Welsh Streets

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By Kenn Taylor

Ominous
as evening draws in.
The deep red
that cuts through this decay
is dragged back to the west.
Past the mountains
from where the builders
of these streets
came.

Sheet steel, not glass,
fills windows.
Buddleia spurt from rooflines
in roads where even streetlights
have died.

Indifferent now to the dereliction
that awes some.
There is little romance
in domestic decay
when you see it every day.

The silence though.
‘What happened here?’
A passer by may ask.
‘Fire, flood, famine, war?’
All this and more.
Though this place in England
is really the result
of the dropping
of a thousand bombs
of ideology.

In times past
the few with power
saw money to be made.
Scraping back the fields
to cram in labour,
filling demand in a fierce new era.
Keeping the trade turning,
taking and not giving
from places faraway.

People came
looking for opportunity.
They built proud,
as if still for themselves,
in the hills
to last a thousand years.

Homes for those
seeking a better life.
Trying to get by,
though always in the firing line
through depressions and wars.
See a 1950s house
in-between Victorian walls.

From peace came another boom
that saw many out
to leafier spots.
A rare time
when people
maybe
had a chance.

The more desperate though
moved in from around the world.
To the houses
not yet pulled down
in the name of improvement
by those who felt they knew better.

New communities
trying to get by,
despite the vicious treatment
from those who hate difference.
Until Orford’s tactics
see bricks thrown back
at the thin line of authority,
shocked
that the worm could turn.

Sadly though
the end result,
even more labels put on a place
no longer treated as a community,
instead
abused as byword.

Left and right
claim it as their quarry.
Use it to blame each other,
as photo-journalists from Hampstead fight
to take the best pictures
of trainers hanging from telegraph poles.

Here though
a new plan emerges.
From clever types
in league with
desperate politicians
in a desperate city
and a few descendents also
of those with an eye
for profits from the land.
They all conspire from on high
to drop another bomb,
one of renewal.
‘This land must be cleared,’
traded again,
razed of its problems.

Those who remain though
just getting by,
trying to fight their corner,
are drowned out again
by those who feel
they know better.

The developers on one side,
scrabbling for deeds.
On the other
the creatives and
heritage enthusiasts.
Martyrs to old bricks
who set themselves up
as defenders
of what was never theirs.
Fantasists of a culture
they have never known,
they stalk around
writing of
tiling and wrought iron,
missing out the
rising damp and
regulation
Corporation Green doors.
Until they head back
far away
to quaint, expensive
places of no change.

No longer a place
in all its complexity,
instead just more bywords
for the ideologues.
Abused by both
poet and profiteer,
they squabble over the moral high ground
as the streets beneath them decay.
A battlefield.

One day,
can they just be homes?
Or do they have to wait
for the next bomb
from those
after money,
power,
or truth?

Long after opportunities rot away,
bonds remain.
Money gets throw in
then taken away
just as quick.
Everyone
carries on getting by
trying to rebuild
brick by brick.
Let people decide their own fate,
their own path for their community.
Is it so much to ask?

A car speeds down the silent street,
the sun has gone.
No light from the windows.
I reach the end of the road
and turn away.

This piece appeared in the July 2014 edition of The Shrieking Violet. Cover design by Robert Carter.

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.

trafford centre

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.

Breaking Apart, Coming Together

By Kenn Taylor

The idea of community, or the lack of it, has become a modern-day obsession. Something that was taken for granted for so long, and frequently resisted, many people now seem desperate to get back.

This is perhaps the inevitable legacy of the second half of the 20th century. An era dominated by the individual. An era, largely in the West at least, of rising wealth and opportunity, and of freedom as an ideological counter point to the enforced community of Communism.

For many people now though, in particular since the turbo-individualism that flourished from the 1980s onwards, it seems that we have gone too far, that we have lost something. A view perhaps most often applied in the UK to urban, former industrial communities.

Now a few years in to the 21st century, if we look at any such community and the things within its fabric that defined it, we may find much loss. Churches, local shops, Pubs and social clubs so often have closed as areas declined and ways of life changed. Local industries too, not only a source of wealth but frequently of pride and identity, have also largely succumbed. To be replaced, if at all, by the anonymous sheds of supermarkets, distribution warehouses and call centres, or perhaps the odd foreign-owned assembly plant.

Even the home, the basis of community, has not been spared. In many urban areas outside London, there are often whole streets of abandoned houses were the population has dispersed in the face of lack of work, failed urban policies and social and cultural decline.

The deterioration of such communities is often painted simply as a picture of 1980s Thatcherite policies destroying industries and, by proxy, the communities and cultures that were largely defined by them. This is indeed a huge part of it. In this period, the enforced unemployment and fracturing of traditional peer structures, based on trade unions, apprenticeships and the like, helped to break the patterns of life that had united people for centuries. However, the fact is that increasing post-war wealth and opportunity also played its part in eroding such communities.

As people became wealthier, wages doubled between the start and end of the 1950s, coupled with the support given by the welfare state, people began to need each other less. This combined with relative peace, technological advance and a young, expanding population, also helped lead to increased liberalisation in the 1960s in everything from censorship to religion to sexual morality. As the often oppressive structures that bound people’s behaviours loosened, this created more opportunity to act as an individual against control, be that from your parents, employers, the church, or the state.

In this era, with many people for the first time being able to maybe afford a house with a garden, a car, a washing machine, a foreign holiday, perhaps even sending their children to newly expanding universities, many became convinced that, if allowed more freedom and relieved from the burdens of tax and regulation, their life could be even better. This increase in individual wealth and freedom saw many people who would have previously voted Labour turning to the Conservatives at the end of the 1970s. Labour politician Tony Benn even commented in 1971, “The individual escape from class into prosperity is the cancer which is eating into Western European Social Democratic parties.”

Of course, that was all based on rising and spreading wealth and opportunity. Even though the Conservative administration devastated many communities and industries in the 1980s, across the UK in general, incomes actually rose. North Sea oil and the money generated from privatisation allowed for tax breaks and new opportunities for many who were not trapped in declining industrial towns and cities. Such places were written off by many, the government included, as having ‘failed to adapt’ and thus responsible for their own decline.

Now of course, there’s nothing left to sell, the oil is running out, and places that escaped the worst ravages of Thatcherism in the 1980s now also find themselves staring into the abyss now their industries and communities have also declined. Wealth and opportunity is shrinking and many of those who had done well in these times are now seeing their children and grandchildren denied the opportunities they had, and face a society that seems darker and harsher than they could have imagined a few years ago.

As family, work, class, cultural and religious structures that held people together declined, this lessened the ability of society to influence people to behave in way that wasn’t wholly selfish. This was further pushed by the ‘Bling’ culture which has prevailed since the Thatcher era. Initially this was the preserve of the Yuppies and entrepreneurs who prospered in the new economic liberalism of the 1980s. Eventually though, this culture trickled down to ordinary people and fame, status, money, power and the pleasure and will of the individual were elevated to all that mattered.

