On the waterfront

One of the cities hardest hit by austerity, Liverpool nevertheless has expansive plans for regeneration. Will all the huge waterfront buildings benefit the city as a whole? 

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A five mile stretch of Liverpool’s famous waterfront is undergoing unparalleled change. From the site of 1984s International Garden Festival near Otterspool to the Bramley Moore Dock further north, buildings and docklands currently derelict or underused are being transformed.

Multi-million pound projects renovating existing facilities and many new builds are also at the planning stage or already underway. New commercial, residential and public space will eventually front the River Mersey, alongside a new stadium for Everton Football Club.

“I feel lucky to have this famous waterfront, one of the most famous in the world, and lucky to have the opportunity to lead the renaissance of this great city in the way we are,” explains Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson. “It’s a truly unprecedented and transformational opportunity.”

Perhaps what makes these ambitious plans so outstanding is the fact they’re being forged amidst austerity forced on Merseyside by the current government. Since the Conservative coalition formed in 2010 the people of Liverpool have suffered an £800-plus per head fall in local council funding from central government, with Liverpool’s local authority set to lose £444 million overall between 2010 and 2020.

“We call this an ‘invest to earn’ strategy,” explains Anderson about the depth of council backing he’s providing the project. “It’s not risk taking. It’s all calculated investment and these major projects will eventually help us pay for services that support everyone in the city. It’s what I call sensible socialism.”

“This isn’t about wrapping ourselves in aspic or winning some international beauty contest.”

Anderson is at times a divisive figure in Liverpool, often criticised for the schemes he green-lights, ones his detractors claim benefit only building conglomerates and the privileged. Earlier this year, for example, controversial council-approved plans for Redrow Homes to build 51 luxury dwellings on greenbelt land close to Calderstones Park were overturned at the High Court following extensive local campaigning. And Liverpool Council offering to lend Everton Football Club an estimated £280 million towards their new stadium drew criticism, with Liberal Democrat city council member Richard Kemp boldly claiming the people of Liverpool “do not like this deal”. A council spokesperson says that although Everton have not taken up the offer of the loan, it “remains on the table”.

The plans for the 90-acre Festival Gardens may include provision for 2,500 private residences but the city will ensure that half the acreage is retained as green space with public access. And as for the commercial developments planned along the waterfront, the mayor talks about how additional business rates added to city funds will benefit local services such as education and social care.

“There is a flipside to these flagship developments and that is the despair I feel about poverty in Liverpool,” says Anderson. “We’ve got to make sure we regenerate communities as well as buildings and that any growth is inclusive. We want to use local supply companies as much as we can and concentrate on upskilling the local workers to get them good quality jobs with good quality pay – things that we all should want in a socialist-run city. We are a city built on fairness and we must retain that ethos.”

Jessica Middleton-Pugh, editor of the property and regeneration website Place North West, agrees with Anderson in that, done properly, such eye-catching projects can benefit Liverpool’s population as a whole. “If enough new office space is created – something which Liverpool has struggled with recently – there can certainly be substantial managed job growth,” she says. “Infrastructure and transport improvements have to be put in place to ensure adequate access but if the planning and execution are correct the benefits to Liverpool as a whole will be huge.”

North from Festival Gardens along Riverside Drive – itself targeted by a £45 million Highways Authority improvement scheme – lies the city centre. Albert Dock, reopened as a major tourist attraction 35 years ago, has undoubtedly helped ensure Liverpool’s status as the third most visited city in the country after London and Edinburgh. Alongside are the dock’s famous neighbours, the Cunard, Port of Liverpool and Liver Buildings, collectively known as the Three Graces and each a dramatic example of bold, early 20th century architecture. Around a decade ago this renowned trio was joined by the Mann Island complex, bold edifices mixing residential and commercial space and fronted with dark, mirrored glass. To an extent, the city in general has become accepting of the once controversial structures and, with the vast Liverpool Waters project beginning to take shape to the north of the Three Graces, Mann Island appears to be merely a taste of things to come for the immediate area.

“Over recent years the council has taken some potentially controversial decisions about what gets built on the waterfront,” explains Middleton-Pugh. “But Liverpool is lucky because, historically, the space offered new buildings has always been generous and that boldness set a precedent for buildings that are now being planned and built close to the river. As a city there is still space for big, bold buildings to come forward as long as someone is confident enough to propose them.”

Big and bold are certainly terms suitable for describing Liverpool Waters. Overseen by the Peel Group, one of the country’s largest property investment companies, the development will make use of largely unused docks north of the central Pier Head area. The project was initially proposed in 2007 with the first planning applications submitted three years later. Several buildings are already out of the ground, including 16 and 34 storey residential blocks at Princes Dock, with a multitude of others either in planning or already at the preparatory stage. The scale of Liverpool Waters is vast, with talk of eventually 17,000 permanent jobs being created across 21 million square metres of commercial and residential space. Four hotels feature prominently in the plans, alongside a  huge cruise liner terminal and a new facility for the Isle of Man ferry partially funded by a groundbreaking deal with the island’s own government.

“It’s impossible to put a date on the completion of such a massive project,” says Peel Group’s Ian Pollitt, assistant project director for Liverpool Waters. “From the start, when we were going through the planning process, we not only had one of the largest permissions ever granted in this country but also one of the longest granted, which is potentially 32 years. The market dictates how long a project like Liverpool Waters takes but, having seen out something of a property recession, the plan is now looking more like a 15 to 25-year one.”

Pollitt claims these flagship developments will benefit the city as a whole, regenerating land in a long-neglected area of north Liverpool that has been “promised so much over the years with so little delivered”. Everton Football Club’s proposed new stadium, in a second stage of public consultation until 25 August, is scheduled for Bramley Moore Dock and offers another example of this inclusiveness. Close to the struggling Vauxhall and Bootle areas, the project promises to support community activities alongside hosting football games and other large-scale events. But they could threaten Liverpool’s Unesco World Heritage status, which it has held since 2004.

“The thing we need to get straight is the fact that the majority of our docks were built when we were second city of the Empire, the gateway to the western world, and those days are gone,” says Anderson. “This isn’t about wrapping ourselves in aspic or winning some international beauty contest.”

Middleton-Pugh agrees. “Let’s face it, if building along the waterfront is part of some international beauty contest it’s one that’s been around for over 100 years. And although there have been contentious planning decisions the council have always made positive efforts to help preserve and use heritage assets along the river.”

“One of the misconceptions about the Liverpool Waters site is that there are a lot of listed buildings when there are actually just four,” adds Pollitt. “As a company we’re obviously keen to retain these assets and they’ll all become part of the new development. As of now we’re spending around £40k per year just to maintain those buildings.”

Anderson concludes: “What we’re seeing along the waterfront is Liverpool maximising opportunities, developing a modern city and continually bringing in investment. And this all leads to us being one of the best cities in the world, which we undoubtedly are.”

31 July. This article has been amended to reflect the fact that although the council offered a loan to Everton, the club has not taken up the offer

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