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.
Clare Goff is former Editor of New Start magazine