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CULTURE TRAVEL FOOTBALL HERITAGE LIVERPOOL

- since 2011 -

Peel on wheels


Friday, 14 June 2013


Mind that cyclist - the Liverpool Waters juggernaut is picking up speed

Since its restoration the lattice-girdered Bascule Bridge doesn't rattle like it used to, but the lorries still thunder past on Liverpool's Regent Road heading into the city-centre or north to the scrapyards, silos and container port. One big angry truck, oblivious it'd seem to the floral bouquets tied at the roadside with Everton-blue ribbons, honks its horn as it swerves around a couple of elderly cyclists riding side-by-side and threatening to add some injury time, literally, to their life expectancy. The nearside rider acknowledges their highway indiscretion by raising his right fist and middle finger.

Charming, this northern stretch of the Dock Road on a sunny day. I've stopped and propped my own two wheels against the perimeter wall of the old Tobacco Warehouse so I can perch on the bridge for a look at the even earlier Stanley Warehouse on the other side of the dock water. 'Evocatively derelict' is how it's described by writer Joseph Sharples in the Pevsner Architectural Guide to Liverpool. The view is the spitting image, minus a bit of lipstick and TLC, of Albert Dock a mile or so south - the same five-storeyed brick facade built upon basement vaults and a colonnade of cast-iron columns, in turn rising from a familiar quayside jigsaw-puzzle of granite blocks and rubble. The great Jesse Hartley was the architect behind both, Albert in 1847, Stanley in 1856.

Stanley Dock’s original architecture and the view from the Bascule Bridge

Stanley Dock’s original architecture (left) and the view from the Bascule Bridge

But something is happening to Stanley Warehouse, it's slowly waking up from its long slumber. A red crane looms overhead. There are workmen and diggers onsite and compliance notices on the walls. It's being converted into a four-star hotel by an ambitious Irish developer called Harcourt, evidently banking upon the progress of the Peel Port Group's so-called Liverpool Waters masterplan - in which 150 acres of largely obsolete waterfront in this area will be transformed into a new 'mixed-use quarter' over the next three decades. Thirty years - I'll be either dead or flicking Vs at truckers by then.

All this used to be called the Central Docks before Peel moved in. On the map they start a little further south at Waterloo Dock, opened in 1834 to handle grain imports from North America. Then, after Stanley Dock and the adjacent Collingwood Dock - through whose gates passed most of the million Irish migrants who fled the famine and 'took the ship' to Liverpool in the 1840s - comes Salisbury Dock, Nelson Dock, Bramley Moore Dock, Wellington Dock, Sandon Dock, Huskisson Dock, Canada Dock, Brocklebank Dock and Langton Dock, running right up to Liverpool Freeport's modern container terminal. Ripe for Peel's redevelopment today, they were a riot of commotion 150 years ago as novelist Herman Melville recounted in his 1849 book Redburn: 'Here are brought together the remotest limits of the earth; and in the collective spars and timbers of these ships, all the forests of the globe are represented as in a grand parliament of masts'.

Peel must be happy bunnies right now. Their dredging project to deepen the Mersey approach channel to 53ft, allowing the world's biggest post-Panamax container ships to dock at a proposed new container terminal called Liverpool2, got £35 million from the government - and they got Kenny Dalglish and Bobby Charlton to represent Liverpool and Manchester at the ground-breaking ceremony. One Peel official billed it as 'a catalyst of change for the whole region' and 'fantastic news for UK plc'. Navigationally 50ft is a big deal - a really big deal.

Around this time last year I was in a maritime museum in Norfolk, Virginia, and I remember one of its displays proclaiming: 'Of the East Coast seaports only ours is currently deep enough (55ft authorised), with adequate bridge clearances, cranes, facilities and access to rail, to accommodate servicing of these huge super-sized container ships'. The day I got back there was a full-page advertorial in The Liverpool Post for something called the 'Atlantic Gateway' which had 'the critical mass and momentum to become an alternative growth pole to London' (according to Lord Heseltine and Sir Terry Leahy in a report entitled Rebalancing Britain). Its two key components, the Port of Liverpool and the Manchester Ship Canal, are both owned by Peel.

Back towards town and freewheeling the mini-roundabout into Princes Dock, once the embarkation point for millions of emigrants to the New World and today occupied by two hotels, a dinky modern bridge, some stolid 'state-of-the-art' office blocks and the obligatory car park, I clock a billboard from The Peel Group advertising the Mersey Waters Enterprise Zone - in other words Liverpool Waters, basically Central Docks. It reads: 'Relocate your business here and enjoy significant business benefits', among them simplified planning rules, tax breaks and super-fast broadband. See, you don't consider things like broadband - well I don't - when whole swathes of a city are being redeveloped. At least not until I'd had a proper read through Liverpool's far-reaching Strategic Investment Framework or SIF for short.

