A Creative Alternative?

Photo of Bradford Odeon protest by P13 D

Photo of Bradford Odeon protest by P13 Digital Media

By Kenn Taylor

When I was a child, I was taken by my school to see a submarine launched at the
Cammell Laird shipyard, a place that had been the raison d’être of my hometown, Birkenhead, for the last 200 years. I was given a flag to wave at the vast, metal object as it went down the slipway. My principle memory is of the scale of the place, as we stood dwarfed by the yard’s huge construction sheds and yellow cranes. What I didn’t quite understand at the time was that this was the end. This was the last ship that was to be built at the yard.

I would to come to realise this, though, and also that it was almost to mean the end of the town, reduced largely to decline and dependency on low-paid service-industry work, benefits and a small number of public-sector jobs. What happened to Birkenhead as a phenomenon has, if anything, increased elsewhere in my lifetime. The sort of decline that could once safely – for others – be said to be located in certain specific areas, has engulfed more and more places over the last twenty years in a rapidly shifting global world. What do you do with a place when its reason to exist has gone? Can it have a future? How can people suffering from the poverty generated by such situations have better lives and opportunities? These were the questions that plagued me as I grew up in a postindustrial area.

Economic decline is inextricably linked to population decline, both of which create surplus land and buildings. In the later part of the twentieth century, in certain urban areas such as New York, London and Berlin, this ‘free space’ was often occupied by artists and those seeking alternative lifestyles. Economically, this ultimately worked out for these cities, since while certain industries and the communities that had relied on them had been hollowed out, they had other industries to sustain them. In New York and London this was principally high-finance and in Berlin, principally government. So this occupation by ‘creatives’ actually helped re-animate what was, in the eyes of local authorities, ‘problem spaces’, bringing them back to economic use as they became fashionable and subsequently attracted new, wealthier residents. Such gentrification has been well documented.1 Writers like Richard Florida suggested that other postindustrial areas should adopt this model, becoming ‘creative cities’2  that attract the highly educated, highly mobile people who set up the likes of Google. This was seen by some civic leaders as a catch-all answer to stemming population decline, creating those lucrative ‘good jobs’ and so increasing the tax- and power-base of postindustrial areas. Based on these theories, many such localities spent big on arts venues, festivals etc aimed at regenerating disused space, attracting culture-seeking tourists and more importantly, those new ‘creative’ business-starting residents.

However, in many other cities, while empty buildings, declining populations and tax bases were also the problem, this solution was not so easy as in New York and London. In a place as large as a city, a ‘creative class’ generally needs a ‘real’ economy to feed off in order to enjoy a supporting infrastructure and audience. Shoreditch may emphasise its mental distance from The City of London, but without the latter’s finance industry paying for the likes of London’s advanced public transportation system via demand and taxation, along with everything from sponsoring theatres to buying artworks and commissioning designers, its ‘creative class’ would struggle. As any artist who has lived in a postindustrial city for any length of time will tell you, cheap rents and easily available space are important, but to lack easy access to a major market or audience (even in these internet days) is ultimately limiting.

While we may love them for their diversity, vibrancy and creativity, cities have since ancient times largely existed for strategic or economic reasons, formed out of convergences of power and money. This is why so many artists and creative people still move to New York and London despite the harsh costs and lifestyle. These cities offer potential for advancement that other localities do not, whether in terms of creative stimulation or more pragmatic personal opportunities. This is why economically successful cities are always centres of inward migration, people seeking their own piece of the growing pie, whether money or culture, which in turn helps gives birth to that diversity, vibrancy and creativity.

Throughout history, art and culture have generally emerged from economic centres that can afford them, rather than being expected to be the economy, or at least not solely. Some unique places such as Venice can, via tourism, achieve an economy based on their cultural histories. Yet even Venice has a shrinking population, which is causing it problems now that it is no longer a centre of manufacture, commerce and slavery. Indeed, despite all the new creative industries being talked about in postindustrial places like Detroit, such as the start-ups at the A. Alfred Taubman Centre,3  making cars is still actually the biggest part of the Detroit economy.4  Likewise, even as cultural-focused tourism does grow in Liverpool, its maritime and manufacturing trades are still bigger economic assets.5  Over in Birkenhead, even the old Cammell Laird shipyard has re-opened and is now booming.6  These most traditional of industries, which had declined for years, are still the main points of growth for such places as trade patterns shift, to a degree, back in their favour. Such growth remains vulnerable, but at least these localities are still playing a significant role in the global economic system, in fields, despite their reduction in staff numbers, that employ far more people than the arts are ever likely to.

In London and New York, the fight for space against the overwhelming power of capital is key, hence the constant shifting of ‘creative zones’ to the latest deprived area. In cities such as Liverpool, though, the fight is for capital or rather any way for the city (including its artists) to sustain itself without having to rely on cross-subsidy from elsewhere to pay for its services. The latter is a dangerous situation, leaving postindustrial areas vulnerable to the whims of the policies of often faraway governments.

