I got home this evening to find a large cardboard box from Liverpool. Inside were the tiles we had bought, at some expense I may say, from the Turner Prizewinning Granby Workshop in that city.
Granby Four Streets, as the collection of projects tends to be known, is a cultural phenomenon. Not only did they win the art world’s most prestigious prize, they have also inspired and made possible the regeneration of some of Liverpool’s neglected dockland terraces.
The box crackled fascinatingly as we opened it, each tile different and a small way of supporting the new urban entrepreneurs who tend to break out of categories. Most of their products are made from waste from refurbishing buildings – and, to me, the tiles were also a reminder of Liverpool’s contribution to the world of regeneration.
This is all about innovation in self-help housing, often won at the cost of serious confrontations with authorities and local authorities, which tend to prefer Liverpudlians to be timid and to accept their fates without fuss.
The year I graduated from university, and first found myself interested in these issues was 1980, which was the year of the first official recognition of the Weller Street housing co-op.
Even that required a major confrontation with the Housing Corporation, which involved invading the chairman’s home during a private dinner party and poking a finger in his soup.
‘There is no other city in the UK with the experience of Liverpool,
now over two generations, of making things happen in housing.’
No other city ran with housing co-ops like Liverpool did. They were immediately controversial even there, on the left and the right. They only received the backing of the city council because, at the time, it was run by a minority Liberal administration. As soon as the Militant group took control a few years later, the battle was on. They were implacably opposed to the whole idea of self-help.
The next innovation was a decade later, when I was editing Town & Country Planning. The Eldonians won the backing of Prince Charles, then in his angriest community architecture phase, and also kickstarted the movement known at the time as community technical aid, which certainly captured my imagination. Because self-help housing never really spread beyond Liverpool, technical aid fizzled out as a movement and its skills have been all but lost.
Who now practices those techniques of how to get the future tenants to choose their own homes in a self-designed development?
The Eldon Street period took self-help beyond simply control of housing development and into job creation. But, again, its lessons hardly spread beyond Liverpool.
Now we have Granby Street and, once again, the success began with a confrontation with officials, with neighbours blocking the street to prevent demolition crews from doing their work.
There is no other city in the UK which has the experience that Liverpool has, now over two generations, of making things happen in housing. No other city has provide such a richness of innovations, and now Granby Four Streets benefits from being a community land trust, which was not an innovation that was available to Weller or Eldon Streets.
The pattern was repeated over and over again in the city’s recent history. Desperation, neglect, followed by confrontation, innovation and success – before the cycle goes round again.
In many ways, that is a symptom of Liverpool’s position as one of the most impoverished big cities in the country, despite recent progress. But it is also a sign of the spirit of the city, its doggedness and its cussedness in the face of official neglect.
It is an amazing combination of desperation and inspiration, and it never quite stays still.
I still remember the sentence with which housing officials dismissed the residents of Weller Streets when they asked for flowerbeds in the development. They cost too much to maintain, they were told. ‘You can have tarmac, We can do it in red or green.’
The paradox is that, out of this kind of attitude emerges a real series of breakthroughs. Other cities have a great deal to learn from Liverpool, both positive and negative. I’m not sure why they are so slow to learn it – is it because Liverpool has not risen to the challenge that they have something to teach?
David Boyle is a director of the New Weather Institute.