Liverpool needs UNESCO like a fish needs a bicycle
It’s been two years since the city lost World Heritage Status. Does anybody care?
By Jack Walton
It was the middle of a scorching hot summer, and a historic European city was feeling glum. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (or UNESCO), the arbiters of international heritage, had announced it would be stripped of World Heritage status. The historic river that made the city worthy of its denomination had been defaced, they said, and in a bid to grow a faltering economy it had crudely trampled upon the very thing that made it great in the first place.
Of course, we all remember the crushing blow UNESCO delivered Dresden on 25 June, 2009. I was nine at the time, but even still. “Those bastards,” I remember saying. “The Waldschlösschen Bridge across the River Elbe will be pivotal to relieving congestion, which in turn will help to drive much-needed economic development in the Saxony region. What on earth are UNESCO thinking?”
As it turned out, I’d called that one spot on. The Waldschlösschen helped ferry workers to a recently-built car factory, which prompted growth after a tough few years, and tourism even increased the year after Dresden lost its status, continuing on an upwards trajectory thereafter. So — 12 years later — when another European city, also set along a major river, also heavily bombed during the war (though perhaps not quite as badly) came face to face with the same crushing fate, I remained sanguine.
Neither broadsheet architecture critics nor politicians shared my breezy confidence. “Liverpool has been vandalising its waterfront for a decade — it’s shocking Unesco didn’t act sooner,” wrote Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian shortly after the verdict. The way he saw it, “the reputation of this once great maritime metropolis” was “in the bin”. Mayor Joanne Anderson described the decision as “incomprehensible”, while Liverpool’s Liberal Democrat leader Richard Kemp dubbed it a “day of shame” for the city, and that claimed the decision would “without a doubt, affect our tourism and inward investment.”
Wainwright and Kemp weren’t alone in their gloomy analysis. Since the de-listing was only the third in UNESCO’s 77-year history, it attracted scathing headlines the world over. From a global perspective, it was more of a blow to Liverpool’s reputation than the ongoing corruption allegations that year. The Caller Report and the arrest of Joe Anderson might have been bombshell stories here, but the Taiwanese press weren’t exactly pouring over the controversy surrounding the contractors for the Churchill Flyover demolition, tsk tsk-ing.
Next week, two years will have elapsed since UNESCO’s decision. So have all the unpleasant predictions as to this city’s irrelevance sans World Heritage status come to pass? Have we been consigned to the cultural dustbin — have we been cut from Lonely Planet 2023? (though, when was the last time you saw anyone read that?)
For those short on memory, the decision came about thanks in particular to the planned development of a stretch of the north docks. UNESCO felt development there — namely Peel’s £5 billion Liverpool Waters plans — would cheapen a historic site. For its part, Liverpool City Council felt this was unfair, and that economic growth was being stifled by some arbitrary criteria.
On revisiting much of the writing about the UNESCO decision in 2021, the first thing you notice is a very specific implication. Namely, that Liverpool is full of parochial philistines, unable to truly appreciate the beautiful assets it’s been blessed with. Which isn’t to say this would be the first time such an accusation has been levelled at this city — think back to Gavin Stamp in the 80s, when he would write about the degradation of Liverpool’s Georgian heritage. Unfortunately for everyone here, it’s continued ever since. But while Anderson’s dismissal that World Heritage Status (or WHS) was merely a “certificate on a wall” may have served to confirm such critics’ worst suspicions, on this one, hindsight seems to have his back.
Take, for example, the experience of regeneration expert Michael Parkinson at Liverpool’s Strategic Futures Panel a few weeks ago. The panel was established this year in the interests of planning Liverpool’s future beyond the government intervention period. It seems reasonable to imagine UNESCO cropping up — after all, Birkenhead Park is in the running this year to win World Heritage Status, and perhaps talk might turn to what advantages WHS gave the city when we did have it. But Parkinson told me that UNESCO was never mentioned. It got me thinking: when was the last time you heard a lament WHS? Is it a case of sad to see UNES-go, love to watch you leave?