Is there an alternative for cities other than to fight each other for a slice of global capital? To take part in a pact with the very ideology that brought down industrial cities? We should not forget that it was also this same ideology that gave birth to these cities and subsequently the culture that rose from them: be it Motown or The Beatles, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals or the metal sculptures made by Arthur Dooley, himself a former Cammell Laird welder.

Despite the continued economic reliance on transport and manufacture in Liverpool, cultural activity has played a big part in shifting both the perception and actuality of the city in the last fifteen years in a way that few residents would disagree has been an improvement, even if most would also agree there is still a long way to go. If, with the right cultural attractions and activities, a town can create a tourist business and transform external views of the place, creating a few jobs in the process, why would any poor locality not do so?

Are these cultural initiatives in postindustrial locations just window-dressing: a bit of art to cover over the economic cracks, encouraging higher-end tourism and providing something to do between inward investment meetings? A chance for globetrotting arty-types to ‘reanimate’ decayed spaces and help pave the way for developers? Or can they offer more?

I would argue that they can. Art’s real strength in this situation is how it can exist in a space between those at different ends of the scale of power and money. In this deeply imbalanced situation, real sway can be had, as Charles Bukowski once said, when ‘an artist says a hard thing in a simple way’. Art has the potential to cut though things, creating a channel through dysfunctional systems. Creative activism in the public arena can, by highlighting errors, showcasing alternatives and probing new solutions, make the prevailing forces of power, at best take a step back, or at least demonstrate to others the holes that exist within their plans and systems.

Such action in postindustrial areas can break the deadlock that can emerge from vested interests. Governments, local authorities, businesses, property developers, investors, even entrenched community groups, while often having plans that may be valid on one level, can, in the inevitable vastness of such organisations, end up letting neighbourhoods, even whole cities, fall down the cracks. As an example, we can look to Liverpool and how the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder initiative affected it and other areas with mass housing demolition. 7  This plan emerged, no doubt with good intentions, from a think-tank at Birmingham University and was adopted by the then government as a way of regenerating postindustrial communities. Dozens of journals, petitions and surveys eventually began to critique this extreme approach. While these achieved a cumulative effect, ultimately they held less power and sway in general public and political opinion than two actions in Liverpool. In Anfield, the 2up2down/Homebaked project,8  re-opening a bakery that many thought had gone for good, and in Liverpool, eight community groups painting bright images, planting flowers and hosting a local market outside abandoned homes. All the secret meetings, investment strategies and ten-year-plans rightly turned to dust in the face of such an obviously more positive use of empty property reduced to ruin by socio-economic policies. Such initiatives may have impacts that are more emotional than practical, but therein lies the ability of such creative action to compete against, or at least square up to, those who control the money and power. Those with their hands on the levers inevitably struggle to respond when they are faced with a public demonstration of obvious failure and positive alternatives.

The question from critics though, and it is a valid one, is what next? When folly or injustice has been demonstrated, what alternative is there? Can such initiatives represent long-term solutions? Creative perforations can open avenues to new situations, but for real change they have to then grow into something bigger. In becoming more established and practical, such projects may lose some of their initial outsider power, but this is essential if such action is to instigate actual change and shift the balance of ideas, power and control.

For an example of this we can shift from Liverpool to Bradford, where creative grassroots action helped not only to save a grand Art Deco cinema from demolition, but began a total re-imagining of the potential future of the building. After being closed for several years, the Odeon was facing destruction, to be replaced with a new office and retail development,9  the need for which was questionable. Slowly, local opposition built into a ‘Save the Odeon’ campaign, with activists often utilising artistic impulses such as covering the building with ‘Get Well Soon’ cards, decorating it at Christmas while a brass band played, and even turning up as a group to clean its exterior to demonstrate that, beneath a bit of dirt, a fine building was languishing. These actions slowly won over more local people and even gained celebrity support from the likes of Imelda Staunton, Terry Gilliam and David Hockney. After much pressure, the demolition was eventually cancelled, with the local authority agreeing that the building should be retained in future plans for the area. The campaigners have subsequently formed into an Industrial and Provident society named ‘Bradford One’ and are now bidding to be allowed to take over the building themselves.10

Meanwhile, over in Detroit, the apparently sensible policy of reducing the city’s size in relation to its shrunken population came up against The Heidelberg Project, begun in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton on the city’s east side. Initially, he painted a series of houses in Heidelberg Street with bright dots in many colours and attached salvaged items to the houses. He went on to develop the project into a constantly evolving work that transformed a semi-abandoned neighbourhood into a creative art centre.11  Twice it was faced with demolition by the Detroit authorities, and indeed some of it was destroyed. Yet, despite these setbacks, it is now a global tourist attraction with its own arts education programme for local schoolchildren, not to mention being one of fifteen projects that represented the US at the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale.12

