began to flood into deprived and desperate communities with an attendant rise in street gangs and crime. This in turn saw even more people and businesses leave and more urban decline. The city, many declared, was dead.
Yet, it was in this very atmosphere that some inner city cultures began to flourish. In New York, unwanted tenements and industrial buildings began to be utilised as new spaces by creative people making new forms of art, exemplified by Andy Warhol’s Factory. Clubs like CBGBs developed in run-down parts of the city, with Television, Talking Heads and Patti Smith emerging as New York sailed towards bankruptcy. Detroit had the MC5 and Iggy Pop. Eric’s nightclub in Liverpool helped birth bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The Teardrop Explodes. Hip-Hop and the culture surrounding it grew, generating interest globally even as New York’s leadership despaired about the ever more elaborate graffiti covering its run-down Metro system. The very fact that parts of the centre of New York were so empty made it a magnet for people who were not accepted or couldn’t afford to live elsewhere.
In Detroit and Chicago meanwhile, the empty factories and warehouses made redundant by industrial changes became home to flourishing dance music cultures, House from Chicago and Techno in Detroit. This in turn found favour in the UK, with clubs emerging in the abandoned industrial spaces of Liverpool, Manchester and London and rave culture finding popularity amongst their disenfranchised and unemployed youth.
In the late 20th century the inner city was a place of tension, decay and poverty, but it was also the cradle of change. Far from being dead, the spaces left by the receding economic tide became home to some of the most cutting edge aspects of global art and culture. Yet, in many of these cases, those in charge of these cities did their best, not only to not sponsor, support or even cash in on this, but to shut it down. The pop culture flourishing that saw the birth of Motown and Merseybeat, while initially being seen as harmless and positive, began to upset the status quo and subsequent radical cultural outputs were treated with concern and often hostility. Being targeted more often than not with enforcement action by local authorities and police. But as the hope for Modernist style mass renewal began to fade and crumble, a different perspective slowly began to grow. As the old dense urban landscapes were being swept away. Because of the very fact they were disappearing and were associated with radical, even dangerous, culture, such landscapes soon began to attract a new generation, the children especially of those who’d for one reason or another, left such places for the suburbs.
What would start to save these cities, it began to seem, was their radical cultures. Something which could have only reached its peak as the contradictions inherent in these places began to cause their decline.
I find myself back in Stanley Dock, the huge, crumbling warehouse on the edge of the city. When I was a kid my dad used to take me to the rough and ready market held in it so he could buy ‘second hand’ tools. What brings me here over a decade later is a party for the Liverpool Biennial art festival. There’s free booze, good music, dancing. Having grown up wanting to be part of the creative world, but worried I might never be able to, it feels good. 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.’ This sentence sticks a little in my craw. On the one hand, who doesn’t love a party in an old warehouse? But then, to not realise 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. But hey, it is a party, I go back to dancing.
‘The Birth of Gentrification’ by Lees, Slater and Wyly, describes succinctly the change in how such urban places were perceived by a new generation from the 1960s onwards: ‘In both the United States and in Britain, post-war urban renewal meant the bulldozing of old neighbourhoods to be replaced by modern housing and highways. As the destruction spread, so did the rebellion against it. In the beginning the protesters were mainly historians and architecture buffs, but slowly these were joined by young, middle-class families who bought and lovingly reconditioned beat-up, turn-of-the-century houses in ‘bad’ neighbourhoods.’[iv]
One of the roles of artists from the industrial revolution through to the post-industrial one has been that of highlighting the value of things which wider society has discarded. Those in the Romantic movement in the 19th century wanted to highlight the beauty that they saw was being lost in the fields and hamlets and small workshops, the long-established ways of life being swept away by industrialisation. While the artists moving into New York’s emptying loft buildings and London’s decaying docklands in the later 20th century also wanted to reflect and argue for the worth of such places and cultures that had been written off as economically unviable and of the past.
As documented by Sharon Zukin in Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change[v], art and artists played a particular role in the development of gentrification in decayed urban areas. The ‘character’ and relative ‘wildness’ of such places was a draw, with them seen to be outside of mainstream culture, just as the countryside was for artists 100 years before. In these locations, artists could live cheaply and relatively free, with plenty of space for venues, studios, galleries and parties. Yet creative communities formed in this way also tend to be short lived, relying on a rapid turnover of young people moving in. Within a few years most leave these ‘authentic’ localities, as they begin to settle down into family units in more ‘conventional’ places. That is of course, if such areas don’t reach a tipping point and those moving in shift the nature of the neighbourhoods they inhabit to suit their changed needs. Such changes attract more people who wish to buy into such developing locations. This drives up property prices, which in turn attracts further intense private investment and price rises. Once an area starts to gentrify, it is almost impossible to stop – a single building or even a block may be kept in old use due to protections or campaigns of one form or another, but usually everything around them still changes.
This pattern has now become so familiar to be almost banal. It’s important however to note the date of the publication of Zukin’s Loft Living, 1982, and how long it took for her points to become mainstream. This is related to the speed of gentrification. Slow, at first, almost unknowable in the 1960s, moving through to today where districts can go from ‘off the radar’ to impossibly expensive at a speed where the process is clearly visible to all.
However, importantly, this phenomenon predominantly only has significant impact on economically successful areas with a large enough creative and media bases; the post-industrial cities which became leading centres of service industries such as London, Berlin, LA, San Francisco and New York. Places like this have become so hyper-successful and keep growing at such intense rates, that not only have their former industrial communities and artists been pushed out from the centre of the city, but much of their professional middle classes too.
‘London may soon be faced with an ‘embarrass de richesses’in her central area and this may prove to be a problem too.’ Ruth Glass, who coined the term gentrification, writing in 1964[vi] ‘The problem in the South Side of Chicago is the same as it is in Liverpool, or wherever, it is: what do working people do now the industry has gone?’[vii] Theaster Gates
In cities which didn’t catch this bandwagon though, like Detroit and Liverpool, communities don’t really face being pushed out by Modernist development as in the past, or gentrification now, rather many are instead pushed to leave by the lack of opportunities and declining local infrastructure and services, or risk getting trapped in negative cycles of deprivation. Such cities lose more talent than they gain. Job opportunities can be few and those available often low quality and not well paid. Fewer companies being headquartered in them means such places have less agency and a lower tax base, being dependent on the whims of central governments re-distributing national taxes or big companies choosing to invest there. Educational attainment is usually lower, meaning there’s a lower skills base and fewer new companies and organisations are founded. Gaining media attention for anything other than a negative story is hard as most media is usually based far away and mainly interested in things which re-enforce the existing views of its audiences.
Yet, as gentrification is a major issue in the cities that are amongst the biggest centres of arts, the media and urban academic discourse, it presented as something that is a key threat to all urban areas. When instead, it is a symptom of a wider issue where a smaller number of global megacities become ever larger and more powerful and ever more exclusionary for people without wealth and other former industrial cities and their populations increasingly struggle.
Art and culture in these latter cities, while often vibrant, are always threatened by their weaknesses. There may be plenty of ‘cheap and wild’ places for artists and culture to happen, but markets and support are limited, attention hard to find. Artists which do emerge often are attracted to better opportunities elsewhere and while individual success happens, wider cultural scenes tend to be fragile, transitory and dependent on student/graduate populations moving in and then often, back out again. As well as come-and-go subsidy from elsewhere. Cultural institutions, if they still exist, are often impoverished and risk averse, reducing opportunities for new work and new artists.
Despite the arguments by people like Richard Florida in his The Rise of the Creative Class, cities attracting artists are not in themselves a solution to their economic problems. Artists moving in can help an area be revitalised, as repeatedly seen, but that cannot form the whole economy of anything other than a small, specialised settlement – for example Japan’s ‘art island’, Naoshima. The megacities such as London, Berlin and New York which have huge creative and cultural sectors, still always find them playing second fiddle to the bigger still corporate and public administration sectors.
