UNESCO’s potential removal of Liverpool’s World Heritage Site has put the challenges the city faces into sharp relief.
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 it 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, these structures will continue to rot, especially as – in the 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.
Few critics acknowledge this difficult context, with much of the national commentary on this issue marred by thinly veiled contempt. This is the kind of patronising attitude the city has sadly become used to over the years, coming 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 10 years ago, it’s clear that Liverpool is getting better at looking after its historic buildings despite the challenges it faces. The semi-abandoned 1930s Royal Court Theatre, for example, has since become a thriving venue. Then there’s the brilliant restoration and extension of the Central Library, or the Calderstones mansion, which is being renovated into a centre for reading. Plans are well underway to convert the Art Deco Littlewoods Pools HQ into a film studio, too.
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 & Infrastructure Awards.
Of course, the picture is not all rosy. The city has also seen a raft of poor quality development schemes thrown up by speculators. Liverpool is especially vulnerable, not just due to the issues outlined above, but thanks to planning law and planning departments being 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? Choose either heritage, or jobs? 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 losing Dresdent its World Heritage Status.
Interestingly, tourism in Dresden increase 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 thing most likely to 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.
Some powerful redevelopment projects have been undertaken in Liverpool, through Community Interest Companies or Community Land Trusts. However, these 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 have to continue to face the same choice: 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.
Kenn Taylor is an arts project manager and writer with a particular interest in culture, community and the urban environment.
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