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Fiddlers_Ferry_Power_Station_from_across_the_River_Mersey_in_2005Salmon are leaping upriver. Otters are breeding in the shadows of Fiddlers Ferry. The Mersey is cleaner than it’s ever been since the Industrial Revolution.

But, within a generation, the river could see changes the like of which it’s not witnessed since the world’s first commercial docks were built, nearly 300 years ago.

As you read this, Peel Ports are digging down into river bed; gouging out a trench 52 feet down into the sandy sediment. They’re clearing a channel to make way for the world’s biggest supertankers and containers – floating suburbs four football pitches long (or 47 Arriva busses if that’s your unit of choice).

As the Panama Canal is widened, so too is the world’s shipping fleet. And, if we’re to keep up, we need to accommodate these new, Post-Panamax leviathans.

The supersized docks, Liverpool2, will be ready for business next year. Peel Port’s Managing Director, Gary Hodgson is in no doubt, the Port of Liverpool is on the up again.

“It’s crucially important if we want to remain internationally competitive. ‘Post Panamax’ allows much larger vessels and so create new trade routes. At the moment, we are constrained by our docks and locks from handling the world’s largest vessels,” he says, “but Liverpool2 puts that right. The benefits will be around £5 billion to the local economy.”

When Peel talks about opening Liverpool up to new routes, they stop a little short of revealing exactly what routes may come.

For there is another, altogether more lucrative future in store for the Mersey. It’s one no-one dare sound too triumphalist about. But it’s a very real possibility.

Dr Kevin Horsburgh is Head of Marine Physics and Ocean Climate at the Liverpool-based Proudman Oceanographic Institute. No-one knows the world’s seas like they do.

“In twenty year’s time, by all serious calculations, the Arctic Ocean will be completely ice free for the summer months,” Horsburgh says, showing SevenStreets computer modelled simulations of clear routes from the tip of Siberia to the docks at Seaforth.

Pity the polar bears. But the inconvenient truth is this: within a generation, there’ll be a direct shipping passage from Liverpool to China across the top of the world.

Forget the slow boat to China. Liverpool and its twin city of Shanghai could join hands across the top of the world.

Horsborough estimates that traveling from Liverpool to the Bering Strait across the roof of the world would take almost a week less than traditional routes – or even the route along Siberia’s frigid northern coastline – a route which Russia charges heftily for. The cold heart of the Arctic Sea, however, is considered to be ‘international waters’.

The consequences for the city are mind-boggling. We’ve all seen the shots of the Christmas-gift stuffed container vessels plying the Indian Ocean en route for the UK. China’s economy, while not completely recession proof, is the one to watch. And, with 7,000km shaved off northerly routes between Liverpool and Tokyo too, an ice free pole could well place the Mersey (further north than Europe’s busiest port, Rotterdam) in a very fortunate position.

Liverpool’s links with China are deep and strong. Our trading relationships with the country – bolstered by our recent (well received) showing at the Shanghai World Expo – have never been better. Our city’s shipping heritage owes much to the trade routes set down in our mercantile trading heydays. What would happen to us if history repeated itself?

Meanwhile, further upstream from the docks, Liverpool’s new turnaround cruise facility is welcoming a record 36 cruise liners to the city this season, with 50 already booked in for next year. Survey after survey shows visitor satisfaction to be higher here than in most other ports of call. No wonder Southampton’s getting jittery.

Make no mistake, the Mersey is changing course.

Thirty years ago, the River was a toxin-filled cocktail of raw sewage and chemicals: the most polluted river in Western Europe.

Now, from Media City in Salford (part of the Mersey system) to the spruced up Liverpool waterfront, it’s teeming with life: on, in and alongside its banks.

But in following the river’s return to good health upstream, you arrive at a startling discovery.

For it was Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s Secretary of State for the Environment sent to a city still smouldering after the Toxteth riots, who was the catalyst for the regeneration of the river.

