Heritage and Future in Liverpool

The Six Sided Clock in Liverpool's northern docks

By Kenn Taylor

The potential removal of Liverpool’s World Heritage Site status by UNESCO has put into sharp relief the challenges the city faces.

This threat stems from the Liverpool Waters project for the old northern docks; a mixed used development involving historic restoration and new builds on a large scale. UNESCO is unhappy with the sightlines and heights of some of the proposed buildings.

That this issue has been hard to resolve is symptomatic of the city’s difficulties. It has a beautiful architectural legacy, but has a small tax base, is heavily dependent on shrinking external grants, has high levels of poverty and a fragile economy with low demand for property. Liverpool needs money to restore and maintain its old buildings. With little public money available now, this has left the city heavily reliant on developers who want a return. If the city doesn’t work with them, it faces these structures continuing to rot, especially as in case of Liverpool Waters they cover a vast acreage and are largely in ruins, since being abandoned by the old dock company in the 70s.

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Few critics acknowledge this difficult context, with much of the national commentary on this issue marred by thinly veiled contempt. The kind of patronising the city has sadly become used to over the years, from people keen to twist the knife but with few actual solutions to offer.

As someone who can well remember decaying streets even in the city centre as recently as ten years ago, it’s clear that Liverpool is getting better at looking after its historic buildings despite the challenges it faces. From the semi-abandoned 1930s Royal Court Theatre being turned into a thriving venue and the brilliant restoration and extension of the Central Library, to Calderstones mansion being renovated into a centre for reading and plans well underway to convert the Art Deco Littlewoods Pools HQ into a film studio, I could go on. Indeed, Liverpool was given ‘Heritage Role Model’ status by Europe. Even controversial Liverpool Waters got a prize at the Historic Bridge and Infrastructure Awards.

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Of course, the picture is not all rosy. The city has also seen a raft of poor quality development schemes thrown up by speculators. With Liverpool especially vulnerable due to the issues outlined above along with planning law and planning departments becoming so weakened in recent years.

Liverpool is too big and has too much poverty to rely on its heritage entirely like Bath or Saltaire and, to give its young people real opportunities, it needs significant economic development. Yet its heritage is a big asset that people are passionate about. Must the city go in one direction or the other? Sadly we seem to be heading that way with UNESCO issuing final warnings and the Council losing the will to keep the status. Dresden faced a similar situation a few years ago. Like Liverpool, the city suffered economic decline and de-population, but it was buoyed by a new VW factory. A new bridge was built to relive congestion, provoking the ire of UNESCO and Dresden lost its World Heritage Status. Interestingly, tourism increased in Dresden the year after the status was removed. UNESCO meanwhile has demonstrated inconsistency on this issue. London built a pile of glass towers adjacent to its World Heritage Site at Tower Bridge, at which UNSECO “expressed concern” but did little else.

A compromise can and should be found in Liverpool. Money needs to be found from somewhere to restore buildings in the northern docks and find uses for them that help the local economy and population. The most likely thing that could tip the balance would be a large injection of public funds and UNESCO et al should be pushing for this rather than bashing the city. With a range of local bodies, not just the Council, having more money to restore and develop things, Liverpool would be less trapped between speculators or decay.

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Some powerful redevelopment projects have been undertaken in Liverpool with Community Interest Companies and Community Land Trusts, however they have been hampered by lack of funds and control of only small areas of property. With the right financial support, these could be expanded, or other interesting models explored. In Havana, another World Heritage city with little money for preservation, the state-sponsored Habaguanex has done good work developing crumbling buildings into hotels and the like, but using the surplus it generates to invest in local housing and social projects in-between them. A counterpoint to World Heritage Sites becoming gentrified dead zones, as they have elsewhere.

Liverpool is capable of looking after its built heritage, sometimes innovatively so. But saving and refurbishing huge swathes of decaying structures costs serious money. Unless the national or international public purse opens, the city will face having to continue to go cap in hand to developers or leave things rotting. Then, all the lobby group statements, broadsheet articles and UNESCO motions in the world won’t save that heritage.

This piece was published by New Statesman CityMetric in August 2017.

Liverpool Waters, a brighter future?

Liverpool Waters masterplanLiverpool Waters masterplan. The project includes apartments, hotels, bars and a new cruise terminal. Photograph: Rust Design

By Kenn Taylor

After nearly a year of waiting and without warning, it was announced this week that Eric Pickles, the communities and local government secretary, would not be calling a public enquiry into the huge Liverpool Waters redevelopment of Liverpool‘s central docks area.