Thatcher removed the enemy of her ideology by destroying the unions and industrial communities, but this has come back to haunt those who believed this would see the return to a more stable and acquiescent society. Firstly such destruction created despair, which saw many industrial communities overwhelmed by Heroin addiction, and then later, almost its counterpoint, Ecstasy, and the raves that occupied the abandoned industrial spaces and represented new hedonistic communities for those deserted by the decline in old ways. Both these phenomena led to the ugly expansion of criminal gangs, now capable of making much higher profits through drugs, who now offer a seemingly easy route to money, power, status and belonging for those with few other opportunities, filling the vacuum in many communities left by the decline of previous power structures.

Today, we seem to have reached a turning point. Perhaps not a conscious one, but just like the changes brought about by rising wealth, an inevitable one. The money has run out, the opportunities for the individual have declined and many people are perhaps waking up to what has gone, and just how much we really rely on each other. Yet, in wishing for old ideas of community to return, we must also be careful not to look down those terraced streets with rose-tinted spectacles.

It is ironic that 150 years ago, so much art and literature was created at the Victorian height of the Industrial Revolution about how horrible urbanisation and industrialisation was, and how it had uprooted and destroyed rural life and created dysfunctional communities in dirty towns and cities.

From Romantic poet William Wordsworth to anti-industrial proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, and Pre-Raphaelite painters like John Everett Millais, many artists, despite frequently finding their patronage from those who had made their money in expanding industry, lusted after a rural, anti-modern idealism.

But for all its aestheticised harmony and idyll, the reality of life on the land was hard and brutal. Life expectancy was short, it doubled in the UK during the Industrial Revolution, and the idealism of the village masked the serfdom and ignorance that often defined such life. The newly developing industrial settlements eventually formed their own new culture and sense of community which, in time, became as normal as that which it replaced in the countryside.

Now we find that, as they are declining too, many people romanticise industrial communities in a similar way. But for all the Silver Jubilee street parties that were held in now empty roads, there was also often domestic violence, alcoholism, vicious bullying and repression that went on behind the net curtains. The uncomfortable fact is that feelings of community are to an extent always based on the adoption of a form of collective identity and the exclusion of that which is different.

From the Rock and Rollers of the 1950s to the Ravers of the 90s, we should not forget all the brilliant art and human potential that has been unleashed by rebels butting against oppressive ways that rigidly bound people into narrow patterns of behaviour, alienating and often destroying anyone that differed from an oppressive norm. Individualism may have damaged community, but it allowed the potential of people to be who they wanted to be, and we should not forget that. Such liberty was hard-won.

We cannot go back to the way things were. Just as the new ideas of community were formed after the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, communities in our Post-Industrial age will have new shapes defined by the circumstances of their own time. The ever-expanding rise of the online community alone means that things will never be the same again and, in time, this too may become as normal as the previous ideas of community it replaced.

Community is a two-way thing. We all to an extent feel the need to belong, yet we are all individuals. Too much community can be oppressive, too little leaves us isolated, vulnerable. When a way if life is broken, it is always painful, but it is part of the inevitable shifts of humanity, things go on, new structures are formed, and new ways of living become accepted. Rather than look back and wonder at once was or might have been, today in our ever more connected world, we should see what new communities we can form and perhaps how we can use them to look after each other that little bit more.

This piece appeared in Article magazine’s ‘Broken’ issue in April 2012. 

Bust to Bust

By Dan Russell

When this article about the Liverpool International Garden Festival was conceived, I had a clear notion of how it would unfold: I’d describe the flash-in-the-pan Utopia created in 1984, something I presumed to be the last throw of the dice by a socialist council whose city had been decimated by a ruthless Conservative government. I’d then of course go on to bemoan the lack of a legacy, the wastefulness of letting the Festival site decay and the short-sightedness of the model of regeneration that never thought, “but what next?”. In the timespan it covers we have seen one complete cycle — bust to bust. The city’s regeneration boom, neatly bookended by two tourism-centred initiatives: the Garden Festival and 2008’s Capital of Culture. I was hoping to be cynical about this.

Unfortunately, I was wide of the mark. Thankfully, my lines of enquiry blew open my closed opinions.

Firstly, I spoke with my Scouse family. Like many Liverpudlians, they are vehemently anti-Tory. Had my Auntie Edna known she was to die in middle age, she would have gladly taken out Margaret Thatcher first and spent her last joyous days in prison. As such, it was with great surprise that I learned that they had a lot of respect for one of Thatcher’s ministers. Yes, it was in fact Michael Heseltine who decided something must be done to halt the decline on Merseyside when his own party wanted to simply cut it adrift.

Secondly, I talked to local writer and self-confessed “Liverpool anorak” Kenn Taylor. Both he and my relatives were as unanimous in their praise for the Festival as they were disparaging of the Derek Hatton-led Labour council of the day.

I’m aware that the 1980s aren’t famed for their modernism, but they are still a part of the Twentieth Century story. In my opinion the futuristic Buckminster Fuller-esque geodesic dome and huge, ARUP designed space-bullet of the Festival Hall just about scrape it into these pages by aesthetic virtue, and the philosophy of top-down Shangri-La creation by visionary outsiders gets it in on ideological merit.

Heseltine wanted to ease the memory of the Toxteth riots of 1981 and turn Boys from the Blackstuff-era Liverpool into a destination for visitors and investment. Alongside saving and developing the Albert Dock, cleaning the Mersey Basin and creating new technology parks at Wavertree and Brunswick, it was determined that a Garden Festival, based on the German Bundesgartenschau — a bi-annual regional development initiative originating in Hanover in 1951 — was to be organised.

The site, a sludgy former oil terminal, was dredged and infilled in the largest urban reclamation project ever executed in the country. Two hundred and fifty acres of parkland, sixty ornamental gardens, and numerous pavilions and artworks were created.

My granddad was bought a season ticket and went almost every day, such was local love for the Festival. Celebrities of the era, Acker Bilk, Worzel Gummidge, and SuperTed were all in attendance. For nine months Liverpool attracted over three million tourists, people who previously wouldn’t have dreamt of visiting. There was pride in the city again.

In time the Festival ended and then… nothing. A pamphlet had proclaimed that the Festival Hall was to become “the centrepiece of a planned housing, business and leisure development, for use as a multi-purpose sports and leisure centre”. Unfortunately the only sport and leisure that took place on site was quad-biking and dogging. Not forgetting the ill-fated Pleasure Beach amusement park that lasted from the late 80s to 1996.

Despite failing to use the land itself, all was not lost. Two vital things had come from the Garden Festival: the symbolic gesture that Liverpool wasn’t dead; and a model for leisure-led regeneration. Whilst the Festival site languished, other Garden Festival Cities such as Stoke and Glasgow implemented the next phases of their development, and places like Manchester and Birmingham Urban-Splashed their way to success by adopting the development template that in some ways was pioneered in Liverpool.

