UNESCO walk alone

By Perry Miller

I have to admit that, until yesterday, I was fully unaware that ‘Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City’ was a UNESCO World Heritage site, up there with the likes of Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China. One of 32 such sites in the UK, it had won this accolade thanks to the city’s history as a once-great commercial port, with a rich architectural backdrop.

Well, no more apparently: a secret vote by UNESCO’s Committee yesterday saw the city stripped of its title and, by this morning, Liverpool’s page on the World Heritage List website had been crossed out by the editor’s digital pen. The planned redevelopment of the northern docks, including recent approval for Everton’s £500 million new stadium, was a step too far for the Committee which said that it had resulted in a ‘serious deterioration’ of the site.

A disappointed heritage campaigner observed on the BBC News last night that the title had put Liverpool ‘up there with the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids’. Was that really the ambition? That surely does the city a disservice: Liverpool today is a vibrant, multi-cultural city that isn’t ready to be frozen in aspic. It’s forging a brilliant new identify for itself, one that recognises its heritage but isn’t in awe of it to the point of paralysis. The mayor of Liverpool, Joanne Anderson, accused UNESCO of wanting the waterfront to ‘remain a derelict wasteland’.

The northern docks have lain derelict for decades, inaccessible and crumbling – the bits that you crop out before you post the classic waterfront image on your Insta feed.  Liverpool Waters is a £5.5 billion regeneration project, one of the largest in Europe, that will see more than 2 km of the northern waterfront repurposed, providing homes, retail, leisure facilities and public realm on disused brownfield land.

As Steve Rotherham, Liverpool City Region mayor put it: ‘Places like Liverpool should not be faced with the binary choice between maintaining heritage status or regenerating left-behind communities and the wealth of jobs and opportunities that come with it.’

It’s estimated that 31,000 jobs have been lost in the Liverpool city region tourism sector due to the pandemic and what was a £5 billion industry in 2019 had shrunk by more than half in 2021.  It isn’t a title that is going to turn this around, it’s regeneration, investment and a sense of the new. It’s through reinvention that Liverpool has sustained itself over the centuries: from an 18th century port that once helped process 40% of the world’s trade, via a city whose wealth in the 19th century regularly exceeded that of London, to a 20th century mecca for fans of music and the beautiful game. The 21st century has to be defined by a further transformation.

And that’s what brings the crowds and makes Liverpool the fifth most visited destination by overseas visitors (when we actually have any).  A history and a culture that interests us all, from our own unique perspectives. 

‘A certificate on the wall’ is how the former mayor, Joe Anderson, described World Heritage status. I think he’s right: we all gave it a passing glance, but it was never the main event.