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Michael Heseltine was there in Liverpool’s hour of need

Michael heseltine
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As environment secretary in the 1980s, Michael Heseltine was captivated by Liverpool and crucial to its regeneration, writes Jonathan Brown

Liverpool was lucky to have Michael Heseltine’s political heft and vision in its hour of greatest need; and the same can be said for British cities in general in the aftermath of their traumatic deindustrialisation, and the broken wave of highways and high-rise modernisation.

In 1981, the chancellor of the exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, was privately arguing for a policy of ‘managed decline’ for Liverpool, which had haemorrhaged almost a fifth of its core population (104,000 net loss) in the decade since the 1971 census – a result of catastrophic ‘overspill’ planning policies and the collapse of the maritime economy.

Many in the national press appeared all too eager to write the redundant Atlantic seaport’s obituary, and the very name of Merseyside became stigmatised as a byword for urban failure.

As inner cities all over England rose up and burned during the riots of that year’s hot summer, Liverpool was presented to the watching world as the most extreme case of an urban crisis afflicting the West, from Berlin to the Bronx. Almost overnight it appeared to have fallen horribly from grace, the world’s premier ocean liner port and sunny seat of 60s psychedelia, suddenly benighted as a riot-strewn ghost town of empty factories, silted docklands and shattered tower blocks.

The malaise was not unique to the Mersey; it was also notable in east London, central Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. Nor was it the whole picture of places that housed richly diverse communities, a thriving world of higher education, endless attractive suburbs, many big department stores, and some of the world’s finest art galleries, not to mention a dominance of European football and the post-punk pop charts.

But there was something especially haunting about the flight of the world’s most glamorous ships from that river’s broad tidal basin and its Classical waterfront, an industrial Venice cast into deep mid-winter. Liverpool’s silent granite quaysides, the sublime designs of Victorian architect-engineer Jesse Hartley, were memorably described in 1978 by the socialist councillor and writer Tony Lane as ‘the Imperial mausoleum’, an embarrassment to the post-colonial establishment.

Heseltine came to see for himself, and was captivated, the Welsh merchant prince realising England’s greatest regional city could not simply be allowed to slide into the sea. He understood there had been a catastrophic loss of confidence and competence in both private and public sectors – and that these spheres had become hostile and corrosive to each other, as had central and local operators.

Heseltine famously required supplicants to bring him solutions rather than problems

As a property man, he also scented opportunity on a grand scale, seeing in the vast empty waterfront and fortress-chain of historic warehouses robust material for remaking a new kind of city. That took a sense of place, history and long-term thinking that remain all too rare. It also required a rebellious streak, running hard against the tide of established opinion.

A man of action as well as ideas, Heseltine famously required supplicants to bring him solutions rather than problems, preferably summarised on a single sheet of A4.

Recognising that property markets would never recover in a contaminated environment, he set in motion plans to clean up the filthy river – ‘an affront to a civilised society’ – and brought over the German idea of garden festivals to reclaim polluted land, first in Liverpool and later in Stoke, Glasgow and Gateshead.

The places Heseltine’s Development Corporations helped revive, such as Manchester’s Castlefields, east London’s Canary Wharf, Salford’s Media City and Liverpool’s Albert Dock, are now taken for granted as swishy, gentrified success stories. But in 1981 they were soot-blackened, bricked-up and broken-down ruins, from whence private capital had fled.

In addition to imagination, it took political skill, courage – and much conflict – to make a successful case within the Thatcher government for major public investment in failing parts of urban Britain, as well as fights with local authorities who resented his powerful development corporations, set up with their own planning and CPO powers.

Beyond the revived metropolitan centres, Heseltine can also be credited, as environment secretary (alongside his senior civil servant Brian Anthony), with shaping the present system of listed buildings. He reacted with determination to the egregious overnight loss of London’s Art Deco Firestone Building with a mass listing programme that sent a sharp message to the development industry. Even Thatcherite laissez-faire could have political limits.

Thirty years on, Heseltine continues to challenge the negativity and centralisation of Whitehall, advocating the devolution of decision-making – and finance – to local institutions and business leaders.

His No Stone Unturned and Rebalancing Britain – Policy or Slogan reports of 2011/12, co-authored with Liverpool-born Tesco chief executive Terry Leahy, form the blueprint from which England is now forming its six powerful new ‘metro mayors’. They are worth a read for his expansive view of city-regions as broad economic areas, ranging across multiple local labour markets, and meriting effective strategic oversight and planning.

This comes close to reversing the abolition of metropolitan councils during the second Thatcher government – an astonishing achievement for a man in his ninth decade.

Heseltine took London bank CEOs on a ‘dark tourism’ bus ride around Liverpool’s most extreme areas of Modernist failure

Alongside long-term vision and commitment, Heseltine can be admired for his moral challenge to the distant City finance houses to take responsibility for urban outcomes. On one famous occasion he physically corralled the CEOs of the big London banks and took them on a ‘dark tourism’ bus ride round Liverpool’s most extreme areas of Modernist failure: the unfinished peripheral Radburn housing estates of Cantril Farm and Netherley, and the abandoned ‘piggeries’ of high-rise housing that had so recently replaced the classic Georgian terraces of Everton.

Heseltine worked hard to bring improvements to these estates, and to the beautiful but crumbling buildings round the historic centre. He brought in Wimpey to renovate Georgian Canning, and his 1990s City Challenge programme showed how partnership work and sound masterplanning could make relatively limited resources go a long way. I would argue this model has in practice proved much more sustainable than New Labour’s cash-rich but clumsy, top-down quangos, such as the disastrously wasteful Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders, now scrapped and unlamented.

Heseltine’s legacy is of a different order, but certainly not beyond criticism. For example, closing the last tranche of coal mines under John Major was not his finest moment. Towns on the edge of Merseyside and Manchester, like St Helens and Wigan, still bear deep scars from the way their coalfield communities were cast off, and the situation across the culled pit villages of South Yorkshire and his homelands of South Wales became dire.

Heseltine also admits to an element of the patrician. When he talks of empowering local people, he tends to mean local big wigs rather than the person on the deregulated Number 10 bus. His admirable faith that local leaders know better than the ‘man from the ministry’ perhaps distracts him from the more rackety side of municipal government; the lack of scrutiny in rotten boroughs, and the tin pot tyrannies of town hall wheeler dealers.

The small housing trusts and associations he set up to take on ‘sink’ estates provided effective vehicles for private finance to address their ‘appalling’ back-log of repairs, but over time have merged and morphed into agents for the mass privatisation of public housing across the UK, without adequate ‘non-market’ replacement. The loss of Lancelot Keay’s majestic Art-Deco tenements happened during this period, and concerns have been raised that Heseltine’s recent Estate Regeneration programme risks asset-stripping poorer households and accelerating Heygate-style social cleansing.

Housing charity Shelter remained unconvinced of his approach back in 1981: ‘There has been something ludicrous in Mr Heseltine’s professions of concern about the problems he has seen on Merseyside, when it was he who savaged the Housing Investment Programme and recalculated the Rate Support Grant to favour the shire counties at the expense of the inner cities,’ it said.

Nor was Heseltine’s faith in the private sector always repaid. Liverpool’s International Garden Festival site was reclaimed from the notoriously contaminated ‘cast iron shore’, a former oil and naptha terminal, at gargantuan public expense. Landscaped around Ove Arup’s serene Festival Hall, much of the magnificent riverside site was hastily handed over by his government-sponsored development corporation to a company called ‘Transworld’, which headed rapidly into receivership. Thirty years on, the site of the long-demolished dome remains undeveloped and has returned to dereliction – hardly an advert for market forces. 

People in Toxteth dismissed the regeneration programmes as ‘flowers and funny money’

Talk to people in Toxteth and many will tell you the area benefited little from the investments brought in by Heseltine in the aftermath of the 1981 riots; often dismissing the regeneration programmes as ‘flowers and funny money’, too focused on tree planting and not enough on deep infrastructure and lasting jobs. Certainly, the successful marinas, apartments and promenades of the restored south docks are divided physically and socially from their inner-city hinterland, but at least they were built, and the local government has had 30 years to better integrate them.

All that said, there can be no doubt that the context and city profile is resurgent relative to those dark days. After 80 years of decline Liverpool’s core population is growing healthily. Great liners have returned to the glistening World Heritage waterfront. Liverpool’s ‘Knowledge Quarter’ universities and medical schools are global institutions, and the business infrastructure of conference centres, hotels, retail and modern manufacturing is buoyant, with the new ‘Post-Panamax’ terminal having doubled the port’s capacity. Cammell Laird is back building ships, and Ford’s Halewood plant is now Jaguar-Land Rover, exporting SUVs to China and the USA. Civic confidence is back.