A taxi driver in Detroit asked me, ‘Do you want to see the abandoned Packard plant, lots do?’ I thought for a while and replied, ‘No thanks, you know we also have a lot of abandoned factories where I’m from too.’ My time was short and I wanted to see some of the community arts and renewal projects, decaying warehouses I could get in Birkenhead. The familiarity in visiting Detroit from the Northern England was stark. However, Detroit was in a worse condition, though of course it was nothing like the stereotypes of the media. There were plenty of beautiful, fully occupied buildings, lots going on, There was also the real positivity people had that you were visiting and interested in the contemporary life of the city and what had been restored, not just what was decaying.
I visited the Motown Museum and it was joyous, seeing the original recording studio, the enthusiasm of the local tour guide. Afterwards, I understood better why people got so excited visiting Penny Lane in Liverpool. When we consume culture, there’s a fascination that can grow about the origins of that culture which propels us to engage with it. Of course though, engaging with a real city is always different. And living somewhere that had a vibrant past culture is not the same as living somewhere that has a vibrant contemporary culture. The tour guide reminded us that Motown Records left Detroit for LA in the 1970s, and I was reminded of Warp Records leaving Sheffield for London in 2000.
We tend to love cities for their culture, be that food, music, architecture, literature, sport, film. That view of a city though is of course a projection, often many projections laid over each other to create a powerful, chimeric image. It must be tempered by the actuality of a city: its messy, complicated reality; that most cities are ever changing. And if they’re not, they’re often dying.
Art and culture can help drive social change. It can even form part of an economy, but you cannot run a major urban settlement on cultural production alone. Trying to do that leaves cities, their populations and the culture they create vulnerable. Since its industries left for more modern places and it became a wholly a tourist city, the population of Venice has declined significantly. The fact is, far less interesting things, dull even, are also needed to help the residents of declined cities: hi tech manufacturing, decent government jobs, a diverse economic base. Yet, as anyone who works in economic development in a depressed city will tell you, getting such ‘good jobs’ and the social benefits that come from them is damn hard, especially when you’re battling against the seemingly ever growing power of the global megacities. Meanwhile, the fallout from the still relatively new phenomenon of post-industrial cities continues to grow, causing profound political shifts, as exemplified by the rise of Trump and Brexit, both significantly backed by those living in places smashed by industrial decline. Though it must be noted both also drew support from other demographics too.
The cultural tragedy is for Liverpool and Detroit is, in becoming less sustainable, in seeing a lot of their young talent leave for other quarters, even if a handful of arts graduates moving in find their ‘edginess’ more interesting than where they grew up, is that the vibrant, transformational, radical art that grew out of such bustling diverse working class cultures, like Motown and Merseybeat, is far less likely to be repeated. An economic underpinning giving their working classes power, time and money is needed to create these conditions. These beautiful cities and others like it deserve better, but they cannot do it on their own and years of laissez-faire rule by successive central governments has allowed them to fall so far it will be hard to pull it back.
I’d been working in Hull a couple of years and not been into a bigger city for a while. Arriving in London for a day’s training, the effect was alarming. I’d lived in London in the past, but after so long in a city struggling, with its retail centre in decline, to suddenly be dropped back into the intense stream of the capital running full tilt – every shop occupied, every park filled, every piece of shining new public transport packed and constant, was jarring. It dawned on me how, if this is all you saw every day, how hard it would be to understand or even comprehend the challenges of a struggling city. What it’s like to live in a place where every decent job created is cancelled out by a job lost. The grinding down of any belief in anything ever getting better if you have to fight for every single thing to even be kept afloat. How easy it would be to think your urban problems – house prices, gentrification, too many tourists, a transport system that’s too busy – were the only urban problems.
London and New York are becoming gilded cages. Art and culture helped rebrand and reshape them, but this was just the surface section of the much larger iceberg of dematerialised capitalism honing into view. The culture that renewed them is now being driven out. Of course, they are not short of culture to consume: every possible permutation of art can be experienced and bought. Places like this will always attract artists because there will always be a market, but will they again be the epicentres, the crucibles of art and culture that cuts across classes and national identity, culture that helps change the world? Or rather, just rich places that can deck themselves out in the best they can buy? Much as the city fathers of the industrial age did in aping the styles of Rome and Greece to cover the fact they were built fast on hot money largely derived from exploitation. While there’ll probably always be shows on Broadway and in the West End, even after Covid, as the poor and even the moderately well off are forced out of London and New York by hyper-development, how many of them will be written by people who can afford to live there?
At the other end are the under-invested cities. Detroit and Liverpool, Glasgow and New Orleans, Baltimore and Hull. Places which despite everything against them, still have vibrant cultures. Yet they face a crisis not just economic, but existential. These cities will always produce talent, have creativity within them, but with the jobs, markets and media elsewhere, how often will people have to leave to make it? How much will any cultural success provide a future for their wider urban populations? To quote the film Billy Elliot: ‘What about us? We can’t all be fucking dancers.’
Post-industrial cities didn’t really start to emerge till the 1970s and the finance driven megacities are an even newer phenomenon. So, just at it seemed cities were doomed in the 1970s, there could yet be decisive turns for places on either side of this dichotomy. The huge impact of Covid-19 has thrown things up in the air in a way not seen since the Oil Shock and we can only speculate as to what will follow. I hope for change and want to see underinvested towns and cities get a break so can thrive not just survive. As well as the overgrowth of the megacities reined in so they can breathe. At the moment both are being slowly strangled by the deep imbalance between them.
Our cities are screaming to live, but they can’t do it on their own. With the right investment and support, and public control, perhaps we can see again a more balanced urban life, which supports thriving cultures. Only then will the new equivalent of Motown or Merseybeat be able to rise from them again to change the world.
Detroit Is No Dry Bones. Detroit You Shall Live[viii] Street graffiti
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.
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.
Over the last 30 years, the once fringe interest in the role and impact of art and culture in cities has become a huge area of mainstream focus. In particular its relationship to gentrification occupies the thoughts of many columnists and policy makers, artists and activists.
Gentrification has been most apparent in the cities that ‘succeeded’ most in the transition to a post-industrial urban world. Especially London and New York which have seen once deprived areas become enclaves of the wealthy at an ever-increasing rate. While this is down to a complex combination of factors, the not insignificant role arts and culture can play in gentrification been well documented. Such has been the expansion of gentrification processes that both London and New York risk eating themselves, as they become increasingly difficult to live in for anyone but the extremely well off.
The gentrification of these cities has been examined intensely because of its scale, but perhaps even more so because of the huge concentration of those in media, academia and the arts in London and New York and the impact it has had on the lifestyle of people in these sectors. What this has perhaps masked though, are the equally important issues around arts and culture in places that are the flipside to such overheated cities, the far greater number of under-resourced cities.
When industrial decline in the West really kicked in from the 70s onwards, it impacted most on certain specific areas in an extreme way, such as my native Merseyside, or Glasgow. These could be written off by many at the heart of power as ‘localised failures’ whose decline was their ‘own fault’ for ‘failing to adapt’.
40 years later, what is clear is that places like Liverpool and Glasgow and Detroit were the canaries in the mine, as post-industrialisation and its impacts have spread across more and more places. In the UK, outside of the increasingly island-like South East, economic stagnation in the norm, save for odd spots often relying heavily on success in specific industries such as Bristol (defence) and Aberdeen (energy) which themselves may well slump and impact such places.
Outside of London, gentrification connected to the arts has had a less dramatic effect. One impact being that residential areas which have traditionally been popular with artists, public administrators, lecturers and the like, such as Didsbury, Jesmond, Stokes Croft, Aigburth and Chapel Allerton, are no longer affordable to them. So this section of society has started to move into neighbouring often more deprived areas and house prices have begun to rise in therm. This effect though has been largely localised to very specific areas. New suburban housing built on the edges of cities is still more popular with the majority of the middle class in regional cities than most inner urban areas, nothing like the changes in London.
