So, UNESCO says that Liverpool’s waterfront will be ‘irreversibly damaged’ if architect Peel Holdings gets its way and builds the massive Liverpool Waters development according to its proposed plans.

There’s no mention of an actual threat to strip the city of its World Heritage status if Liverpool Waters goes ahead, but it’s surely implicit. UNESCO’s objections are two-fold and can be boiled down to believing the series of skyscrapers that Peel wants to build on the derelict north docks to be rather ugly and out of synch with the rest of Liverpool’s waterfront (for a more straightforward and sober analysis see David Bartlett’s piece in the Echo.)

No doubt this will all rumble on for some time to come – Joe Anderson has come out with what may be the only sensible thing he’s ever said, suggesting that Liverpool City Council, Peel and other stakeholders will be ‘working to reach a compromise’ – but something that’s caught my attention is how the narrative of the Liverpool Waters development has developed.

Very quickly, when word that UNESCO might relieve Liverpool of its apparently troublesome and anti-jobs vanity plate, people seemed to be very much of the opinion that UNESCO were determined to prevent Liverpool from building anything ever again. Unesco were ‘outsiders’ and ‘hypocrites’ who had a very specific anti-Liverpool agenda. Here’s my favourite, from the Echo’s comments section at the link above:

Chase these nuggets out of the city and send them back to oxford or where ever these geeks come from.

This is, perhaps, not surprising when the city’s business community has been so feverishly worm-tonguing away with its promises of jobs and investment that Liverpool Waters will bring. Details on exactly what jobs and investment – and over what timeframe – are as nebulous as the likelihood of thousands of people sitting on Bootle docks on a January day to down their caipirinhas.

Peel’s plans detail apartments, office space and enormous leisure complexes on a ‘build it and they will come’ basis; but will they? Is there anything to suggest that the North West needs another gigantic business/leisure hub? What is the likelihood of the local unemployed finding their way into the labour forces? What is the demand for private apartments on a stretch of coastline so exposed to the elements that there’s a wind farm a mile up the road? I have no answer to these questions, but nor does anyone else. Either way, it is right to ask them.

What’s more, Peel says that the Liverpool Waters project may take 50 years to build. 50 years. To put that into perspective, we’d only be cutting the ribbon on the last bit of Liverpool Waters now if they’d started building it while JFK was in the White House. The UK’s entire nuclear programme was conceived, commenced and ended within that timeframe. And we’ve spent the last decade knocking down what are seen as monstrosities in our built environment, left over from the 60s vision of urban living.

So the current narrative of jobs and investment is one that I find a little disingenuous. Certainly there may be jobs; some of them may be local jobs; some of that investment may trickle down throughout the city; big businesses and blue chip companies might be tempted to come to Liverpool Waters.

But let’s be honest, all of this is a long way off and pie in the sky for some time to come – Liverpool Waters is likely to do very little for our city’s economy or unemployed for many, many years in whatever format it eventually takes. Let’s leave all that dull rhetoric about evil Unesco and virtuous Peel creating gazillions of jobs if only those weird foreigners (let’s be honest about this – there’s more than a whiff of nasty jingoism and inverted snobbery in this debate) would let us.

All that hot air is acting as a smoke screen to what’s really behind all this huffing and puffing. Frequently the heritage lobby – if there is such a thing – sets its mind against new developments for the sake of it. Sometimes I agree with them; sometimes I don’t. On the other side we have a business lobby that is keen to ensure that it is allowed to make money with as little intrusion from the state, or whatever QUANGOs are sticking their noses in, as possible.

The latter is in the ascendancy in forming the shape this debate has taken – which is framed as a straight choice between jobs and cash for Liverpool or an archaic, foreign and useless diktat imposed on us by wonks and cranks. A kissing cousin of this argument – adapt or die – is, similarly, a false dichotomy.

