Life goes on day after day
Hearts torn in every way…
Some enterprising individuals at the University of Liverpool have put together the Liverpool Radical Documentary Film Festival that is taking place over the first two weeks in October. I went to see Us and Them, a film made in 1970 by Peter Leeson that documented the impact on the communities living in and around Scotland Road of the major road development schemes and the construction of the second Mersey tunnel at the time.
The film takes us back to the late sixties and the era when the City Planning department was in thrall to mad, modernist plans to sweep away the old and obsolete in order to create a futurist vision of the city in which elevated urban motorways would march through areas where inner-city working class housing had been torn down, the communities smashed, and the people dispersed to the winds. Those left behind needing to get around on foot would be confined to ‘walkways in the sky’, accessed by struggling up artistically twisting steps and ramps, in order to cross the roads beneath.
This vision was set out in the Shankland Report, published for the City Council in 1962. It proposed building an inner ring road as part of plans to regenerate the city centre. The entire road was to be elevated. One architect’s sketch showed the motorway running on the roof of a shopping centre, while in some places buildings were to be constructed over and under the road (imagine a building with a hole in the middle, through which the motorway passed).
There was no conception that at this time that a range of old and new, high and low value properties might be essential to the efficiency of the city centre as a whole. Nor was there any notion that older buildings might have a value other than that measured in rent: as heritage or as much-loved landmarks for local people. As William Morris expressed it:
It has been most truly said that these old buildings do not belong to us only: that they belonged to our forefathers and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our property, to do as we like with them. We are only trustees for those who come after us …’ .
Peter Leeson, who now lives in Leicester, worked for the City Planning department in the 1960s but became disillusioned with the development plans for the city, and the impact that they were having on the working class communities of the inner city. In 1969 he resigned his post, raised some money, and began to shoot the documentary. Leeson’s purpose in making the film was to highlight the plight of the communities living around Scottie Road (in the film he notes that the planners had even deprived the area of its long-standing name, renaming it Vauxhall). He shows how the road building and the construction of the Kingsway tunnel brought devastating changes to the area. The City Council had a slogan at the time that proudly boasted of these changes: ‘City of Change and Challenge’. I recall that in the late sixties, if you posted a letter in Liverpool the stamp would be franked with that slogan.
Us and Them has a professional look, and is very well photographed. The tightness of his budget probably explains its audio limitations – most significantly, in the brief interviews which are dispersed through the film. These are heard in sound only – we do not see those who speak. For example, Leeson highlights the harsh life of one tenement family with eight kids, but while we hear the mother’s voice, we never see her, except from a distance. This is a big drawback in a film which aims to get close to the way of life that is being destroyed. The commentary, voiced by the Liverpool comic and linguist Peter Maloney, is, I think, another drawback. Maloney adopts, for the most part, the precise articulation of Queen’s English, occasionally breaking into scouse when describing the fortitude of the people in the community, and their antipathy towards the ‘Corpy’, the City Council.
This is the ‘us and them’ divide that Leeson sets out to delineate: working class residents eke out an existence in run-down, poorly maintained Victorian-style council tenements, while the Corpy’s planners and politicians set about modernising the city. Leeson stresses the contrast between the Scottie Road community and the remote decision makers who had such a drastic effect on their lives:
The authorities (‘Them’) have cared for the more prosperous and articulate members of the city … Will children from these communities have the same opportunities as children from the richer neighbourhoods? … For them the planner is someone who tears down buildings. … Leaders are needed that come from the communities themselves, not just professionals…
The decision to site the second Mersey Tunnel entrance north of the city centre rather than in the more prosperous areas to the south Leeson attributes to the Council’s reluctance to antagonise the articulate suburban middle-class householders of south Liverpool.
Too frail to attend the screening, Leeson sent this message to accompany the film:
I was privileged to be able to contribute at that crucial time and I hope that “Us & Them” records the devastating effects of what amounted to an attack on a strong working class community. I discovered evidence that the community was held in contempt by the “authorities” charged with its care and betterment. History tells us how the local people fought back and continue to do so. There have been notable victories, but much has been lost and deprivation is still high.
Regeneration is an ambitious word! It implies that the community must be listened to, involved and have their needs addressed. Including workers , unemployed, women, men, the disabled, the elderly , children etc. Priorities will differ – safety, access to:- work, training and education, family help and child care, community and leisure facilities, affordable shops and services etc. This must include those who don’t usually participate. All must be accommodated.
