Secret ballot to decide Liverpool's Unesco World Heritage fate

But local experts suggest that Unesco visit the city to see how it has preserved and invested in its heritage

Powered by automated translation

At the height of the British Empire in the 19th century, 40 per cent of world trade passed through Liverpool, where the city's port became a crucial staging post for the movement of goods and people around the globe.

Such was its influence that in 2004 Unesco recognised the historic legacy by declaring six areas of Liverpool city centre as a World Heritage site. It commended its architecture as the embodiment of a "maritime mercantile city" representing its historic trading role and its contribution to “development of modern dock technology, transport systems and port management”.

But that recognition by the cultural agency will be under threat when Unesco holds its annual meeting in the next two weeks. Its 21-member World Heritage Committee recommended last month that Liverpool become only the third site to be stripped of its sought-after status.

A secret ballot will be held on Wednesday morning to decide Liverpool's heritage fate.

A statue is decorated with a Liverpool football scarf outside the Walker Art Gallery in Cultural Quarter. Darren Robinson for The National

Unesco officials accuse the authorities of ignoring a decade of warnings about multibillion-pound developments in the city and argue that the cultural heritage could be irreversibly damaged.

The six locations and a buffer zone are situated around the Mersey waterfront. To any visitor the streets of the area are strikingly representative of both old and new Liverpool. Evidence abounds of how the city’s culture has evolved through the decades.

For example, facing the historic red-brick Royal Albert Dock, first opened in 1846, is the Museum of Liverpool, which opened in 2011.

Looming behind the museum are the so-called Three Graces buildings, the Royal Liver building, the Cunard building and the Port of Liverpool building. Atop, straining for the sky, are the statues of the mythical Liver birds. The riverfront scene even has a twin on the other side of the world in Shanghai's Bund.

Controversy surrounds the proposed multibillion-pound development plan by industry giant Peel Group and its Liverpool Waters project, north of historic Pier Head, as well as a green light for a new stadium for Everton Football Club.

Liverpool’s representatives reject most of Uneco’s claims and have urged the committee’s members to come and see how the city has preserved and invested in its heritage.

“At what point do you stop a city and say you're affecting its iconic nature?” said Laura Pye, the director of National Museums Liverpool, which is comprised of nine major cultural venues in the city.

The Three Graces buildings are seen at the Pier Head in 1920. Getty Images

“I think cities grow and develop. Liverpool has a very strong DNA of who we are,” said Ms Pye, who was born in Liverpool.

She said Unesco's concerns over developments were understandable, but said that Liverpool is a "living, breathing city – we have to be able to develop”.

More broadly, many ask why Liverpool – which in the 1970s and 1980s was one of the poorest areas in Western Europe as the docks and other industries declined – should be penalised for investing in its future.

Local resident Prof Michael Parkinson, of the University of Liverpool and member of the Mayors’ World Heritage Site Task Force, says Unesco is objecting to redevelopment plans submitted in 2011 that have since changed dramatically.

For instance, a 50-storey skyscraper, Shanghai Tower, has been removed from the developers plan.

It was also pointed out that the proposed developments affect only one of the six areas comprising the heritage site, and are going up on largely derelict lots.

“The essential argument is look, the city had a terrible patch. It collapsed economically, was on its knees in the 1980s,” said Prof Parkinson, who has chronicled the area's recent history in his books Liverpool on the Brink: One City's Struggle Against Government Cuts (1985) and Liverpool Beyond the Brink: The Remaking of a Post Imperial City (2019).

“It’s had a brilliant renaissance, particularly around the city centre, less so outside. It's done a huge amount, there's a lot more to do. It has many social economic problems.

“It's not bankrupt, but on the edge. And it's got a big chunk of the city which got no real investment in the boom, which is all of north Liverpool.”

More recently, Unesco opposed the approval of Everton FC’s new 53,000 capacity, £500 million ($691 million) stadium at the Bramley-Moore Dock in the north dock area.

It is hoped that the ground, which will require filling in the dock, will provide a major boost to the economy and 15,000 jobs.

A rendering of Everton's new stadium at Bramley-Moore Dock. The People's Project/Twitter

It is next to a sewage treatment plant and the club has pledged to spend £55 million on preserving the heritage in the area.

“So now you've got two visions of what Liverpool can be. A museum or a mausoleum where there's no development because Unesco says it doesn't want it,” Prof Parkinson said.

“Or you try and have quality developments in this massive site, which has lain derelict for 60 years, which has huge potential … which is immediately adjacent to North Liverpool, which is the worst part of Liverpool and the worst part of the UK, and the worst part of some of Europe.”

He concedes that the city has not always played the heritage card enough or been responsive enough to Unesco.

But Prof Parkinson says that has since changed and there is new impetus in recent years – particularly since a new mayor, Joanne Anderson, came to power in May 2021.

A boat makes its way through Albert Dock. Darren Robinson for The National

The city’s authorities could point to a recent document that highlights the £700 million that has been spent upgrading the heritage sites over the past few years.

All those The National spoke to were aware of the situation with Unesco, even if they did not know the details.

“It’s not of great importance, to be honest with you,” said retired Liverpool resident Mike Cullen, referring to the Unesco status.

“I mean it’s nice to have, but I don’t sort of think it’ll make any difference,” he said, speaking in front of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, which occupies a part of the Albert Dock.

“The heritage status of this city is not going to be taken away by anybody. Everybody knows that,” said Liverpudlian Phil Lucking, who was playing his trumpet at Pier Head, a stone’s throw from the historic Royal Albert Dock.

But for Ms Pye, the recognition does matter and she says it is a great course of pride.

“It's such an important decision. But surely it's a decision that has to be made with the full knowledge of what we're talking about,” said Ms Pye, who is also a member of Liverpool’s World Heritage Site Steering Group.

“We would just really encourage the people making the decision to come to the city to meet our mayor and to have a look around and see the sights we're talking about before they make any decision.”

Among the venues that fall under Ms Pye’s remit is the International Slavery Museum.

There is also the question of how Liverpool can use its heritage to discuss some of the more delicate issues of its past.

"I think Liverpool as a city has for a long time been very open about the fact that this is a city built on transatlantic slavery, there's no hiding that," Ms Pye said.

“You see that in our buildings when you walk into the city, and you see that in our architecture, you see it in our street names.

Pedestrians walk by a food truck between The Pier Head and Albert Dock. Darren Robinson for The National

“It's important to us that we use our heritage to tell those stories.”

Prof Parkinson believes the wrong argument is taking place.

Unesco have got “locked on to the very narrow, physical things. Whereas we would argue more generally, heritage is about culture, it’s about place, it’s about values, it’s about people", he said.

“When you look at what Liverpool was designated for, it was because it was a supreme example of a commercial maritime city at the height of the British Empire. It wasn't because it had 1,200 lovely buildings. It was given the status for, in effect, its economic, social, diplomatic role in the British Empire, and therefore the buildings are one part of it.”

This is especially acute at a time of the debate about Black Lives Matter and the growing controversy about those who were involved in the slave trade.

“This is a very contested heritage. And for us, the real debate should be what is the city's heritage? What was the role of slavery? How much did it finance development? Who benefited? Have you recognised that sufficiently? As much as ‘are we going to fill in Bramley-Moore Dock?'”

Updated: July 19, 2021, 12:35 PM

View from London

Your weekly update from the UK and Europe

View from London