The question raised by those who wanted to see the demolition and removal of all these places was, ‘Well, what would you do with it?’ In answer, creativity was used against the overwhelming machines of business, media, government and prevailing orthodoxy, to open up alternative possibilities for these spaces. Such projects may not in themselves solve all the problems of a postindustrial city, but their operation in a more open-ended space outside of dominant ideologies can raise awareness, generate new solutions and galvanise people to action. After all, successful local regeneration is based on local enthusiasm for it, which, when people are already facing the multiple challenges of living in a deprived area, can be slow to start and quick to wane. Key to ongoing positive change stemming from such initiatives is the genuine involvement of local people in an in-depth way. The Bradford One and Heidelberg actions were both begun by people who already had a stake in the local area, while 2up2down/Homebaked in Anfield began as an external provocation from Liverpool Biennial. However, all of these projects ultimately took the time to win understandably sceptical people over from outside of their own circles and become rooted in local desires, rather than just agendas imposed from outside. Also vital though, is that such projects moved on from their initial creative perforations and formed organisations, sought funding, liaised with regulators, engaged wider publics and communicated with media and academia. Thus they created a momentum that became sustainable, even through inevitable setbacks and ups and downs.

So, having begun to develop initial provocations into projects with positive outcomes for communities, the question becomes, what next? How does the spark of an alternative become something sustainable or even a new way of doing things in postindustrial areas? The rights of the urban resident of the twentieth century were gained through practical action, engaging, even if aggressively, with the prevailing system and demanding a share, as well as through the development of solid alternatives that functioned effectively, even if these existed within a wider capitalist framework. Bodies from the Cooperative movement founded in Rochdale in 1844 to the early housing associations formed in 1960s Liverpool, determined that inner-city housing had a future, and so it remains today.

Having successfully fundraised via Kickstarter to open its bakery, 2up2down/Homebaked now seeks to establish a co-operative housing scheme13  as part of the wider redevelopment of Anfield, which is centred on a new stadium for Liverpool Football Club. In Bradford, the Save the Odeon campaign has formed into the constituted Bradford One organisation, which is developing proposals that, if successful, will see the historic structure transformed into a multi-purpose cultural venue and centre for creative enterprise. This will include an ‘asset lock’ ensuring that the Odeon’s future use will always benefit the people of Bradford.14  In Detroit meanwhile, the Heidelberg Project is planning to expand into neighbouring properties as part of a broader ‘cultural village’ concept for the area once the site has been secured from recent damage.15  The project’s development committee now includes senior staff from Detroit and Michigan local authorities, demonstrating quite a change from when Guyton spent much of his time fighting officials who wanted to shut down the project. His case was no doubt aided by the Heidelberg’s increasing popularity and global visibility.16

While global big business is probably here to stay, it seems that local control, whether it is of new business start-ups, arts centres, housing co-ops or bakeries, offers the best long-term sustainability for communities. Yet for this to happen, local people must be able to take control. The will must be there in the community for such initiatives, but provocations such as the above, by highlighting alternatives and breaking open new ideas, can have transformative effects, bringing people on board who never imagined they could ever have a voice or play a part in the future of their area.

However, controlling authorities also need to have the desire, or at least the will, to hand such power to communities. So will states grant such power to localities and will local authorities in turn divest power to their citizens? Even if this happens, will it descend into counter-productive factionalism? Perhaps in some cases, but as the examples above show, plenty of projects can exceed even the wildest hopes of their founders, if they are given the opportunity. It may be the case though, as projects such as these have demonstrated, that the only way to gain power is for such organisations to be formed, take the initiative and demand it, creating legitimacy though raising awareness and encouraging action. Equally vital is that the authorities provide the required financial support for such projects at the relevant time. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea of community solutions quickly fell on its face because of a lack of money, something even acknowledged by the academic who came up with the phrase.17  If you hand the levers of power over to people, but with no capital to be able to use them, positive effects will always be limited.

Creative perforations, such as those listed above, are in themselves valid, as a way to speak the truth to power, show an alternative and imagine new possibilities. However, if they are to have lasting effects, they need to change, morph and engage with the prevailing systems of power and money in order to achieve wider goals. This may require compromise, but such compromise will have much stronger social benefits in deprived areas than any academic treatise denouncing failures in the system from a faraway university.

Finally, can these projects be more than interesting perforations, a few gems standing out in otherwise troubled cities? Can they actually become new ways of organising postindustrial urban environments? If this is possible, such initiatives cannot exist in a vacuum. Power brokers need to be engaged and convinced that the system needs to shift and absorb these new ideas. In undertaking such engagement, projects like these may risk losing their outsider power, but they gain the potential to change many more lives and even of becoming new orthodoxies. That is, of course, until the need arises for the next perforation from outside of the prevailing order.

This piece was published in the Stages Journal #2 published by Liverpool Biennial in September 2014.

Footnotes

1  See, for example, S. Zurkin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982.

2  Richard Florida, ‘Cities and The Creative Class’, http://www.creativeclass.com/richard_florida/books… (accessed 24 April 2014).

3  M. Haber, ‘Meet The Makers: Rebuilding Detroit by Hand’, Fast Company (2013). Available at: http://www.fastcocreate.com/1682411/meet-the-maker… (accessed 20 April 2014).