There has also been some impact on space for artists’ studios; music venues etc, being priced out of once abandoned industrial space for apartments, a recent example being Manchester’s Rouge Studios. Long term leases for such buildings are also harder to come by than they once were. However, in general, artists finding space, either residential or for the creation and display of the arts, is much less of an issue in the regions than in big and capital flushed cities. The far greater challenge that remains and in some ways grows for artists in the regions is being able to sustain a creative practice or organisation in such under-resourced areas.
While never easy, with the focus and the money always being on London, the ever-declining local authority funding for arts and culture, coupled with the closure of publicly-supported venues such as theatres, museums and arts centres, as well as the reduction in the number of traditional ‘second jobs’ for creative practitioners such as FE college lecturers, threatens far more the future of the arts and those practicing them in the regions than issues with the property market. With these local economies long having lost the core engines that gave them money to invest in culture now followed by the government cutting off support, this is not likely to get any easier.
There has slowly, after much campaigning, been a recognition of the imbalance in central government arts and media funding and resources and this is changing, but not nearly on the scale, reach or depth needed to make a significant lasting difference. There has been a focus on one or two government-favoured cities and investment often sporadic and patchy.
Of course, my focus on the arts is just one part of a much bigger issue – the huge regional economic and power imbalance in the UK, but it is a useful exemplar and something that could help create change in under-resourced areas.
In a different era in the 1950s and 1960s, when areas like Wales, Scotland and Merseyside faced economic challenge, a decade’s long programme of investment was directed towards them, with companies effectively forced to invest in less prosperous areas. While this was imperfect, it did in many respects create economic drivers which are still powering these areas to this day, such as the hugely successful Jaguar Land Rover factory in Halewood on the edge of Liverpool. A relentless focus on regional development on the scale seen in that era is what is needed to change the crippling imbalance in the UK, which has now started to eat away at London through its overheating as much as it has done in the regions for years.
Coming back to the arts. In the regions, a lack of opportunities and finance is more of an issue than overpriced space. In London, there’s a plethora of opportunities and no space. The solution is as simple as it is obvious. Undertake a long term, large scale sustained investment in arts and culture in the regions. There’s likely to be resistance, such as recently highlighted around Channel 4’s suggested move out of London, but at this stage it should be a win-win. London is so economically overheated its arts and culture are being undermined, while in the regions, economic stagnation and cutbacks are undermining arts and culture there. The small scale shifts in cultural policy and funding allocations over the past year or so have been a start, but what’s needed is a much bigger and longer term plan to direct cultural investment and activity away from the capital. And indeed, what’s important for the creative sector is important for many other fields as well.
Would a government want to plan that far ahead and commit to that level of investment and change? Evidence from the last couple of decades would suggest no, but further back there is a precedent. In these turbulent times it’s increasingly accepted, even demanded that big change is needed across the country. Such a large scale regional cultural investment plan would be a good start.
This piece was published by New Statesman CityMetric in September 2017.
An 1880 painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw, Leeds Bridge, depicts a view of the River Aire that is still recognisable today; the heavy-duty ironwork of the bridge, the substantial brick warehouses, the bend in the river towards the church in the distance. Yet today, the riverbank that was clearly a hive of dirty industry in 1880, is now bound by offices, bars, flats and hotels.
Similarly, in Liverpool, on quaysides where ships once unloaded their cargoes, there are now restaurants, galleries and arenas. In Teesside, the modern stadium of Middlesbrough Football Club sits on the site of old chemical and oil tanks. In Castleford, West Yorkshire, a huge indoor ski-slope has been built over a former colliery. Such has been the well-worn path of the last 30 years. The manufacturing and heavy industry that dominated the landscape of the North of England being replaced by service industries and leisure sites – with art and culture related projects forming a key part of this.
What a contrast from the 19th century of Atkinson Grimshaw. In the Victorian era, the booming industrial cities of Northern England built their edifices of art and culture usually as far from the factories and wharfs that paid for them as possible. In Leeds, from the Art Gallery on the Headrow to the Parkinson Building of Leeds University, a cultural sphere was built that was firmly separated from the hive of industry down the hill around the River Aire and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
But with the rapid de-industrialisation in the UK from the 1970s onwards, a reversal took place which saw sites of industry turned into sites of culture. Sites expected not to just reflect the wealth and sophistication of localities as did the art galleries, museums and concert halls of the Victorian era, but rather to be the economy through generating tourism, attracting inward investment and encouraging the ‘creative’ industries. So from the Wales Millennium Centre in the old Cardiff Docks, to The Hepworth Wakefield adjacent to abandoned textile mills, Gateshead’s Baltic in a disused flour mill and London’s Tate Modern in the former Bankside Power Station, art occupies spaces once dominated by industry.
This has not been a wholly un-problematic shift though. Debates abound about the culture, leisure and service fields not providing the same number or same quality of jobs as the industries they have replaced; who can enjoy this new urban culture and who has to serve in it? Not to mention the thorny issue of gentrification; property developers frequently promote cultural activities to create buzz, increase demand and drive up prices, which inevitably pushes those with more limited means out of some areas. The question remains though, just what do you do with large areas of old industrial land once it is no longer required for its former purpose? ‘Post-industry’ a phrase though bandied around a lot is still a relatively new phenomenon. It took a long and difficult time for society to adjust to the industrial revolution and it’s likely to take just as long to adjust to the post-industrial one.
Back to Leeds, whose industrial base did not collapse in the 1980s like other cities, but which has seen a significant contraction since the end of the 1990s. One of the key closures was the Joshua Tetley Brewery, an important industrial site in the city for nearly 200 years until production ceased in 2011. The key development on the brewery site since its closure has been the opening in 2013 of The Tetley, a new centre for contemporary art and learning based in the brewery’s former Director’s Offices.
The re-development of the old brewery forms part of a much wider regeneration plan for the ‘south bank’ of the River Aire, where many other former industrial sites are in the process of being converted into new sites for education, offices, homes, and the like. Into all of this, plans are now afoot by The Tetley to bring art outside of its building onto Brewery Green, the new open space that sits on part of the former plant. The intention is that that Brewery Green will soon be home to a new major piece of public art that will be some form of ‘play sculpture’, an artwork that can be interacted with rather than merely appreciated at a distance.
I am presently Curator of Participation at The Tetley. This is the kind of job title that itself has only emerged in the post-industrial era, as not only the location and reasons for civic art and culture have changed in our contemporary urban world, how we expect citizens to engage with it has shifted as well. Once the rarefied artworks collected by diligent industrial philanthropists were guarded heavily in their grand public galleries, lest they be damaged by the citizens they had been ‘given’ to. Out of doors, bronzes of local dignitaries were maintained in public parks amongst manicured garden beds as a symbol of civic pride. Yet ‘Keep Off the Grass’ was a key part of the culture, these creations guarded just as in galleries by a diligent band of uniformed keepers. Culture of one form or another procured in theory for citizens, but often without their consent and only to be engaged with in a prescribed ‘correct’ way.
Later, in the Modernist era, despite the pretence of change, works such as Victor Passmore’s concrete Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee newtown, County Durham, despite ostensibly being more open and democratic works of art, were in practice usually just as imposed and distant from local people, with progressive ideologies falling through the cracks of patronising and bureaucratic structures. The Pavilion quickly, inadvertently, becoming an un-loved place where teenagers got drunk and vandalised, though more recently local views towards it have apparently softened.
In our contemporary era of public art there is increasingly a wider acceptance amongst the public and commissioning bodies of broader ideas, and of people’s engagement with art and culture being as important as an art object itself. From Luke Jerram’s Park and Slide turning a Bristol high street into a waterpark, Carsten Höller’s shimmering carousel works and the sheer variety of Anthony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth project in Trafalgar Square, to art collective Assemble creating a scrap playground at Baltic Street in Glasgow and people clambering around in the startlingly blue, copper sulphate environment of Roger Hiorns Seizure at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: a less precious approach to engagement with culture has developed in tandem with its relocation. Where once public artworks were made to be appreciated from afar, engaging and ‘playing with’ art in the urban environment is, in many cases, now encouraged. Just as the gallery has shifted from the pillars and marble of the past to the cleaned-up old industrial site, so to we have shifted from distanced appreciation to valuing a more robust and open-ended interaction with art in the public realm.