It wasn’t until it was gearing up for the Capital of Culture bid that Liverpool belatedly caught up with the style of cultural regeneration it had previously experimented with. A chain reaction had been catalysed that in turn has led to the events of 2008, alongside what Taylor calls “the single biggest thing to happen to the city in the last twenty years” – a shopping centre on a grand scale: Liverpool One. Although it pains me to admit it, cities are built on commerce, and in the absence of new industry the fact is that developing a huge shopping experience on privatised city centre land has helped Liverpool to draw level with its peers. At least it is reasonably architecturally interesting.

Far from merely framing the sequence of bust to bust, Liverpool, and in particular the Garden Festival, has arguably provided a direct model for the culture-led regeneration of the UK’s cities. It’s just that where the Garden Festival itself occurred was not where this happened. This boom of regeneration was the face of the supposedly limitless growth that certainly caused the recent bust, but we might now be in a position to ensure that the “what next” for the city — post Capital of Culture and Liverpool One — isn’t the same as what happened to the Festival site.

I was interviewed by Manchester-based artist and designer Dan Russell for this piece he wrote on Liverpool’s 1984 International Garden Festival for The Modernist magazine.

Reviewing the Regions

By Kenn Taylor

When Brian Sewell was asked if he was going to see the Gustav Klimt exhibition at Tate Liverpool, he replied: “But that would mean going to Liverpool. Liverpool’s awful. Nothing would get me there. They should dig a trench all round the place and pull it out to sea.”

Sewell is, of course, generally fond of such pathetic outbursts. However it is not an isolated incident when it comes to the media’s view of arts outside of London. The situation is so dire it prompted the then head of Bradford’s National Media Museum, Amanda Nevill to say “We still don’t get talked about or written about nationally. I sometimes think I don’t mind if they tear us apart, as long as they write something about us.” This lack of attention is shocking given the fact the venue attracts over 600,000 visitors a year.

When coverage does happen, more than once, I’ve seen broadsheet reviews give more criticism to the train service north than the show itself. Other alleged reviews are in fact opinion pieces about culture as a regeneration tool or the social and economic problems of any given region. Interesting topics that I have written about myself, but so often the exhibition itself is forgotten, as regions are used as mere fodder by metropolitan writers to peddle one ideology or another. I notice that coverage of shows at Tate Britain or the Serpentine in London does not tend to feature much comment on the latest tube strike or deprivation in Tower Hamlets.

The same goes for the frequently patronising coverage of arts institutions outside London in general. The media has been full of tut-tutting about financial and other issues facing newer regional venues like Gateshead’s Baltic and The Public in West Bromwich, but considerably less on the successes of places like the New Art Gallery in Walsall or Nottingham Contemporary.

Coverage of art in the regions is especially hilarious when it comes to reviewing the cultural festivals of various kinds that have sprung up across the country. When reading reviews from Venice or some other exotic locale, you can almost hear the hack smiling and sipping a glass of vino on expenses, while writing on some sun-drenched terrace. Just as you can hear the bitterness of the journalist typing up a review in Costa Coffee in rain-sodden Manchester, miffed that the other guy got the Lisbon Biennial gig this year. Of course it is easy to be impressed with weather and glamour that Britain can not offer, but what about the actual quality of the shows?

There is perhaps an inevitable ‘chip-on-shoulder’ defensiveness in regional arts institutions when critics attack ‘our’ venues, especially when it is such a struggle to get arts outside of the capital acknowledged at all. Nevertheless, I think most of us regional arts workers are capable of critical distance and our chip-on-shoulder is almost inevitable when consistently faced with such poor examples of journalism.

Not only is it exasperating for those of us who know the quality of some of the work being shown in regional Britain, despite the frequent malaise in the media. With critics often treating the regions as ‘other’, like some colony whose attempts at culture must be picked over anthropologically by the ‘educated outsider’. I think it also unveils something deeper and darker about our media: its lack of understanding of the Britain outside London and the narrow talent pool it so often draws its staff from. Perhaps the BBC move to Salford will shift this a little. We live in hope.

If you want to review art in the regions, commission local writers with better insight, even better, come and criticise, we can take it. But if you want to moan about the train service, write a letter to Network Rail and save the space to tell your readers about the artwork.

This piece appeared on Arts Professional in January 2012.

Kevin Casey in conversation with Kenn Taylor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following was an interview conducted with photographer Kevin Casey about his project Closing Time, for which he photographed the many abandoned pubs across Liverpool. An abridged version of it appeared in the book of Closing Time, alongside an essay on the subject by myself which you can read here.

KT: Tell me, how did this project began and, why pubs?

KC: Basically, it started two years ago on my journeys into town. I live in Waterloo/Crosby, and I take the train to town for my job as a Gallery Assistant in Liverpool. During that journey you stop at Seaforth, Bootle, Bankhall, Sandhills, and at nearly every stop you’d see a pub that was in disarray, or about to close down. I just thought, well, with my background being photography, I decided to photograph them. There’s also a link to my family. We’ve had quite a few pubs over a twenty-five/thirty year period, so I feel like I’ve got a bit of an intrinsic link to them, so maybe that’s why my awareness has been heightened.

KT: How did you go about finding the pubs?

KC: Initially it was ones that I saw on my journeys to work, or going to the football. I also asked my friends, family members who used to run pubs, if they knew of any pubs that had closed. A lot of the time when I was photographing, on the way to the location I’d find two or three pubs I’d never even heard of on the way.

KT: When you were shooting, were you consciously trying to portray anything?

KC: It’s impossible to be impartial when you’re documenting or photographing anything, but I thought when I was taking the images that if I could get them as uniform as possible, then hopefully you can see both the comparisons and the contrasts of each building. Basically my idea was to be as impartial as possible, and to show both the harsh reality, with slight sympathy, but not overly romanticise the images.

KT: When taking these pictures, did you have a desire to preserve something, to capture it before it went?

KC: I think one of the main things photography is used for is capturing the here and now, that is photography’s strength, and I’d like people to appreciate them now. But I also think that they might have greater emphasis in ten, twenty, thirty years time, when we look back on a lot of these buildings, when I think it’s a given that the majority of them will not be standing any more, or at least will not be a pub.

KT: Tell me about your experience of shooting the images. Did it generate a lot of interest amongst passers by?

KC: Yes, there was a lot of interest, and a lot of suspicion as well. Some people are more suspicious if you’re holding a camera than they are if you’re holding a baseball bat. Most people were great though. They’d stop and chat to you and take an interest, and even suggest or point out other places I could go to. A lot of communities, like say Kensington, a few in Bootle, a few of the ones near to town and Anfield, people were quite interested and wanted to get involved and tell you places where to go, and they’d always start talking about their childhood, and the places they used to go out.

KT: What were your own feelings then, whilst shooting the project, having seen all these pubs, going to these communities?