Parkinson tells me that you’d be very hard pressed to say in the two years since investment or visitors have gone down because of the decision. “No one I know says ‘I wish they’d never taken the plaque away,’” he says. At one point Parkinson, as part of a project with Liverpool University, attempted to find evidence of the economic benefit of WHS. “It was very hard,” he says. “Finally, someone at the Titanic [Hotel] said they can probably get £10 a night more for a room, but that was about it”.
Even those who did harbour concern about the decision at the time seem a little more blasé about it now. John Belchem was in the original team that won WHS back in the early noughties, so to see it go was a kick in the ribs. Nonetheless, he accepts now it hasn’t turned out “Liverpool’s worst own goal” as he had feared. He does still worry about the ushering in of offensively ugly regeneration along the docks though, of the sorts we’ve seen around Lime Street (Belchem compares the new student blocks by the station to “Eastern Europe in the Soviet era”), in UNESCO’s wake.
And indeed, what has been built along the north docks so far is pretty unremarkable. Much of it seemed to hew to the same development patterns seen in Manchester: a combination of luxury office blocks and flats, with an eye to attracting wealthier people and better-paying jobs. The reality: a plethora of dead-eyed office buildings befitting a provincial business park. There’s a long way to go yet, but the Shanghai-on-the-Mersey tagline attached to Liverpool Waters in those heady early days appears even more bleakly comic than the Hollywood-of-the-North one attached to the Littlewoods project. Closer to the city centre, Manchester-based architecture firm AEW were deemed to have served up such a dud with the Liverpool Museum they actually got sued for £2.5 million by National Museums Liverpool (after being inexplicably picked ahead of respected Danish firm 3XN).
But even so, there was context missing from much of the UNESCO pearl-clutching two years ago. Liverpool is in a bit of a bind: it has an unusually high number of beautiful heritage buildings, but it also has a comparatively small tax base, thanks in part to an ongoing inability to attract employers able to offer well-paying jobs. This creates a problem: a wealth of gorgeous historic buildings that cost a fortune to redevelop — a fortune the council doesn’t have. Add into the mix the reputation this city earned as a rundown anti-authoritarian place in the 80s, which seems to have stuck in some quarters, and may be off putting to outside investors. Then sprinkle in the high levels of poverty, especially in the north of Liverpool, plus a multi-year corruption saga, and you’ve got a tricky situation.
As such, it’s safe to assume the Peel development was a pragmatic one: attract better-paid workers, get more money in the coffers now. As Parkinson says, “It’s a tough market [in] Liverpool, it is tough to get this stuff going at all. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s Peel’s fault.” Merrion Strategy managing director Dougal Paver, a man who has spent years advising developers, puts it succinctly: “You get the quality you can afford to pay for”.
“Complaining about the quality of the city’s architecture is a bit like howling at the moon,” Paver tells me. He wants quality, but so does everyone. It’s all very well to stress the lack of respect given to heritage assets, but there aren’t endless funds. Liverpool City Council don’t have the money for a major public-led project, and the government aren’t going to step in either. Sure, there’s also bad decision-making. You only have to look at Eldon Grove in Vauxhall, passed around between every unscrupulous developer in the city (handed over by the council itself) and still flat out on its arse in a heap of syringes and rotting wood. But equally: Liverpool isn’t Spitalfields and it doesn’t exactly have an endless queue of rich folk wanting to do up heritage buildings to keep themselves busy. Perhaps that fact sometimes escapes the broadsheet posse.
