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30 July 2021

“Unesco don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Liverpool has reacted angrily to Unesco's decision to remove its heritage status.  But what does it really mean for the city’s future?

By Jonny Ball

Eddie, Billy, Tommy and Tony are enjoying the sun on a pair of wooden benches outside Liverpool’s Liver Buildings. Under the facades of the grand, baroque buildings overlooking the River Mersey, teenage skateboarders practice their tricks, passers-by tip a busker singing ‘Ticket to Ride’, and daytime drinkers enjoy a rooftop bar on top of the ferry terminal. Until last week, this was part of a Unesco World Heritage Site that put the city’s waterfront in the same illustrious company as Stonehenge and the Palace of Westminster at home, and the Taj Mahal and Pyramids of Giza abroad. But on 21 July, in a session of the UN World Heritage Committee in Fuzhou, China, Liverpool was stripped of its heritage status only 17 years after its award in 2004.

At the time, Liverpool securing World Heritage Status felt cathartic. The city seemed to be on the up after decades of decline. The shrinking of the population from its historic peak had begun to slow. The loss of traditional industries and the plummet in dockside employment had been at least partially stemmed by government investment in public sector jobs, as well as the emergence of a lively visitor economy. Barely 20 years had passed since the Daily Mirror had advised that “they should build a fence around Liverpool and charge admission” as “a showcase of everything that has gone wrong in Britain’s major cities”. Now, Liverpool had been designated with six sites that represented the “supreme example of a commercial port at a time of Britain’s greatest global influence”. Now, it was joining the ranks of the world’s cultural and historic elite cities.

“They had a secret meeting in China”, fumes Eddie, a retired lorry driver. “They didn’t come and face the people of Liverpool and tell us what they were going to do. We just found out on the news that that’s it – we’ve lost our heritage.”

Unesco’s case for delisting, which puts the city alongside just two other former sites to have been stripped of their status, rests on the development of docks north of the city centre, where Eddie and his three old friends are spending an afternoon watching the crowds of tourists go by. In a statement, the organisation claimed that an “irreversible loss of attributes conveying the outstanding universal value of the property”, and blamed new constructions that “are detrimental to the site’s authenticity and integrity”. The organisation has been approached for further comment.

But, like many Liverpudlians, Eddie and his friends think they’ve been unfairly treated, and that Unesco couldn’t have been placated unless the historic docklands were left undeveloped, as permanent museums of post-industrial decline and urban decay. “We don’t want Unesco”, says Eddie. “We’ve gone through the war, through poverty and everything, and still we survived, and I’m sure we’ll survive without them.”

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“They’re blaming those buildings for taking the look off the Liver Buildings, which is stupid”, says Billy, almost as angry as his fellow retiree, and gesturing towards a cluster of new hotels and office blocks that form part of the Liverpool Waters project. New building developments have led to what the UN calls a “serious deterioration” of the former heritage site. The Peel Group, a multi-billion pound infrastructure, land and property company which owns Liverpool’s old dock system, plans to redevelop huge swathes of the waterfront that have lain derelict for years.

“These were all docks at one time, all the way along”. Billy points in the distance to the Liverpool2, a giant new deep-water container terminal for ‘post-Panamax’ mega-ships. State-of-the-art facilities like this ensure Liverpool remains the fourth largest UK port by tonnage, but many of the other docks, which form part of Liverpool’s historic heritage site, have long ago fallen into disrepair.

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“It’s ridiculous. Tony worked on the docks, every single one of them, didn’t you Tony?”

Tony nods in agreement.

“But if you go north from here, it’s land that’s just going to waste. It’s terrible. But now they’re putting nice buildings there. They’re doing something good. Unesco!? Who are these people? They don’t know what they’re talking about!”

John Belchem, an emeritus professor and specialist in the history of Liverpool, was brought onto the original World Heritage Site Steering Group as a historical expert to support the original bid in 2004. “I supported the argument that we were trying to use the World Heritage Site, not to ossify, not to museumify, but actually to use it as a terrific catalyst”, he says. “Because you would have thought that to develop inside a World Heritage Site was something prestigious, and therefore you would bring high quality architecture to it.” Belchem wasn’t impressed with much of Peel’s proposal for Liverpool Waters, but he’s unsure as to what type of development, if any, that Unesco would have tolerated on the north docks. The organisation had placed Liverpool on its “in danger” list in 2012, and demanded a total and complete moratorium on building.

