Long-term resident Chris Clayton, director of Clayton Property, reflects on what the ongoing Merseyside Police corruption investigation means for Liverpool but why, ultimately, the city must dust itself off and move on.
I can’t help reflecting on Liverpool’s current political difficulties, which, Covid-19-aside, seem very familiar and have reminded me of the city in the 1980s. But I would disagree with some commentators’ view that the city’s problems are the worst they’ve ever been.
On my first day as a trainee residential surveyor in Liverpool in 1974, my boss told me I would need two things to do the job: a strong stomach and a sense of humour. A few weeks later, surveying a pretty grim house in Letsby Avenue seemed to prove the point!
I ended up being a commercial development surveyor, and, though not working in the city anymore, I do have many powerful memories of working in Liverpool in the 1980s. To name a few such memories: riots; Militant tendencies; Michael Heseltine; the Merseyside Development Corporation; almost zero private sector investment or interest; the city council selling off property and land to avoid bankruptcy; Boom (Business Opportunities on Merseyside) working hard to attract investment and fighting to correct the city’s terrible reputation as a place in which you would not want to live, work or invest.
I remember living with my family in Upper Duke Street, near the Anglican Cathedral, for a short time in 1989-1990 and feeling like we were the only people living in the entire city centre. It was a great place to live, all the same.
The national press loved rubbishing Liverpool (pun intended!). I remember taking the Sunday Times to task over their reporting of a council “bin strike”, when the streets were supposedly piled high with rubbish. They’d used a picture of a mound of building rubble on the Twelve Quays site – now Wirral Waters – and superimposed it on a picture of the Pier Head and the Liver Building to make their point.
I also remember trying to find an investor to buy the prime and fully let India Building on Water Street for less than £5m and nobody would touch it. It was Liverpool that they wouldn’t touch, of course, not the building.
The city was dire in those days – this once proud “second city of the British Empire” brought to its knees by years of industrial and maritime decline, accelerated by the physical destruction of World War Two, the loss of its identity as UK trade turned away from America and towards Europe, poor labour relations and a mass exodus of the population to the promised better life in the suburbs and New Towns such as Kirkby, Skelmersdale and Runcorn.
How could a city built for a million people survive with less than half that number? This was a massive decline.
Finally, I remember the brief resurgence in 1989-1990 when people working in the city were actually pleased to see the Mersey Tunnels clogging up as commuters came to work in increasing numbers. The city had recovered its rush hour and traffic congestion was good!
Jump forward 20 or 30 years and we see a different Liverpool in the 2000s: lots of new construction and investment; people coming to live and work in the city rather than leaving it; a City of Culture; World Heritage status; Liverpool One; the visitor economy; cruise ships; hotels; dockland regeneration; university expansions and the Knowledge Quarter.
So, why the big change? It seems to me that Liverpool has reinvented itself and found its new place in the world. It has moved away from being reliant on miles and miles of working docks (on both sides of the river) and labour-intensive factories and turned towards its new strengths of heritage and culture, leisure and tourism, and learning.
Those with their finger on the local pulse may tell me I’m wrong, but isn’t life much better these days? Aren’t labour relations better, local government more stable and isn’t it easier to attract people to invest, live, work and visit the city? As far as I can tell, today’s Liverpool has a very good reputation around the world, even if that has a bit to do with football and The Beatles.
Of course, there are some things that happily haven’t changed. Liverpool has always had a great “vibe” and scousers are friendly and welcoming, modest and self-deprecating. Their humour is famous, as is their optimism.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a one-off crisis but very damaging, and cities all over the world will need to adapt and recover. The latest political – and, it seems, property-related – revelations will probably make Liverpool’s recovery plan a little more difficult.
But let’s not forget how far the city has come from those very dark days in the 1980s. This isn’t the same city as it was then. Liverpool needs to sort out its current problems, dust itself off and move on.
Chris Clayton is director of Clayton Property