I’m not against the Liverpool Waters development. If a private company – and let’s remind ourselves that Peel is not intent on building Liverpool Waters as a magnanimous gift to the city – wants to plough £5.5bn of its own cash into Liverpool then that’s a good thing, with certain caveats. But Liverpool needs to make sure it’s getting a good deal on a vast amount of what could be prime real estate – and ensure it doesn’t end up relinquishing something else of value in turn.

That should also mean very careful consideration of what the World Heritage Status means to Liverpool. It’s not just an empty vanity badge; with a useless city council OKaying developments like a game of speed Sim City it’s the best remaining check against the unfettered, uncaring development of Liverpool’s city centre and waterfront.

Without it, the city centre becomes a plaything of the developers – and there’s plenty of evidence in the city centre of what happens when private developers and architects get their own way. Away from the Post and Echo, on the blogs and on the forums this is quite explicit; business in Liverpool actively wants the World Heritage Status gone, Liverpool Waters or no. The redevelopment of the north docks is a handy hobby horse to galvanise feeling against UNESCO and the waterfront’s World Heritage listing.

In light of this we should question whether the WHS is simply the bauble that we’re told it is – and we should question Peel’s apparent intransigence in refusing to rethink their plans when by far the most sensible option is for all parties to agree on a compromise that ensure the Liverpool Waters project goes ahead and the WHS is protected.

UNESCO says that Peel’s current proposals impinge too much on the notional buffer zones that border the waterfront – areas that the WHS dictates should be protected if required. But the World Heritage Status is a buffer zone in itself – one whose true value, like many things, may only be recognised when gone.

30 Responses to “Deep Waters: UNESCO, World Heritage and Liverpool Waters”

  1. _garrilla

    Its typical that this discussion is is presented as a solely Liverpool issue. UNESCO are review heritage status for all of its sites around the world. In places that are under constant development the of heritage status is being raised. WHS at the Tower of London, for example, is under threat from ‘The Shard’, which on completion’s will be Europe’s tallest building, and bears down heavily over the Tower of London.

    While the status is being discussed in London it is not couched in terms of the future of the economy and the trillions of jobs that are in the balance. Ultimately, this argument is over a piece of marketing collateral yet its been turn into bitch-fight over of the future of the city. Its not the debate in Liverpool thats wrong but the tone and perspective.

  2. Good article Robin. I do fear that we’d be giving up a useful aid to our tourism for a load of poor quality, mostly empty development in the North docks where the only people who profit are the property developers and construction firms.

    Haven’t we already tried this sort of development? The Science Park isn’t exactly overflowing with tenants, and the Innovation Park is a ghost town. Why would Peel Waters be different? And what will the developments look like? Surely we should look to what Peel has already provided, and the business-park by the river at Princes Dock is hardly the landmark development which would attract blue chip companies, unless they’re just looking for somewhere to dump a call centre…

    I’m not against development – I brought my own business to Liverpool from Cambridge when I decided to move back home – but I think we should, and can, do better for Liverpool.

  3. @_garrilla But this is a website specifically and explicitly about Liverpool – and the article is specifically about the way the debate has developed in Liverpool around issues that are peculiar to Liverpool.

    Still, I agree on your last points – the tone of the debate has not helped it. I suspect that has been deliberate.

  4. I didn’t touch on the tourism value as it’s something else that’s hard to discern – at least while we still have it. But given that Liverpool is increasingly geared up to be a leisure and tourism economy it’s another valid point.

    We certainly building our developments in Liverpool, but does the ‘build it and they will come’ model even work here? The more I look at the way this debate has gone the more I’m inclined to think Liverpool Waters is a handy battering ram for the business community to dispense with the WHS.

  5. Waterways

    The city approached UNESCO for World Heritage Status, not the other way around. The city has to conform to the rules and spirit of World Heritage and value its history. That is why the city applied. Making Central Docks something like Paddington Basin in London, full of anytown buildings, is not why the WHS granted. Would you rather walk around Albert Dock or wander around the Echo Arena? We have had enough of Echo Arena environments ruining waterscapes – no more.