I have had three brief encounters with Heseltine, which offer some minor insight. In 2006 I led a tour of Liverpool’s inner city with him and future prime minister David Cameron in a mini-bus of MPs, TV reporters and local residents, the latter fighting deputy prime minister John Prescott’s proposed demolition of their homes.

It was clear Heseltine knew the streets and buildings of the area exceptionally well, far better than many city councillors. As we swung into Granby and Toxteth in Liverpool 8, a cameraman pressed panic mode, screaming ‘this is a no go area for the media!’

Entirely unfazed, Heseltine strode out with Dave, his fresh-faced protégé, on to Madryn Street, and took questions from reporters and residents. Unfortunately for our campaign, it was clear he wasn’t much bothered about the fate of the Victorian terraces needlessly condemned for clearance, but at least he was willing to meet their defenders.

This was confirmed in my second face-to-face meeting with him, with Marcus Binney and Will Palin of SAVE Britain’s Heritage in 2012. Heseltine was back in government, chairing the Regional Growth Fund from an impressive, apparently empty upper-floor corner office in the glassy Business and Skills Department HQ, just off Parliament Square.

We were again hoping to enlist his help in our (ultimately successful) campaign to turn round the national policy of housing clearance towards one of renovation. He was polite, patient and charismatic, but took the line that where local officials thought it right that demolition of these ‘small homes without gardens’ was for the greater good, then that was that, whatever the clear preference of their occupants.

Finally, I saw him in 2013 when he spoke in front of the assembled local panjandrums at the launch by Liverpool University of their Heseltine Institute, an existing research unit renamed in his honour and intended to inform public policy and practice.

After the usual niceties, he made a remarkable request. He strongly desired that the new institute should make itself ‘very unpopular’ with local elites – only then would he know it really was speaking truth unto power.

Nervous shuffling in the reserved seats showed this was a message not universally welcomed, and therefore all the more effective.

Heseltine’s dynamic influence over 40 years of public policy, and his power in the media as a publisher and commentator, have cemented his reputation as ‘father of the urban renaissance and saviour of the cities’ – especially Liverpool – a legacy he has had to settle for in lieu of the Downing Street address he came so close to claiming from Margaret Thatcher.

Like other urban recoveries, Liverpool’s survival story is not Heseltine’s alone. It is that of everyone who chose to stay or invest in its future, the collective impact of countless campaigners, public servants, teachers, parents, entrepreneurs and employers.

Liverpool and Heseltine found common cause in turbulent times

Civic politics is often rotten, but to name one name, the indomitable Scot, Margaret Simey, remains a true local hero in the eyes of Liverpudlians, who remember her enlightened resistance to the segregated social conditions of the 70s and 80s. Heseltine was also building on the legacy of his Labour predecessor as environment secretary, Peter Shore, who grew up in Liverpool and returned to the city in 1976 as secretary of state to ‘pension off the bulldozers’, finally reining in the disastrous ‘slum’ clearances which displaced almost 200,000 people and took out 70 per cent of historic housing, much of it not slummy at all.

Liverpool was also fortunate in its religious leadership at the time. Roman Catholic Archbishop Derek Warlock and Anglican Bishop David Sheppard shunned sectarian politics, walked hand in hand along Hope Street, and made their distinctive cathedrals the seats of a determined, humanitarian ‘faith in the city’, a powerful riposte to a government which had promised to bring harmony but instead sowed discord. Discord was a badge of honour for Liverpool’s obstreperous Militant council during Heseltine’s tenure, but for all their shysterism, the Trotskyists did build a lot of decent council houses.

Flawed and charismatic provincial giants, Liverpool and Heseltine found common cause in turbulent times. This man of the 1980s is now well into his own 80s, yet still commands front-page headlines, as recent events have shown. Few politicians outside the rank of prime minister can point to such a tangible and lasting legacy, and none of the Thatcher, Major, Blair or Cameron cabinets are likely to be joining him as a ‘Freemen of Liverpool’.

Jonathan Brown is director of urban planning service Share The City

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