“It’s revolutionary” – The Art of Reconstruction in Granby

Granby Four Streets    Granby 4 Streets - 7 

By Kenn Taylor
Images Ronnie Hughes and Kenn Taylor

The Granby area of Liverpool recently became the centre of a brief flurry of international media interest when a project based there was nominated for the Turner Prize.

Assemble, a collective of eighteen London-based artists and architects, all aged under 30, have been working with the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust (CLT) on the re-development of ten terraced houses left derelict after the machinations of the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI) of the 2000s. Once refurbished, the land will remain held in trust to deliver permanently affordable housing.

But the CLT’s work with Assemble is only the latest stage in a spirited and creative campaign to save these homes – one that began many years ago.

“It’s been quite a messy process,” says Lewis Jones, one of Assemble’s members. “Lots of people have been involved, going back 20 years, and we’re just a small part of that. So when suddenly there has been this huge wave of interest when the Turner Prize nomination was announced, we were quite keen to divert more of that attention to the Community Land Trust, to give a more balanced view of the situation. I still think that’s really important.”

The Housing Market Renewal Initiative was a Labour scheme, started in 2002, which was intended to renew “failing housing markets” in economically struggling parts of England. When the Coalition government axed HMRI in 2011, it created a vacuum that left vast areas of housing in limbo.

But this also turned out to be an opportunity for the Four Streets campaigners. “As time had moved on,” says Ronnie Hughes, a housing activist and CLT member, “things had got tighter in the housing market. So the ideas we’d been having, of splitting the streets into smaller groupings and having different kinds of tenure and different kinds organisations working there – well, they turned out to be the only ideas left.”

Granby Four Streets

After beginning their own plans to regenerate these ten houses, the CLT decided it was time to work with some professional architects. “Assemble worked to turn all of the people’s ideas into sketch plans and real plans,” explains Hughes. “They helped to make the community and the Community Land Trust look like a real thing. As time went on, though, obviously they had to stop being volunteers and compete to be the architects for the CLT, which they now are.”

Hughes is keen to stress the CLT and Assemble are not regenerating Liverpool 8 alone, however. A complex web of organisations, alliances and initiatives is working to re-develop empty houses in the area, and the campaigners are keen to move on the from the “heroes and villains” narrative that’s dominated some of the press coverage.

“We couldn’t do any of this without the city’s support,” he says. “They gave us the houses, for free. The council also completely changed their policy in order to allow this to happen.”

The group is happy to work with specialist housing providers, too, he adds: 47 houses being worked on by Liverpool Mutual Homes is working on 47 homes, Plus Dan is working on 26. Other work is being undertaken by a social investor, and by the eco-based Terrace 21 housing co-op “I think it’s that mix which has worked, as there’s lots of different ideas going into the place,” Hughes adds.

Assemble themselves are a relatively recent arrival, for a group nominated for the art world’s most famous gong. “We started working together in 2010,” says Jones. “We came together as a group just to do one project, which became the Cinerolium.”

That was a glittering temporary cinema, created in a former petrol station in London’s Clerkenwell district. “We thought that would be a really great site to test ideas out on. So we brought together loads of friends to help build it and lots of other people to come and experience it. It was a really kind of fun process for us, just testing out ideas and building things ourselves. Lots of the ways of working we developed in that project have gradually been evolving over subsequent years.”

“A lot of us graduated in 2009,” Jones explains, “and were working for a year or so in different architecture practices. We wanted a way to be more hands on and test ideas out within the city, rather than being stuck behind a computer working on a small part of a very large project.” The point of the Cinerolium was to do something “on a small enough scale that we’d be able to have our hands in every different part of it. We’d have to find the funding, find the site, design it, build it, manage it, everything, and have a much more complete and holistic involvement.”

This was to be the first of several distinctive architectural projects around the UK, from a scrap playground at Baltic Street in Glasgow to a temporary arts venue in a motorway undercroft in Hackney. I ask Jones about themes he sees in the group’s work.

“We’re kind of really interested in the idea of resourcefulness and complexity and messiness in the city, as that what makes places interesting,” he says. “So the fact that there are places where there can be overlaps and intersections between historic building fabrics and something new and inserted and also between the different needs of different groups – that’s kind of a very exciting situation to be part of.”

