‘Regeneration‘. It’s the word that hits you with the force of a wrecking-ball the moment you step out of Lime Street Station and head into Liverpool city centre. Everywhere you look, there are construction-workers in hard-hats, cranes swinging overhead, building-site lorries pushing through the traffic.
Impossible to ignore in the main pedestrian-zone are new information-points and a grand public TV-display blaring out trailers by Liverpool Vision, the UK’s first urban regeneration company, calculated to whip locals into a frenzy of excitement about their city’s year in the spotlight as European Capital of Culture.
Saunter along towards Paradise Street and you’ll catch a glimpse of Liverpool One, coming into being like a shiny, futuristic metropolis-within-a-metropolis. With £1bn of private investment behind it, this labyrinth of sleek glass and steel is the biggest retail-led city-centre regeneration project in Europe. Covering 43 acres, it’s lined up to accommodate flagship stores for Debenhams and John Lewis, with more than 150 other shops, cafes and restaurants factored into the mix besides.
If that shoppers’ paradise – scheduled to open in the spring – doesn’t persuade visitors that Liverpool is back in business, they should saunter past hordes of newly constructed office-blocks to the docks. At King’s Waterfront, commanding stunning views of the Mersey, the ACC – Arena and Convention Centre – is a £146m state-of-the-art complex that officially inaugurated the Capital of Culture celebrations on January 12th.
Well advanced down the pipeline is another waterfront marvel, the Museum of Liverpool, scheduled to open in 2010; increasing numbers of passenger ships are making use of the newly opened cruise terminal; and over the water, the Birkenhead Docks are poised to see the start of a 20-year scheme, conducted by developers Peel Holdings, that will sprout a Manhattan-style skyline of commercial and residential blocks rising to 50-storeys high.
What’s the relationship, though, between all this commercial activity and the coveted designation of ‘Capital of Culture’? And how much in turn will the business generated by the Capital of Culture’s programme contribute to lasting change in the city? If you talk to those involved in the work at Liverpool One, or the Arena Centre, you get much affirmative, but generalised, confirmation that while these projects were in train before the Capital of Culture bid was won – the accelerated and coordinated nature of the projects has much to do with this year.
Council leader Warren Bradley is emphatic that “City of Culture gave confidence to people who would never have thought of investing in the city to do so.” His Labour Party opposite number Cllr Joe Anderson agrees: “Billions of pounds of public money has been poured into the city, all of which has kick-started the regeneration of the city centre.”
Already there are some remarkable statistics appearing to show the effect that the Capital of Culture year has had on trade. Figures just in comparing January 08 with January 07 show that attendances at the Maritime Museums is up by 119 per cent; and at Tate Liverpool by 102 per cent; bookings for the Liverpool Philharmonic are up 18 per cent; and the Everyman Theatre enjoyed a robust start to the year with attendances at its first CoC offering, Three Sisters on Hope Street, coming in at 150 per cent above projected figures.
So there’s already something tangible that those who’ve been labouring behind the scenes to organise the programme for Capital of Culture – overseen by TV writer/producer Phil Redmond – can point to as proof of its economic clout. But how do we make sense of the blizzard of data, some of it inevitably conflicting, that will come our way during 08?
If there’s one person who knows more than anyone else about the relationship between Liverpool’s status as Capital of Culture and its current regeneration that person is Dr Beatriz Garcia.
A vivacious academic from Barcelona, Garcia – 32 – is rapidly establishing herself as the expert’s expert in this field. With a CV so packed with research experience you wonder whether she might have unearthed the capacity to time-travel (see it for yourselves at www.beatrizgarcia.net), she’s steering an unprecedented programme of analysis into the impact of Capital of Culture, under the auspices of the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University.
It’s possible to keep tabs on this project – which extends back as far as 2005 and will run on into 2010 – by visiting its website – but in a rare moment of calm between meetings, Dr Garcia finds the time to rattle through the key objectives and terms of inquiry (in fluent English, naturally).
One of the difficulties, she freely admits, in looking at the impact is “distinguishing between what is due to Capital of Culture and what would have happened anyway”.
There are a number of different themes that she, and a team that incorporates up to 15 researchers, are looking at. There’s the economic impact (1), including job creation; there’s also the impact in terms of the city’s ‘Cultural System’ (2), its systems of creative endeavour; there’s the question of ‘Cultural Access and Participation’ (3) and how participation in CoC events improves quality of life; there’s ‘Identity, Image and Place’ (4), how, in effect, the city’s self-image and self-confidence is altered; there’s the ‘Physical Infrastructure of the City’ (5), taking in everything from venues to public art and parking. And there’s also ‘Philosophy and Management of the Process’ (6), which looks at how the ideas and processes that have shaped the success or otherwise of the Liverpool year can be built upon, with a particular view to carrying them forward to other regeneration programmes.
It’s early days, she tells me, although there’s already considerable pressure to pass on and publish her team’s analysis of the data as it comes in. What is striking, already, she says, is that in terms of one of the more intangible knock-on effects, it’s becoming clear that Liverpool’s media profile has changed beyond recognition: “We’ve seen it growing exponentially – from 2003 onwards, there’s been three to four times more coverage to do with its cultural assets. You can say that there has been a dramatic change in terms of the city’s sense of pride.” Maybe that assessment doesn’t qualify as a big news story yet – and I’ll be coming back to Dr Garcia over the next 10 months to see whether she has produced more concrete examples of socio-economic benefits, but after just six weeks of the Capital of Culture festivities, a confident declaration like that augurs pretty well for a city so long mired in doom and gloom, doesn’t it?
Dominic Cavendish is comedy critic and deputy theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph