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.