    Dresden was rightly stripped of its WHS for building an ugly raw concrete bridge. They were told it is not fitting, but ignored UNESCO. Dresden thought WHS was a good attraction for tourists – a good earner label they thought. It would be, if they went along with it.

    LIverpool should not be taken in by a land company who care little about Liverpool and are in it primarily for the money. Out of town Peel do not understand deep water Liverpool – all their renders have inland canal boats in the docks. Liverpool is not a mill town. The story of Liverpool post WW2 has been one of cheap and nasty. That theme continues with this proposal.

    UNESCO are 100% correct. Low rise buildings fitting in the “spirit” of WHS should be around the dock waters. Taller buildings can be slightly inland on the old falling down, ugly, structures that pass as small businesses. Then we all gain and keep our heritage.

    Losing WHS status would be devastating for Liverpool, rekindling its useless do-nothing-right image.

  6. Waterways

    @Robin Brown@_garrilla

    Peel are putting it across as either-or. peel and their cheap concrete tat out of place buildings and jobs OR World Heritage and unemployment. the hard of thinking are going with Peel.

  7. One thing I think worth mentioning that’s not been touched on thus far is quite simply this: Peel are not stupid. They may be big and greedy (no crime, particularly) but they know only too well how important, in cold hard cash terms, a World Heritage Site on the doorstep is. They want that World Heritage status more, dare I say, than Wayne Liverpool Preservation. You watch. They’re being the clever ones here. There’s a lot more nuance and subtlety to their plans than we might have been led to believe in, as you say, all the huffing and puffing. Call me a stupid old optimist, but I think we’re all going to end up happy ever after. There, I’ve said it.

  8. VapourTrails

    @Waterways The last part of your post.

    “Losing WHS status would be devastating for Liverpool, rekindling its useless do-nothing-right image.”

    I do not think a lot of people understand this point.

    Great post by the way.

    Mike Keefe

  9. Even if a lot of jobs go to outsiders, in a shrinking city that would be great. More taxpayers to fund services! Liverpool as a city has more dependents than taxpayers, again an unsustainable situation that few people want to face.

    Let me remind you Liverpool in general is almost entirely relaint on external subsidy still, in a country which now has no money and which is general does not like/care much about Liverpool. How much longer can this go on?

    To me the narritive is indeed adapt or die. We’ve been dying since the 1930s at least, slowly declining in wealth and population and only stopped by external subsidy. To move on we need something frankly spectacular, this last thing of which really was the opening of Ford and Vauxhall car factories in 1964 with about 25,000 jobs created almost overnight. And despite that with the continued decline in the docks by 1966 we had to be classified as a special development area again. Things like that just don’t happen any more, hence we need stuff like this.

    World Heritage Site is a good title, but Dresden had it stripped when a vital modern bridge had to be built. I’ve seen it. It looks fine and I think just shows how daft the WHS comitee are. Dresden by the way remains a beautiful city which attracts many visitors. I have read the WHS report. Bascially they want to presevre Liverpool is aspic. Maybe if so much hadn’t been knocked down, fell down or bombed down already, but it has. We are not Florence and we need to adapt. Look at London and the old and the new side by side. Peel’s plan also seeks to restore rotting historic structures in the north docks. How much longer to you think these will last without investment? Look at Liverpool 1’s succesfull intergration of old and new.

    A lot of people just don’t like modern buildings. Fare enough, but get with reality, no one is going to build the Tobbaco Warehouse again. It would be too expensive. Also, Waterways, are you seriously saying the Echo arena is bad thing when it more than probably anything has bolstered our tourist industry since 2008 and put us on the map for conferences etc? It is heritage fantasists like you who want Liverpool to be some sort of museum to the past that I have not a single moment of time for in this debate..

    I don’t think Liverpool Waters is a magic bullet to solve all our problems, but it is the biggest in what are several developement schemes that might just halt our downward slide. And, as I always say, to me the argument boils down to this:

    What alternative plan do you have for the Northern docks and how would you go about paying for it?