KC: You go through different stages. I think at first you feel, it’s such a sad and alarming thing to see, even before I started to photograph, witnessing and picking up on the fact that these places are closing down. Then you go through the sort of, selfish stage of ‘That’s a good idea for a project. It’s quite unique and it might get me some attention.’ And then you feel a little bit guilty for that, because your project is the fact that these things are in decline. Something draws a lot of photographers to that, there’s a lot of appeal in things that are declining, there’s a beauty, a sort of fallen grace if you like. So you do feel a bit of guilt sometimes that, even though you’re getting a great project out of it and doing good work, you are doing that good work through the misfortune of something else. But I suppose your role as a photographer is to document what you see, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing happening in front of the camera. But I also had quite a lot of empathy towards it, because my family have been involved in pubs from a long time and I used to spend a lot of time from an early age in pubs that my cousin and my auntie and my nan used to run,. If you can get success out of a project, that’s what you want as an artist or a photographer, but I’m doing it in an honest way I’d say.

KT: Tell me what photographers have influenced you, either in general or for this particular project?

KC: I’m actually a big fan of the modern trend of ‘constructed reality’. Like your Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, and Hannah Starkey as well, because I come from a bit of a fine art background as well as the photography, it’s almost like creating something in front of the camera. But I also love the documentary people, like you’re Walker Evans, you’re Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï. Then there was people like William Eggleston whose colour work was so raw and new at the time. Landscape wise, I love the Becher school; Edward Burtynsky, Andreas Gursky, the grand landscapes, high statements. There might not be a lot going on in the image but the power and size of the image forces you to look at it. Especially in colour, that’s definitely been an influence on me deciding not to shoot in black and white, because with people like Burtynsky and Gursky I think you can see the fading and deterioration of buildings and landscapes a little bit more than you can do with the Becher’s work in monotone black and white. You can see little details of these buildings, like the brickwork that is starting to erode, or the pub sign which has got faded paint dropping off, that was one of the reasons I decided to shoot in colour. It is the influence of them, but also just to retain the detail for future reference.

KT: Was there a reason you decided to shoot them in portrait format?

KC: I was shooting the images in a portrait format because you’re in a very, very tight space with some them, and I didn’t want to include too much background. If you can pick up a bit of the surrounding background, then that obviously adds to it, but I wanted the focus to be on the pub. I thought that the portrait format is a lot more direct in the way it is cropped. I also think it gives the pub a bit more personality, almost like people in a way. They’re all very similar but they’ve also got their own characters and that, which you can relate to portraiture.

KT: You seem to have purposefully shot the buildings largely in isolation. There are no people in the shots and hardly any cars.

KC: I think it was the South African photographer David Goldblatt who purposely used to include cars and people in some of his landscapes because in ten, twenty years time you can see the difference in fashions, or style of the motor car, in shot. So with me, I’ve been battling whether to include cars or people in the scenery. I’ve chosen not to have any people. In a few of the shots there are cars, but ultimately I didn’t want to detract too much from the actual buildings.

KT: So were you trying to get the buildings to speak for themselves?

KC: Yes…and no. That doesn’t really answer your question but…I wanted them to speak for themselves in the sense that, they didn’t need any extra help from me to show either the decay, or the loss, in some cases, of great architecture. I mean some of them are run down shacks that are not very beautiful at all, and some of them are actually beautiful buildings that have been left to ruin, but still have that element of beauty. So they do speak for themselves in that case, but if I said that phrase I think it would sound a bit cheesy. If someone wanted to describe it in that way though, I’ve got no problem with that.

KT: How do you think this work fits in with other photographic representations of Merseyside?

KC: I suppose the most well-known, well the ones that spring to mind, linked to Merseyside, are Martin Parr’s The Last Resort, and any given Tom Wood book. Bus Odyssey I suppose is the one he’s known for. I can understand that people get frustrated the only thing that seems to be popular linked to Merseyside photographic wise are decline, or a working-class way of life. I think there are a lot of other things that the city offers and a lot of positive things that are happening in Liverpool at the moment, I’m more pro-Scouse than anyone, but I think it would be naive to ignore the things that are going on, and that are in decline just to put a positive spin on things. Of course, pub closures are a national thing, but my experience was Liverpool, I’m from Liverpool, I know Liverpool. I feel that, because I’ve got a connection to the area, and even to some of the pubs, I’m not just showing decline in Merseyside of the sake of it, to add to the stereotype.

KT: What do you think it is about Liverpool that seems to either suit the documentary mode, or appeal to documentary photographers? I’m thinking especially of photographers from outside the city that have come to shoot it, some of the most famous in the world; Henri Cartier-Bresson, Candida Höfer, Phillip Jones-Griffiths, Rineke Dijkstra.

KC: From what I can guess, for people coming from outside of the city, when they come to Liverpool, it’s almost like a separate state, even though it’s reflecting what’s happening in a lot of the rest of the country. I think a lot of Scousers see themselves as slightly different. Whether it’s because England is an island in itself, and on the edge of that island you have Liverpool, so close to Wales, Ireland. It’s such a melting pot of people and it’s gone through so many different changes; from slavery, trade, to the industrial revolution to the decline of industry. Right now we’re going through a period were leisure and tourism is the new industry, and there’s quite a lot of documentation of that. I think it appeals to people because it is such a powerhouse of a city, such a melting pot that’s gone through so many transitions, up and down like a rollercoaster ride. As a photographer, you’d be foolish not to want to document it.

A Brief History of Edge Hill

This is a book I wrote to accompany the Metal Culture project, The Edge Hill Archive, which looks at the history and culture of Edge Hill, Liverpool 7, and the work that Metal is doing in the area now. The project and the book’s publication was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The design is by Ultimate Holding Company.

You can read A Brief History of Edge Hill at the Issuu link below or download the PDF. For further information on the wider Edge Hill Archive see also the link below.

Edge Hill: the place where an industry began that changed the world.

http://issuu.com/kenntaylor/docs/a_brief_history_if_edge_hill

A Brief History of Edge Hill PDF

www.edgehillstation.co.uk

Canning zine

‘Canning’ is a new zine I have created with artist Natalie Hughes and designer Mike Carney. It features a varied collection of my writing from the last few years that has been inspired by the Canning area of Liverpool 8. You can read it on Issuu at the link below or download the PDF. A limited number of print copies will also be available for free in the usual outlets in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield in the next couple of weeks.

http://issuu.com/kenntaylor/docs/canning_zine

Canning zine PDF

From the Ground Up: Radical Liverpool Now

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Kenn Taylor

This book tells the story of a century in the life of a radical city. One hundred years of turmoil, extreme change, alternative ideas and independent action. Different radical currents have flown through Liverpool over the years but underneath it all the city’s inhabitants seem to have developed a fiercely independent nature that defies any attempt to pin it down – a nature that mistrusts external authority, frequently defies conventional logic and seeks practical solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

If you talk about radical politics and activism in Liverpool, there is an inevitable harking back to the radical socialism that was a key component of the city’s identity after 1911 – especially during the 1980s, when a local authority dominated by the Militant Tendency infamously refused to set a legal budget as an act of resistance against a hostile Conservative government. This, along with the radical trade union activity throughout the city and the Toxteth riots of 1981, helped cast a view of Liverpool as a hotbed of revolutionary socialism that still persists today.

