It was a beleaguered profession which arrived in Liverpool last weekend for the annual Planning Summer School. We met beyond the iconic buildings and £multi-billion recent developments of the city centre, and the boarded up streets of Kensington’s stalled Housing Market Renewal Area, in the leafy surroundings of Hope University, a former teacher training college just up the hill from John Lennon’s childhood home of Mendips in Menlove Avenue. But despite the optimistically named Fresh Hope cafeteria and Eden lecture theatre expectations of paradise were in pretty short supply.
“Welcome to Summer School” we were told, “we now have a Planning minister who doesn’t believe in planning and an Environment minister who doesn’t believe in climate change.” And before long other speakers were expressing their frustration about being positioned between the Nimbyism of the National Trust and the Daily Telegraph and a Government that continues to want to blame every economic ill it can’t pin on Eurozone dithering squarely on them. And the audience felt the same. The loudest outbreak of spontaneous applause was reserved for a rebuke to Steve Quartermain, the Government’s chief planner, that the changes to the English Planning system which he was presiding over put our nation a distant third in a three horse race with Scotland and Wales.
So after 48 intensive hours on campus it was good to get out on the summer school institution of the Sunday afternoon study visit. And in my case it was on the short journey through the Mersey tunnel to Wirral Waters – the total re-imagining of the redundant Birkenhead docks which is now the country’s largest regeneration project.
Birkenhead is in truth an unlikely place for such ambition. Past big ideas on that side of the river have tended to dash themselves to pieces on the rocks of location. John Laird’s initial aspiration to create the north west’s answer to Edinburgh new town got no further than the (admittedly beautiful) Birkenhead Park and Hamilton Square. The rest of his grid of broad streets is occupied not by elegant Georgian facades, but by two up-two downs, industrial yards and boarded up pubs.
And on the other side of the docks the attempt to establish a rival to the Prince Regent’s favourite watering-place at New Brighton has lost its tower, its football league team and its pier, and the site of the famous lido on the promenade is now home to a Morrison’s superstore.
So Wirral Waters is but the latest attempt to emerge from the shadow of Liverpool. And boy is it big. A core of towers in excess of 50 storeys high will give Birkenhead, currently overwhelmingly a two storey town, a skyline to rival Shanghai, creating somewhere in excess of 20,000 jobs in the process. And the 13,000 homes proposed on the site will be around one and a half times the number to be built on the Olympic Park in east London.
The developers behind the scheme are Peel Holdings, the people who brought you Salford Quays. They bought the site from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board in 2006, and secured a planning permission four years later. I think it is fair to say that the market has changed a wee bit since they started, but are they downhearted? No they are not. “It’s a 30 year project and we always said we could expect to go through two recessions during that time” they told us, and they have enthusiastically spent millions on consultancy fees already. But even so the next couple of years will be limited to some pretty small scale building while they try and get the big boys interested.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I like to get out on foot and talk to people to find out how the development might be viewed on the ground. But on this occasion I didn’t get the chance. We were ferried round the area in a coach and repeatedly told how keen all the locals were on the idea. Now of course this may well be true, but anyone who has read Dom Joly’s excellent book “The Dark Tourist” will recognise this as the North Korean approach to information management. Indeed I was half expecting to see a statue of Kim Jong Il in the middle of Hamilton Square, surrounded by participants in a “re-education programme” trimming the grass with nail scissors.
They had even arranged the weather. It rained heavily most of the afternoon, and this made it “unattractive” to conduct the promised walking tour. I did escape the watchful eye of the guards briefly in New Brighton, by which time it was coming down in stair-rods. As Matjomane Mamokete, the summer school delegate from Witwatersrand University in South Africa pointed out to us, back home she wouldn’t have found this a problem. She would simply have bought an umbrella from one of the street traders who would have surrounded the coach as people got off. Our more regulated economy made this rather difficult, particularly at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon.
But my sodden stroll along the front did give me a chance to get my bearings and try to decide if Wirral Waters will ever be realised in anything like its proposed form. And it might actually depend on what happens to Peel’s Liverpool Waters proposal across the Mersey. This has proved far more controversial, with UNESCO threatening to withdraw World Heritage Site status from the Liverpool waterfront if it goes ahead. If plans for Liverpool end up being scaled down, the Birkenhead site might find itself in an undisputed pole position for the next phase of Merseyside regeneration.
After all, although it might look inaccessible from the viewpoint of the Liverpool Pier Head, Birkenhead is only five minutes away on the Mersey Rail underground, and the views will be absolutely spectacular. On a clear day you should be able to see the whole coastline from Llandudno to Morecambe Bay from the top of the tallest tower. But even so, for what is among the most ambitious regeneration projects Britain has ever seen it isn’t well connected.
I was at summer school to reprise my walk along the route of HS2. And after my half hour of scepticism the very next session heard a developer’s view that only HS3, 4, 5 and 6 would kick start the British property market, and that we needed to get them all completed in a decade. Like the Chinese would. So on this basis perhaps an HS2 spur, running parallel to the existing M53 motorway, might be the catalyst needed to get Wirral Waters going.
The only residential regeneration in the docks so far is the conversion of two Victorian grain warehouses in the East Float to apartments (which you can glimpse through the coach window on the picture accompanying this post). The hardy “urban adventurers” who are moving in must be the best part of a mile from the nearest house, or for that matter anything else they might want. In fact the whole place cannot but draw comparisons with the history of the Olympic Park site. Planning Summer School ended with an inspirational presentation from Vivienne Ramsey of the Olympic Delivery Agency about how planners delivered the Park, to send the delegates away in a more positive frame of mind. But of course Stratford’s High Speed Rail line also helped secure the games.
I remain profoundly agnostic about the overall strategic case for HS2, but if it is to be built shouldn’t England’s biggest regeneration project get a slice of the action? A spur through Cheshire to the Wirral and Liverpool would not only put Merseyside on an equal footing with Manchester, but for once would put Birkenhead a few minutes nearer London than its neighbour over the water. And that might mean that this time its dreams will come true.