4  T. Alberta, ‘Refueled: Domestic Automakers Poised to Lead Detroit’s Revival’, National Journal (2014). Available at: http://www.nationaljournal.com/next-economy/americ… (accessed 25 April 2014).

5  Liverpool Economic Briefing 2013, Liverpool City Council, 2013, p.9.

6  B. Gleeson, ‘John Syvret commits future to Cammell Laird’s’, Liverpool Echo (2014). Available at: http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/business/john-… (accessed 1 May 2014).

7  I Cole & B. Nevin, The road to renewal: the early development of the housing market renewal programme in England, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York, 2004, pp.9–17. Available at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/system/files/1859352707.pdf# (accessed 22 Apr. 2014).

8  ‘2Up 2Down, a Community Land Trust and Co-operative Bakery for Anfield’ (2014), http://www.2up2down.org.uk/ (accessed 25 April 2014).

9  I. Qureshi, ‘Why does Bradford care so much about a derelict cinema?’, The Guardian, (2012). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/the-northerner/2012/… (accessed 1 May 2014).

10  About Us, Bradford One (2014), http://www.bradfordone.com/faq/ (accessed 1 May 2014).

11  The Heidelberg Project – Great Public Space (2014), http://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/one?public_… (accessed 1 May 2014).

12  A. Goldbard, ‘Public Art as a Spiritual Path’ Forecast Public Art (2014). Available at: http://forecastpublicart.org/public-art-review/201… (accessed 1 May 2014).

13  Homebaked Community Land Trust, 2Up 2Down (2014), http://www.2up2down.org.uk/about/egestas-elit/ (accessed 1 May 2014).

14  Our Plans, Bradford One (2014), http://www.bradfordone.com/bradfordone-news/our-pl… (accessed 1 May 2014).

15  S. Welch ‘In wake of fires, Heidelberg Project rethinks goals, halts capital campaign’, Crain’s Detroit Business (2014). Available at: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20140330/NEWS… (accessed 1 May 2014).

16  G. Anglebrandt, ‘Expansions in the works for Heidelberg, MOCAD’, Crain’s Detroit Business (2011). Available at: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20110421/DM01… (accessed 22 April 2014).

17  P. Blond, ‘David Cameron has lost his chance to redefine the Tories’, The Guardian (2012). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/… (accessed 24 April 2014).

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From the Ground Up: Radical Liverpool Now

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Kenn Taylor

This book tells the story of a century in the life of a radical city. One hundred years of turmoil, extreme change, alternative ideas and independent action. Different radical currents have flown through Liverpool over the years but underneath it all the city’s inhabitants seem to have developed a fiercely independent nature that defies any attempt to pin it down – a nature that mistrusts external authority, frequently defies conventional logic and seeks practical solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

If you talk about radical politics and activism in Liverpool, there is an inevitable harking back to the radical socialism that was a key component of the city’s identity after 1911 – especially during the 1980s, when a local authority dominated by the Militant Tendency infamously refused to set a legal budget as an act of resistance against a hostile Conservative government. This, along with the radical trade union activity throughout the city and the Toxteth riots of 1981, helped cast a view of Liverpool as a hotbed of revolutionary socialism that still persists today.

Yet, as documented elsewhere by John Belchem, this was far from representative of Liverpool’s grassroots politics throughout its history. If 1911 was the year that marked Liverpool’s shift towards a form of socialism, then the 1980s were perhaps its peak. And almost as soon as this aspect of the city’s character entered into the national consciousness it had begun to decline.

Contributing to this, no doubt, was the failure of the Militant council to bring down the Conservative central government and fund the municipal socialism they promised – not to mention distaste within the city for some of their methods. This, along with a decline in trade union membership and disappointment in thirteen years of New Labour government, has considerably reduced the influence of the labour movement in Liverpool at a grassroots level. It has been suggested in light of this that the city has lost its radical nature and become overwhelmed by apathy. Indeed, Liverpool has some of the lowest voter turnouts in the UK. However; this chapter will argue that this decline has seen an emergence, or perhaps a re-emergence, of a different type of radicalism in the city.

In recent years, large sections of Liverpool have been transformed, mostly in a positive way. But beneath this brave new regenerated city there are still many problems and, with them, a vast undercurrent of grassroots activism that is fighting to rebuild the city from the ground up. The radical spirit that has over the years fuelled protests, riots, strikes, occupations and takeovers, remains. As do the skills, in organising, protesting, publicizing and delivering action. Though much of this is still organised and influenced by those who were part of the labour movement, the landscape has changed.

This spirit perhaps harks back to something older and deeper in the psyche of Liverpool’s citizens: to the culture forged in the dire poverty of Victorian Liverpool, when the character that came to be known as ‘Scouse’ was being formed and the gulf between rich and poor was so vast.

Perhaps the best-known example of grassroots community activism in Liverpool during the last thirty years has been that surrounding the development of the Eldonian Village. Here, in deprived Vauxhall, a celebrated, self-organised community grew up on wasteland, against the odds and in the face of an actively hostile local authority. In Liverpool it has frequently been individuals rather than movements that have defined the city’s activism. This is exemplified by Tony McGann, who led the residents of the Eldon Street and Burlington Street tenements to develop the Eldonian Village. His actions were driven by a desire to prevent their community being broken up and dispersed to estates on the fringes of the city – the fate of so many other working-class communities in Liverpool due to successive slum clearance programmes from the 1930s onwards.