This shift is summed up well by Usman Haque, designer of the fountain and light installation in Bradford’s new City Park; a great shallow pool that is invaded by families on any given sunny day and that has been a key catalyst in re-imagining the centre of Bradford: “I’m interested in how the designer of a system can best support ordinary people’s creativity, by being neither too prescriptive, and therefore unable to accommodate the unplanned, nor too unspecified, and therefore giving no firm take-off points, for people to contribute meaningfully.”
Similarly, institutions like The Tetley are not merely about the display and enjoyment of art as were the civic galleries of old, but primarily focus on its creation and production. The lines between these have become blurred in the way that mirrors wider changes in urban society. Where once industry was in the centre of the city in dirty, noisy brick-built factories, today what remains has usually been sent outwards to the distant industrial zones on the edge of town. To ultramodern, clean plants sometimes deceptively quiet. Back in the city centre meanwhile, in buildings near to the old Leeds Bridge and The Tetley, restaurants and bars sit in old warehouses, people design computer games in former foundries, skateparks thrill in old engineering plants, data centres sit in redundant chapels, new colleges occupy old printworks. Yet in tandem, the growth in the likes of craft breweries, knitting groups, urban food growing and hi-tech ‘fab labs’ have seen people re-discovering the value, and fun, of making, and small scale, local production in urban centres, often led by artists.
Culture in today’s post-industrial, post credit-crunch cities is now often not only expected to be a catalyst for economic development, but to generate actual income. Yet there has been a move away from the Grands Projets of the early 2000s, of multi-million pound statement ‘starchitecture’ that was alone meant to transform areas, economies and people’s lives. Post-industrial cultural regeneration continues apace but, much as bold statements in concrete foundered as Modernism’s ideals collapsed, so too largely has the palaces of the Neo-Liberal regeneration agenda. Meanwhile an interest in smaller scale, more open-ended and people focused projects has grown alongside the previously mentioned trend back towards craft and local making. This was exemplified by the nomination for the 2015 Turner Prize of London-based collective Assemble, for their work to support the regeneration of empty homes in Liverpool with a local community group. In many ways such actions are a return to the original origins of culture in post-industrial space. That is, instead of clearing away the past in some brave new vision, artists restoring things themselves, thinking long term and low cost and working hard to re-use the base of the old in new ways. Yet we remain in a post-regeneration era, when no one can ignore that, however well-meant such initiatives are, they do tend to help drive up the value of former industrial land, with many waiting in the shadows for economic opportunities presented by such grassroots initiatives. Will this new sense of DIY, craft, smaller scale and community focus retain its innocence or become another gentrification tool?
In it is into this context that Think. Play. Do., The Tetley’s exhibition of proposals for a play sculpture on Brewery Green, emerges. On one level it is about fun and wild open ideas; what would some artists, with limited constraints, create if asked to design a play sculpture for this site? However the project also asks, what even is a play sculpture, who would it be for and how would you ‘play’ with it? What role will it play in the regeneration of this part of Leeds and how will it relate to the context of where it is located?
The way we engage with art has changed, and so too has the way is it commissioned and produced. As well as the exhibition itself, the project is also a series of events, workshops, talks, publications, interactions and interventions that will all feed into what is an exercise in asking questions and trying things out. Think. Play. Do. is as much about us playing with ideas and concepts of art, sculpture, urban redevelopment and social and cultural change and seeing what happens as it is about selecting a ‘winning’ idea. We want a play sculpture on our post-industrial site, but we’re as much interested in how we get there as what we have at the end. This is a path that we hope ultimately results in a more engaging piece of public art that really resonates with this site’s former, current, and future use. Along the way we want to probe what direction the continued shifts in the use of the former urban industrial landscape as a site for leisure and culture may take. And of course, have a bit of fun while we’re doing it.
This piece was published to accompany the Think.Play.Do exhibition at The Tetley, Leeds in summer 2015.
From The Guardian to Lonely Planet, Tech City UK to RIBA, everyone is talking about Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle: a cutting-edge area of culture, nightlife and rapidly growing creative and tech businesses, all in a district that didn’t really exist 10 years ago.
So how did it develop – and what can other cities learn from it?
Baltic Triangle was originally an industrial area nestled between Liverpool’s city centre, its waterfront and its southern residential districts. As businesses folded or moved to newer premises elsewhere, many of its buildings, from 19th century warehouses to 1980s light industrial units, lay abandoned.
In the pre Credit Crunch property boom, sites closer to Liverpool city centre were occupied by artists and creative businesses, and the area saw rents rise, flats and shops built on venues and studios – all the usual tropes of stage two gentrification.
But 2008, as well as being the year of the Credit Crunch, was also Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture. While that served the property boom, it also gave creatives a weapon to fight against it, and Liverpool’s authorities faced a conundrum: how could a real capital of culture allow such things to be swept away by property development? The city needed significant external investment to develop its economy – but how could it also protect and nurture the culture that had helped to turn it around?
Not everyone could see the potential of an area which barely had street lighting – but a few pioneering organisations, such as Elevator Studios, could sense an opportunity. As Mark Lawler, director of Baltic Creative Community Interest Company (CIC), explains: “The people who make strategic decisions thought, okay here’s an opportunity to actually protect some space long-term for creative and digital industries so they don’t get pushed out as values rise.”
The Baltic Triangle’s name comes from it being a triangle of land near the historic Baltic Fleet pub. Some have suggested that the district emerged entirely organically; the reality, as is often the case, was a little more complex.
The way Lawler tells it, Merseyside ACME, Liverpool Vision, Liverpool City Council and the North West Development Agency (NWDA) got round a table, and discussed what assets they had available. “The NWDA said we have 18 warehouses let’s stick them in the pot and grab some grants to redevelop them.”
A new organisation was established to lead this project – and after some discussion about whether it should be a charity or private firm, the coalition settled on the CIC as a halfway house. Lawler explains: “We have a community statement which is about supporting the growth of the creative and digital industries in the Liverpool City Region.”
Organisations such as Liverpool Biennial were encouraged to move to the area, and Baltic Creative CIC’s small units began to attract new creative businesses; soon, more eateries and venues were opening to cater for the growing cluster. Meanwhile, as the council improved the public realm, two new University Technical Colleges (one for computer games, one for life sciences) brought students to the area.
Carl Wong is the CEO LivingLens, a company innovating in the use of video in market research. Founded in late 2013, it now has eleven staff – “three in London, the remainder in Baltic”.
“We recognised that, for us to build a team and a talent pipeline, it would be much more valuable to be in the heart of a technology cluster that was really vibrant,” Wong says. “We looked across the North West and indeed across London and other places as well. For us it was clear that Baltic was at the heart.”
But the Baltic Triangle risks being a victim of its own success as space runs out, he adds. “Baltic is full. There needs to be the right infrastructure there to engender more businesses to come and this momentum to continue.”
This is something the team at Baltic Creative are already working on. They’re currently redeveloping space on Jordan Street, which is already pre-let. They’re also planning 16,000 sq ft of creative business space in a former Guinness bottling plant on Simpson Street, and working on the new Northern Lights studio complex in part of the former Cains Brewery, both of which Lawler hopes will be on site within 2016.
But Baltic Creative isn’t the only outfit developing property in the area now it’s fashionable. As Carl Wong notes: “There’s a massive amount of development in and around Baltic – but it’s not necessarily to support new tech start-ups. There’s new halls of residence being built. You have retail development. It’s great to extend the vibrancy of the city, but it doesn’t support technology businesses.”