The physical environment is not just about traffic, or number of houses built. Sustainability and affordability of the existing homes and built environment must be assessed and taken into account. Design should be of high standard, endurable, capable of adaption, energy efficient and appropriate to the context. Consideration of accessibility should include public transport, the pedestrian environment and disabled access.
These are not easy tasks and require relevant training and co-operation between agencies in all sectors and at all levels; but without this approach we are simply rebuilding (usually for private profit) not regenerating. (Contrast, for example, the rebuilding in the South dockland areas with the needs of adjacent Toxteth.)
In a discussion following the screening, some who had lived through the events portrayed in the film were critical of its limitations, especially the way in which it gives voice to a certain quietism, articulated in the gently calming words of the parish priest who suggests that deprivation, poverty and hardship are facts of life which the people of the area have adapted to with fortitude and cheerfulness.
In fact, the removal of inner-city communities to the outer council estates and ‘overspill’ towns such as Kirkby and Skelmersdale generated resistance, leading to mounting opposition to the environmental and social impacts of large scale slum clearances and the ravaging of communities to make way for urban motorways. As a consequence, most of Liverpool’s planned urban motorway was never built, and the M62, rather than ploughing through the city to the waterfront, now ends abruptly beneath the last flyover to be built in the city.
In that sense, Nick Broomfield’s first film Who Cares, made in 1971, is a better film, documenting not only the trauma of slum clearance, but also the isolation, bleakness and lack of social facilities in the new tower blocks and outer council estates. His next film, Behind the Rent Strike (1974), angrily voices working class resistance, documenting a fourteen month long rent strike mounted by council tenants on the Tower Hill estate in Kirkby in a protest against increases in council house rents.
In the discussion following the screening of Us and Them, several people made the point that the changes which have affected Liverpool and its people reflect the way in which global capitalism has evolved in the last 50 years or so. In 1965, making the case for the urban motorway network, Liverpool City Council could still boast that:
Liverpool is Britain’s second port handling 25% by value of the nation’s trade. It is a major marketing, industrial, transport and cultural centre and is of key importance to the social and economic well being of a widespread hinterland extending from North Wales to the Lake District and from the Irish Sea to the Pennine Uplands.
Within a decade of that confident prognostication, Liverpool was to suffer a remarkable economic and demographic decline. The port declined, and with it dockside employment. Once central to the trading routes between the industrial north of England and important markets across the Atlantic, Liverpool found itself, quite simply, on the wrong side of the country: on the periphery of an increasingly integrated European economy which had become Britain’s biggest market. The deindustrialisation of the British economy, brought about by reductions in demand for traditional products and intensifying competition as the process of globalisation intensified, eliminated what little there was of an industrial base in Liverpool. The easy employment and social stability of the sixties became a thing of the past.
Others who contributed to the discussion remarked on the similarities between the clearances documented in Peter Leeson’s film and the impact of the Labour government’s Pathfinder housing renewal programme. They said that said the programme had left many areas of Liverpool – especially around Anfield, Kensington, Princes Park, and Lodge Lane-Smithdown Road – looking like ‘war zones’ where housing due to be demolished has been left empty. The schemes were brought in to encourage developers to choose sites in run-down areas ahead of more affluent spots, thereby stimulating the local market. But, as in the clearances of the 1960s, the good came down with the bad, houses have been left boarded up and unusable, and people forced to leave neighbourhoods where they would rather stay. Things weren’t helped when the programme was withdrawn halfway through its planned course.
Kensington was one of the worst-affected areas: ironically a virtual re-run of the circumstances of Peter Leeson’s film, with hundreds of homes demolished to make way for the widening of Edge Lane (above) in a watered-down version of the plan, abandoned in the seventies, to extend the M62 into the heart of the city (this time as a dual carriageway). Earlier this year, scouser Alexei Sayle wrote in The Observer:
I took part in the campaign to try to save 371 repairable homes in the Edge Lane district, from a road-widening scheme connecting the city centre with the M62. Unfortunately, the new Labour council has pushed the plan through and as I drove up at Christmas I was greeted with rubble where a decent community had once been. The new homes that will replace the dignified Victorian houses are of a gruesomely banal design, which even the government’s design adviser, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, has criticised.
My experience is that today many things are better in Liverpool. … It is just such a shame that there has been no holistic solution to the problems of post-industrialisation in the city, and so many neighbourhoods on the edge of the centre remain abandoned, tinned-up and waiting for regeneration cash that will now never arrive.