Encouraged by the then Liberal-dominated city council in the early 1980s to form a housing co-operative, the residents that were to become known as the Eldonians had their plans undermined when Labour gained control of the city in 1983. Coming up against a local Labour party keen that it alone should control housing and community development, the residents nevertheless battled on. Determined that they knew what was best for the community, they had come to mistrust the council, of whichever political stripe, for having failed to deliver the services they had promised.

In order to bring their plans to fruition, McGann and his fellow community association members worked not only with the labour movement but also formed alliances with everyone from Conservative ‘Minister for Merseyside’ Michael Heseltine to major construction companies, architects, social landlords and even royalty, developing the new ‘urban village’ over a number of years and many hurdles.

From a humble start the Eldonian Village has grown into a development renowned around the world, even winning the UK’s first United Nations World Habitat Award in 2004 for creating ‘an internationally recognized model of community-led sustainable regeneration’. The Eldonian Community Trust and its various subsidiaries have since expanded into many other areas beyond housing, establishing a local leisure centre, nursery and village hall. They have also worked with private developers and other partners on expanding the area and encouraging younger families to move in. The result is a ‘self-regenerating community’.

The Eldonian Village was a radical project at the time, but it was not Liverpool’s first attempt to create better lives through buildings. Poverty has meant that problems with housing have dominated the city for much of its existence, as have attempts to find solutions to them. Liverpool Corporation is noted as having built the first local-authority-owned housing in the UK in 1869, thus bringing new standards into the housing of the poor.

Later, between the wars, the city pioneered continental-style tenement blocks and developed out-of-town housing estates. As such initiatives moved from being radical to the norm in the post-war era, Liverpool also became home to some of the largest housing associations in the UK, these largely focused on regenerating older, abandoned city-centre properties that had been left to rot by the council. However, the well-meaning that had seen the city pioneer the first municipal housing eventually became lost among council bureaucracy and limited funds. Even the housing associations morphed to become huge public corporations, now often perceived as being as remote as local authorities themselves.

With the emergence of the Eldonian Village, Liverpool also became a test bed for large-scale co-operative urban development. For many years the city had searched for solutions to its housing problems and come up with groundbreaking ideas that were later adopted nationally; the Eldonian solution, however, was developed from within the community itself, not imposed by outside ‘experts’.

The Eldonians realised that rebuilding housing was not on its own enough to tackle deprivation and create a sustainable community. Control by local people over their own environment and long-term, multifaceted thinking were key. This was in contrast to the zealousness with which Liverpool city council had pursued its flawed modernist-influenced housing developments in the 1950s and 1960s. Whilst acknowledging that the dire post-war housing shortage contributed to this, these schemes, developed by outsiders with utopian ideals and often rigid beliefs, were frequently ill thought out and badly built. Such estates were imposed onto people with little thought for the fragile ecosystems that provided support in poor communities, creating untold damage, the effects of which remain today.

The failure time and again of such grand plans and ideologies dreamt up by outsiders to improve the lives of the poor in Liverpool, be they from politician, academic, architect or otherwise, has helped create a mistrust of such ideas in the city, fostering instead a do-it-yourself mentality where disenfranchised communities have taken matters into their own hands.

The work of Tony McGann and the Eldonians prompted Prince Charles to remark, ‘Men and women, through the power of their own personalities, can achieve more than millions spent through committees’ – a comment no doubt with which many citizens of Liverpool would agree.

It took the prospect of their community being broken up and dispersed to galvanise the residents of Eldon Street and Burlington Street into creating the Eldonian Village. A similar crisis in the Croxteth area of the city was to prompt equally radical action at around about the same time. In 1980, Liverpool city council stated its intention to close Croxteth Comprehensive School, doing so without consulting the local community or even informing the school’s head teacher.

Croxteth was one of Liverpool’s rapidly built, post-war peripheral housing estates and the school was one of the few facilities the deprived community had. Numerous intense protests against closure were quickly organised, but when these came to nothing, parents and local residents took the decision forcibly to occupy the school on the day before its planned closure in 1982. This radical action sent shockwaves through both the community and the authorities, as recalled by local resident Irene Madden: ‘I’ve never known an atmosphere like it … I think the Council and the government got the shock of their lives, you know when we stood up to them.’ Unlike the Eldonians, those involved in the Croxteth occupation were fighting the then Liberal-dominated council and had the support of the Labour group, but once again they were defying the power of a local authority they perceived as remote to try to protect the interests of the local community.

Soon after the occupation, the Croxteth Community Action Committee took the decision to open their own community school in the building, despite overwhelming odds and no real funding. The committee was led largely by Phil Knibb, like Tony McGann, another tough individual who commanded the respect of the local community. It organised and operated all aspects of the school and its round the clock occupation in partnership with parents and pupils. Volunteer teachers came from across the country, donations were successfully sought and supplies given by local factories.