One of the great ironies of UNESCO’s assessment was their opposition to the Bramley-Moore Dock stadium on the grounds it would cause “serious deterioration and irreversible loss” to the area’s existing universal value. Unlike the tiresome apartments and offices in its orbit, Everton’s new ground will instil genuine awe in a part of the city that really needs it. Even Gary Neville’s impressed (“Oh my God!” he said). There are certainly major question marks over the true capacity of football stadiums as catalysts of regeneration, it would be naive in the extreme to put too much stock in the club and council’s lofty claims, but no one can deny the north docks will be a far cry better off for it. Everton have even spruced up the Grade II-listed Victorian hydraulic tower and engine room.
While some will argue UNESCO was anathema to ambition, North Liverpool will certainly need a lot more than Peel. As of now, there’s little sense of how what has been planned along the former heritage site will link back into the rest of the city. Aesthetically, sure, but also sociologically: how will a load of expensive apartments serve the struggling area it perches on the edge of? Liverpool has a greater north/south divide than England does, there are differences in life expectancy of over a decade between wards a few kilometres apart. Glueing a series of glass apartments to the side won’t be enough. And the recent news that one of Liverpool’s most exciting developments elsewhere, the Spine at Paddington Village, is struggling to fill its empty floorscape suggests that simply hoisting up buildings isn’t enough to attract new business to the area alone.
But what are the alternatives to Peel and its ilk when it comes to regeneration in North Liverpool? One very different model is that of Ten Streets, which has built on existing communities slowly and organically. Led by a community interest company, they’ve brought craft ale and trendy music venues close to the dockside and provided a sustainable model in which quality of life for those who live there already is prioritised, rather than trying to attract money from those out of town. This is a small model of course — how feasible it would be to scale it up is debatable.
Parkinson thinks there are reasons to have hope. Peel’s masterplans have been redrawn; they’re “much more authentic, greener, more sustainable now,” he says. And however great the issues it faces, the land behind that stretch of Liverpool Waters actually has a lot of core ingredients. “If a martian landed in Liverpool and said where should you invest, you might just say the north of the city,” he says. “Lots of public land, open, surprisingly close to the centre, a large public sector, river views, you might just say that’s the obvious place”.
If the city had a proven track record of attracting and retaining important companies, the tax base was higher and poverty was lower, then you could afford to be choosier, perhaps. But Liverpool recently ranked joint 14th alongside Warrington outside of London for Foreign Direct Investment (despite having a much larger population) and wards like Everton remain among the poorest in the country. In the same year UNESCO took away Liverpool’s WHS, Manchester swiped its most promising brand. Castore — which was started by two brothers in Bebington, upped sticks to along the M62 in 2021 with little fanfare. The Sunday Times recently listed them as the second fastest growing company in the UK, bounding towards a £1-billion valuation, creating hundreds of jobs. Perhaps from the vantage point of 2023, that one stings a little more harshly than the loss of the “certificate”.
No one I speak to says they’re thrilled to have lost the status, naturally, but no one seems too devastated by it either. It seems likely Joe Anderson’s typically bolshy style probably didn’t help — and perhaps some kind of renegotiation of the boundaries of the listed area would’ve made a better solution. All the same, little tangible seems lost.
In fact, Paul Kallee-Grover of Ki Partnerships believes the loss was a relief in some ways. He thinks in the hierarchy of reasons for Liverpool’s lack of economic success in recent years compared to various rivals, UNESCO actually ranks “pretty high”. He goes on: “It was often suggested at that time that the designation was slowing things down, and an expectation that Liverpool would start accelerating without it”. As Belchem adds, Liverpool developed like a US city in the first place, with “constant innovation and redevelopment, demolishing the obsolete and redundant to make way for the new and dynamic, thereby maintaining its global status as the great seaport, the New York of Europe.“
Mapping out a true plan for the regeneration of north Liverpool is now the priority, Parkinson says. “Have we had that proper conversation? We haven’t yet, but we need to. What will it look like in 20 years? Who is it for?” Those are important questions, not ones with easy answers. Nonetheless, maybe putting in a call to Dresden might make a good jumping off point. They’ve just been named in Lonely Planet’s best travel destinations for 2023. Maybe we will still make the book, after all.