“We are all Liverpolitans now”: Dave’s letter from Liverpool

Steve Rotheram, the new mayor of the Liverpool City Region, along with his party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Image: Getty.

Well, the Liverpool City Region Mayoral election is over, and the overwhelming favourite won. What a surprise. So what next? Mayor wars? Does our new metro mayor have any qualifications in cat herding? (I bet that wasn't on the application form).

Anyway, congratulations to Steve Rotheram on his victory. Let's hope he proves to be as successful as all of us locals require. 

I have watched every single minute of every Liverpool City Region Combined Authority monthly public meeting since it was formally established on 1 April 2014. (My, don't things take a long time in the UK.) Now obviously I deserve a medal for this because, as you would expect, these meetings are mostly boring, and some of the members are mumblers, which can be difficult. However, it has to be said that they are always positive and collaborative in tone, and they are mostly played out in public. The fact that the political members of the Combined Authority are all Labour obviously helps in this regard (a lesson for the Parliamentary Labour Party perhaps). So it is hoped that it will be relatively easy for Labour mayor Rotheram to slot into the new role.

But first, all present must work out how not to step on each other’s toes. The Liverpool Echo once published a picture of the elected leaders of the six constituent Councils of Liverpool City Region, each of which have equal power within the Combined Authority. They are, in alphabetical order:

  • City of Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson;
  • Wirral council leader Phil Davies;
  • St Helens council leader Barrie Grunewald;
  • Sefton council leader Ian Maher;
  • Knowsley council leader Andy Moorhead; and
  • Halton council leader Rob Polhill.

Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram will work with these six men to take forward his strategic plan. He will have powers over a £900m 30 year investment fund, education and skills, housing, planning, and transport, and will work on a plan to integrate health and social care.

These seven men will have enormous responsibility and power to affect the lives of everyone in Liverpool City Region. They can help to make this area massively successful again – if they work together selflessly, a new golden age beckons.

We have all the fantastic attributes required for that – that is why such a large conurbation evolved here in the first place – and nothing has changed as far as the natural elements are concerned. There is evidence for the extent of our human capabilities, too. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, reminded us in his Roscoe Lecture at Liverpool John Moores University on 5 December 2016 that: 

"[In] the middle of the 19th century, Liverpool was in the midst of a golden age; its Custom House was the national Exchequer’s biggest source of revenue."

The stars are aligning for us again, with the likes of the recent expansion of the Panama Canal, and the corresponding £400m expansion of the Port of Liverpool, at Liverpool2, to cater for world's largest mega container ships. There are many other big projects already going on here, too.

Post Brexit and Trump, politicians can no longer glibly declare that Liverpool is on the wrong side of the country, when in fact we have always been physically located in the centre of the UK. Liverpool already handles 45 per cent of all transatlantic cargo. It was also the home of one of the first American Consulates on foreign soil, established in 1790. Here’s a recent picture of the building:

Image: John S. Turner/Wikimedia Commons.

We just have to hope that our magnificent seven do not start acting like cowboys but instead concentrate on successfully working together for the mutual benefit of us all. We are all Liverpolitans now.

Incidentally, people around here are predicting that it is likely, come June, that the most politically influential “one of us”, to quote Mayor Rotheram's election slogan, won’t be the mayor of the Liverpool City Region at all. Rather, it’ll be a Liverpool-born Conservative Cabinet Minister. More on this next month.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric's new 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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