To an extent this was always something of a foregone conclusion. With the coalition Government obsessed with economic growth and the regions ‘standing on their own feet’ it would have been hugely damaging for them to have been seen to be blocking the development. This was especially true with the plans having such strong support locally and the Government having already awarded the area Enterprise Zone status. This despite the concerns of English Heritage and UNESCO who have suggested that the plan could jeopardise Liverpool’s World Heritage Site status.

Of course in this 30 – 50-year project, the builders will not be moving in tomorrow, but the announcement was still greeted largely positively in Liverpool. The support for what is unabashedly a capitalist scheme in the city’s more deprived areas seems to have surprised some national commentators – to the point that some seem to be patronisingly suggesting that ‘those poor provincial folk, they don’t know what’s being done to them.’

On the contrary, people living next to the central docks know better than anyone what a general eyesore they have been for most of the last 40 years and the desperate need that Liverpool has to gain more jobs and a stronger economy, especially in the face of devastating public sector cuts.

To recap, Liverpool Waters is a massive redevelopment of Liverpool’s dockland between the city centre and the still active modern port. It is huge in scale, up to 1,691,000 square meters, which it is planned will include offices, homes, cultural facilities, retail and leisure provision and a second, larger cruise ship terminal. It has been suggested it could create as many as 17,000 jobs, have up to 23,000 apartments and four hotels on what is presently, for the most part, flat Brownfield land. Its centrepiece would be the ‘Shanghai Tower’, at 55 stories the tallest building in the UK outside of London.

With a scale like that, there are legitimate concerns about who will fill that huge amount of space. Especially when there is a fair amount of unused Victorian office buildings in the city and when Liverpool has a relatively poor, if slowly improving, economy. The developer Peel’s argument is that the sheer scale of the plans will attract foreign direct investment in a way that piecemeal development would not, and that many of the older buildings in the city are not suitable for modern office accommodation.

Artist's night impression of designs for Liverpool Waters Unesco has got a bit wobbly at this sort of image. But Peel has a decent heritage record. Photograph: Rust Design

Similarly heated debates were made about the Liverpool ONE retail development, with many commentators suggesting that Liverpool’s poor retail market could not stand any more units and that Liverpool ONE would destroy the city’s existing retail areas. While there are indeed empty units in Liverpool, as there in most of the UK’s cities and towns, the destruction of the older retail areas hasn’t happened and the critical mass of the transformative development shoved the city back into the big league of UK retail centres, from 14th to 5th place in three years. New occupiers continue to move in, even in the current depths of retail recession.

What has also been consistently ignored by critics dazzled by the glass towers in Peel’s admittedly brash artists’ impressions is the solid economic development work underway in relation to it. A huge new container shipping terminal is being built in Peel’s modern Seaforth docks just north of the scheme. It will be the first one in the north of England capable of handling the new, larger container ships that will fit through the widened Panama Canal from 2015. With road transport costs increasing and the UK’s markets shifting from Europe to the wider world, there’s huge potential for the city to reclaim its place as the north’s premier port and create a large number of jobs in the process. A new Maritime College is already under construction on part of the site to help train young people for this.

Meanwhile, over the river Mersey, Liverpool Waters’ sister project, the Wirral Waters redevelopment of the Birkenhead dockland is also significant. It’s actually even larger in scale than the Liverpool plan, but with it not being in the World Heritage Site, has attracted a lot less media attention. About to begin construction there is the International Trade Centre, a new business start-up hub for foreign inward investors that is the first of its kind in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe. It alone has vast potential to attract new investors from growing countries such as China, India and Brazil which are looking for a route into Europe. Once they become more established, they’re likely to require more space and suitable accommodation, leisure and retail space to support their facilities, and the Liverpool and Wirral Waters plans offer that. More recently, also at the Wirral Waters site, Peel has announced a manufacturing park, with plans to capitalise on the booming motor industry on Merseyside and possibly also expanding manufacturers in the energy and railway rolling stock sectors.

The heritage arguments against the plans are something that many people local people have struggled to understand when most of the development site is literally flat. The main argument from UNESCO seems to be that the new buildings would detract from the older ones up the river, which  has also been suggested with London’s Shard. This may be true, but I haven’t seen the queues for the Tower of London getting any shorter recently. The other crux was the archeology of the site, where they have a stronger point. Yet without development, the archeology will remain there unexamined until someone comes along with the money to dig it up. To leave the site in its present state because of what is possibly buried underneath it would be folly.

