Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Ultimately this is not about preserving the past, or regeneration, but about democracy

Liverpool City Council has decided, as the democratically elected representatives, to approve the Peel Holdings Ltd’s development proposal, Liverpool Waters. In doing so it has placed itself on the front-line of a national cultural conflict. The division centres upon the value that the community, the nation and the various special interest groups place upon the architectural and cultural inheritance of any and all communities in the United Kingdom.
English Heritage’s power and influence has grown phenomenally since the 1970’s to the point that it has been able to shape Britain’s capacity to respond to change. Culturally, Great Britain has, since the end of empire following World War Two, rejected much of modernism, building upon late 19th century reaction to the changes that industrialisation brought. The self-presented positive image of Britain has been dominated by architecture and the environment, and the impulse to preserve a bucolic past. As Britain struggled with the loss of international status and the decline of economic power, Britain’s establishment resisted change and egalitarianism, and sought to maintain the advantages that the inheritors of the feudal elite enjoyed.
Thus while the British elites were content to utilise the products of industrial Britain, such as machine guns and Dreadnought battle ships, they rejected the centres that produced them. The only residual component of these centres that is regarded as valuable today is the major municipal and commercial architecture of that period. Liverpool and Merseyside exemplify this. Britain’s cultural elites valued the “Journeyman with his pack horse coming over the hill” and produced the Arts & Crafts Movement. It had no significant equivalent for Bauhaus or any of the other movements across industrialised Europe. Their dominance of education and the media ensured their political dominance, and led ultimately to Britain’s loss of its industrial and commercial lead.
Those factions, like English heritage, that demand that Liverpool and Merseyside preserve for posterity the 19th century city environment are the same that repeatedly remind everyone that Liverpool’s wealth was built on slavery. This assertion carries with it a sense of assignment of guilt specific to Liverpool and its current inhabitants. It is not entirely dissimilar to the unfair opprobrium directed towards young Germans regarding the Holocaust. It is conveniently ignored that the entirety of Britain, and especially the City of London, benefited from slavery.
This repeated concentration on the slave trade, leads to other events and developments being overlooked. Merseyside, like many other northern industrial and commercial centres, was also a centre for positive innovation and social progress. It was not by chance that today’s Russell Group of universities was overwhelmingly located in the industrial north. Whether it is the world’s first School of Tropical Medicine, Birkenhead Park, “Penny in the Pound” worker health insurance or any number of construction innovations, Liverpool’s commitment to innovation led the world, and arguably had more importance globally than any of the physical environment that English Heritage and UNESCO seek to preserve. Liverpool’s current city environment was the product of a culture committed to innovation and modernity of its day, and reflected the community’s culture. Liverpool’s culture was centred upon trade and sustained through the employment it created.
Since World War Two Liverpool has struggled to redefine itself and recover from the impact of the extensive bombing damage, changes in international trade and an almost constant stream of negativism directed at by the UK’s media. That Liverpool has survived as a city at all is quite surprising, given that by the 1980’s even the British government was willing to voice consideration of formally abandoning it. Thus while the nation, and international bodies like UNESCO, place inordinate value upon a number of buildings in Liverpool, it does not exhibit the same degree of interest or value for the people of Liverpool nor their ability to sustain this architectural inheritance.
It is as though English Heritage and UNESCO regard Liverpool and other communities as little more than theme parks that visitors may descend upon for their entertainment. They are indifferent to the well-being of the community that lives in and around these architectural edifices they value so much. They have no interest in how these environments will be sustained. As publicly funded bodies their existence is informed by their own culture that posits them as “Guardians of the Public Interest”, yet neither of them is subject to the democratic process. They arrogate to themselves the right to define the “Public Interest” that they are defending. In their arrogance they assume that all “right thinking” communities will place priority upon the preservation of environmental inheritance above that of community well-being and economic development.
