Liverpool and China
Here comes the yuan
A city’s bid to revive its fortunes through the local and the global
Sep 3rd 2011 | LIVERPOOL | from the print edition
AT THE new Museum of Liverpool (above), a sleek limestone affair of Danish design, the city’s Chinese community, which began with an influx of sailors at the start of the 19th century, gets an exhibit to itself. The emphasis seems a little odd, until you consider the city’s regeneration strategy, which rests on a characteristically 21st-century mix of the local and the global. The aim is to use Liverpool’s storied past to attract investment from around the world—and from China in particular.
Liverpool has been through tough times. Once an imperial entrepôt, the city built its wealth on the exchange of slaves, cotton and commodities. But the end of empire, the rise of air travel and the advent of shipping containers slashed maritime employment after the 1960s. Manufacturing failed to compensate for the losses, even if a cultural efflorescence led by the Beatles accompanied the economic woes.
Many problems persist. A city that held 856,000 people in 1931 now houses just over half that number. In the suburb of Anfield, home to Liverpool Football Club, an aborted regeneration scheme has bequeathed row after blighted row of boarded-up houses; gardens are overgrown with weeds and poppies sprout on street corners. The proportion of people on state benefits is twice the national average, as is the proportion of Liverpudlians who lack formal qualifications. Health is poor and life expectancy is low. Only two-thirds of residents work—41% of them in the public sector, which puts the city at especial risk in an era of government austerity.
Yet the lean years helped to stop the city’s historic buildings being replaced by the concrete utopias beloved of modernist planners. Now Liverpool is using its bruised beauty to its advantage. It won its bid to be the 2008 European Capital of Culture, which boosted tourism. The revamped city centre, reopened that year, is tasteful and modern; the nearby Albert Dock, once teeming with stevedores, bustles with bars and restaurants.
The next step is to attract investment from overseas. To that end, Liverpool Vision (the council’s inward investment arm) has set up a dedicated office in Shanghai. The Peel Group, an infrastructure and real-estate outfit, hosted a pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo last year. It is courting Chinese sovereign-wealth funds to develop Liverpool’s derelict northern dockyards. The plans include a 60-storey “Shanghai tower,” named to reinforce Liverpool’s links to that city (the two have been “twinned” since 1999).
The Peel Group has already secured Chinese cash for a development in Birkenhead, across the Mersey: these days, says Lindsey Ashworth, the company’s development director, China is a much more promising source of funds than Britain. The firm sees the two foreign-financed projects as test cases for others elsewhere in the North West. Things have come full circle since penurious sailors from the Far East first arrived two centuries ago. (The risk is that growth will prove more vandalistic than poverty: UNESCO, the UN’s culture and conservation body, is worried that the dockyards development will mar Liverpool’s world heritage-listed waterfront.)
The Liverpool brand is clearly a tricky, if appealing, proposition. Encrusted with verdigris, two statues of the “liver bird”, the city’s symbol, sit atop a riverside building. Legend has it that the female bird looks out to sea, to search for returning sailors; the male looks back towards Liverpool, to see if the pubs are open.