Yet, as documented elsewhere by John Belchem, this was far from representative of Liverpool’s grassroots politics throughout its history. If 1911 was the year that marked Liverpool’s shift towards a form of socialism, then the 1980s were perhaps its peak. And almost as soon as this aspect of the city’s character entered into the national consciousness it had begun to decline.

Contributing to this, no doubt, was the failure of the Militant council to bring down the Conservative central government and fund the municipal socialism they promised – not to mention distaste within the city for some of their methods. This, along with a decline in trade union membership and disappointment in thirteen years of New Labour government, has considerably reduced the influence of the labour movement in Liverpool at a grassroots level. It has been suggested in light of this that the city has lost its radical nature and become overwhelmed by apathy. Indeed, Liverpool has some of the lowest voter turnouts in the UK. However; this chapter will argue that this decline has seen an emergence, or perhaps a re-emergence, of a different type of radicalism in the city.

In recent years, large sections of Liverpool have been transformed, mostly in a positive way. But beneath this brave new regenerated city there are still many problems and, with them, a vast undercurrent of grassroots activism that is fighting to rebuild the city from the ground up. The radical spirit that has over the years fuelled protests, riots, strikes, occupations and takeovers, remains. As do the skills, in organising, protesting, publicizing and delivering action. Though much of this is still organised and influenced by those who were part of the labour movement, the landscape has changed.

This spirit perhaps harks back to something older and deeper in the psyche of Liverpool’s citizens: to the culture forged in the dire poverty of Victorian Liverpool, when the character that came to be known as ‘Scouse’ was being formed and the gulf between rich and poor was so vast.

Perhaps the best-known example of grassroots community activism in Liverpool during the last thirty years has been that surrounding the development of the Eldonian Village. Here, in deprived Vauxhall, a celebrated, self-organised community grew up on wasteland, against the odds and in the face of an actively hostile local authority. In Liverpool it has frequently been individuals rather than movements that have defined the city’s activism. This is exemplified by Tony McGann, who led the residents of the Eldon Street and Burlington Street tenements to develop the Eldonian Village. His actions were driven by a desire to prevent their community being broken up and dispersed to estates on the fringes of the city – the fate of so many other working-class communities in Liverpool due to successive slum clearance programmes from the 1930s onwards.

Encouraged by the then Liberal-dominated city council in the early 1980s to form a housing co-operative, the residents that were to become known as the Eldonians had their plans undermined when Labour gained control of the city in 1983. Coming up against a local Labour party keen that it alone should control housing and community development, the residents nevertheless battled on. Determined that they knew what was best for the community, they had come to mistrust the council, of whichever political stripe, for having failed to deliver the services they had promised.

In order to bring their plans to fruition, McGann and his fellow community association members worked not only with the labour movement but also formed alliances with everyone from Conservative ‘Minister for Merseyside’ Michael Heseltine to major construction companies, architects, social landlords and even royalty, developing the new ‘urban village’ over a number of years and many hurdles.

From a humble start the Eldonian Village has grown into a development renowned around the world, even winning the UK’s first United Nations World Habitat Award in 2004 for creating ‘an internationally recognized model of community-led sustainable regeneration’. The Eldonian Community Trust and its various subsidiaries have since expanded into many other areas beyond housing, establishing a local leisure centre, nursery and village hall. They have also worked with private developers and other partners on expanding the area and encouraging younger families to move in. The result is a ‘self-regenerating community’.

The Eldonian Village was a radical project at the time, but it was not Liverpool’s first attempt to create better lives through buildings. Poverty has meant that problems with housing have dominated the city for much of its existence, as have attempts to find solutions to them. Liverpool Corporation is noted as having built the first local-authority-owned housing in the UK in 1869, thus bringing new standards into the housing of the poor.

Later, between the wars, the city pioneered continental-style tenement blocks and developed out-of-town housing estates. As such initiatives moved from being radical to the norm in the post-war era, Liverpool also became home to some of the largest housing associations in the UK, these largely focused on regenerating older, abandoned city-centre properties that had been left to rot by the council. However, the well-meaning that had seen the city pioneer the first municipal housing eventually became lost among council bureaucracy and limited funds. Even the housing associations morphed to become huge public corporations, now often perceived as being as remote as local authorities themselves.

With the emergence of the Eldonian Village, Liverpool also became a test bed for large-scale co-operative urban development. For many years the city had searched for solutions to its housing problems and come up with groundbreaking ideas that were later adopted nationally; the Eldonian solution, however, was developed from within the community itself, not imposed by outside ‘experts’.

The Eldonians realised that rebuilding housing was not on its own enough to tackle deprivation and create a sustainable community. Control by local people over their own environment and long-term, multifaceted thinking were key. This was in contrast to the zealousness with which Liverpool city council had pursued its flawed modernist-influenced housing developments in the 1950s and 1960s. Whilst acknowledging that the dire post-war housing shortage contributed to this, these schemes, developed by outsiders with utopian ideals and often rigid beliefs, were frequently ill thought out and badly built. Such estates were imposed onto people with little thought for the fragile ecosystems that provided support in poor communities, creating untold damage, the effects of which remain today.

The failure time and again of such grand plans and ideologies dreamt up by outsiders to improve the lives of the poor in Liverpool, be they from politician, academic, architect or otherwise, has helped create a mistrust of such ideas in the city, fostering instead a do-it-yourself mentality where disenfranchised communities have taken matters into their own hands.

The work of Tony McGann and the Eldonians prompted Prince Charles to remark, ‘Men and women, through the power of their own personalities, can achieve more than millions spent through committees’ – a comment no doubt with which many citizens of Liverpool would agree.

It took the prospect of their community being broken up and dispersed to galvanise the residents of Eldon Street and Burlington Street into creating the Eldonian Village. A similar crisis in the Croxteth area of the city was to prompt equally radical action at around about the same time. In 1980, Liverpool city council stated its intention to close Croxteth Comprehensive School, doing so without consulting the local community or even informing the school’s head teacher.

Croxteth was one of Liverpool’s rapidly built, post-war peripheral housing estates and the school was one of the few facilities the deprived community had. Numerous intense protests against closure were quickly organised, but when these came to nothing, parents and local residents took the decision forcibly to occupy the school on the day before its planned closure in 1982. This radical action sent shockwaves through both the community and the authorities, as recalled by local resident Irene Madden: ‘I’ve never known an atmosphere like it … I think the Council and the government got the shock of their lives, you know when we stood up to them.’ Unlike the Eldonians, those involved in the Croxteth occupation were fighting the then Liberal-dominated council and had the support of the Labour group, but once again they were defying the power of a local authority they perceived as remote to try to protect the interests of the local community.

Soon after the occupation, the Croxteth Community Action Committee took the decision to open their own community school in the building, despite overwhelming odds and no real funding. The committee was led largely by Phil Knibb, like Tony McGann, another tough individual who commanded the respect of the local community. It organised and operated all aspects of the school and its round the clock occupation in partnership with parents and pupils. Volunteer teachers came from across the country, donations were successfully sought and supplies given by local factories.

They received widespread media coverage and even won celebrity backing from Vanessa Redgrave and UB40 – all this in the face of legal threats from the council and the electricity being cut off. The current UK coalition government are keen on ‘free schools’ and communities setting up and running their own educational establishments, but in 1982 Liverpool was once again pushing a radical idea that was attacked by many in politics and the media. The Daily Mail even suggested that ‘the strange Indian cult Anada Marga’ was at work in the ‘school of chaos’.

After Labour won control of the city council, Croxteth Comprehensive was taken back fully into local authority control in 1985. However, the occupation had helped create a new sense of community activism and empowerment in the area. Early in the occupation the Action Committee formed several subcommittees to work on wider local issues, including providing activities for young people, tackling the area’s heroin problem and providing support for older members of the community – work that was to continue long after the school campaign had ended.

In 1999, an old people’s residential home in the centre of Croxteth became available for purchase and a number of Committee members pooled their savings and redundancy monies to buy it and turn it into a community-based education centre. Since then, the now Alt Valley Community Trust, still led by Phil Knibb, has grown beyond all recognition.

The old people’s home has been turned into ‘The Communiversity’ and is the main base for the organisation’s work. Social businesses have been set up in local shopping units purchased by the trust and a vocational skills training centre for young people has opened in the former St Swithin’s Church – a project that is now entirely self-financed through contracts.16 Even the local leisure centre has been taken over by the trust through asset transfer.

Croxteth Comprehensive School was once more threatened with closure by the city council at the end of 2008. The decision again sparked outcry in the local community, which refused to accept the verdict. This time there was no occupation, but they became among only a handful nationally who managed to take their case to the High Court in an unsuccessful bid to challenge the ruling. However, having lost that battle, members of the community are attempting to turn something negative into something positive. At the time of writing, the Alt Valley Community Trust is in discussions with Liverpool city council to take ownership of the modern technology and sports blocks of the school to expand its own education provision. Croxteth is another example of a community being pushed into taking control of its own situation, no longer allowing itself to be at the mercy of external forces. This recurrent theme of recent activism has arguably filled the vacuum left by the decline and failure of the overarching ideologies and systems that such communities had come to rely on.

The mistrust of grand schemes within Liverpool has manifested itself most recently perhaps in campaigns around the city’s European Capital of Culture 2008 designation. Winning the status in 2003 was one of, if not the, biggest things to happen to the city in the last twenty years. Property values rose overnight and there was nothing short of euphoria in some quarters that Liverpool’s importance finally seemed to be officially acknowledged after so much decline and derision. In particular the city’s cultural community, which had struggled to survive through years of austerity, felt that its role was finally being recognised.

But it all soon began to slip. The Culture Company running the year was perceived as remote, the programme for 2008 was accused of not acknowledging ‘local’ culture and links between the title and wider development plans began to emerge. Rightly or wrongly, building developments such as Grosvenor’s Liverpool One and the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder programme instigated by the government were lumped together with the award as the city went through an intense period of growth it had not experienced in years. This development was fuelled not only by the culture title but by increased inward investment and the global easy-credit boom.

As rapid development continued in the build-up to 2008, the city’s artistic fringe found itself being pushed out of its studios and venues by the rapidly developing legions of bars and flats. Ironically, however, the Capital of Culture title also provided a hook for the city’s artistic grassroots to resist these developments, which, with the credit boom and the like, would probably have happened anyway, as it did in other cities across the UK. A loose anti-2008 movement emerged, questioning not only how plans for the year were being handled but the whole notion of regeneration and the Capital of Culture status in and of itself.

The big spark for all of this appears to have been the fight against the proposed closure of the Quiggins ‘alternative’ shopping centre to make way for the Liverpool One development. Ultimately, the campaign did not succeed, though the shopping centre has since been moved elsewhere in the city, but it became a powerful symbol and rallying point of the ‘independent’ and ‘local’ against the ‘corporate’ and ‘global’, even if the Liverpool One development has subsequently proved very popular in the city. Similar campaigns were mounted around the Picket music venue and the Parr Street Studios recording complex, both threatened with conversion into apartments. Angry words were raised in independent local publications such as Mercy and Nerve and pretty soon even the mainstream media began questioning what was happening in Liverpool.

The city then became a test case for contemporary urban regeneration ideas that had developed over the intervening thirty years. In the aftermath of the 1981 Toxteth riots, the Conservative-backed, quango-led regeneration initiatives around the Garden Festival, the Albert Dock and the Southern Docks meant that Liverpool was among the first cities to experience the sort of leisure and private-housing-led regeneration later adopted by former industrial areas around the country. And, in the build-up to 2008, what was happening in the city was to highlight the flaws in these ideas.

Liverpool subsequently began to attract considerable criticism from both academia and the broadsheets for its regeneration plans, with commentators questioning just how much of the city’s renaissance was trickling down positively to affect poor local communities. That many of the same people had previously talked up the triumphs of similar schemes in London, Manchester, Birmingham et al., despite the fact that these areas all retained similar levels of deprivation masked by redeveloped central areas, seemed lost. Liverpool was blamed for telling a wider truth about the UK’s situation that was soon to be exposed by the credit crunch. Many commentators who had previously backed such forms of regeneration subsequently washed their hands of these ideas in the same way as did zealous supporters of post-war modernist development when communities themselves highlighted the flaws of their new towns and high-rises.

The city again showed the rest of the country ‘the error of its ways’ and demonstrated the power of grassroots action. This perhaps is Liverpool’s greatest contribution to the wider world for having been awarded European Capital of Culture: to have been the place that questioned, even deconstructed, the whole concept, in the process changing the way many people think globally about concepts of culture, cities and regeneration.

The other big issue that has provoked intense community activism in Liverpool in recent years is the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI) Pathfinder programme. Instigated in the early 2000s by the Labour government, its intention was to regenerate areas where housing demand was seen to have failed and that were suffering from dereliction and the inherent problems it creates. Based on a report by academics from the University of Birmingham, the plan advocated wholesale demolition and reconstruction of many deprived areas of the UK.

Liverpool city council adopted the policy enthusiastically and began buying up properties, often through compulsory purchase orders, and instigating a demolition programme. This was perhaps understandable as after years of government underfunding the city was being offered a large amount of money for housing development. But the plans were fiercely resisted in parts of the city as once again the council was seen to be imposing its will unthinkingly on local communities. Some even accused the plans as amounting to ‘social cleansing’ and an attempt to drive poorer people out of the city.