In 2011, SAVE Britain’s Heritage published a devastating report on the impact of the Pathfinder programme in Liverpool. In May that year SAVE bought 21 Madryn Street in the Welsh Streets, one of the areas affected, in an effort to thwart council plans to demolish the house and hundreds around it. In June this year, the City Council managed to secure government funding to save about 32 houses in the Welsh Streets, including 9 Madryn Street, Ringo Starr’s childhood home.
As for the Vauxhall area, residents there now feel, as one contributor to the discussion put it, that they live in Liver-Peel, referring to the massive Liverpool Waters development of the adjoining North Docks by Peel Holdings. Despite the threat of the city losing its UNESCO World Heritage Site status as a consequence, the City Council planning committee has renewed its support for the plan. The scheme aims to regenerate the derelict dockland sites of the Vauxhall area by building 9,000 apartments, offices, hotels, bars and a cruise terminal. Controversially, the project also includes plans for a 55-storey tower. Peel Holdings has faced objections ever since its first proposals in 2007, with English Heritage arguing that the plan ‘largely fails to harness what is special about this important historic site’.
In March, Peter Kilfoyle, former Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, wrote in the Liverpool Echo:
There is a … consolidation of economic power illustrated by the rise and rise of Peel Holdings headed up by Isle of Man-based John Whittaker. When Peel took over Liverpool Airport, it began a period of expansion for a previously underrated local resource. Next, Peel took over the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, giving it a virtual monopoly on the banks of the Mersey.
When the government set up the Local Enterprise Partnership to determine Merseyside’s economic strategy, a Peel representative was put on a board heavily dominated by businessmen. Then, another Peel executive was added to the LEP as chairman – Manchester-based Robert Hough.
Peel itself set up two massive development areas, dominating Wirral and Liverpool. These include plans for the equivalent of 140 tower blocks of flats in its Liverpool development alone. Given the huge number of empty flats already in the city, these plans seem an extraordinarily confident view of Liverpool’s future population expansion.
Enterprise Zone status has been given by government to Peel’s sites. That means huge tax breaks, funded by the taxpayer. However, Peel’s plans stretch ahead for decades – who knows what will be the case in 40 years time? The question is: what happens when its ownership is passed or sold on? Those decisions are not those of Merseysiders but of big money people based in London or overseas.
What price, then, is accountability – and to whom?
While Robin Brown wrote on the Seven Streets blog:
Peel’s plans detail apartments, office space and enormous leisure complexes on a ‘build it and they will come’ basis; but will they? Is there anything to suggest that the North West needs another gigantic business/leisure hub? What is the likelihood of the local unemployed finding their way into the labour forces? What is the demand for private apartments on a stretch of coastline so exposed to the elements that there’s a wind farm a mile up the road? I have no answer to these questions, but nor does anyone else. Either way, it is right to ask them. What’s more, Peel says that the Liverpool Waters project may take 50 years to build. 50 years…
Brown argued that we should think very carefully what the World Heritage Status means to Liverpool:
It’s not just an empty vanity badge … it’s the best remaining check against the unfettered, uncaring development of Liverpool’s city centre and waterfront. Without it, the city centre becomes a plaything of the developers – and there’s plenty of evidence in the city centre of what happens when private developers and architects get their own way. … business in Liverpool actively wants the World Heritage Status gone, Liverpool Waters or no. The redevelopment of the north docks is a handy hobby horse to galvanise feeling against UNESCO and the waterfront’s World Heritage listing.
In a long and thoughtful survey of Liverpool’s changing economic and social fortunes in New Statesman magazine in July, Ed Platt noted that Peel Holdings and the city’s new mayor, Joe Anderson, claim that the expanse of derelict docks and warehouses stretching between Pier Head and Seaforth has the same potential as Canary Wharf, yet, he wrote:
it is hard to see where the shops and businesses to fill the development will come from. It seemed to me that Peel was proposing a boom town without a boom, hoping to inspire economic revival by constructing offices and shops for which there is no demand.
- Video of Marie McGiveron of Vauxhall Neighbourhood Council speaking on Us and Them.
- Mapping the City inFilm: a geo-historical analysis by Liverpool School of Architecture and Department of Communication and Media
- Liverpool: a city on screen: after London, Liverpool is Britain’s most filmed city. BFI celebration.
- Photos of the Vauxhall area by Peter Leeson: taken during the filming of Us and Them in 1969-70
- Old Everton and Scottie Road Maps
- Old Everton and Scottie Road photographs
- Pathfinder’s Shameful Legacy Exposed: devastating critique by SAVE Britain’s Heritage
- The Welsh Streets Before and After Pathfinder: photographic evidence
- The spirit of Scouse: a great port grappling with the forces of recession (New Statesman, July 2012)