    It was a crazy vision to build Liverpool docks and we need that sort of vision again.

  10. While I back your call for compromise and support this considered anlysis I still strongly support this scheme.

    Peel have suggested it may be ‘completed’ in fifty years, not started. A sensible plan, based on demand. It has taken thirty years to develop Salford Docks and they’re now embarking on a second phase. If Liverpool Council had engaged in that sort of long term thinking we’d be in a better position now. If you’d have said the BBC would be moving to Salford in the 80s you’d have been laughed out of town. But here we are. We’re likely to see the developments nearest to town in the next ten. The International Trade Centre over in already permissioned Wirral Waters will likely start construction within two years followed by East Float. The Trade Centre has already attracted a big chunk of Chinese investment.

    Peel fought for ten years to build Trafford Centre, now it employs 10,000 people and didn’t destroy Manc city centre as some naysayers predicted. Wouldn’t it be handy if that was in Kirkby or Speke not Manc? Peel are indeed a profit making company, but so were the people who built the docks, set up the shipping companies and factories. Albert Dock and the Liver Building were not built to look nice, they were built to make money.

    There are precidents for schemes like this. I direct you to schemes in Hamburg and Malmo which are particularly relevant to us.

    There’s plenty of evidence local people could get jobs. Aside from the construction phase hopefully the developmemt of the new University Technical Colleges will help create a more skilled workforce over the next generation or so. And, as I always point out, even lower-end jobs are better than no jobs, which is what we face. Do you think working on the docks or the Birds Eye production line were good jobs?


  11. I explicitly say that Liverpool Waters should largely be welcomed and the people involved should ensure that it goes ahead.

    Debating the pros and cons of the project wasn’t really the point – pointing out how unhelpful much of the discourse on the subject has been was the point – along with pondering the Liverpool Waters scheme in relation to position of some in the business lobby, who actively want the WHS gone regardless of whether LW gets the go-ahead or not. Whether you or I agree with them or not is rather by-the-bye in relation to the article; I just wish they more honest about it.

    I didn’t suggest that Peel said it wouldn’t start for 50 years – I said that’s still a massive timeframe.

    I didn’t suggest that Peel are not in it to make money – nor did I suggest that this is, in and of itself, a bad thing.

    I have never suggested that working on the docks constituted a good job.

    You may not intend to, but you’re rather misrepresenting what I’ve said above, which is something that has characterised a debate that has generated much more heat than light and is still being conducted on some rather misleading and unhelpful terms – on both sides of the argument.

  12. I like good buildings, old or new. I just don’t believe we’ll get good new buildings at Liverpool Waters based on what Peel have already developed and because, like you say, there isn’t the money around for someone to build something like the Gherkin in Liverpool. Liverpool ONE is about as good as I can imagine any shopping mall being, but filling shops is a lot less risky than filling office blocks.

    I don’t think the North docks were built because someone had a “crazy vision”, it was because the other docks had been wildly successful and were full or too small. I don’t see us being in the same situation now with office space or shops or any of the things that Peel Waters is promising.

    You’re right that we need to “adapt or die”, but what we need to adapt from is the build it and inward investment will save us mindset that hasn’t worked for the past 30 years. What we need to be doing is saving ourselves, not pinning our hopes on someone else. It’s harder – both to describe and to implement – but is the only way we’ll break our dependencies on outside money (both government and foreign investment)

    If Peel want to be part of that, then great, but they need to be looking to work with the city, rather than threaten it with this all-or-nothing plan where we have to approve everything they want to do for the next 50 years right now.

  13. @Robin Brown Hi, was just addressing the article, comments and points they raised in general and it was not intended to be personal. Hence I addressed the points not the person. Many of my points were aimed at the commentators. The only person I addressed directly was Waterways who is notrious. Also, you may notice the first line of my response was to praise your piece which has been one of the better written on this contencious subject. I was not meaning to misrepresent your piece meerly tackle what I thought were important points to make both in your piece and other comments on the subject.