No doubt the architecture critics will be sharpening their knives to criticise the scheme. Again, they may have a point. MediaCityUK and The Trafford Centre, Peel’s successful developments in Greater Manchester, are not beautiful. Yet they did restore redundant industrial land to productive use and have created thousands of jobs. And that will carry more weight in the deprived parts of Liverpool than hand-wringing about aesthetics by a few people who live far, far away.

However, Liverpool is a city that loves its heritage and most citizens will hope that Peel will keep its promise that what historic structures there are in the development site will be restored and re-used. The group has a decent track-record in this already, spending money in the last couple of years to restore the historic but unlisted Bascule Bridge and dock police hut on its estate, which had been left to rot for decades by its predecessor, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. It remains to be seen if they will restore more. I have no doubt though that both the council and Peel will fight to retain the World Heritage status alongside the development if they can, not least for the pragmatic reason that it adds significant marketing value to the area.

So, when is all this going to happen? That’s the big question. Those suggesting that the whole thing is pie in the sky should consider why Peel would have spent several years and millions of pounds on planning and preparation in the middle of the recession if they didn’t have serious intentions. It is true, however, that the time scale is a long-term one.

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A vulgar dome of commerce; but the Trafford Centre in Greater Manchester has been a runaway success. Photograph: Aidan O’Rourke

Almost certainly the first elements will be the ‘business generator’ ones on the fringes of the developments. The post-panamax terminal and the International Trade Centre are under construction or about to commence. I would expect a start on the manufacturing park in Wirral as well soon, and with Liverpool’s cruise business growing, the second cruise terminal could start in the next few years. With these in place, then we can expect the first leisure and retail development to support the area and the first offices going up in the central part of Wirral Waters and just north of Liverpool city centre. All this will probably take at least 10 years to complete. The ‘second cluster’ of tall buildings further north, which was the real bone of contention with UNESCO, not the Shanghai Tower as some commentators have suggested, are unlikely to be built within the next 20 years.

An International Festival for Business is being held in Liverpool in 2014, a large part of it on these very development sites. This will no doubt see a big investment push by the city and we may see the breakthrough of the first few key deals in relation to these schemes. Certainly the citizens of Liverpool will be hoping so.

Now, the ball is in Peel’s court to prove they can deliver. The city council, the Government and the majority of people in Liverpool have endorsed the plans. Peel Holdings, it’s up to you to show the city that you can do more in Liverpool than create shiny pictures of a better future.

This piece appeared on The Guardian in March 2013.

Stormy Waters

By Kenn Taylor

Liverpool is still one of the most deprived cities in the UK, but it does have an economy that is slowly improving. Only last week, it jumped to fifth place in the table of cities most-visited from overseas. The 1,000 new jobs at the Jaguar Land Rover plant in Halewood are another welcome boost. Yet the fact that some 35,000 people applied for those vacancies shows how it still has a long way to go.

This is why ambitious projects like Liverpool Waters, the controversial plan for new offices, homes and other facilities around decaying northern dockland, are important. The biggest planning application ever submitted in Britain, seems on a fantastically inhuman scale which naturally makes people uneasy, including The Observer‘s London-based Rowan Moore; but sometimes, especially when you’re at the bottom, you have to think big.

When Liverpool’s early leaders built the world’s first enclosed wet dock, which opened in 1715, they mortgaged their entire modestly sized town to build it. It was a big risk that paid off; so was Liverpool’s pioneering of the world’s first intercity railway, to Manchester, in the face of many who said that it would never work. Such risk-taking helped to build Liverpool, but it is something we seem to have lost over the last forty years.

There has also been a knee-jerk reaction against Liverpool Waters as a scheme of that instinctively mistrusted group, property developers, in this case Peel Holdings. This can be justified, as more often than not such organisations focus on profit above all else. Yet if property development for profit had never happened here, the historic docks that we now admire would have never been built.

The Grade 1-listed Albert Dock was not built to look nice. It was built to make money as a fireproof shed, that in 1846 was starkly modern and was criticised at the time by local historian J.A. Picton for its brutal mediocrity.

