I’ve just returned from three days in Liverpool. Ostensibly I was there for Labour conference, but, as promised, I spent a fair chunk of my time wandering on both sides of the Mersey, in an attempt to improve my knowledge of a city I’ve not visited in years.
Obviously there’s a limit to what you can learn about a city in three days. A couple of hours in the local history museum – which is fabulous, by the way – will only get you so far.
So what follows is a collection of half-formed thoughts and first impressions, rather than a detailed academic thesis. You’re welcome to argue with me on Twitter or Facebook. I might even be arguing with myself in a couple of weeks.
(EDIT TO ADD: Someone asked me to point out that some Liverpudlians think that what you're about to read is “a load of shite”. Fair play. Others have been very nice about it, though, so I'm not going to quit my job and do something more useful with my life just yet.)
Nonetheless, before I forget, here are five thoughts.
A city that lost its purpose
I obviously knew that Liverpool was a port city, but I hadn’t fully grasped that this was basically the city’s entire reason for being there. It was little more than a fishing village when, in 1715, the world’s first enclosed commercial dock opened under what is now the Liverpool One shopping centre.
Over the course of the next two centuries, as the importance of transatlantic trade grew, new docks spread north and south along the Mersey shore for more than seven miles. By the mid 19th century, Liverpool was the second port of the British Empire, behind only London. Its position made it the ideal place to import materials and export goods from the industrial north.
The Port of Liverpool is still busy (though by 2014 it had dropped to sixth in the list of British ports). But, as in port cities all over the world, the docks just don’t generate that many jobs any more. In the mid 20th century, “containerisation” meant that fewer dockers were needed to load and unload ships. (Containers are generally unpacked at their destinations, inland.) Container ships also required new, deeper docks, rendering most of Liverpool’s historic facilities redundant. Oh, and de-industrialisation means there are simply fewer goods coming into and out of the north.
In other words, Liverpool is a city that has, literally, lost its original purpose.
Transport won’t solve everything
Something people don’t often mention about Liverpool: it has an underground railway. Only a small one, admittedly – four stops, relatively close together in the city centre, served by commuter trains from the suburbs beyond. But it’s been there a while: the oldest section, opened in 1896 to connect the city with Birkenhead, across the Mersey, was the first deep-level tube in the world.
Once upon a time, in fact, the city had an even better transport network. Most cities had trams, back in the day, but Liverpool also had an elevated railway, the Liverpool Overhead Railway, which ran along the waterfront from Seaforth to Dingle. In its day, the “Dockers’ Umbrella” was as much a symbol of its city as London’s Tube; it closed in 1956, when the company that owned it found it couldn’t afford to replace its crumbling infrastructure.
One of the themes of UK urbanism in recent years – the theory at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse project – has been the assumption that improving transport, connecting people with jobs, will improve our cities. But Liverpool once had great transport. It still declined. Today, there are British cities with worse transport networks. It hasn’t helped it bounce back.
I don’t want to over-correct on this, and start claiming transport doesn’t matter. I’m just saying, Liverpool has slightly shaken my faith that better transport will fix the north.
Progress sometimes doesn’t always look like much
One of the areas of Liverpool I was most keen to check out was the Baltic Triangle: a roughly triangular area between the Anglican Cathedral and the Queen’s Dock, named for the historic Baltic Fleet pub. It’s the bit where hipsters and start-ups live: according to the blurb, “once the city’s well-worn workshop, [it’s] now a cutting-edge destination where pioneering creatives work and play”.
It’s a dump.
The Baltic Triangle. Image: Pete Carr.
I was expecting something more like London’s Shoreditch or Manchester’s Northern Quarter – all bars and iMacs and flat whites. But in the Baltic Triangle, the streets are all dusty, half the place is a building site, and warehouses still look like warehouses.
But that, I suspect, is because people are using them to actually make stuff, rather than poncing about in a cafe convincing themselves they’re Elon Musk. In other words, I think the problem here is with me, rather than with the Baltic Triangle. I need to check my prejudices.
A good brand isn’t everything
I’m sounding like I’m really down on Liverpool: I’m not, I actually sort of love it. Not naming any names, but there are some British cities I’ve been to which I found genuinely – unexpectedly – depressing.
Liverpool isn’t like that, at all. The city centre looks great, the redeveloped docks look fantastic, and the view from the hill in Everton Park (as above) must be one of the most glorious to be found anywhere in any British city. There’s also as much energy and municipal pride in the city as you’ll find anywhere.
And yet, the city is still in decline on the most basic of measures: it’s one of the few large British cities that’s home to fewer people than it was in the early 1980s. And, while anecdote isn’t data, there seemed to be a lot of high quality office space standing empty in the city centre.
Liverpool feels like it should be able to bounce back from de-industrialisation. So far, though, it hasn’t.
But a good brand is something
Not sure that's a selling point, lads. Image: Getty.
That said, something Liverpool is not short of is tourists. Thanks to the Beatles and football, and perhaps even history, the city attracts visitors in numbers most big English cities would kill for.
That name recognition should hold it in good stead as the new metro mayor – almost certain to be Labour’s Steve Rotheram – tries to sell the region to the world next year. The Liverpool name won’t be enough to attract investment and jobs – but it should at least help kick the door open.
Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.