When Unesco decided last week to strip Liverpool of its world heritage status, its action was widely seen as a conflict between a remote bureaucracy and the city’s valiant efforts to regenerate its postindustrial zones. “Liverpool’s waterfront has flourished without Unesco’s support and will do so again,” wrote the Liverpool Echo’s head of sport, David Prentice, and he spoke for many.
The fact that a proposed new stadium for Everton is a catalyst for Unesco’s ire gives force to this narrative. On the one hand, the people’s game – or the “people’s club” as Everton like to call themselves – on the other, faceless functionaries meeting in a faraway country. In Fuzhou, China, to be precise, where the 44th session of the world heritage committee decided the city’s fate in a secret ballot. “Unesco are as out of touch with Merseyside geographically as they are spiritually,” Prentice wrote.
But it is a tragedy, and an avoidable one, that a city should seem to be at war with its heritage and that preservation and regeneration should be put in opposition. The citizens of Liverpool should be on the same side as Unesco, as they should both care about the city’s identity and history. They have the same enemies: the shoddy and contemptuous treatment of the world heritage site, over years, both by the city’s government and private property companies. It is the latter, which now have greater freedom to do as they please, which have most reason to be delighted by last week’s decision.
Unesco’s designation, known as a maritime mercantile city, included six areas in Liverpool’s centre and along its waterfront. The first focus of its concern was Liverpool Waters, a large development by the Peel Group, a company that owns much of the old dock areas along the Mersey. It is located just north of the Three Graces, the magnificent early 20-century commercial buildings that are among the city’s biggest architectural stars, and close to the mighty Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse of 1901. In 2012, planning permission was granted for Peel’s ambitious plan for emulating Shanghai’s clusters of skyscrapers, despite concerns that they would overwhelm their historic neighbours. Less dramatic development, but still intrusive and uninspired, has taken place instead.
Then came the plan to build a stadium for Everton, a club that has already endured a long and frustrating search for a new home, also to be built on Peel-owned property. It would require filling in the Grade-II listed Bramley-Moore Dock. Historic England opposed it, among other things because it would make more likely the loss of world heritage site status. The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, nevertheless waved the project through.
Unesco seems to be reacting to planning decisions and insufficient signs of respect or seriousness from government
Historic England, in truth, had a tough argument to make. Its main objection was the loss of water, through the filling in of the dock, rather than of anything constructed. There is quite a lot of water in this part of Liverpool and it might not seem so terrible to lose some of it. The commonsense view would be that some of the old docks might be built on, if there were a clear public benefit in doing so, if there were no viable alternative, and if it were not a precedent for filling in most of the others. The problem is this: such a view would need to be supported by a credible, coherent and balanced plan of the area as a whole.
If these sound like vague wishes they can be seen in action in Hamburg, a big old port city in some ways like Liverpool. Here, the HafenCity development combines heritage with regeneration and public benefits such as well-kept open spaces with private profit from offices and apartments. And they are physically there, built and in use, unlike the many parts of Peel’s Shanghai fantasies that are still unrealised.
To have achieved such a thing on the now ex-world heritage site would have required thoughtful and effective stewardship, which is precisely the quality that has been hard to find in modern Liverpool. Instead, the former mayor Joe Anderson delighted in displaying his indifference to Unesco’s designation – “a certificate on a wall”, he called it – and enthusiastically backed the aggressive Liverpool Waters designs. Previous city administrations littered the land around the Three Graces with would-be icons, a clunky ferry terminal and the clunkier Museum of Liverpool, and the “black coffins”, as they have been called, that make up the Mann Island mixed-use development.
Much of the damage Unesco fears has yet to happen. It seems to be reacting more to the planning decisions that have been made and to the insufficient signs of respect or seriousness from government. This is a national as well as a city-wide matter: world heritage sites are by definition of national and international concern. The failure in Liverpool also belongs to Jenrick and to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, who appear to have done little or nothing to avert the loss of status.
Anderson is now out of office, having been arrested in December on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation. The city’s director of regeneration, Nick Kavanagh, was dismissed last March, having previously twice been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and bribery. Kavanagh denies the accusations. Anderson has also insisted that the allegations are baseless and said he is suing Merseyside police for wrongful arrest. In June, Jenrick appointed commissioners to oversee improvements to Liverpool city council over the next three years. The new mayor, Joanne Anderson, who is no relation to her predecessor, has a chance to make a fresh start. Her problem, when it comes to heritage, is that her job has been made harder by the loss of the Unesco status.
Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture critic