Front and back cover of the Strategic Investment Framework

Front and back cover of the Strategic Investment Framework

Like the Irish hotelier, the SIF is counting on Peel. A 140-page blueprint published by Liverpool Vision for the future of the city-centre and its adjacent stretch of waterfront, it's a book of ideas and recommendations more than an unswerving manifesto and proposes the next best stage of Liverpool's development with an emphasis upon differentiating the city from its 'competitors'. Based on the 10th floor of the Capital Building on Old Hall Street (whose buttonless lifts give me the galloping jerks) Liverpool Vision is now part of the Liverpool Mayoral Development Corporation (LMDC) and has been since Joe Anderson was elected. In theory the city is at the forefront of devolving 'real power' from central government to local authority and in this respect the LMDC is tasked with creating a multi-billion pound investment fund or 'Bank of Liverpool' to help realise its big ideas. You could be forgiven for thinking the mortgage has already been put on Peel.

Some stats: almost 100,000 people are employed in Liverpool city-centre with 27,000 of them working in business and finance and another 9,300 in retail. The city-centre population currently stands at 32,000, rising to over 42,000 if the SIF is wholly implemented. More people means more demand for power, energy and utilities, so Liverpool will need to become a 'smart city' with a strategy in place to deliver 'a resilient, intelligent and low-carbon infrastructure solution' plus superfast broadband connections - hence the digital inducement on the Princes Dock billboard.

The waterfront is one of five distinctive areas identified by the SIF, the others being the Historic Downtown & Business Area, the Retail Core, the Cultural/Creative Quarter and the Knowledge Quarter (universities and hospitals etc) and within these are distinctive neighbourhoods like Hope Street, Rope Walks and the Baltic Triangle. It wants more families living in town and homes that 'appeal to older generations coming back into the city' - some of whom may still remember the post-war clearances that swept away their inner-city communities in the first place. Of the handsome dwellings in and around Canning Street it says: 'Property owners should be encouraged to convert apartments back to single dwellings, and to restore buildings to their former glory'. Good luck with that one.

There's lots of talk about café culture and pedestrianisation - from London Road and Islington (which it imagines as a 'student village') across to St George's Plateau (a 'signature space' which can become Liverpool's Trafalgar Square) and down to Byrom Street (without the scabby flyover). 'Giving the streets back to the people' is the utopian mantra. 'Provided they don't foul them with chewing gum' would be a good addendum. Under its hood, the SIF still needs a bit of work. It fails to address the perpetual decant of talent to London, doesn't acknowledge how much Liverpool Football Club has contributed to the city's tourist economy. And where's the Scouse? The idiom and attitude, the insouciance and bloody-mindedness born of shinbeef hardship, not kobe-steak prosperity, that still sets the city apart from those competitors? Did I say I'd come here by bicycle today? I meant high horse. A bucket of water please - it's parched.

Princes Dock footbridge (top) and the all-new Pier Head

Princes Dock footbridge (left) and the all-new Pier Head

At St Nicholas Place the bikers en route to the Isle of Man TT Races are sipping cheap tea in their leathers at the burger bar. Princes Dock marks the southern edge of Liverpool/Mersey Waters, which the SIF wants 'to stitch into Liverpool's commercial and physical fabric' by developing the proxy areas of Pumpfields and King Edward Triangle, i.e. Pall Mall and Leeds Street. I cycle across Canada Boulevard towards the ferry terminal and landing stage and away from the feverish multi-laned Dock Road, dubbed the Strand Corridor by the report. It's one of Liverpool's three strategic 'Great Streets', the others being the Water, Dale & Lime Street 'continuum' (ahem) and the Hope Street Corridor. Back towards the river the Pier Head is dominated by the familiar mirages of the Royal Liverpool Building, Cunard Building and Port of Liverpool Building. Odd to think that at the city's zenith in late Victorian times none of them existed, built as they were during a prolific nine-year period in the early 20th century. 'The docks must be full of life', chirps the SIF. Then why not open the Three Graces to the public as well?