But Baltic Creative itself is working with some of these very developers to leverage new space for creative businesses, says Lawler. “We work with private developers to say, ‘You don’t want a ground floor, first floor problem of boarded retail units. We’ll take them off you and develop them and fill them full of creative and digital industries’.”
So, is Baltic Triangle a model for other cities keen to nurture the creative and the digital? “We’ve done a bit of travelling and we’ve seen different approaches to creative clusters,” says Lawler. “The biggest difference that we have compared to any model I have seen is control and ownership. The sector here owns circa £5m worth of assets in Baltic Creative CIC. Let’s imagine in 20 years that’s worth £50m or even £100m – what that does is provide a bedrock for the sector in Liverpool to continue to grow.”
Through its CIC model, Baltic could offer space long-term to those in creative fields, rather than them just being a staging post in the property development cycle. Yet as Mark Lawler notes: “The market is moving faster than the planning.” The NWDA which supported Baltic Creative’s first phase no longer exists – and Liverpool’s authorities have only limited funds for development.
Baltic has the ability to grow creative space through the development of its own assets, but it will only be able to do this if it gets significant strategic and planning support from local authorities. Liverpool’s culture and economy needs it – and if it continues to succeed, it could also be a shining example to other cities. The planners helped birth this creative district: now they must help nurture and protect it.
This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in June 2016.
I can acutely remember my first visit to Tate Liverpool as a child. My mum, not a natural gallery goer, was looking for somewhere free to take me on a day out.
I knew little of famous artists – but one I had heard of was Andy Warhol, and I was deeply impressed to find that an actual thing made by this famous person was in the same room as me. Later I would realise that it was probably not made by him and indeed that was the point, but still, it left an impression.
It was not until much later, when I eventually found myself working in the arts, that I realised how lucky I’d been. Living in Merseyside after Tate Liverpool opened in 1988, I had relatively easy and free access to art works of international calibre. Not every regional city has a Tate.
I thought back to this when I heard that a big chunk of the National Photography Collection – around 400,000 items, currently held in Bradford at the National Media Museum – was to be merged with the V&A museum’s Art Photography Collection and transferred to the V&A’s West London site, thus forming what would be the world’s largest collection of the art of photography.
In the longer term, the merged collection will be transferred to a new “International Photography Resource Centre” at an as yet unidentified location – though the V&A’s planned vast new site in East London must be the most likely contender.
Meanwhile, the National Media Museum, a part of the Science Museum Group, will continue to shift its focus to “STEM” – science, technology, engineering and maths – and “concentrate on inspiring future generations of scientists and engineers in the fields of light and sound, as well as demonstrating the cultural impact of these subjects”. The Bradford site may even change its name, possibly to “Science Museum North”.
There is actually a logic in merging parts of the photography collections of the Science Museum Group and the V&A. The fact that the Science Museum holds the National Collection of Photography is largely down to the snobby historical anachronism amongst our national art museums: in the past, photography wasn’t seen as “real art”.
There is also a logic to the National Media Museum re-imagining itself. It opened in 1983 as the second National Museum outside London (the first was the National Railway Museum in York in 1975, also part of the Science Museum Group). Since then, though, the Bradford museum has been overtaken by rapid changes in culture and technology.
For most of its history the institution was the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. But it was renamed the National Media Museum in 2006, to reflect the rise in other forms of communication and image-making, and a new internet themed gallery was instituted.
Yet even these moves have barely kept up with the speed of change. So drawing out some of the more fundamental ideas and principles beneath such technologies, and investing in new galleries around these – a £1.5m light and sound gallery will open next year – is undoubtedly a good idea.
Important questions remain though. Why do such new developments have to be at the expense of celebrating the art that is made by these technologies, which remains for many the most engaging thing about them? Also, if these collections are to be merged – and no doubt quite a great deal of capital will have to be invested in creating an International Photography Resource Centre – why does it have to be situated in London?
Why not move the V&A’s photography collection to Bradford, where land is cheaper, and the cost of living for low-paid culture sector workers easier? Or if not Bradford, why not to Sheffield or Birmingham or Newcastle, which so far lack branches of National Museums?
This move doesn’t seem to fit with the noises coming out of the government and its agencies. Those are all about shifting public cultural investment from London to the regions – something that, in terms of museums at least, began with the opening of the Science Museum’s York and Bradford branches. As culture secretary John Whittingdale recently commented: “I do think there is a danger that too much is spent in London and obviously what we want to do is demonstrate that the UK has fantastic cultural offerings right across the country and not just in London.”
Of course, the V&A can point to its investment in the vast new V&A Museum of Design in Dundee as its commitment to displaying its collection of some 2.3m objects in the regions. Elsewhere, huge investment is going into the likes of Manchester’s £110m giant new arts complex “The Factory” and a £5m new South Asia gallery at Manchester Museum which will display collections from the British Museum.
At the same time as these developments, though, Bradford’s collections are moving in the opposite direction – and elsewhere, there is even worse going on. The Museum of Lancashire in Preston, the museum of an entire county, is currently threatened with closure. The Museums Association has estimated that 42 UK museums have closed in the last ten years: the vast majority of these since 2010, and in the regions.
Back in the day, Britain’s regional cities didn’t need London museums to open “branches”. Their industrial wealth, and the patronage and tax base that came from it, paid for museums and collections that once in many ways rivalled those held in London.
The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, for example, has one of the finest collections of art outside of the capital. Yet its ability to continue to buy new work in the later part of the 20th century was curtailed by industrial decline. The same went for other regional museums across the country – if they could stay open at all – hence the need for branches and partnerships with national collections.
Of course, such partnerships and collaborations should be encouraged. But with such severe local authority cuts, must regional cities merely hope to borrow what London can spare? Meanwhile, with the National Media Museum itself under threat of closure as recently as 2013, can even branches be sure to have a secure future?
The problem is cultural investment in the English regions has been sporadic and inconsistent. Vast new grands projets are happening in some places, while much loved institutions are shuttered elsewhere. Some cities are experiencing a cultural boom; others are approaching cutting it off completely.
The classic argument for locating the likes of an International Photography Resource Centre in London of course is that more people will visit it. Hard to argue with that, but it’s not hard to achieve either, when a city has a population of over 8.5m and an endless supply of tourists.
The counter-argument, from Conservative Bradford councillor Simon Cooke, is that it means more to have significant cultural facilities in the regions. “You could – had you had the guts and vision – have based this new resource centre in the north, in Bradford, where they would have been loved and cherished it in a way you in London can never understand.”
If the state funds culture through the taxation of the entire population and through the Lottery, which has a disproportionate number of players in the regions, then surely arts funding should be distributed in a way that ensures maximum benefit to the entire population? Even whilst accepting that a bigger city will generally always have more culture and thus deserve a fair chunk of funding, shouldn’t public funding look to support places where it is less easy to access and find other sources of funding?
No young person interested in photography or media in London will go short of places to find inspiration. In Yorkshire or elsewhere though, they might. As the only person from a family of engineers who works in the arts, I applaud the fact that the government seems finally to want to reverse decades of decline in this area – and indeed, there are many high-tech companies around Bradford who need a new generation of STEM students to be inspired.
But must only the technically inclined be inspired? Computer games, one of Britain’s biggest software sectors, needs artists as well as programmers. Or, is Bradford expected to supply the technicians and London the artists?
What Britain needs is a long-term plan of cultural investment across all of the regions. One that develops and sustains institutions that are geographically accessible to all, provides regular funding that develops and retains talent, and ensures that quality collections are shared across the whole country. Without such a plan, pet projects and grand statements from our leaders about “culture for all” will just be empty gestures.
Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen – but a good start might be locating the International Photography Resource Centre in Bradford. My gut tells me, though, that East London will likely win the day. Because in the end, London always wins.
This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in February 2016.
Preparations for the third UK city to hold the title of European Capital of Culture
By Kenn Taylor
In 2023, a UK city will hold the title of European Capital of Culture. This may seem a long way off, but the forward planning required by host cities means that for those who have decided to bid, preparations very much have to begin now.
