The Liverpool City Region needs better transport before clean energy

Burbo Bank. Image: Getty.

It is three months since Steve Rotheram swept to power as mayor of the Liverpool City Region. So how are things shaping up for this largely untested ex-bricklayer (he never seems to tire of reminding us of this previous job)?

On 17 May, Rotheram spoke at the official opening ceremony, in Liverpool, of the very impressive Burbo Bank extension in Liverpool Bay, a new offshore wind farm capable of producing enough electricity to power over 230,000 homes.

Apparently, one revolution of a set of the gigantic blades produces enough power to meet the needs of one household for 29 hours. It is the first offshore wind farm in the world to make commercial use of the MHI Vestas V164-8.0 MW wind turbines. Each set of turbine blades is larger than the London Eye, and just one of these wind turbines produces more energy than the whole of Vindeby, the world’s first offshore wind farm constructed by DONG Energy 25 years ago in Denmark.

Speaking at the event, Rotheram said:

“The offshore wind industry has a huge contribution to make to the growing UK-based supply chain, and utilising our renewable energy sources is vital to ensuring the Liverpool City Region cements its position as a low carbon leader.”

On 6 June, he Rotheram announced, at an investment conference in Milton Keynes, that his grand vision, and a top priority for his mayoralty of the Liverpool City Region, is to build a £3.5bn tidal barrage across the River Mersey. 

On that occasion, he said:

“This would be a significant leap in achieving my ambition to be a carbon neutral city region by 2040. Bringing forward a new business and logistical plan for a Mersey Tidal Barrage will be one of the major priorities of my Mayoral administration.”

There seems to be a pattern developing here, of noble and monumental long term green projects of fabulous ambition. The thing is though, in June 2011, a feasibility report, titled ‘Mersey Tidal Power‘ , found that such a barrage project would not be not feasible and shelved it. What’s more, would it be called the ‘Rotheram Barrage’? Which could be confusing, despite the different spelling, as it would be located in the Liverpool City Region and not Yorkshire, where Rotherham is? Has this been thought through properly?

It is not as though there aren’t many other, more mundane projects, more beneficial to the present everyday lives of Liverpolitans that Rotheram could focus upon. For example, it has recently often been reported in the local press that Liverpool city centre is in dire need of a large amount of new Grade A office space as our existing stock is almost full.

This would likely be a much better project for providing very large numbers of well paid, long term jobs. So pump-priming this market, as other cities have done, would likely be a much more cost effective way of creating economic growth and jobs, in a relatively short timescale, for the whole Liverpool City Region and beyond.  

What’s more, the Liverpool Underground needs expanding - firstly by re-opening existing stations and new stations on the existing extensive network, but also by extending the network by, for example, completing the strategically important 19 miles long Outer Loop Line, which requires just eight more miles of track to be laid on the already largely completed trackbed. This alone would deliver full and convenient access to the Liverpool Underground for many tens of thousands of additional citizens who currently don’t have it. 

The Outer Loop, as proposed in the 1970s. Image: Merseytravel, via John Burns.

These investments would be much lower cost and quicker to deliver than the grand monument that mayor Rotheram appears to be dreaming of, and would definitely be more beneficial to the everyday lives of Liverpolitans.

Let’s face it, we all already have a stable electricity supply around here. But far from all of us can board a gleaming, brand new, state-of-the-art Liverpool Underground train at the end of our street, to travel in an environmentally friendly way to Liverpool city centre very quickly and efficiently, to our well paid jobs in gleaming new Grade A office towers – something which would be of much more immediate benefit to people of my ilk, within our lifetimes. 

Don’t get me wrong, feasible long term green energy projects are a fine ambition and should be pursued for the long term good of us all. But I would suggest that for our local population, in the short term, they should not be our main priority at the expense of other, more immediate and obvious needs.

It is also worth remembering that someone like me travelling a few miles to work in Liverpool city centre on the Liverpool Underground is much greener than travelling 25 miles by car to work elsewhere. 

Come on Mayor Rotheram, we need stuff for the here and now, or at least for the here and very soon. As someone once said: “it’s the economy, stupid”.

One last thing. Did you know that the public school educated, ex-solicitor and Liverpolitan Jake Berry is the current Northern Powerhouse Minister? So, as mentioned in May, which “one of us” – to quote Mayor Rotheram’s election slogan – is now the most politically influential and able, through the real tools at their disposal and, indeed, their brain power, to positively impact Liverpool City Region’s economy? Is it the ex-bricklayer or the ex-solicitor? 

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region every month in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’.


The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.

And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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