Yardhouse/Sugarhouse Studios, Bow

This sort of ethos is visible when visiting the studio complex they occupy in Bow, east London, with several other creative practitioners. Sugarhouse Studios and the adjacent Yardhouse, with its striking polychromatic concrete tiles – designed and largely built by Assemble – are filled with well-used machine tools, packed storage racks and a busy, bustling office. It’s all a long way from the glass-coffee table minimalism of many architectural practices.

A sense of the practical and of innovative solutions pervades their work. But how does a collective of 18 people work in practice?

“Normally what happens is that if a project or invitation comes in to us,” Jones explains. “Then basically if two people in Assemble want to work on it and no one else has an issue with them working on it, then that’s enough for us to take on that project.”

Each project is managed by two people – “like a buddy system,” Jones says. There’s a group meeting every Monday morning, then a project review that evening. “That was just a way of us being able to take on more work, but also allow us a bit more independence in the way we do work, so that we’re not all trying to hold the same pen at the same time.”

Assemble are currently involved with a range of other projects, including designing a new art gallery for Goldsmiths College in a former Victorian bathhouse. They’re now going international, too. “We’re working on a project now in Berlin, with the House of World Cultures: they partnered four local Berlin based initiatives with four international architecture practices to each develop new models for housing.

“We’re working with this really amazing group called Stille Strasse who are a self-organised seniors group aged between their 70s and 90s who squatted and saved their local meeting house and they run it themselves. So we’ve been working with them to develop a model of self-determined living in housing in old age.”

Assemble and the Four Streets CLT will have to wait until December to find out if they have won the Turner Prize. In Granby however, the work goes on rebuilding regardless, bit by bit, day by day, not headline-grabbing, but with far more important long-lasting results.

Granby Four Streets

“The next thing in the big picture is the Four Corners project, which is the four corners of Granby Street and Cairns Street,” says Hughes. “There are three existing though derelict shop units there and one that sort of accidently fell in on itself. We’ve just completed a six-week community storytelling project that Writing on the Wall ran with us, to involve everybody in the wider Granby and Liverpool 8 in gathering together stories of Granby and out of them we want to start pulling together what people’s ideas are for the best things to do with the Four Corners.”

The Turner judges were keen to set the Granby project in an art historical context, linking back to the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement, the Bauhaus. So, is what’s going on in Granby a new movement in art and ideas?

“Yesterday there were community members coming into their [Assemble’s] workshop,” says Ronnie Hughes, “and doing that proper kind of co-working; while you’re focusing on getting the hardcore into the moulds and pouring concrete on them, people are having deep and meaningful conversations about re-making the place.” It appeals to him, he adds, “in a way that sitting around having endless blue-sky visions no longer does”.

“Let’s make something and see what we come up with while we’re making it. It’s revolutionary.”

This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in September 2015.

Granby Four Streets CLT
Assemble

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Bread and Houses

The Anfield Home Tour

Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial

 

By Kenn Taylor

It’s rather surreal to be taken on a tour of a city you live in, but then this is quite a different tour. We start conventionally enough, by the Edwardian splendor of the Cunard building at the heart of Liverpool‘s regenerated waterfront, but soon we will be heading to the other side of the city – and the other side of Britain.

After we pile into the minibus, our tour guide Carl “with a C not a K, that’s just weird” Ainsworth announces that we’re heading for a district in the north of the city, Anfield. The word for many means solely the home ground of Liverpool FC, but Anfield is also one of the city’s oldest residential districts.

Welcome to the Anfield Home Tour, part of the Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s largest visual arts festival. The arts in Liverpool have always had something of a social conscience, and the Biennial is no exception; we are not heading to Anfield to look at football stadia or recently restored Stanley Park, but to learn some things about housing, community and regeneration.

Our first stop is Everton Park, where Carl tells us a story that sums up the British urban landscape in microcosm. From the top of the hill above the Mersey, there are amazing views across central Liverpool as far as the mountains of Wales on a good day. It was this view which led rich merchants to build fine houses here in the 18th century, some of which remain. With the expansion of nearby docks and industry, however, speculators built hundreds of densely packed terraced houses in the area, described by Carl as a “tidal wave”.