They received widespread media coverage and even won celebrity backing from Vanessa Redgrave and UB40 – all this in the face of legal threats from the council and the electricity being cut off. The current UK coalition government are keen on ‘free schools’ and communities setting up and running their own educational establishments, but in 1982 Liverpool was once again pushing a radical idea that was attacked by many in politics and the media. The Daily Mail even suggested that ‘the strange Indian cult Anada Marga’ was at work in the ‘school of chaos’.

After Labour won control of the city council, Croxteth Comprehensive was taken back fully into local authority control in 1985. However, the occupation had helped create a new sense of community activism and empowerment in the area. Early in the occupation the Action Committee formed several subcommittees to work on wider local issues, including providing activities for young people, tackling the area’s heroin problem and providing support for older members of the community – work that was to continue long after the school campaign had ended.

In 1999, an old people’s residential home in the centre of Croxteth became available for purchase and a number of Committee members pooled their savings and redundancy monies to buy it and turn it into a community-based education centre. Since then, the now Alt Valley Community Trust, still led by Phil Knibb, has grown beyond all recognition.

The old people’s home has been turned into ‘The Communiversity’ and is the main base for the organisation’s work. Social businesses have been set up in local shopping units purchased by the trust and a vocational skills training centre for young people has opened in the former St Swithin’s Church – a project that is now entirely self-financed through contracts.16 Even the local leisure centre has been taken over by the trust through asset transfer.

Croxteth Comprehensive School was once more threatened with closure by the city council at the end of 2008. The decision again sparked outcry in the local community, which refused to accept the verdict. This time there was no occupation, but they became among only a handful nationally who managed to take their case to the High Court in an unsuccessful bid to challenge the ruling. However, having lost that battle, members of the community are attempting to turn something negative into something positive. At the time of writing, the Alt Valley Community Trust is in discussions with Liverpool city council to take ownership of the modern technology and sports blocks of the school to expand its own education provision. Croxteth is another example of a community being pushed into taking control of its own situation, no longer allowing itself to be at the mercy of external forces. This recurrent theme of recent activism has arguably filled the vacuum left by the decline and failure of the overarching ideologies and systems that such communities had come to rely on.

The mistrust of grand schemes within Liverpool has manifested itself most recently perhaps in campaigns around the city’s European Capital of Culture 2008 designation. Winning the status in 2003 was one of, if not the, biggest things to happen to the city in the last twenty years. Property values rose overnight and there was nothing short of euphoria in some quarters that Liverpool’s importance finally seemed to be officially acknowledged after so much decline and derision. In particular the city’s cultural community, which had struggled to survive through years of austerity, felt that its role was finally being recognised.

But it all soon began to slip. The Culture Company running the year was perceived as remote, the programme for 2008 was accused of not acknowledging ‘local’ culture and links between the title and wider development plans began to emerge. Rightly or wrongly, building developments such as Grosvenor’s Liverpool One and the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder programme instigated by the government were lumped together with the award as the city went through an intense period of growth it had not experienced in years. This development was fuelled not only by the culture title but by increased inward investment and the global easy-credit boom.

As rapid development continued in the build-up to 2008, the city’s artistic fringe found itself being pushed out of its studios and venues by the rapidly developing legions of bars and flats. Ironically, however, the Capital of Culture title also provided a hook for the city’s artistic grassroots to resist these developments, which, with the credit boom and the like, would probably have happened anyway, as it did in other cities across the UK. A loose anti-2008 movement emerged, questioning not only how plans for the year were being handled but the whole notion of regeneration and the Capital of Culture status in and of itself.

The big spark for all of this appears to have been the fight against the proposed closure of the Quiggins ‘alternative’ shopping centre to make way for the Liverpool One development. Ultimately, the campaign did not succeed, though the shopping centre has since been moved elsewhere in the city, but it became a powerful symbol and rallying point of the ‘independent’ and ‘local’ against the ‘corporate’ and ‘global’, even if the Liverpool One development has subsequently proved very popular in the city. Similar campaigns were mounted around the Picket music venue and the Parr Street Studios recording complex, both threatened with conversion into apartments. Angry words were raised in independent local publications such as Mercy and Nerve and pretty soon even the mainstream media began questioning what was happening in Liverpool.

The city then became a test case for contemporary urban regeneration ideas that had developed over the intervening thirty years. In the aftermath of the 1981 Toxteth riots, the Conservative-backed, quango-led regeneration initiatives around the Garden Festival, the Albert Dock and the Southern Docks meant that Liverpool was among the first cities to experience the sort of leisure and private-housing-led regeneration later adopted by former industrial areas around the country. And, in the build-up to 2008, what was happening in the city was to highlight the flaws in these ideas.

