Liverpool: Creative solutions for a new economy
April 13, 2016
Reclaiming enterprise and prosperity
To understand more about this creative approach to local economics, the Beautiful Ideas Company together with New Start, New Economics Foundation (NEF) and CLES, held an event in the city on 8th April as part of the Activating Local Alternative Economies project.
The Beautiful Ideas Company began as the Beautiful North, set up to change perceptions of the north of the city. It opened a community-run car park on a former school site for visitors to park their cars on match days. The money generated was matched with the government-baked LaunchPad fund, and now a pot of £600,000 is available to enable ‘Beautiful Ideas’ – new businesses and community enterprises of benefit to the north of the city.
The event launched some of those ideas, including Coming Home, a plan to get empty homes in the city occupied again, and a bike cafe run by Everton couple Rachel and Daniel who want to use their skills in bike-fixing and baking to combat high levels of mental health issues in their area. A former industrial unit in the north docks is now home to another of the ‘beautiful ideas’ – Make Liverpool.
Make Liverpool hosted the event and its location gave symbolism to the day’s conversation. It is situated next to the wall which surrounds the former north docks, the home of Liverpool’s past prosperity and now an ‘enterprise zone’ owned by corporate giant Peel Holdings but currently derelict. So, while one side of the wall is home to ‘big’ regeneration – currently swathes of unused land on which Peel Holdings gets business rate relief – on the other side of the wall ‘enterprise’ is already happening, but without the tax breaks of its ‘big’ neighbours.
The strength of those on the other side of the wall – working outside of mainstream economic structures in Liverpool to reclaim what enterprise and prosperity means for the city, is growing. They are changing the city from within, and their determination knows no bounds. As one participant at the event said: ‘Lots of us are betting our lives on this. We’re at such an apocalyptic stage of economic breakdown that we have to.’
Uniting big and small
As in each of the ten core cities that have been part of the Activating Local Alternative Economies project, however, a chasm currently exists between the big and small approaches to local economic development – and between those waiting patiently for money from outside to arrive or for development to begin, and those rolling their sleeves to tackle today’s problems today.
Liverpool council is, like many councils, wedded primarily to the mainstream model of economic development. It has been criticised for prioritising speculative investment over ground up regeneration, with a flood of student flats and hotels filling up empty spaces in the city centre, for not tapping into the creative energy of its people, and for being focused too heavily on growth.
‘The city’s greatest assets are its passion and its creativity’, said one commentator. ‘It feels different to other places and needs to use that difference rather than trying to compete. We need to stop the narrative of being the second city of empire and be brave again.’
‘The council is unable to keep up with “changes at the
speed of imagination” taking place on the ground’
The event brought together representatives from big and small economics in the city to talk about how brave the city is prepared to be and how the bottom up and the top down can find ways to make that bravery happen.
The conversation identified some of the barriers to dialogue between the two sides, such as the slow turning wheels of bureaucracy, with the council unable to keep up with ‘changes at the speed of imagination’ taking place on the ground. Cuts in local government mean legal processes have slowed up considerably and those involved in local projects sometimes ignore ‘due process’ in order to get things done.
Delegates talked about projects that begin with enthusiasm but lose steam when the council processes failed to keep up, and small businesses that had left for other cities. When funding is short how can councils become more nimble? Why does big business get tax breaks and support, while community enterprises and ideas often encounter blockages? How can engagement between the council and those building the city up from the bottom be improved?
The capacity and confidence of communities that have been let down by the mainstream model is another stumbling block. High levels of distrust exist in parts of the north of Liverpool. ‘People think that in the north of Liverpool we get the scraps, the titbits that are left behind,’ said one delegate.
A need to recognise community leaders – particularly unofficial ones – was identified and for networks of support in each neighbourhood, to mentor those with ideas and break the spiral of decline and low aspiration.
And above all, there was a strong sense of the need for community ownership. As development of the north docks progresses the area will become more attractive to big business. Community ownership for the long-term is needed now, said one delegate, whether it be through a neighbourhood plan or a community land trust model, to ensure that land and assets stay within the community.