As with previous demolition schemes, HMRI galvanised local residents into taking control of their own surroundings. In Toxteth, one of several areas where there was a reaction against the programme, committees and residents’ groups were created to fight the plans. Alliances were developed with politicians, heritage groups and even Beatles fans, since one house up for demolition in the ‘Welsh Streets’ area had once been the home of Ringo Starr. Partnerships were also formed with housing co-operatives and private developers who stated their intention to renovate rather than demolish the area’s empty properties. There have also been symbolic and imaginative responses against the plans. Poetry and art was daubed on the doors and windows of threatened houses in the Welsh Streets. Meanwhile, in the nearby ‘Four Streets’ area of Granby, residents have undertaken ‘guerrilla gardening’, planting flowers and vegetables among the empty buildings to create a veritable oasis of green in an area now blighted by urban decay. Local street markets and parties have also been organized to highlight the strength of feeling and community spirit, again powerful symbols against the might of a massive national government initiative and the council’s plans.

Campaigns against HMRI have had mixed successes across the city, and it must also be pointed out that a proportion of the residents involved did back demolition and reconstruction. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, the council had recently announced plans to refurbish rather than demolish some of the houses in the Four Streets area, while the Granby Residents Association hopes the demise of HMRI funding might now allow for more community-led refurbishment schemes to takes its place.

However, a question mark continues to remain over whether the high-profile campaign to save the Welsh Streets will be successful. Communities taking over and reusing spaces left abandoned by Liverpool’s economic problems can be seen time and again across the city.

Another example is in the Dingle area of Liverpool 8, where a high-profile campaign was instigated to take over, refurbish and bring back into use a prominent local building that had been left to rot. The Florence Institute was originally gifted to the area by Sir Bernard Hall, a merchant, Alderman and former Mayor of Liverpool. Named after his daughter, who died tragically at the age of twenty-two, ‘the Florrie’ was officially opened in Mill Street in 1890 and became a focal point for the local youth and community for many years. With funding running dry, the Florrie was eventually sold in 1987 with the intention that its charitable work should be continued by another body. Unfortunately, this never happened and the building became neglected, a target for vandals and the elements.

As the building decayed, the local community formed a pressure group, ‘The Friends of the Florrie’, to bring it back into use. A community-led trust was set up at the end of 2004 and completed a consultation on the building’s future. Denise Devine, chair of the trust and also managing director of the nearby Toxteth Town Hall, says the needs of local people were paramount: ‘There has been door to door and group consultation throughout and that will continue … It really means a lot in the hearts and minds of local people, the Florrie bettered people, it made them better, honest, hardworking people … It will fulfil that function again – from cradle to grave, Sunday to Sunday.’

The Florence Institute Trust has worked hard over the last few years to develop a regeneration plan for the building and to raise funds to restore it into a multi-ethnic community centre for all ages and abilities. The plan for the new Florrie includes exhibition and performance space, activities for young people and the elderly, an indoor/outdoor sport area, childcare facilities, workspaces for local business and a heritage resource centre.

Having raised over £6.4 million from a variety of sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund and the city council, in June 2010 it was reported that work was due to start on the new Florrie with a planned completion at the end of 2011. The trust has also formed an agreement with the main building contractor that wherever possible jobs on the project should be sourced from the local community.

As Denise Devine documents, once again this initiative was led by the community itself: ‘The Friends of the Florrie is a home-grown grassroots organisation that has had to take the lead when no-one else wanted to touch it with a barge pole. Now people are inspired and have had their faith restored.’

This chapter has attempted to show that grassroots radicalism is still a key component of Liverpool’s culture, and also to draw together some of the factors that link these different actions and initiatives. Rather than Liverpool adhering to an overarching radical ideology, there are instead many instances of the city’s deprived communities refusing to be crushed or to have their destiny controlled by external forces. If anything, that is the underlying radical undercurrent in Liverpool now, and possibly always has been.

Community activists in the city have always had general mistrust of external authority or anyone trying to impose anything on them, be it government, institution, trade union, political party or local authority. There is also an equal distrust of grand plans and ideas, usually because time and again they have been shown to fail the people they are most meant to help. The dreams of 1911 and of other attempts at rapid radical change in Liverpool – be they the slum clearances, Militant Tendency or leisure-led regeneration – have rarely brought the transformative benefits they promised.

Although disparate, all the actions I have described – everything from short-term campaigns to full-blown community takeovers – seem to have similar motivations: wresting control of the local environment from distant, unaccountable figures and working towards practical, long-term goals that reflect the needs of the city’s people. Such activism has filled the vacuum created by successive local and national government indifference or incompetence and the decline in trade union and Labour party support.

If deprived communities are to survive and prosper, it can only happen with local control and action that comes from the ground up. Some may find the city’s and its communities’ ruck for independence and self-determination exasperating, while it is also true that it can be hard to strike to strike a balance between this and Liverpool’s need to develop its economy and infrastructure; but when this spirit is directed to solid agency it can be magnificent and can transform the lives of those involved with it. Such communities have also time and again pioneered solutions to seemingly intractable problems and highlighted to the rest of the UK where it is going wrong. For doing so, Liverpool often gets the blame for spoiling the party. But, for that the country owes the city a debt, as it is frequently ideas formed in the turmoil of this radical city that become tomorrow’s ‘common-sense’ solutions.

Indeed, many of the campaigns and initiatives mentioned in this chapter that were once considered radical, even dangerous, ideas – self-organised housing co-operatives, community school takeovers and local control over facilities and services – are now in vogue, favoured by the current UK coalition government as part of its ‘Big Society’ agenda, suggesting that communities will be able to take over from the role of the state services for which it is withdrawing funding. In fact, just before the 2010 general election, Conservative leader David Cameron visited a Liverpool social enterprise called MerseySTRIDE on Great Homer Street in Everton – a furniture workshop that provides work for local unemployed, homeless and otherwise disadvantaged people – saying that it demonstrated his ideas for the ‘Big Society’ in action: ‘The biggest thing is to build a stronger society – we’ve got to help people who are unemployed for a long time and social enterprises like this help. It demonstrates where giving more power and control to projects like these works.’

Most people in Liverpool would agree that communities themselves know what is best for them. Is the city then not only leading the way in radical new ideas, but for once not going against the grain of the rest of the country? Yet, what promoters of the ‘Big Society’ do not acknowledge is that many of the most successful initiatives discussed here, from the development of the Eldonian Village to the Florence Institute restoration in Dingle, despite being community-led, have required a complex mesh of external funding and support. In a city that relies heavily on national government funding that is now being withdrawn, this is something that in future will be in short supply. And, despite the grassroots activism of the past thirty years often operating against the grain and with limited support, it was the withdrawal of such funding and support in the past that helped create so much damage in these communities and fostered the need for such radical action in the first place. It is also why it has taken so much work and extra money over the years to build things back up.