The title has been held by two UK cities previously since it was first instigated in 1985, both times in very different contexts. When Glasgow hosted it in 1990 the EU was still the EEC and with what was then called the ‘City of Culture’ title originally conceived as a way of celebrating traditional ‘cultural centres’ like Amsterdam, Florence and Athens, there was a great deal of scepticism about a focus on culture in a city devastated by industrial decline.
Fast forward to 2008 when Liverpool held the title after beating fierce competition from Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle-Gateshead, Brighton, Oxford, Belfast and Bradford amongst others. Back then the UK was in the midst of a ‘cultural boom’, with new arts facilities opening across the country, and in contrast to 1990, a staunch belief written into UK government policy of the regenerative power of culture for declined cities. This inspired in part by things such as the impact that the Guggenheim museum opening in Bilbao had on that declined port city and Richard Florida’s now much critiqued book The Rise of the Creative Class, which suggested that luring in ‘creative types’ could solve economically-deprived cities’ problems. Meanwhile, the Credit Crunch was just kicking in and beginning to shake the foundations of much ideology, including that of the EU.
Now in 2016 the UK is going through the bidding process again and we’re once again in a very different era. One were arts facilities are more often closing that opening and struggling to survive, when there’s been a shift in focus on development in our cities, allegedly, on science, technology and engineering, more clearly on generally harder economics, and on spending cuts in particular at a local authority level. In contrast to the last biding process this time only three UK cities have so far definitely thrown their hat into the ring, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Dundee. The spending cuts no doubt making many authorities shy away at the money required to be involved. The ‘European Project’ that saw the birth of the title meanwhile, has not seemed so precarious in decades.
I was born in Merseyside and was working in the arts in Liverpool during the build up, delivery and aftermath and that city’s title. I now work in Leeds as it ramps up its bid and, although much about the context is different, the sense of déjà vu is palpable.
I have often been asked by Leeds residents things such “What effect did it have on Liverpool?”, “Was it ‘good’?”, “Did it change the city?”, “Did it benefit the people?” These are big questions which, to me, do not have simple answers. I do think it was positive for Liverpool though and has had lasting effects. These have been various, but I believe at a fundamental level it helped transform the attitude of the city. Despite the terrible impact of spending cuts, in particular on some of the city’s poorest residents, seven years on Liverpool is still thrusting to develop in a way that was unthinkable in my youth in the 90s, when the area had been psychologically brought low by extremely rapid economic decline and the huge social effects of this. Merseyside lost 80,000 manufacturing and transport jobs between 1972 and 1982, a rate that, ironically, only really Glasgow could be compared to. By the 90s, there was almost an acceptance of failure and malaise, as demonstrated by the consistently thwarted attempts to build an arena for major events.
When the 2008 bid was won it was a ‘game-changer’ – the city had to up its ambition to deliver this huge project and has since managed to keep much of that momentum despite its spending power being hammered by central government cuts. There were of course other factors in the city beginning to turn itself around, such as increased private investment and government and EU Objective One funding, but 2008 provided a crucial focus and concentrator for change.
The development of the Capital of Culture programme for Liverpool was a bumpy road, with changes of management and direction, political point scoring and media cynicism to contend with, but in the end a large and diverse programme was delivered, which for the most part visitors and locals appreciated. The challenging thing about Capital of Culture bids are that it’s a lot harder than organising the Olympics, were you know, pretty much, exactly what’s expected of you. But what is ‘culture’? Museums, opera, architecture, okay. But what about pop music, poetry slams, graffiti, graphic design, comedy, sports, food, dialect, philosophy, ways of living…trying to please everyone is a real challenge and as with all forms of art, which is generally how the bid is interpreted, subjective.
Liverpool demonstrated its fair share of fine art collections, historic architecture and cutting-edge theatre, but the city was also canny enough to include the everyday and pop culture in its bid, even hiring Keith Carter, a local comedian playing his ‘Scouse character’ Nige, to meet the judges, rather than trying to gloss over the way that the city has been viewed. From pub singing to experimental eletronica, giant street theatre to community projects, Gustav Klimt to Bill Shankly, in 2008 it was part of it.
In a way the process of developing and submitting the bid was almost as important as the win for Liverpool and this is something other cities would do well to remember. Liverpool began to examine what was already culturally great and significant about it, which was an important boost to local pride and confidence. Once prompted to think about it, Liverpool citizens realised it had a lot going for it culture-wise in many different respects, despite its negative national image at the time. And indeed post-2008, this negative image continues to be slowly chipped away at, for example the city was recently highlighted as a top 10 global destination by both Lonely Planet and Condé Nast Traveller.
Leeds context is different. It has a stronger economy, and in many respects a better image. Yet, by its own admission, it lacks a national cultural profile despite boasting one of the highest concentrations of dance companies in the UK, three art schools, the principle opera company in the north of England, being a centre for sculpture and having one of the biggest fields of learning disability arts in the UK, amongst other things. So what should Leeds’ bid be?
I would suggest the same thing to any place that is considering bidding. A city should ask itself exactly why it is bidding. What does it want to achieve with the title? Then when it has answered why, it should ask, ‘what is unique about our city and how do we want to celebrate it?’
It’s important for cities to learn from the successes and failures of others, but copying slavishly or trying to create a programme merely to appeal to bid judges is doomed to failure. By focusing on a city’s strengths and through talking to those across the wide spectrum of its arts and cultural community, from grassroots initiatives to international directors, the outline will begin to write itself.
One thing that urban authorities should have learned over the last few years as more and more places have competed to be ‘cultural cities’ is having the same things as everywhere else is not necessarily helpful. In the globalised art world, why would you travel far to look at a Jeff Koons work in Leeds, Dundee or Milton Keynes rather than Venice, New York or Miami? A point of difference and celebrating local ‘cultures’ in their many forms serves the tourists as much as the locals.
‘International’ culture is still important. Bringing in the best from around the world can inspire both citizens and visitors and give new perspectives to local artistic communities, but the focus should still be about the city itself: asking what does it want to achieve and develop? Then working with international artists and practice to enhance that, rather than slavishly following trends.
As well as celebrating what is already great in a city, the title can be brilliant as a catalyst for new initiatives. Often this has manifested itself in a big new cultural building. A new building can be great, but it can also be a burden and a folly if it is unneeded and unsustainable and the title can also be a spark for developing things in other ways. Again, look for ideas internationally, but use local needs as a basis. Is there an art form that is neglected in the city? A local talent from the past forgotten? A historic site in need of a new use? What are local creatives crying out for? Where there is low participation in the arts, what can be done to increase interest? What problems is the city facing that arts can maybe help contend with? Not merely using the arts to gloss over problems or demolish ‘problem’ areas for new venues, but using the arts to ask questions and involve people in conversations, looking for solutions at a more holistic as well as a large-scale level, as exemplified by projects in Liverpool such as Homebaked and Granby 4 Streets.
Indeed wider involvement is to me the other key. Every city of any size has a band of creative people toiling away to make interesting things happen. A city that wholly ignores its own talent pool for ‘better known’ or ‘international’ artists is doomed to issues and lack of legacy. Similarly though, the title should not just be about pleasing the agendas of local artists and arts organisations. Just as crucial is the enthusiasm and engagement of the wider populance of the city. Indeed in Liverpool the judges said that local enthusiasm for the bod helped swing the title in the city’s favour. So mass participation and large-scale events, yes, but also in-depth engagement opportunities should be made available in a more focused way for local people. Liverpool being European Capital of Culture and the boom in arts around it aided me, from a pretty humble background, to have a career in the arts, and it can for citizens of other cities too.