The merchants then moved further out, and a tight-knit working class community was formed on streets so steep that is some cases they had railings to help people climb them. Then, from the 1930s onwards, there were successive ‘slum clearance’ programmes, culminating in mass demolition in the 1960s. Many people were moved to overspill estates and new towns on the edge of the city. Others meanwhile lived out Le Corbusier’s vision of ‘a machine for living in’ at huge new high-rise blocks of flats. Some enjoyed scaling these new heights, and those old ‘tight-knit’ streets also often meant horrible conditions, but the dream soon turned sour. Carl reveals that some of these ‘new visions’ in housing were demolished fewer than ten years after being built.

In the 1980s, from the rubble of tower blocks came Everton Park , a green space on wasteland; but one with little thought given to its integration into the local area. Carl says: “Many former residents of the area come here to have picnics right where their houses used to be. You’d think from all that history, the powers that be would have learned.”

We find that they did not. Anfield was one of many areas in the UK subject to the Housing Market Renewal Initiative (HMRI). Despite the housing boom from the 1990s onwards, there were areas of the UK that stagnated, mostly in the north of England. The then government took up a report from Birmingham University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Studies. They decided what was needed was demolition, en masse, and new built homes, en masse. The process became the HMRI.

We arrive in Anfield to an area of new homes built by Keepmoat Construction. There’s been criticism from some that such houses in HMRI areas aren’t as ‘nice and neat’ as the terraces they replaced. However, as Carl points out, they do have gardens, off-street parking and modern levels of insulation and damp proofing, things denied to many though not all f the old houses. The tragedy of these homes, one often lost broadsheet debates about aesthetics, is that many people who owned the demolished homes did not get a good enough price for them under compulsory purchase orders to buy one of the new ones. They often had to take out second mortgages in old age to be able to buy somewhere to live. New homes in a community are all very well, but not if the community has to get into debt to buy them when they owned their old homes outright. With the cancellation of HMRI by the present government, we are told it was even touch and go if these new homes would be built or just wasteland left in their place.

As Carl points out, the biggest problem with HMRI was in its title: market renewal, not community or neighborhood renewal. This was of course, pre-crunch, when the market appeared to have the answer to everything; it just needed to be helped on its way. Speaking of markets, in my favourite part of the tour Carl passes two bricks around the bus, one from the new building site and one from the demolished homes. The new brick we are told is worth 30p, the old brick £1. Apparently bricks from the demolished homes are being exported to building sites around the UK, even abroad. Carl tells us: “There’s about 20,000 bricks in an average terrace, whole streets demolished, you do the math.”

As we drive down Granton Road, one of the ‘tinned up’ streets awaiting demolition, Carl plays a recording by Jayne Lawless, a former resident, recalling how just a few years ago, every house in the street was occupied. She speaks of the “controlled decline” under HMRI, which saw people pushed to leave, one by one, until the last residents left in despair. She says: “They said we were deprived, don’t remember being deprived.”

However, Anfield isn’t all dereliction, although newspapers have been full of emotive photos of empty homes. That is one reality, but just round the corner is another. Skerries Road is a traditional terraced street renovated to looking almost new by residents who refused to move. It shows how a different approach can succeed.

Then another local resident, Bob, gets on the bus as we drive past the house where he lived for 50 years. Now it sits empty, with abandoned properties all around. Yet this wasn’t a HMRI street. When former council houses were sold under ‘right to buy’, many ended up owned by landlords who rented to whoever they could get. Bob says this saw an increase of “unruly families” moving in, and with them anti-social behavior, crime and then often abandonment. Bob is a regular on Liverpool’s pub singing scene and gives us a rendition of ‘This Old House’ by Rosemary Clooney, before we move on.

We finish the tour at the former Mitchell’s Bakery, a local business for over 100 years which closed in 2010 and has now become a community hub, the centre of a two-year plan worked up between artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, on a Liverpool Biennial commission, and a myriad of other participants and project partners.