If all that disappears once again, it can only undo so much of what has been achieved. With the government refusing to admit that the voluntary and the community-led also requires financial support, it has to be asked how many of these projects will be able to continue their current good work, let alone replace the role of local and national government provision.

Indeed, despite Cameron’s pre-election support for MerseySTRIDE, once in power, the coalition government quickly axed the Future Jobs Fund programme that had provided much of the funding for placements at this social enterprise. It seems the ‘Big Society’ might end up just being another flawed, top-down ideology that Liverpool’s communities will have to resist, counteract and find solutions to.

What then is the future of grassroots activism in Liverpool? Much has changed since 1911, but much remains the same: the interconnected problems associated with poverty, housing, unemployment, crime, ill-health, education and opportunity. As the last hundred years have taught us, there are no easy answers to any of these. Yet something else we have learned over the last century is that Liverpool and its active citizens are resilient: they will not give up and will do whatever they can to look after their communities.

In many respects, the city should long ago have ceased to exist, let alone have managed to achieve what it has. And not only that, but also remain a place of radical action that is still influencing thinking globally.

Radical Liverpool today is perhaps the same as it has always been: a collection of tough, bolshie individuals and groups who share a passion for their beliefs and their community and will not be told what to do. There are radical grassroots activities being undertaken across many different communities and over many different issues, but what unites them seems to be what has united radical Liverpool since 1911 and before: a gritty self-determination to succeed against the odds – something that will stand the city in good stead for the inevitable challenges of the next hundred years.

This piece appeared in the book Liverpool: City of Radicals edited by John Belchem and Bryan Biggs and published by Liverpool University Press. ISBN: 9781846316470. A fully referenced version is available in the book.

On the Waterfront

In July 2011 a new museum will open on Liverpool’s waterfront. Inside it will tell how a tiny, insignificant fishing village rose to become the pre-eminent port in the world, a centre of industrial innovation, global trade and culture, and then on, to a pariah city, struck by deep poverty and malaise. It will also tell, not least by the nature of its striking new building, of a contemporary city in transition.

Nearby there are also new office complexes, retail and leisure playgrounds, an arena and, soon, a new exhibition hall. The city it seems has come full circle, with transformed docklands that were, only twenty years ago, abandoned, silted up, useless, the most prominent symbol of our decline.

Not that far away though, there is a different story. Half an hour’s walk from the new museum in any direction, you hit areas like Vauxhall, Kensington, and Toxteth, changed little by the regeneration of central Liverpool. These are districts, battered by the loss of industry and then by the subsequent break down of their community and way of life, where closed-down shops and pubs, and tinned-up streets of terraced houses, are a common sight.

It is easy to highlight this stark difference, and many writers have. The same comparison could be made in varying degrees in Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow, Hull, Portsmouth, Salford and others. Regenerated waterfronts have been the symbolic centre of change for many cities over the last ten years, even if that hasn’t always led to opportunities for those living nearby. Yet, having protested about the gap between waterside regeneration and the continuing decay of our inner-urban communities, so many writers then stop. Satisfied in their telling of a ‘truth’, but rarely offering any real workable alternatives for these economically weak and battered cities beyond mocking their pretensions of having changed. Because what many refuse to face is that there is no easy answer to this, no simple solution to relieve this contrast.

For someone living with regenerated docks a stones throw one direction and boarded-up terraces in the other, I see both sides of the story. There is a truth in the continued deprivation in such places, but there is also a truth that such developments are also a positive change, creating at least some jobs and growth in cities were, more often than not, nothing was built for years and decline often seemed terminal.

The waterfront was the basis of Liverpool becoming a city, for years it became an embarrassment as it fell out of use, but now, it is has been made relevant again. A place where things happen and people want to visit. Historic buildings have been saved and brought back into use, new ones built. These developments will not on their own solve the myriad of problems of a city that suffers from poverty and deprivation, but they are better than continued rot and abandonment, which serves local people not at all, even if some aesthete critics would rather see poetic decay than imperfect growth.

The brutal fact is the old industries and jobs are not coming back, at least not in the same way, and neither is the culture and way of life that went with them. And lest we forget, working on the waterfront in the old days was, for all the community spirit, often hard and unforgiving. Those who look back with nostalgia at that world are guilty of the same sentimentality as the writers of the past who claimed the industrial revolution had ‘corrupted’ the working class and romanticised about a ‘better’ rural world, ignoring the harshness of a life on the land. The industrialisation of Britain once destroyed a way of life just as surely as its de-industrialisation has now done in our time, but it also created a new, different one, in some ways better, in some ways worse.

Our regenerated waterfronts represent the new reality that we are now entering. Cities ultimately must have a form of sustenance or they will not survive. Places like Liverpool have to go for whatever growth and jobs we can get and our biggest asset, undoubtedly, is the waterfront. The only alternatives are to be reliant on subsidy, which, as we are now seeing, is very easy to be taken away, or surrendering to terminal decline as our young people leave for better chances elsewhere.

The key question is what next? The decline of the industrial waterfront set the rot in the communities that surrounded it. Now the post-industrial waterfront is re-growing, what, if anything, can be done for its neighborhoods to benefit? Despite the many problems such areas face, there are some examples of growth and, more importantly, of ground-up, community-led regeneration. By Liverpool’s old northern docks, on the site of an old sugar refinery is the Eldonian Village. An integrated sustainable development owned and organised by the community, one that has won the UK’s first United Nations World Habitat Award. Meanwhile, in Toxteth, near the old southern docks, an abandoned Victorian youth centre, ‘The Florrie’, has been taken over by local people and is being restored into a new multi-function community facility to open next year.

With such self-organisation and self-determination under way, can these communities take a stake in these new economies? Will they, like the canny leaders of the Shetland Islands when the oil companies came to town in the 1970s, make sure that local people benefit from their geography, or will they instead be pushed out by economic growth, like in London, where the wealth of Canary Wharf built on the old east end docks does little help to the poor in Tower Hamlets. If such waterfront developments are to benefit the many not the few, communities will have to take matters into their own hands to make them, the profiteers in power are unlikely to acquiesce of their own accord.

On the Mersey, the waterfront continues to re-grow. The huge Liverpool Waters and Wirral Waters schemes, by the company behind Salford’s MediaCity, promise vast new centres for living and working on the sites of old docks. There is new industrial development too, with plans for large new port terminals and distribution centres to serve the emerging economies and several renewable energy facilities, including possibly the UK’s first tidal energy barrage. I am a sceptic to all of this, but then I disbelieved the current crop of developments and yet here they are. Such attempts at growth by our old industrial cities may still ultimately be futile in the face of a world which is shifting rapidly, but for maybe the first time in thirty or forty years, Liverpool seems like it may just have a future, and its fate, and that of other cities like it, once again hangs on the waterfront.

This piece appeared in Article magazine’s ‘Ports’ issue in June 2011.