Liverpool subsequently began to attract considerable criticism from both academia and the broadsheets for its regeneration plans, with commentators questioning just how much of the city’s renaissance was trickling down positively to affect poor local communities. That many of the same people had previously talked up the triumphs of similar schemes in London, Manchester, Birmingham et al., despite the fact that these areas all retained similar levels of deprivation masked by redeveloped central areas, seemed lost. Liverpool was blamed for telling a wider truth about the UK’s situation that was soon to be exposed by the credit crunch. Many commentators who had previously backed such forms of regeneration subsequently washed their hands of these ideas in the same way as did zealous supporters of post-war modernist development when communities themselves highlighted the flaws of their new towns and high-rises.

The city again showed the rest of the country ‘the error of its ways’ and demonstrated the power of grassroots action. This perhaps is Liverpool’s greatest contribution to the wider world for having been awarded European Capital of Culture: to have been the place that questioned, even deconstructed, the whole concept, in the process changing the way many people think globally about concepts of culture, cities and regeneration.

The other big issue that has provoked intense community activism in Liverpool in recent years is the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI) Pathfinder programme. Instigated in the early 2000s by the Labour government, its intention was to regenerate areas where housing demand was seen to have failed and that were suffering from dereliction and the inherent problems it creates. Based on a report by academics from the University of Birmingham, the plan advocated wholesale demolition and reconstruction of many deprived areas of the UK.

Liverpool city council adopted the policy enthusiastically and began buying up properties, often through compulsory purchase orders, and instigating a demolition programme. This was perhaps understandable as after years of government underfunding the city was being offered a large amount of money for housing development. But the plans were fiercely resisted in parts of the city as once again the council was seen to be imposing its will unthinkingly on local communities. Some even accused the plans as amounting to ‘social cleansing’ and an attempt to drive poorer people out of the city.

As with previous demolition schemes, HMRI galvanised local residents into taking control of their own surroundings. In Toxteth, one of several areas where there was a reaction against the programme, committees and residents’ groups were created to fight the plans. Alliances were developed with politicians, heritage groups and even Beatles fans, since one house up for demolition in the ‘Welsh Streets’ area had once been the home of Ringo Starr. Partnerships were also formed with housing co-operatives and private developers who stated their intention to renovate rather than demolish the area’s empty properties. There have also been symbolic and imaginative responses against the plans. Poetry and art was daubed on the doors and windows of threatened houses in the Welsh Streets. Meanwhile, in the nearby ‘Four Streets’ area of Granby, residents have undertaken ‘guerrilla gardening’, planting flowers and vegetables among the empty buildings to create a veritable oasis of green in an area now blighted by urban decay. Local street markets and parties have also been organized to highlight the strength of feeling and community spirit, again powerful symbols against the might of a massive national government initiative and the council’s plans.

Campaigns against HMRI have had mixed successes across the city, and it must also be pointed out that a proportion of the residents involved did back demolition and reconstruction. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, the council had recently announced plans to refurbish rather than demolish some of the houses in the Four Streets area, while the Granby Residents Association hopes the demise of HMRI funding might now allow for more community-led refurbishment schemes to takes its place.

However, a question mark continues to remain over whether the high-profile campaign to save the Welsh Streets will be successful. Communities taking over and reusing spaces left abandoned by Liverpool’s economic problems can be seen time and again across the city.

Another example is in the Dingle area of Liverpool 8, where a high-profile campaign was instigated to take over, refurbish and bring back into use a prominent local building that had been left to rot. The Florence Institute was originally gifted to the area by Sir Bernard Hall, a merchant, Alderman and former Mayor of Liverpool. Named after his daughter, who died tragically at the age of twenty-two, ‘the Florrie’ was officially opened in Mill Street in 1890 and became a focal point for the local youth and community for many years. With funding running dry, the Florrie was eventually sold in 1987 with the intention that its charitable work should be continued by another body. Unfortunately, this never happened and the building became neglected, a target for vandals and the elements.

As the building decayed, the local community formed a pressure group, ‘The Friends of the Florrie’, to bring it back into use. A community-led trust was set up at the end of 2004 and completed a consultation on the building’s future. Denise Devine, chair of the trust and also managing director of the nearby Toxteth Town Hall, says the needs of local people were paramount: ‘There has been door to door and group consultation throughout and that will continue … It really means a lot in the hearts and minds of local people, the Florrie bettered people, it made them better, honest, hardworking people … It will fulfil that function again – from cradle to grave, Sunday to Sunday.’

The Florence Institute Trust has worked hard over the last few years to develop a regeneration plan for the building and to raise funds to restore it into a multi-ethnic community centre for all ages and abilities. The plan for the new Florrie includes exhibition and performance space, activities for young people and the elderly, an indoor/outdoor sport area, childcare facilities, workspaces for local business and a heritage resource centre.

Having raised over £6.4 million from a variety of sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund and the city council, in June 2010 it was reported that work was due to start on the new Florrie with a planned completion at the end of 2011. The trust has also formed an agreement with the main building contractor that wherever possible jobs on the project should be sourced from the local community.

As Denise Devine documents, once again this initiative was led by the community itself: ‘The Friends of the Florrie is a home-grown grassroots organisation that has had to take the lead when no-one else wanted to touch it with a barge pole. Now people are inspired and have had their faith restored.’