When they began, they had no idea where the idea would lead. The answer is a long-term plan to re-open the bakery as a cooperative, offering local people jobs and training and a Community Land Trust (CLT). If the city council lifts the current clearance order on the building, the CLT hopes to buy it and refurbish the bakery’s former living accommodation. Architect Marianne Heaslip and a group of local young people have drawn up the plans. In the long run the CLT would like to take on more buildings in the area and renovate them for not for profit re-occupation. The bakery has now been refurbished internally and with community members undergoing training, they hope to start trading soon.

Then, a surprise: over tea and cakes, it is revealed that Carl is actually actor Graham Hicks, but that all the stories we have heard are true. Britt Jurgensen, who directed the tour and co-wrote its script with Graham and local novelist Debbie Morgan, adds that many in the community were reluctant to get involved with this project. They had been let down so much by outsiders in the past. But this external spark brought people together who were frustrated by waiting for others to make decisions for them and has acted as a new impetus for residents to become stakeholders in their neighbourhood.

“This is our future,” says Britt, a theatre professional who lives locally and is a member of the CLT and the bakery cooperative. Progress will be slow but from the ground up, not a grand vision imposed from outside. The catalyst may have been the Liverpool Biennial, but local people are now taking things far beyond the ideas of any curators or artists. She says: “I hope we will be able to sustain ourselves as a group and know when to pass responsibilities on to new people. I hope we will be courageous enough to admit when we make mistakes and adapt our plans when it is appropriate. And I hope we will continue to enjoy ourselves whilst we do all that.”

As we munch cake, there is much discussion within our tour group, many of whom have never met before, about the injustice, the problems, and the potential solutions for Anfield and elsewhere. Overall, the feeling is one of energy, of something good coming out of a mess and of things finally, slowly, heading in the right direction.

In the hierarchy of needs in austere times in deprived areas, art may come pretty low, but if art can help regain food and shelter, pride and spirit, then it has a purpose both practical and ephemeral. This was a story that could have been complex, technical, dull and aggressively ideological; instead it has been brilliantly reduced to its actual simplicity: what has been done to a community, and what needs to be done to repair the damage.

The Liverpool Biennial has often struggled to define itself apart from all the other art festivals in the world. Given Liverpool’s weather, it isn’t necessarily going to attract the crowds that head to Venice, Lisbon or Miami. With more projects like this though, it can express itself as something unique in the world.

The Anfield Home Tour is a fine art work. It may also be a fine bit of sociology, entertainment, architecture, history, politics, and cake, but it is an art work. And it is one that should be compulsory consumption for every government minister, every housing association director, every town planner, student of architecture and social affairs correspondent. Its message is simple, and one we should all have learned long ago: The people who know what is best for communities are communities themselves and they are the only people who can truly regenerate an area.

The success of the Eldonian Village, a self-organised community that began in Liverpool in an area of urban blight in the 1980s, just a mile or so from Anfield, is testament to what can be achieved if the support and will is there. Anfield clearly has the will. It remains to be seen though, if those powers that be, whatever coloured rosette they happen to wear, will give them the power and the financial resources to build on this creative start.

This piece appeared on The Guardian in October 2012.

www.2up2down.org.uk

Images Copyright Mark Loudon, Jerry Hardman-Jones and Britt Jurgensen.

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.

On the Waterfront

In July 2011 a new museum will open on Liverpool’s waterfront. Inside it will tell how a tiny, insignificant fishing village rose to become the pre-eminent port in the world, a centre of industrial innovation, global trade and culture, and then on, to a pariah city, struck by deep poverty and malaise. It will also tell, not least by the nature of its striking new building, of a contemporary city in transition.

Nearby there are also new office complexes, retail and leisure playgrounds, an arena and, soon, a new exhibition hall. The city it seems has come full circle, with transformed docklands that were, only twenty years ago, abandoned, silted up, useless, the most prominent symbol of our decline.

Not that far away though, there is a different story. Half an hour’s walk from the new museum in any direction, you hit areas like Vauxhall, Kensington, and Toxteth, changed little by the regeneration of central Liverpool. These are districts, battered by the loss of industry and then by the subsequent break down of their community and way of life, where closed-down shops and pubs, and tinned-up streets of terraced houses, are a common sight.