Neither would have the famous ‘Three Graces’ on the city’s Pier Head. Built on redundant dockland, the Graces were the Canary Wharf or Liverpool Waters of their day; early examples of corporate headquarters built in the latest trendy styles to aggrandise the businesses that constructed them. They were not universally popular with the critics at the time either. The Royal Liver Building was dismissed by Charles Reilly, professor of architecture at Liverpool University, thus:

“A mass of grey granite to the cornice, it rose to the sky in two quite unnecessary towers, which can symbolise nothing but the power of advertisement.”

Today’s aggressive heritage lobby and aesthete critics are fond of proclaiming Liverpool’s past innovations and achievements, with the hindsight which Reilly could not have. But they are as blinkered as he could be to the city’s need to continue to innovate and develop. The threatened loss of the UNESCO World Heritage status which covers part of the site, if the development goes ahead, would be a huge blow. However, the pluses and minuses of having the status are hard to quantify. Dresden in Germany also lost its World Heritage Site status when it built an important modern bridge, yet remains a tourist magnet.

Meanwhile such critics seem content to oppose Liverpool Waters without offering any realistic alternative plan for this huge area, not even a notional one. That would condemn the historic structures in the northern docks to continue to rot for want of money or a reason for being. Nearly all these old buildings would be restored as part of Liverpool Waters, alongside the new developments.

I believe that the Waters should be compared to Liverpool 1, the new shopping and leisure area developed by the Grosvenor Estate and opened four years ago. It too was heavily criticised during construction, but vox pop on its streets today and you would find few who would want to go back to the 1970s Moat House hotel, the wasteland car parks, concrete Paradise Street Bus station and the Argos Superstore that used to stand there.

Liverpool 1 created thousands of jobs and helped the city to leap from 14th to 5th in the UK’s retail rankings, while not, as many predicted, destroying the traditional shopping areas of Church Street and Bold Street. It has also attracted dozens of new shops to Liverpool at a time when town centres nationally are collapsing, the development creating the demand. I didn’t like Liverpool 1 while it was in gestation, but now I find it hard to argue now against its success in transforming Liverpool’s town centre for the better.

The northern docks, though, are an even bigger challenge. Yes Liverpool could do something smaller with them. Something mediocre like the call centres and car showrooms that line the former southern docks up to Otterspool, or the city could really think big, something equivalent to the scale of ambition Liverpool once had.

For all the genuine fears of ‘more Yuppy flats’ the Peel plan does have an economic basis. Their schemes for regenerating the Wirral docks with ‘Wirral Waters’ will be based on a new International Trade Centre in Birkenhead, the first of its kind in Europe, which has already attracted firm Chinese investment. The plans for Liverpool Waters meanwhile, are linked with the new ‘post-panamax’ shipping terminal that will be able to handle the world’s largest ships. These ‘concrete’ bits of economic development, unglamorous as they are, are going in before any of the proposed shiny towers.

Peel also has an enviable track record. They built the Trafford Centre, which employs 10,000 people and, contrary to what people said at the time, didn’t destroy Manchester city centre. They have also turned Liverpool Airport from a joke to the 10th biggest in the country and, their biggest coup of all, got the BBC to move north to MediaCity:UK in Salford, which has created thousands of those ‘good jobs’ in the north, with the prospects of thousands more to follow. There has been some criticism that many of these people have transferred from London, but that doesn’t account for the fact the BBC were hardly going to lay off their existing staff en-masse and ignores the prospects for future generations in the north once the BBC has settled in.

People are understandably also sceptical of the timescale proposed for the plans for Liverpool and Wirral Waters, 30 years. Yet when the re-development of the defunct Salford Docks began in 1983, if you had said then that, 30 years later, MediaCity:UK would be there, you’d be laughed out the room. Now though, we can all tune into BBC Breakfast News live from the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal.

I’m not Peel’s PR. They have some questionable business arrangements, tend to rely heavily on outside investment and often build dull architecture; but again I turn to the critics and ask: what else do you suggest? No one else has any workable plans for the northern docks. So do we go for it? Or do we forgo the risk, let Liverpool’s economy struggle along and allow a historic part of our city to rot indefinitely while wistfully hoping for something else?

Even as a supporter of the Liverpool Waters plans, I admit that I will believe it all when I see it. But I never would have believed the developments that have already happened in contemporary Liverpool were possible a few years ago. The city and the Government should take a leaf out of our history and go for it. Critics should meanwhile put pen to paper to show us they think could go in its place.

This is an extended version of a piece that appeared in The Guardian in May 2012.