The “straw that broke the camel’s back”, according to Belchem, was the green light given by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick to build a new stadium at Bramley Moore dock for Everton Football Club. But, he contends, “the stadium is one of the better things, because, unlike some of the crappy apartment blocks and offices, that was an exciting architectural innovation.” The 50,000-seater riverside sports venue has been designed by an internationally renowned architect, and the plans have won almost unanimous plaudits from local councillors and fans from both sides of the city’s bitter footballing divide. Construction began on 26 July, just days after Unesco’s ruling.

“Even as someone who was in the World Heritage Site Steering Group right from the very beginning,” Belchem says, “I’ve never been on Bramley Moore because it’s inaccessible, it’s locked up. It’s just absurd to try to keep something desolate and derelict, it’s a deserted coal yard next to a sewage works – that’s what Bramley Moore is.”

Around the dock, in the “buffer zone” of the former heritage site, is a maze of dilapidated tire yards, shabby-looking industrial units, under-used MOT garages, and scrap metal dumps. They stand in the shadow of the gargantuan (and disused) Stanley Tobacco Warehouse, itself a Grade II listed building that will be renovated rather than razed to the ground under Peel’s proposals. The docks themselves are closed up, locked behind a 200-year-old wall built by French prisoners from the Napoleonic wars. Gone are the days when they were teeming with ships, employing tens of thousands of labourers in what was once the Second City of Empire – the containerisation of global shipping saw to that.

Where the old industries have left, the hipsters have started to arrive. A smattering of arts venues have been opened in old taxi depots and empty warehouses, offering environmentally friendly jungle raves, mismatched furniture, and locally brewed craft beer. But this is a long way from the gentrified bobo kingdoms of London. This stretch of dockland sits in the 7th most deprived constituency in the UK (out of 650), and it borders the number one most deprived, Walton, only a short walk away. Walton has the second highest unemployment benefit claimant rate in the UK, and Peel have said that their Liverpool Waters project will create 15,000 jobs and bring in £5bn worth of private investment.

Unesco’s decision has been condemned both by Liverpool’s city mayor, Joanne Anderson, and the mayor of the larger City Region, Steve Rotheram. The agency’s announcement compounds a political stink surrounding the city following the arrest of its previous mayor, Joe Anderson (no relation to his successor), on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation. Liverpool “should not be faced with a binary choice between maintaining heritage status or regenerating left-behind communities”, Rotheram wrote in a statement. Anderson claimed that the heritage site had “never been in a better condition”. Both bemoaned the fact that Unesco inspectors hadn’t visited the site for over a decade before they made their choice.

Eddie, Billy, Tommy and Tony are competing to see who can express the strongest outrage at news of Unesco’s recent deletion of their hometown from their prized list. This may well become another string to the bow of what was once described by the Prime Minister’s former employer, The Spectator, as the “self-pity city” that “wallowed” in “victimhood” (why hasn’t the Tower of London’s heritage status been rescinded, given its proximity to the bountiful glass and steel edifices of the City of London?).

The four friends are deep in discussion as hordes of passengers disembark from one of the world’s largest cruise ships, the MSC Virtuosa, on one of her first voyages. None of these visitors to the Pier Head seem repelled by the new lack of Unesco status. A vast majority won’t have been aware of it in the first place. They’re here for The Beatles, the football, and the nightlife. Most are probably pleasantly surprised by the splendid Victorian architecture, which they never expected, given the city’s less-than-wholesome, rough-round-the-edges reputation. “What do these Unesco people want?” Billy asks. “For us to leave those docks as a waste ground forever? They’re absolutely derelict.” If the choice was between regeneration on the one hand, or, on the other, maintaining heritage status while preserving the north docks in stasis, you’d be hard pressed to find many scousers who disagreed.

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