“Alone, every night, when the meetings were over and the pressure was off, I would stand with a glass of wine, looking out at the magnificent view over the river and ask myself what had gone wrong with this great English city,” he says of his time here. “Untreated sewage, pollutants, noxious discharges…the river was an affront to the standards a civilised society should demand of its environment.”

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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.

pnw__1366794412_albert_dock_siltedA 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…

David Lloyd

Pics 1, 3: Pete Carr

  • bornagainst

    As much as I understand the advantage of post-panamax ships being able to dock, the increase in road traffic is surely going to be huge? The panamax ships will surely be 100% containers, and those trucks will all be heading for Millars Bridge / Queens Drive / M62?

    How will the endless shite plastic toys and cheap electrical goods get out of the docks and into the hands of salivating consumers?

    There’s plenty of money in Liverpool2, but I haven’t seen much care for either the people who live around there, or the sods who have to commute past it…

  • bornagainst

    The saddest part being that nobody really does ‘pity the polar bears’, but their plight is connected to the Mersey.. How will the river deal with a rise of 30cm, or 60cm or more? How will the shoreline at Crosby or Formby fair?

    I’m all for looking on the brightside, but wowzer, even I’m impressed that the melting arctic is just seen as a business opportunity to some. I’m no shipping expert, but I guess avoiding the Suez canal and any potential political instability / transit charges in that area would also be advantageous to Chinese companies looking to export to Europe?

  • Rich

    let’s believe the hype!

  • david_lloyd

    Actually, the Mersey won’t rise much at all – because of tides, currents and weather systems, most of the rise in sea level will happen around the tropics. But I do pity the polar bears, very much.

  • Dave Coakley

    This is all part of Peels Atlantic Ocean Gateway. A plan to capitalise on China’s desire to flood Europe and then America with cheap products made in sweatshops.

    Fine, there will be record investment (such as the WTC being built now on land at Wirral’s dock road), this Liverpool Two terminal and Liverpool and Wirral Waters….but along side that will be the potential decimation of quality brands like Land Rover, if the Chinese are ever able to manufacture a similar quality in a sweat shop, for much lower prices and flood the UK and US market with it.

    The costs to human health internationally as we’ll as the environment, also has to be taken I to account (not to mention the inevitable wars that will occur over the Arctic resources).

  • Will Chambers

    What a great article, insightful, forward thinking but with an eye to the past. We have alot to be grateful to Lord Heseltine for. Keep up the great work Dave.

  • Barney

    Otters return to the Mersey

    The mighty Mersey darkened at Hale Head
    rolled its sand and mud to lay another bed
    of smoothed drying curves in softened light
    and once by day and once by every night
    drew the poison from the plant along the banks
    caustic, mercury spewed from storage tanks
    from Runcorn’s secret place seeped mustard gas
    to prosper or to kill a different class

    layered fretted banks still draw the eye
    to an anguished river’s every twist to try
    to cast the toxic metals from its silt
    and none who did it show a trace of guilt
    lauded now for cleaning up their act
    for otters have left a signature in tracks
    which otter-speaking industrialists can claim
    means nature has absolved them of all blame

  • Barney Walsh

    “…The benefits will be around £5 billion to the local economy”. How is this quantified? Also, you’ve overlooked the small matter of a mile long toxic scrapheap containing a dodgy ship breaking concern at the North End Docks. Good ad for Peel though.

  • Philip Stratford

    No wonder Southampton is getting jittery indeed! I’ve cruise a few times from there, and the fact is that there is very little to do in the city, it’s not an attractive place and the area where the cruise ships dock is a vast, industrial hinterland, separated from the city centre. If you were a visitor from another country making a call into Southampton on your cruise (as many Americans do), there’s very little to encourage you to get off the ship. In fact, they market it as ‘London’ and do coach trips into the capital.

    What a contrast with Liverpool, where the ships dock right in front of one of the most iconic waterfronts in the world, with a vibrant, culturally rich, beautiful city right there to be explored on foot.