Liverpool: Creative solutions for a new economy
A band of artists, creatives, engagers and entrepreneurs are building a new Liverpool. But can it work with the mainstream economic structures or should it opt out?
‘There was a day when the balance shifted in favour of Liverpool having a future,’ remembers Ronnie Hughes, social housing consultant and local blogger.
That day was in the early noughties, when Liverpool put in a bold and inclusive bid to be European city of culture in 2008. Winning the bid set off a period of renewed confidence for a city that – two decades earlier – had been declared fit only for ‘managed decline’ by Thatcher’s government.
That renewed confidence is on display in ‘big Liverpool’. City centre investment has returned, giving Liverpool a firm place on the map as a tourist and shopping destination. It’s there in the new mayoral office at the top of the refurbished Cunard building, overlooking the river and at the front of which cruise liners now disembark their passengers for day trips. And it’s there in the plans for the revival of the north Liverpool docks by Peel Holdings.
But beyond the city centre and waterfront, the problems identified by Thatcher’s government in Liverpool in the 1980s have not gone away.
It remains a region of low wages and high levels of welfare; the Liverpool City Region is the most deprived of England’s local enterprise partnership areas, with north Liverpool – which includes the city’s two football clubs – the area with the highest concentration of deprivation.
‘If you invite creative people to come together and
make something happen, then something happens’
Austerity has hit the city hard; not only has it lost 58% of its central government funding – amounting to £340m – but it also saw half a billion of public investment leave following the scrapping of programmes such as Building Schools for the Future and Housing Market Renewal.
And while Liverpool’s overall economy – particularly its private sector – grew more than the core cities average between 1997 and 2014, since 2009 it has begun to fall backwards, with GVA growth down by almost 1%, compared to average growth in the core cities for the same period of 13%.
Liverpool council is clear about the challenges the city has, and understands that neither private investment nor the council on their own can solve them. Mayor Joe Anderson outlined the innovations he has put in place to steer the city through what he describes as the ‘most economically severe challenge the city has ever faced’, in an interview with New Start.
And Nick Small, assistant mayor of Liverpool, told the audience gathered at New Start’s event in the city in early April, that the city’s regeneration needs to be focused on people and community.
‘The council will fail unless people get the benefit of regeneration. It’s about how we work together to create better ideas away from the dead hand of the council.’
Those ‘better ideas’ are already there, thanks to a band of artists, entrepreneurs and former housing and regeneration officers who are busy developing more organic approaches to creating jobs and reviving the city’s poorer neighbourhoods.
Whether it’s the creative and tech cluster at Baltic Creative, home to organisations like We Make Places, or the community land trust and enterprises of Homebaked and Granby 4 Streets or the recently launched Beautiful Ideas Company, a wave of small economics is gathering momentum and showing the city what it could be.
Erika Rushton has been taking a creative approach to local economics for many years, both from the inside – she worked in the arts before joining Liverpool council’s first economic development department – and now as chair of Baltic Creative among other roles: ‘If you invite creative people to come together and make something happen, then something happens. We need to create pockets in which people can experiment.’
It is this creative energy being used to answer some of the city’s problems that is perhaps the true legacy of Liverpool’s year as European cultural capital.
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.
Creating a new narrative
The biggest stumbling block to the flourishing of a different kind of economy, however, is the dominance of the narrative that size matters and that growth is the ultimate aim.
The ‘beautiful ideas’ outlined above are competing with the ‘big’ ideas for the future of the city, which include a ‘mini Shanghai‘ on the Mersey, extending the high speed rail line to connect the city, and bidding to host the Commonwealth Games in 2026.
These ideas – should they be fulfilled – will no doubt bring visitors and jobs and economic growth to the city, and help those wanting to leave to catch a faster train out of there. But will they harness and build on the creative energy of its people? Will they help turnaround the social and economic fortunes of the north of Liverpool? Will Liverpool be a place of excitement and difference or an AnyTown?
‘Liverpool, perhaps more than any of UK core cities, has the social capital,
the belligerence and the chutzpah to stand up to the status quo’
Many believe that the city has a small window of opportunity to show what it could be. Within a few years other cities will have moved ahead of it economically and it will struggle to catch up; if ideas are not supported those with creative energy will move elsewhere, long before the fast train to Manchester has been built.
So what are the new narratives emerging for the city? Below are a handful of ideas that have emerged from the New Start/NEF/CLES event on 8th April and from conversations in the city:
An Enterprising City – that prioritises people not profits
- A partnership between the social and the public sector to build a high quality care system which, by not taking profits, is able to provide well-paid jobs and high quality care.
- Support for the city’s small food producers like Pau! to help them build markets and feed into supply chains of the city’s hospitals and football clubs.
- The north docks of Liverpool designated a ‘community enterprise zone’ which gives tax breaks and support to those taking on empty buildings and setting up enterprises.
How much wealth could be generated – financially and in wellbeing terms – through the creation of social supply chains in the city?
A Maverick City: A symposium will take place in the city in June, hosted by We Make Places, to bring together artists, designers and activists from across Europe who are developing grassroots cultural projects that re-think our cities. In Liverpool We Make Places has put forward a number of ‘provocations’, the most popular of which is turning a 1970s city centre flyover into a pedestrianised zone with an elevated urban highway, gifted to the people (pictured above). Councils in Boston and Sydney are actively collaborating with their creative communities and entrepreneurs to re-imagine the city and re-build its local economy. What would Liverpool look like if it supported its mavericks?
A Democratic City: Democracy and citizenship are at low ebbs in many of our cities, but in Liverpool they are being revitalised by a number of organisations and ideas. Engage Liverpool brings people living in the city centre and waterfront areas together to build community and neighbourliness and to discuss how problems from air quality to the need for more green spaces and better designed housing can be solved. David Lloyd has for some years articulated the problems – and solutions – in Liverpool through his blog Seven Streets. In this rousing article published on the first days of the year he warns of the urgency for change and calls for a ‘parliament of the people, for the people’, to break the deadlock in governance and allow the city’s greatest assets to take greater control over its destiny.
These ideas for the city are not mutually exclusive but could work together to build an alternative economic powerhouse in Liverpool – one that works for all of its people and that sets it apart from the courses other cities are slavishly following.
For it is Liverpool, perhaps more than any of the UK’s core cities, that has the social capital, the belligerence and indeed the chutzpah to stand up to the status quo. As a city forged on a sense of difference and geographically on the edge, it has never accepted the mainstream. The traditional ‘economic development’ offerings currently on the table, be they devolution deals, Peel Holdings or Chinese investment, are, in their current form, getting in the way of the city’s true development.
What if it opted out and went its own way? What if it looked a bit further than Manchester for a model, and was inspired by, say, Portland or Copenhagen, Melbourne or Ghent? What if it negotiated a more imaginative devolution agreement, one that engaged and involved all of its citizens?
The city has its confidence back but can it use its famous ‘brassy boldness’ to create its own future?
Clare Goff is Editor at New Start magazine