Similarly those leading bids should not be afraid of ‘fringe’ programmes, even if they question what’s going on in the ‘mainstream’ one. One of the best things about Capital of Culture in Liverpool was how the very concept was creatively questioned and scrutinised. Artists and activists in the city used the attention the title brought to create work which questioned UK-wide issues such as the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder and orthodoxies around culture and regeneration, which in turn helped shift the national conversation around them and open up paths to new views and ideas. If deconstructing the very idea of the title and its effects isn’t cultural, I don’t know what it.
Legacy is a word that comes from the lips of everyone involved in such titles and again, easier said than done. A big new building is a legacy, but only if it can be sustained. More grassroots spaces for arts might be another one, but not if there’s already plenty. More ephemeral things like committing to long term training programmes or youth arts initiatives can have more impact, including in the economic sense that all local authorities have an eye on. But more than that, they have the potential to genuinely inspire the next generation of artists in a city who’ll lead us who knows where.
I’m glad that despite the harsh climate that some UK cities are still bidding for European Capital of Culture and wish them well. Winning the title won’t solve all the problems of a city or, on its own, transform it socially or economically. It can though be an amazing celebration and a rewarding process, a catalyst for change, a training and testing ground for many and an inspiration for many more if done well.
Arts and culture can have a powerful effect on place and people, and if our cities are to grow and improve and adapt to the challenges of the 21st century, then, even in these strained times, that is something we need to not forget.
This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in December 2015.
When I was a child, I was taken by my school to see a submarine launched at the Cammell Laird shipyard, a place that had been the raison d’être of my hometown, Birkenhead, for the last 200 years. I was given a flag to wave at the vast, metal object as it went down the slipway. My principle memory is of the scale of the place, as we stood dwarfed by the yard’s huge construction sheds and yellow cranes. What I didn’t quite understand at the time was that this was the end. This was the last ship that was to be built at the yard.
I would to come to realise this, though, and also that it was almost to mean the end of the town, reduced largely to decline and dependency on low-paid service-industry work, benefits and a small number of public-sector jobs. What happened to Birkenhead as a phenomenon has, if anything, increased elsewhere in my lifetime. The sort of decline that could once safely – for others – be said to be located in certain specific areas, has engulfed more and more places over the last twenty years in a rapidly shifting global world. What do you do with a place when its reason to exist has gone? Can it have a future? How can people suffering from the poverty generated by such situations have better lives and opportunities? These were the questions that plagued me as I grew up in a postindustrial area.
Economic decline is inextricably linked to population decline, both of which create surplus land and buildings. In the later part of the twentieth century, in certain urban areas such as New York, London and Berlin, this ‘free space’ was often occupied by artists and those seeking alternative lifestyles. Economically, this ultimately worked out for these cities, since while certain industries and the communities that had relied on them had been hollowed out, they had other industries to sustain them. In New York and London this was principally high-finance and in Berlin, principally government. So this occupation by ‘creatives’ actually helped re-animate what was, in the eyes of local authorities, ‘problem spaces’, bringing them back to economic use as they became fashionable and subsequently attracted new, wealthier residents. Such gentrification has been well documented.1 Writers like Richard Florida suggested that other postindustrial areas should adopt this model, becoming ‘creative cities’2 that attract the highly educated, highly mobile people who set up the likes of Google. This was seen by some civic leaders as a catch-all answer to stemming population decline, creating those lucrative ‘good jobs’ and so increasing the tax- and power-base of postindustrial areas. Based on these theories, many such localities spent big on arts venues, festivals etc aimed at regenerating disused space, attracting culture-seeking tourists and more importantly, those new ‘creative’ business-starting residents.
However, in many other cities, while empty buildings, declining populations and tax bases were also the problem, this solution was not so easy as in New York and London. In a place as large as a city, a ‘creative class’ generally needs a ‘real’ economy to feed off in order to enjoy a supporting infrastructure and audience. Shoreditch may emphasise its mental distance from The City of London, but without the latter’s finance industry paying for the likes of London’s advanced public transportation system via demand and taxation, along with everything from sponsoring theatres to buying artworks and commissioning designers, its ‘creative class’ would struggle. As any artist who has lived in a postindustrial city for any length of time will tell you, cheap rents and easily available space are important, but to lack easy access to a major market or audience (even in these internet days) is ultimately limiting.
While we may love them for their diversity, vibrancy and creativity, cities have since ancient times largely existed for strategic or economic reasons, formed out of convergences of power and money. This is why so many artists and creative people still move to New York and London despite the harsh costs and lifestyle. These cities offer potential for advancement that other localities do not, whether in terms of creative stimulation or more pragmatic personal opportunities. This is why economically successful cities are always centres of inward migration, people seeking their own piece of the growing pie, whether money or culture, which in turn helps gives birth to that diversity, vibrancy and creativity.
Throughout history, art and culture have generally emerged from economic centres that can afford them, rather than being expected to be the economy, or at least not solely. Some unique places such as Venice can, via tourism, achieve an economy based on their cultural histories. Yet even Venice has a shrinking population, which is causing it problems now that it is no longer a centre of manufacture, commerce and slavery. Indeed, despite all the new creative industries being talked about in postindustrial places like Detroit, such as the start-ups at the A. Alfred Taubman Centre,3 making cars is still actually the biggest part of the Detroit economy.4 Likewise, even as cultural-focused tourism does grow in Liverpool, its maritime and manufacturing trades are still bigger economic assets.5 Over in Birkenhead, even the old Cammell Laird shipyard has re-opened and is now booming.6 These most traditional of industries, which had declined for years, are still the main points of growth for such places as trade patterns shift, to a degree, back in their favour. Such growth remains vulnerable, but at least these localities are still playing a significant role in the global economic system, in fields, despite their reduction in staff numbers, that employ far more people than the arts are ever likely to.
In London and New York, the fight for space against the overwhelming power of capital is key, hence the constant shifting of ‘creative zones’ to the latest deprived area. In cities such as Liverpool, though, the fight is for capital or rather any way for the city (including its artists) to sustain itself without having to rely on cross-subsidy from elsewhere to pay for its services. The latter is a dangerous situation, leaving postindustrial areas vulnerable to the whims of the policies of often faraway governments.
Is there an alternative for cities other than to fight each other for a slice of global capital? To take part in a pact with the very ideology that brought down industrial cities? We should not forget that it was also this same ideology that gave birth to these cities and subsequently the culture that rose from them: be it Motown or The Beatles, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals or the metal sculptures made by Arthur Dooley, himself a former Cammell Laird welder.
Despite the continued economic reliance on transport and manufacture in Liverpool, cultural activity has played a big part in shifting both the perception and actuality of the city in the last fifteen years in a way that few residents would disagree has been an improvement, even if most would also agree there is still a long way to go. If, with the right cultural attractions and activities, a town can create a tourist business and transform external views of the place, creating a few jobs in the process, why would any poor locality not do so?
Are these cultural initiatives in postindustrial locations just window-dressing: a bit of art to cover over the economic cracks, encouraging higher-end tourism and providing something to do between inward investment meetings? A chance for globetrotting arty-types to ‘reanimate’ decayed spaces and help pave the way for developers? Or can they offer more?
I would argue that they can. Art’s real strength in this situation is how it can exist in a space between those at different ends of the scale of power and money. In this deeply imbalanced situation, real sway can be had, as Charles Bukowski once said, when ‘an artist says a hard thing in a simple way’. Art has the potential to cut though things, creating a channel through dysfunctional systems. Creative activism in the public arena can, by highlighting errors, showcasing alternatives and probing new solutions, make the prevailing forces of power, at best take a step back, or at least demonstrate to others the holes that exist within their plans and systems.
Such action in postindustrial areas can break the deadlock that can emerge from vested interests. Governments, local authorities, businesses, property developers, investors, even entrenched community groups, while often having plans that may be valid on one level, can, in the inevitable vastness of such organisations, end up letting neighbourhoods, even whole cities, fall down the cracks. As an example, we can look to Liverpool and how the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder initiative affected it and other areas with mass housing demolition. 7 This plan emerged, no doubt with good intentions, from a think-tank at Birmingham University and was adopted by the then government as a way of regenerating postindustrial communities. Dozens of journals, petitions and surveys eventually began to critique this extreme approach. While these achieved a cumulative effect, ultimately they held less power and sway in general public and political opinion than two actions in Liverpool. In Anfield, the 2up2down/Homebaked project,8 re-opening a bakery that many thought had gone for good, and in Liverpool 8, community groups painting bright images, planting flowers and hosting a local market outside abandoned homes. All the secret meetings, investment strategies and ten-year-plans rightly turned to dust in the face of such an obviously more positive use of empty property reduced to ruin by socio-economic policies. Such initiatives may have impacts that are more emotional than practical, but therein lies the ability of such creative action to compete against, or at least square up to, those who control the money and power. Those with their hands on the levers inevitably struggle to respond when they are faced with a public demonstration of obvious failure and positive alternatives.
The question from critics though, and it is a valid one, is what next? When folly or injustice has been demonstrated, what alternative is there? Can such initiatives represent long-term solutions? Creative perforations can open avenues to new situations, but for real change they have to then grow into something bigger. In becoming more established and practical, such projects may lose some of their initial outsider power, but this is essential if such action is to instigate actual change and shift the balance of ideas, power and control.
For an example of this we can shift from Liverpool to Bradford, where creative grassroots action helped not only to save a grand Art Deco cinema from demolition, but began a total re-imagining of the potential future of the building. After being closed for several years, the Odeon was facing destruction, to be replaced with a new office and retail development,9 the need for which was questionable. Slowly, local opposition built into a ‘Save the Odeon’ campaign, with activists often utilising artistic impulses such as covering the building with ‘Get Well Soon’ cards, decorating it at Christmas while a brass band played, and even turning up as a group to clean its exterior to demonstrate that, beneath a bit of dirt, a fine building was languishing. These actions slowly won over more local people and even gained celebrity support from the likes of Imelda Staunton, Terry Gilliam and David Hockney. After much pressure, the demolition was eventually cancelled, with the local authority agreeing that the building should be retained in future plans for the area. The campaigners have subsequently formed into an Industrial and Provident society named ‘Bradford One’ and are now bidding to be allowed to take over the building themselves.10
Meanwhile, over in Detroit, the apparently sensible policy of reducing the city’s size in relation to its shrunken population came up against The Heidelberg Project, begun in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton on the city’s east side. Initially, he painted a series of houses in Heidelberg Street with bright dots in many colours and attached salvaged items to the houses. He went on to develop the project into a constantly evolving work that transformed a semi-abandoned neighbourhood into a creative art centre.11 Twice it was faced with demolition by the Detroit authorities, and indeed some of it was destroyed. Yet, despite these setbacks, it is now a global tourist attraction with its own arts education programme for local schoolchildren, not to mention being one of fifteen projects that represented the US at the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale.12
The question raised by those who wanted to see the demolition and removal of all these places was, ‘Well, what would you do with it?’ In answer, creativity was used against the overwhelming machines of business, media, government and prevailing orthodoxy, to open up alternative possibilities for these spaces. Such projects may not in themselves solve all the problems of a postindustrial city, but their operation in a more open-ended space outside of dominant ideologies can raise awareness, generate new solutions and galvanise people to action. After all, successful local regeneration is based on local enthusiasm for it, which, when people are already facing the multiple challenges of living in a deprived area, can be slow to start and quick to wane. Key to ongoing positive change stemming from such initiatives is the genuine involvement of local people in an in-depth way. The Bradford One and Heidelberg actions were both begun by people who already had a stake in the local area, while 2up2down/Homebaked in Anfield began as an external provocation from Liverpool Biennial. However, all of these projects ultimately took the time to win understandably sceptical people over from outside of their own circles and become rooted in local desires, rather than just agendas imposed from outside. Also vital though, is that such projects moved on from their initial creative perforations and formed organisations, sought funding, liaised with regulators, engaged wider publics and communicated with media and academia. Thus they created a momentum that became sustainable, even through inevitable setbacks and ups and downs.
So, having begun to develop initial provocations into projects with positive outcomes for communities, the question becomes, what next? How does the spark of an alternative become something sustainable or even a new way of doing things in postindustrial areas? The rights of the urban resident of the twentieth century were gained through practical action, engaging, even if aggressively, with the prevailing system and demanding a share, as well as through the development of solid alternatives that functioned effectively, even if these existed within a wider capitalist framework. Bodies from the Cooperative movement founded in Rochdale in 1844 to the early housing associations formed in 1960s Liverpool, determined that inner-city housing had a future, and so it remains today.
Having successfully fundraised via Kickstarter to open its bakery, 2up2down/Homebaked now seeks to establish a co-operative housing scheme13 as part of the wider redevelopment of Anfield, which is centred on a new stadium for Liverpool Football Club. In Bradford, the Save the Odeon campaign has formed into the constituted Bradford One organisation, which is developing proposals that, if successful, will see the historic structure transformed into a multi-purpose cultural venue and centre for creative enterprise. This will include an ‘asset lock’ ensuring that the Odeon’s future use will always benefit the people of Bradford.14 In Detroit meanwhile, the Heidelberg Project is planning to expand into neighbouring properties as part of a broader ‘cultural village’ concept for the area once the site has been secured from recent damage.15 The project’s development committee now includes senior staff from Detroit and Michigan local authorities, demonstrating quite a change from when Guyton spent much of his time fighting officials who wanted to shut down the project. His case was no doubt aided by the Heidelberg’s increasing popularity and global visibility.16
While global big business is probably here to stay, it seems that local control, whether it is of new business start-ups, arts centres, housing co-ops or bakeries, offers the best long-term sustainability for communities. Yet for this to happen, local people must be able to take control. The will must be there in the community for such initiatives, but provocations such as the above, by highlighting alternatives and breaking open new ideas, can have transformative effects, bringing people on board who never imagined they could ever have a voice or play a part in the future of their area.
However, controlling authorities also need to have the desire, or at least the will, to hand such power to communities. So will states grant such power to localities and will local authorities in turn divest power to their citizens? Even if this happens, will it descend into counter-productive factionalism? Perhaps in some cases, but as the examples above show, plenty of projects can exceed even the wildest hopes of their founders, if they are given the opportunity. It may be the case though, as projects such as these have demonstrated, that the only way to gain power is for such organisations to be formed, take the initiative and demand it, creating legitimacy though raising awareness and encouraging action. Equally vital is that the authorities provide the required financial support for such projects at the relevant time. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea of community solutions quickly fell on its face because of a lack of money, something even acknowledged by the academic who came up with the phrase.17 If you hand the levers of power over to people, but with no capital to be able to use them, positive effects will always be limited.
Creative perforations, such as those listed above, are in themselves valid, as a way to speak the truth to power, show an alternative and imagine new possibilities. However, if they are to have lasting effects, they need to change, morph and engage with the prevailing systems of power and money in order to achieve wider goals. This may require compromise, but such compromise will have much stronger social benefits in deprived areas than any academic treatise denouncing failures in the system from a faraway university.
Finally, can these projects be more than interesting perforations, a few gems standing out in otherwise troubled cities? Can they actually become new ways of organising postindustrial urban environments? If this is possible, such initiatives cannot exist in a vacuum. Power brokers need to be engaged and convinced that the system needs to shift and absorb these new ideas. In undertaking such engagement, projects like these may risk losing their outsider power, but they gain the potential to change many more lives and even of becoming new orthodoxies. That is, of course, until the need arises for the next perforation from outside of the prevailing order.
7 I Cole & B. Nevin, The road to renewal: the early development of the housing market renewal programme in England, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York, 2004, pp.9–17. Available at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/system/files/1859352707.pdf# (accessed 22 Apr. 2014).
8 ‘2Up 2Down, a Community Land Trust and Co-operative Bakery for Anfield’ (2014), http://www.2up2down.org.uk/ (accessed 25 April 2014).