This chapter has attempted to show that grassroots radicalism is still a key component of Liverpool’s culture, and also to draw together some of the factors that link these different actions and initiatives. Rather than Liverpool adhering to an overarching radical ideology, there are instead many instances of the city’s deprived communities refusing to be crushed or to have their destiny controlled by external forces. If anything, that is the underlying radical undercurrent in Liverpool now, and possibly always has been.

Community activists in the city have always had general mistrust of external authority or anyone trying to impose anything on them, be it government, institution, trade union, political party or local authority. There is also an equal distrust of grand plans and ideas, usually because time and again they have been shown to fail the people they are most meant to help. The dreams of 1911 and of other attempts at rapid radical change in Liverpool – be they the slum clearances, Militant Tendency or leisure-led regeneration – have rarely brought the transformative benefits they promised.

Although disparate, all the actions I have described – everything from short-term campaigns to full-blown community takeovers – seem to have similar motivations: wresting control of the local environment from distant, unaccountable figures and working towards practical, long-term goals that reflect the needs of the city’s people. Such activism has filled the vacuum created by successive local and national government indifference or incompetence and the decline in trade union and Labour party support.

If deprived communities are to survive and prosper, it can only happen with local control and action that comes from the ground up. Some may find the city’s and its communities’ ruck for independence and self-determination exasperating, while it is also true that it can be hard to strike to strike a balance between this and Liverpool’s need to develop its economy and infrastructure; but when this spirit is directed to solid agency it can be magnificent and can transform the lives of those involved with it. Such communities have also time and again pioneered solutions to seemingly intractable problems and highlighted to the rest of the UK where it is going wrong. For doing so, Liverpool often gets the blame for spoiling the party. But, for that the country owes the city a debt, as it is frequently ideas formed in the turmoil of this radical city that become tomorrow’s ‘common-sense’ solutions.

Indeed, many of the campaigns and initiatives mentioned in this chapter that were once considered radical, even dangerous, ideas – self-organised housing co-operatives, community school takeovers and local control over facilities and services – are now in vogue, favoured by the current UK coalition government as part of its ‘Big Society’ agenda, suggesting that communities will be able to take over from the role of the state services for which it is withdrawing funding. In fact, just before the 2010 general election, Conservative leader David Cameron visited a Liverpool social enterprise called MerseySTRIDE on Great Homer Street in Everton – a furniture workshop that provides work for local unemployed, homeless and otherwise disadvantaged people – saying that it demonstrated his ideas for the ‘Big Society’ in action: ‘The biggest thing is to build a stronger society – we’ve got to help people who are unemployed for a long time and social enterprises like this help. It demonstrates where giving more power and control to projects like these works.’

Most people in Liverpool would agree that communities themselves know what is best for them. Is the city then not only leading the way in radical new ideas, but for once not going against the grain of the rest of the country? Yet, what promoters of the ‘Big Society’ do not acknowledge is that many of the most successful initiatives discussed here, from the development of the Eldonian Village to the Florence Institute restoration in Dingle, despite being community-led, have required a complex mesh of external funding and support. In a city that relies heavily on national government funding that is now being withdrawn, this is something that in future will be in short supply. And, despite the grassroots activism of the past thirty years often operating against the grain and with limited support, it was the withdrawal of such funding and support in the past that helped create so much damage in these communities and fostered the need for such radical action in the first place. It is also why it has taken so much work and extra money over the years to build things back up.

If all that disappears once again, it can only undo so much of what has been achieved. With the government refusing to admit that the voluntary and the community-led also requires financial support, it has to be asked how many of these projects will be able to continue their current good work, let alone replace the role of local and national government provision.

Indeed, despite Cameron’s pre-election support for MerseySTRIDE, once in power, the coalition government quickly axed the Future Jobs Fund programme that had provided much of the funding for placements at this social enterprise. It seems the ‘Big Society’ might end up just being another flawed, top-down ideology that Liverpool’s communities will have to resist, counteract and find solutions to.

What then is the future of grassroots activism in Liverpool? Much has changed since 1911, but much remains the same: the interconnected problems associated with poverty, housing, unemployment, crime, ill-health, education and opportunity. As the last hundred years have taught us, there are no easy answers to any of these. Yet something else we have learned over the last century is that Liverpool and its active citizens are resilient: they will not give up and will do whatever they can to look after their communities.

In many respects, the city should long ago have ceased to exist, let alone have managed to achieve what it has. And not only that, but also remain a place of radical action that is still influencing thinking globally.

Radical Liverpool today is perhaps the same as it has always been: a collection of tough, bolshie individuals and groups who share a passion for their beliefs and their community and will not be told what to do. There are radical grassroots activities being undertaken across many different communities and over many different issues, but what unites them seems to be what has united radical Liverpool since 1911 and before: a gritty self-determination to succeed against the odds – something that will stand the city in good stead for the inevitable challenges of the next hundred years.

This piece appeared in the book Liverpool: City of Radicals edited by John Belchem and Bryan Biggs and published by Liverpool University Press. ISBN: 9781846316470. A fully referenced version is available in the book.