    It is a massive timeframe, but as I suggest it is a sensible one, which I felt was important point to make.

    You didn’t suggsst Peel making money was a bad thing or that low-end jobs were good but it’s the kind of thing the anti-development brigade bleat so I felt it was an imporatant point to make in this context.

    Like you say this is a heated deabte and if you’re going to through your hat into the ring you can’t take things personally. I don’t and I am frequently and viciously personally attacked for backing the scheme, even mildy, online at regular intervals. Like I say, I praised your work in the first line!

    Trouble is, you can’t have a polite chat about things like this because it ignites deep personal emotions and ideologies in people. I’m hoping for a compromise, but only one that involves redevelopment.

  14. My point is so we might not get great buildings, so should we just leave the northern docks and hope something comes up?

    Also, ultimately, bugger aesthetics. MediaCity and Trafford Centre aren’t the best, but 15,000 or so jobs with massive further growth potential is.

    Like I say, I’d really like to see some alternative proposals from people. I don’t love Peel or their designs but I’ve heard not a single coherant argument for an alternative for the northern docks off anyone, other than vauge sentiments.

    We haven’t had an inward investment mindset for 30 years. We’ve had a lets fultiley fight the government mindest, then a wallow in malaise mindset, all the time while Manchester went out and fought for investment. We’ve had an inward investment mindset for maybe ten years and look what it has achived. I’d like to think we could do it without the likes of Peel or Grovesnor, but given we have lower rates of business start ups than even Swindon, low skill levels, low educational attainment and a weak business base, no natural resources and limited geographical advantages, I think we might be waiting for some time. I agree we need to encourage start ups and educational ataiment, but that will take thirty years to really kick in.The potential from emerging countries is huge, and for once we’re ahead of the game. The Chinese have already invested in the Trade Centre in Birkenhead and they don’t mess about.

    As for relying on outsiders. John Moores, Henry Tate, William Hesketh Lever, Samuel Cunard, Jesse Hartley, William Laird, not one of them born in Merseyside! Oh and Bill Shankly I suppose…

    I didn’t mean the north docks were a crazy vision. I mean all of the docks! A shit-tip of a town on a terrible river morgated the entire town to build the first wet dock in the world and take on Chester and Whitehaven. RISK, but it paid off. Otherwise the Pier Head might look like Freshfield now. Ambition and risk make all the difference.

  15. @KT surely everyone wants redevelopment with compromise? I’m quite happy for a bit a bit of rough and tumble in a debate Kenn and didn’t take your comments to heart. You simply seemed to have taken the view that I was largely against LW, when I’d made it clear that that wasnt the case. That’s something that, ironically, has been common in the debate thus far, to its detriment I think.

  16. I know it’s a late reply, but given that I’ve come across a data point in this, I thought it was worth sharing.  A council report on the Science Park detailed at shows that the Science Park is expecting a shortfall of “between £180,000 and £420,000” over the next three years “as a result of lower than anticipated occupancy levels and depressed rental rates”

  17. Former Tate's Employee

    I wonder if anyone from UNESCO has ever visited Love Lane, which is within the World Heritage Site buffer zone? Probably not, and, anyway, they’d find it difficult to locate; there isn’t a single street sign there to indicate that Love Lane exists.
    Sadly, over the past few years the Love Lane area of Liverpool has become a supplementary tip.

    It’s difficult to blame the businesses that work from the railway arches there when the vast majority of rubbish is domestic.

    The northern end of Love Lane is particularly terrible. Last Sunday, I noticed two battered, vandalised caravans abandoned in Upper William Street (between Love Lane and Great Howard Street).

    Do I blame the Council? Well- no. It’s not the Council who are dumping rubbish in Love Lane, is it?

    The place was never pretty when the sugar refinery was there, but there were very few instances of people deliberately dumping copious amounts of rubbish around Love Lane in those days.

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