It is easy to highlight this stark difference, and many writers have. The same comparison could be made in varying degrees in Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow, Hull, Portsmouth, Salford and others. Regenerated waterfronts have been the symbolic centre of change for many cities over the last ten years, even if that hasn’t always led to opportunities for those living nearby. Yet, having protested about the gap between waterside regeneration and the continuing decay of our inner-urban communities, so many writers then stop. Satisfied in their telling of a ‘truth’, but rarely offering any real workable alternatives for these economically weak and battered cities beyond mocking their pretensions of having changed. Because what many refuse to face is that there is no easy answer to this, no simple solution to relieve this contrast.

For someone living with regenerated docks a stones throw one direction and boarded-up terraces in the other, I see both sides of the story. There is a truth in the continued deprivation in such places, but there is also a truth that such developments are also a positive change, creating at least some jobs and growth in cities were, more often than not, nothing was built for years and decline often seemed terminal.

The waterfront was the basis of Liverpool becoming a city, for years it became an embarrassment as it fell out of use, but now, it is has been made relevant again. A place where things happen and people want to visit. Historic buildings have been saved and brought back into use, new ones built. These developments will not on their own solve the myriad of problems of a city that suffers from poverty and deprivation, but they are better than continued rot and abandonment, which serves local people not at all, even if some aesthete critics would rather see poetic decay than imperfect growth.

The brutal fact is the old industries and jobs are not coming back, at least not in the same way, and neither is the culture and way of life that went with them. And lest we forget, working on the waterfront in the old days was, for all the community spirit, often hard and unforgiving. Those who look back with nostalgia at that world are guilty of the same sentimentality as the writers of the past who claimed the industrial revolution had ‘corrupted’ the working class and romanticised about a ‘better’ rural world, ignoring the harshness of a life on the land. The industrialisation of Britain once destroyed a way of life just as surely as its de-industrialisation has now done in our time, but it also created a new, different one, in some ways better, in some ways worse.

Our regenerated waterfronts represent the new reality that we are now entering. Cities ultimately must have a form of sustenance or they will not survive. Places like Liverpool have to go for whatever growth and jobs we can get and our biggest asset, undoubtedly, is the waterfront. The only alternatives are to be reliant on subsidy, which, as we are now seeing, is very easy to be taken away, or surrendering to terminal decline as our young people leave for better chances elsewhere.

The key question is what next? The decline of the industrial waterfront set the rot in the communities that surrounded it. Now the post-industrial waterfront is re-growing, what, if anything, can be done for its neighborhoods to benefit? Despite the many problems such areas face, there are some examples of growth and, more importantly, of ground-up, community-led regeneration. By Liverpool’s old northern docks, on the site of an old sugar refinery is the Eldonian Village. An integrated sustainable development owned and organised by the community, one that has won the UK’s first United Nations World Habitat Award. Meanwhile, in Toxteth, near the old southern docks, an abandoned Victorian youth centre, ‘The Florrie’, has been taken over by local people and is being restored into a new multi-function community facility to open next year.

With such self-organisation and self-determination under way, can these communities take a stake in these new economies? Will they, like the canny leaders of the Shetland Islands when the oil companies came to town in the 1970s, make sure that local people benefit from their geography, or will they instead be pushed out by economic growth, like in London, where the wealth of Canary Wharf built on the old east end docks does little help to the poor in Tower Hamlets. If such waterfront developments are to benefit the many not the few, communities will have to take matters into their own hands to make them, the profiteers in power are unlikely to acquiesce of their own accord.

On the Mersey, the waterfront continues to re-grow. The huge Liverpool Waters and Wirral Waters schemes, by the company behind Salford’s MediaCity, promise vast new centres for living and working on the sites of old docks. There is new industrial development too, with plans for large new port terminals and distribution centres to serve the emerging economies and several renewable energy facilities, including possibly the UK’s first tidal energy barrage. I am a sceptic to all of this, but then I disbelieved the current crop of developments and yet here they are. Such attempts at growth by our old industrial cities may still ultimately be futile in the face of a world which is shifting rapidly, but for maybe the first time in thirty or forty years, Liverpool seems like it may just have a future, and its fate, and that of other cities like it, once again hangs on the waterfront.

This piece appeared in Article magazine’s ‘Ports’ issue in June 2011.