The Liverpool Waters development offers Liverpool the opportunity to turn around its fortunes and once more emerge as a commercial powerhouse, able to provide all of its communities with gainful employment and a decent standard of living. As commercial operator Peel Holdings Ltd is driven by the need to generate profits and cannot call upon a vast public purse to fund its activities, unlike English Heritage and others. As a developer Peel Holdings has a prime interest in ensuring that these developments are successful and self-sustaining. The by-product of such a major development should be the heightening of Liverpool & Merseyside’s international profile as a place to do business, and thus attract greater inward investment and be a catalyst for wider regeneration. But it is at a price, and that price is the destruction of some part of the older environment and changes in the city’s appearance.
English Heritage is threatening to seek Ministerial intervention and a public enquiry, and with it a delay at best to the renaissance of Liverpool. Peel Holdings Ltd has, understandably, stated that they will abandon the development if this occurs. Understandably because they cannot stand still waiting for the process to end, while there are business opportunities elsewhere. If this occurs, then the market will respond accordingly and relegate Liverpool to the league of cities where developers cannot turn a profit. Once that occurs, then Liverpool residents might as well abandon the city as they will have effectively lost control of it. They will be like the impoverished aristocrat who finds themselves owner of a grand pile, unable to dispose of it but unable to maintain it.
English Heritage, and to a lesser extent UNESCO, demonstrate their total disdain for the democratic process and the expression of the popular will. Further neither English Heritage nr UNESCO show any consideration for the balance between authority and responsibility. Liverpool’s built environment is the product of Liverpool’s communities, and remains responsible for it. Yet knowing that Liverpool’s democratic leadership have considered all the issues openly and decided to pursue a path towards city revival, English Heritage has determined to ignore that and seek to oppose the proposed development.
Although English Heritage might claim that its mandate affords it the responsibility for challenging proposals it finds unacceptable, it is in fact authority and power that it possesses. It has no responsibility for the consequences arising from its actions. It will not compensate Liverpool and its inhabitants for the lost opportunities, neither will it reimburse Liverpool for the maintenance of the current city environment. The management and officers of English Heritage will not live in the urban decay of Kensington or any other run down part of Liverpool, and more than they will stand in the dole queues for the want of work.
UNESCO’s threat to down-grade Liverpool’ status as a “World Heritage Site” is, for most Liverpool residents, probably fairly meaningless. What proportion of Liverpool’s inhabitants derives its income from this status and city tourism? Tourism and other service sector employment is notoriously insecure and poorly paid, and is often dependent upon other industries to create wealth to sustain the city environment that it relies on.
English Heritage and UNESCO regard Liverpool’s inheritance solely in terms of its built environment, and in doing so show disregard for its powerful and creative community-based culture. Towards the end of last year I attended the final evening of the Liverpool Music Week and witnessed in microcosm the spirit of Merseyside culture in the form of the “Infinite Love Orchestra” performance as an example of international, collaborative, innovative professionalism. It was a small “brick” of an intangible and constantly evolving inheritance of very distinctive culture that is Merseyside. It cannot be listed for preservation, nor awarded some accreditation by UNESCO, yet it is upon these inherent values that Liverpool will experience a renaissance.
I believe that Liverpool is at a crossroads and whatever is the outcome of this will determine whether it will experience a revival or simply drift endlessly into irrevocable decline. It is clash between cultures and communities. If Liverpool inhabitants simply stand silently hoping that the government will do the right thing and quickly consider all the factors, then they are probably in for disappointment. English Heritage knows that if it can force a public inquiry then it can stop this development dead in its tracks, and that Peel Holdings Ltd will walk away.
I urge the people of Liverpool to vocally take a stand and express their will very publicly. Their democratic representatives have made a decision on their behalf, which an unrepresentative quango, English Heritage, is seeking to overturn.
The government has placed special emphasis upon local decision making and the strengthening of local communities, where those communities take authority and responsibility for their futures. In making the decision for Liverpool to approve this development, Liverpool Council signaled its will, and that of the people of Liverpool, to take the responsibility for their future. It is therefore the duty of this government to respect that expression and support that decision.
Ultimately this is not about some old buildings, or a cityscape, it is about democracy and communities taking responsibility for building a sustainable future. English Heritage has had its opportunities to articulate its objections and offer a viable alternative. Having lost the argument, it should gracefully accept the will of the Liverpool people and work with them to find some common ground to preserve what it values.

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