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.

Baltic State

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By Kenn Taylor
Images by Pete Carr

From The Guardian to Lonely Planet, Tech City UK to RIBA, everyone is talking about Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle: a cutting-edge area of culture, nightlife and rapidly growing creative and tech businesses, all in a district that didn’t really exist 10 years ago.

So how did it develop – and what can other cities learn from it?

Baltic Triangle was originally an industrial area nestled between Liverpool’s city centre, its waterfront and its southern residential districts. As businesses folded or moved to newer premises elsewhere, many of its buildings, from 19th century warehouses to 1980s light industrial units, lay abandoned.

In the pre Credit Crunch property boom, sites closer to Liverpool city centre were occupied by artists and creative businesses, and the area saw rents rise, flats and shops built on venues and studios – all the usual tropes of stage two gentrification.

But 2008, as well as being the year of the Credit Crunch, was also Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture. While that served the property boom, it also gave creatives a weapon to fight against it, and Liverpool’s authorities faced a conundrum: how could a real capital of culture allow such things to be swept away by property development? The city needed significant external investment to develop its economy – but how could it also protect and nurture the culture that had helped to turn it around?

Not everyone could see the potential of an area which barely had street lighting – but a few pioneering organisations, such as Elevator Studios, could sense an opportunity. As Mark Lawler, director of Baltic Creative Community Interest Company (CIC), explains: “The people who make strategic decisions thought, okay here’s an opportunity to actually protect some space long-term for creative and digital industries so they don’t get pushed out as values rise.”

The Baltic Triangle’s name comes from it being a triangle of land near the historic Baltic Fleet pub. Some have suggested that the district emerged entirely organically; the reality, as is often the case, was a little more complex.

The way Lawler tells it, Merseyside ACME, Liverpool Vision, Liverpool City Council and the North West Development Agency (NWDA) got round a table, and discussed what assets they had available. “The NWDA said we have 18 warehouses let’s stick them in the pot and grab some grants to redevelop them.”

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A new organisation was established to lead this project – and after some discussion about whether it should be a charity or private firm, the coalition settled on the CIC as a halfway house. Lawler explains: “We have a community statement which is about supporting the growth of the creative and digital industries in the Liverpool City Region.”

Organisations such as Liverpool Biennial were encouraged to move to the area, and Baltic Creative CIC’s small units began to attract new creative businesses; soon, more eateries and venues were opening to cater for the growing cluster. Meanwhile, as the council improved the public realm, two new University Technical Colleges (one for computer games, one for life sciences) brought students to the area.

Carl Wong is the CEO LivingLens, a company innovating in the use of video in market research. Founded in late 2013, it now has eleven staff – “three in London, the remainder in Baltic”.

“We recognised that, for us to build a team and a talent pipeline, it would be much more valuable to be in the heart of a technology cluster that was really vibrant,” Wong says. “We looked across the North West and indeed across London and other places as well. For us it was clear that Baltic was at the heart.”

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But the Baltic Triangle risks being a victim of its own success as space runs out, he adds. “Baltic is full. There needs to be the right infrastructure there to engender more businesses to come and this momentum to continue.”

This is something the team at Baltic Creative are already working on. They’re currently redeveloping space on Jordan Street, which is already pre-let. They’re also planning 16,000 sq ft of creative business space in a former Guinness bottling plant on Simpson Street, and working on the new Northern Lights studio complex in part of the former Cains Brewery, both of which Lawler hopes will be on site within 2016.

But Baltic Creative isn’t the only outfit developing property in the area now it’s fashionable. As Carl Wong notes: “There’s a massive amount of development in and around Baltic – but it’s not necessarily to support new tech start-ups. There’s new halls of residence being built. You have retail development. It’s great to extend the vibrancy of the city, but it doesn’t support technology businesses.”

But Baltic Creative itself is working with some of these very developers to leverage new space for creative businesses, says Lawler. “We work with private developers to say, ‘You don’t want a ground floor, first floor problem of boarded retail units. We’ll take them off you and develop them and fill them full of creative and digital industries’.”

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So, is Baltic Triangle a model for other cities keen to nurture the creative and the digital? “We’ve done a bit of travelling and we’ve seen different approaches to creative clusters,” says Lawler. “The biggest difference that we have compared to any model I have seen is control and ownership. The sector here owns circa £5m worth of assets in Baltic Creative CIC. Let’s imagine in 20 years that’s worth £50m or even £100m – what that does is provide a bedrock for the sector in Liverpool to continue to grow.”

Through its CIC model, Baltic could offer space long-term to those in creative fields, rather than them just being a staging post in the property development cycle. Yet as Mark Lawler notes: “The market is moving faster than the planning.” The NWDA which supported Baltic Creative’s first phase no longer exists – and Liverpool’s authorities have only limited funds for development.

Baltic has the ability to grow creative space through the development of its own assets, but it will only be able to do this if it gets significant strategic and planning support from local authorities. Liverpool’s culture and economy needs it – and if it continues to succeed, it could also be a shining example to other cities. The planners helped birth this creative district: now they must help nurture and protect it.

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This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in June 2016.

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.