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This metamorphosis was the topic of a panel featuring key people who helped that change happen.
Nicolas Boys-Smith, interim chair of the Government’s Office for Place and founder of Create Streets, chaired a discussion with Lord Heseltine; Mark Preston, chief executive of Grosvenor; Claire McColgan MBE, director of Culture, Liverpool City Council; Zoe Davison, partner at Deloitte, and guest panellist, Sophie Bevan, director of development for major projects, Liverpool City Council.
When 162 million people tuned in to the dazzling spectacle of this year's 67th Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool on behalf of Ukraine, they were watching another pivotal moment in the rebirth of a leading UK city.
At the beginning of that journey was Lord Heseltine, who first came to the city in 1979 but whose work in the city in the 1980s would lead to him being dubbed ‘the minister for Merseyside’.
When the Toxteth riots occurred in 1981 he remembered discussing the Government’s response with then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. “[Whilst] a Tory government is going to be preoccupied by law and order… I said to Margaret, of course we must back the police… but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Will you let me [go] to listen to people talk? She said yes.
“I came here. I spent three weeks walking the streets, finding opportunities, and everyone knew what was wrong. No one had any confidence or ideas of what to do. At the end of the three weeks, I had a list of 30 things I was going to do.”
That list marked the start of change. The opening of the Tate Liverpool in 1988, in the fully refurbished Royal Albert Dock just seven years after the Toxteth riots was the standout project spearheaded by Lord Heseltine. It would mark the resurgence of the city as a tourist destination.
On the cusp of the new Millennium, 1999 became a key date in the city’s modern history for two reasons. First, Liverpool City Council put out the call for bids for Liverpool ONE – known as the Paradise Project - and also started their bid for the European Capital of Culture.
The Paradise Project was the council’s vision to take 42 acres of derelict brownfield land, to ‘provide a new face to Europe’.
There was concern amongst some in the council leadership that there would be no takers. Mark Preston, chief executive of Grosvenor, says “There was a deep feeling nothing would [change], people had got dispirited and weighed down. But 47 developers expressed interest.”
The city was choked with ‘can’t do’, and ‘this won’t happen here’ attitude. People had lost faith in ever seeing change. “Once we started construction in 2004, and I was coming here every week, we had broken ground, were well underway, and I’d [be] stopped by people in the street who said, ‘oh, it’ll never happen’, And I said, ‘but it is happening’,” says Preston.
In her 30-year career, Claire McColgan CBE, director of culture, Liverpool City Council, has worked on everything from charities supporting getting youngsters from estates to securing the city’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008 and Eurovision in 2023.
“When we decided to bid for the European Capital of Culture, it was about wanting something to move the whole city forward in a positive way,” she says.
The city duly won, and it was staged in 2008, the year Liverpool ONE opened. But 2008 also marked the financial tsunami, “The deadline of the Capital of Culture was a focus in all of Grosvenor’s minds throughout the development. And delivering it faster cost us more to do it,” added Mark Preston.
“Did we get the wobbles? I can speak very personally on this because at this point, I was chief executive of the UK business that was responsible for making decisions on this.
“And there was no doubt in my mind that we needed to continue to complete as we intended. The late Duke (of Westminster), had promised the people of Liverpool we would deliver,” says Preston.
He adds: “It was my job to deliver what he said he wanted delivered.” Despite the huge financial cost, which Preston calls, ‘very painful for us’. It was a commitment that had been made to the people of Merseyside, and “it is a hallmark of Grosvenor that we keep to our word. We also had faith that, in the long term, that by delivering on the quality and not cutting corners it would stand the test of time.
“Consequently, it has proven to be a substantially good investment 15 years later. We knew history would be kinder to us if we stuck to our plans in what was a very difficult time financially.”
He adds: “What we didn’t deliver was a shopping centre in the centre of Liverpool with a hermetically sealed roof, plonked in… we [built] a reinvigorated streetscape.
“We delivered a heart of a city. And we continue to enjoy a good relationship with the city, and I hope we retain that close relationship.”
Economically, the impact of the destination cannot be overstated. “It transformed the [city core], that is now knitted into that retail environment and linked across to the waterfront,” says Zoe Davidson, partner at Deloitte.
Davidson hails the mixed-use development as, ‘the perfect project at the right time for Liverpool as a city, and the city region economy… it was a great meeting of minds, that’s paid dividends.’
She adds: “Seeing Liverpool ONE come through was, for us, the start of the trajectory we are still seeing today.”
Liverpool is the example of what can happen when a city regains its confidence and embraces opportunities. The cultural shift that started over forty years ago has not only shifted how the Liverpool thinks about itself but also the national perception of the city.
Sophie Bevan, director of development for major projects for Liverpool City Council, remains positive about future opportunities. “Where Liverpool was at the end of ’99, that vision and the aspiration for quality, and the commitment from the council generally, is where we are at now.”
For any future development, Preston advises that there should be a plan and a strategy: “Don’t chop and change because you’ll lose the faith that it won’t change again in six to nine months.”
With this attitude, Liverpool is set to keep on growing and developing, securing its place on the world stage for another four decades, with Grosvenor’s Liverpool ONE at its core.