John Belchem, who worked on the successful bid for Liverpool’s World Heritage Site status, fears the consequences of ignoring the city’s historic environment
From the outset, Liverpool’s inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2004 was overshadowed by more headline-grabbing ‘prizes’ heralding the advent of the new ‘Livercool’: the announcement of unexpected success in the award of European Capital of Culture; and victory against the odds for Liverpool Football Club in the Champions League final in 2005, an appropriate metaphor for the city’s revival and rehabilitation. However, football trophies have since proved elusive while the year-long Capital of Culture party came to an end in 2008 with a spectacular firework display, leaving a short hangover rather than an enduring legacy.
At the same time, the real prize asset for sustainable visitor attraction, cultural tourism and urban regeneration, World Heritage Site status, has been put ‘at risk’ by lack of concern and poor planning, the latest instance being the current proposals for the eastern side of Lime Street.
Where the priority in most other World Heritage Sites has been tourist control and planning restriction to protect and preserve antique assets, the Liverpool case for inscription was markedly different but no less compelling. The remarkable architectural legacy of what was ‘the supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain’s greatest global influence’ was to serve as catalyst to promote regeneration, cultural tourism and sympathetic development throughout the Maritime Mercantile City.
There is a large Buffer Zone, ensuring that the ‘outstanding universal value’ of the site is protected and enhanced to the benefit of ‘the overall townscape character of Liverpool’. The management plan envisaged a major refurbishment of Lime Street - or rather the section between the railway station and the Grade I- listed St George’s Hall - to serve as a high quality gateway into the ‘international class attractions’ of the World Heritage Site.
There has been some progress here with the demolition of an unattractive office block and attendant shopping concourse and the redesign of the station frontage (AJ 08.10.10).
Liverpool Lime Street
The necessary remodelling of the road layout is still awaited while the reintroduction of the tram system has been abandoned: the title of a 1959 Alun Owen play, No Trams to Lime Street has acquired an unfortunate literal contemporary resonance. More dispiriting still are current plans, hastily approved, for that section of Lime Street to the south of the station, technically just outside the World Heritage Site but a major artery within the Buffer Zone.
Fortunately the two magnificent Edwardian public houses at either end of the eastern side of the street, the Crown Hotel and the Vines, veritable gin palaces, are to remain. The buildings in-between, left under-repaired and decaying for decades, are to be demolished, including the much loved Futurist Cinema, the city’s first purpose built picture house, designed by Chadwick and Watson, with its distinctive faience façade.
In their place there will be yet more student accommodation - when will the bubble burst? - built at a height which, as with other several other recent developments, shows complete disregard for sight lines across to and within the World Heritage Site. Underneath the monolithic block of student accommodation [designed by Broadway Malyan] will be some bland shopping units hardly befitting such an important gateway street.
Supported by the Victorian Society, Merseyside Civic Society and other concerned groups and individuals, SAVE is seeking to challenge the grant of planning permission in the Court of Appeal. It is a test case of vital importance: should the crass development proceed, Liverpool could well suffer the dreadful embarrassment of being stripped of its World Heritage Status.
While John Whittingdale, the Secretary of State, might be alarmed by the loss of such an accolade for the United Kingdom, planners and the city authorities appear insouciant, placing profit above any concern for design and heritage, lucrative Beatles commemoration apart.
For too long, redevelopment and conservation have been polarised in debate in Liverpool as if they were mutually exclusive. A new vision for Lime Street fusing the best of the old and the contemporary, the ‘futurist’ way forward, would help Liverpool retain its distinctive character and World Heritage status.
John Belchem, emeritus professor of History, University of Liverpool and former member of the Liverpool World Heritage Site steering group