In other words, he saw something that we’d perhaps overlooked. He saw that we had a river running through us that we’d forgotten about. A river that originally gave us life, and one that could do again.
Despite earlier protests from the Daily Post (which believed that a river clean up would only benefit salmon and a ‘few eccentrics who wanted to swim in the river’) Heseltine saw the relationship between environmental improvement and economic regeneration.
The Mersey Basin Campaign sprung into action: a 25 year project to work with a myriad of different stakeholders. Its aim, to improve the quality of the water in the Mersey and spearhead the regeneration of derelict land beside the river, encouraging the waterside investment that would help bring jobs and prosperity. Its legacy? Chances are you’ll experience it this summer, as the city stages a series of summer festivals along the riverbank.
“Heseltine was told it would take at least 25 years, and cost £4000m,” says Liverpool RSPB’s Chris Tynan. “He was also repeatedly informed that he couldn’t simply clean up the Liverpool end of the river, as there would still be pollution coming into the system upriver.
“The scale and complexity of the clean up was clearly too great for any one authority or agency to tackle alone,” he says.
A complex web of issues including shipping, economic regeneration, physical regeneration, recreation, tourism and nature conservation were tackled in a never-before-seen model of cooperation. Over its quarter-century lifespan, the MBC saw an estimated £10 billion spent on cleaning up the river.
In 1987 the 28 pipes discharging raw domestic sewage from liverpool into the Mersey were diverted to a huge (£300m) purpose-built treatment plant at Sandon Dock. Every day since then, 950 million litres of untreated sewage are cleaned before being oxygenated and returned to the estuary.
Now, with extensive wildlife habitats, such as the Speke and Garston Coastal Reserve and the North Wirral Foreshore, the Mersey Estuary is a staging post for large numbers of wildfowl and wading birds and has been designated as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).
This spring, the Albert Dock and Tate Liverpool will be celebrating their 25th anniversary with event-packed weekends in June. The Battle of the Atlantic anniversary will be commemorated, and the Mersey River Festival returned. But as you head towards the river, it’s worth pausing to look out at the water. The Mersey Basin Campaign’s work is done, and we’ve got our river back – at the heart of the city again.
These days, you won’t see the ‘Mersey tadpoles’ – huge balls of grime-blackened fat from the margarine works. But you might just see the arched back of a porpoise break the surface of the water, the world’s largest cruise liners, and kayakers from the Watersports Centre gingerly heading out into the open water.
Quietly, and without fanfare, the Mersey has shown the city that there is life after death. Where the next chapters of this curious river’s course takes us, no-one’s quite sure yet…