Past the Leeds & Liverpool Canal link now, through to the Museum of Liverpool and the Albert Dock - all finally, fabulously joined-up albeit at the expense of some fine former views. I dismount at the busy footbridge where the air is full of different accents from home and abroad. There's a female a cappella group singing in front of the pier master's house. It's worth remembering how much the Albert Dock has endured since its resurrection a quarter-century ago - marooned at times in a sea of construction sites but still one of the UK's biggest tourist attractions with five million annual visitors to Tate Liverpool, the Maritime Museum, the Beatles Story and the bars, restaurants and shops. The largest group of Grade I listed buildings in the country, it makes London's St Katharine Dock look like a kids' swimming pool.

Liverpool vision: the city museum from the Mersey

Liverpool vision: the city museum from the Mersey

The SIF wants to improve 'linear accessibility and connectivity along the waterfront' and certainly the new riverside walkway and cycle route along the Arena and Convention Centre (Kings Parade) does that. But I've always wondered how, for instance, an elderly couple are expected to get from here up to, say, the Anglican Cathedral if they don't want to fork out for a taxi? With a sherpa maybe.

Kings Dock then Wapping. A left here would lead me up Queens Wharf and across the Dock Road (Chaloner Street at this point) to the Baltic Triangle's creative-entrepreneurial neighbourhood which the SIF says is 'ready to take off' - especially if the new St James train station materialises. Instead I pedal on past Queens Dock, Coburg Dock - where a wakeboarder performs jumps from a tripwire ahead of the forthcoming River Festival - Brunswick Dock and the yachts and sailing boats of Liverpool Marina. All of these docks, which constitute a fifth of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been given a new lease of life from British Waterways with improved moorings and year-round watersports.

Otterspool's owlfellas and girls are getting wheeled along the prom to a chorus of birdsong and a floorshow of kite flying. Here cyclists have to head inland but it's possible to weave through nearby Grassendale's residential streets back to the waterfront and the Speke Garston Coastal Reserve next to Speke Hall and the airport, and ultimately the Trans Pennine Trail. Time to double-back past the Britannia Inn to the old Dockers Steps in the Dingle that once led down to Herculaneum Dock. My grandfather, who dipped out when I was too young to know, would've been up and down these like a blue-arsed fly. “Fascinating isn't it?” says another 'mamil' (middle-aged man in lycra) bobbing past with his bike over his shoulder.

Pier Head landing-stage steps (top) and Dockers Steps in the Dingle

Pier Head landing-stage steps (left) and Dockers Steps in the Dingle

The Strategic Investment Framework says Liverpool Waters could be like this too. Peel insists it will be, and makes a valid point on its website: '[It] contains historic docks, buildings and heritage features that contribute greatly to the value of the World Heritage Site. Yet this area has never before been open to the public. The scheme will create a unique waterfront quarter, linked to the city centre, with a variety of public squares, gardens, promenades, streets and water spaces, within which all existing heritage structures will be restored and maintained'.

The SIF's benchmarks - aren't there always - include Chicago's Lakeshore East (a $4 billion redevelopment of former railroad yards), Melbourne's 'world-class' Southbank and two projected business districts in the German river cities of Hamburg and Dusseldorf. London also gets a shout for Marylebone High Street's metamorphosis into a niche shopping destination to the north of Oxford Street, Trafalgar Square's part-removal of traffic and reconnection with the National Gallery, and the rejuvenation of Exhibition Road at the heart of the cultural hub of West Kensington.

There is another importunate scheme in the capital that feels way more relevant to Mersey Waters. The 125-acre Royal Docks in the borough of Newham near London City Airport was one of the four 'vanguard' enterprise zones - along with those in Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham - designated in 2011 to deliver economic growth. For Peel read Advanced Business Park, an obscure Chinese real-estate developer with its own £1 billion masterplan for the zone's Royal Albert Dock, originally opened in 1880. The local council's director for regeneration calls it 'a game-changing project for the area'.

I'll have to go and check it out. For now I don't think John Masefield would be quite so sold on the idea. Poet laureate from 1930 to 1967, he once wrote: '[The Thames] is a wretched river after the Mersey, and the ships are not like the Liverpool ships, and the docks are barren of beauty… I hope I shall find happiness wandering among the crimps with a sailor as a comrade and a quid of jacky in my cheek. But it is a beastly hole after Liverpool; for Liverpool is the town of my heart and I would rather sail a mud-flat there than command a clipper ship out of London'. There, SIF, is the Scouse.

More light and shade, and fancy capitals, round the corner on Fenwick Street

'The docks must be full of life, says the Strategic Investment Framework. Then why not open the Three Graces to the public as well?'


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