About twenty years ago ‘they’ decided to build a shopping complex in the middle of Liverpool. I say ‘complex’ because in its size Liverpool ONE refuses the more geographically definitive term ‘centre’. At 42 acres it is the largest, privatised, retail-dedicated land mass in Europe.
Imagine dropping a nuke that produces shopping and you are on the right track.
Regeneration / Degeneration
When it was being built in the early 2000s, Liverpool ONE was widely understood to be a catalyst for the overall regeneration of the city. Finally, some attention was being paid to Liverpool after a fraught and battered century of ‘benign neglect’ courtesy of Thatcher.
Critics of the project pointed out how this was a pale substitute for the city’s once thriving manufacturing and port industries. They also said that land privatisation changed the rules of the game, that it alters the ways in which people are allowed to exist in what was previously public space. Essentially, spaces such as this turn us from citizens to consumers, and anyone who lacks the capacity to buy stuff has no business existing.
I agree with these points.
But in a vacuum of government instigated dereliction this project was the beacon of jobs and growth, and theoretical points such as this could hardly stand up against the desperate facts- literal starvation and (through the 1980s) an out-migration rate of 25,000 a year (between 1951 and 2001 the population of Liverpool fell from 790,838 to 439,476 – a decline of over 44%).
The self-defeating opposition
As in much of the world, the Left in Liverpool has been destroying itself for a while now. A declining, socialist oriented model of public sector-led redevelopment has given way to billions in private investment and a focus on ‘culture’ as the city’s economic defibrillator.
The money has to come from somewhere. Between 2010 and 2020 central government revoked 64 per cent of the city’s budget. The council is being told to further reduce costs by £27 million per year, indefinitely. In order to keep basic public services running the city has to sell-off public land and assets.
That includes the area that is now Liverpool ONE.
But projects such as this are altered in the course of their ‘on the ground’ implementation. Liverpool ONE disrupts both ‘sides’ of the argument. It is neither a wholesale solution to the city’s woes, nor a fenced off dystopia. Pretty much anyone is allowed to wander into it.
A paradoxical development
The result is an endless, glittering festival of global inequality. People in sleeping bags line the doorways of Hugo Boss, Next, TKmaxx, etc. Outside Vodafone a short, bearded man aged 60 or so, dressed in a green suit, screams pop chart hits into a toy microphone. He’s there every single day, just screaming, and he doesn’t even ask for money. Nor does anyone move him along.
Grandchildren of the late industrial era take up their new roles as sales assistants, checkout workers, waitresses. Licensed buskers impersonate Ed Sheeran, demonstrating the opportunities our ‘creative city’ affords to youth. A blind man with a dog and an amplifier plays ‘rawhide’ on an electric guitar, which can be heard from a great distance.
These 42 acres are owned by a 29 year old billionaire called the 7th Duke of Westminster, the lawfully begotten heir of a position created by Queen Victoria in 1874. His real name is Hugh Grosvenor.
The Duke inherited Liverpool ONE, along with the entire Grosvenor Estates property empire and an estimated family wealth of £10.1 billion, when his father, Gerald, died in 2016. Harbouring one of the world’s oldest fortunes, Hugh Grosvenor is, according to Bloomberg, the third richest man in the U.K.
When the ‘Paradise Papers’ were leaked in 2017 they revealed how the Duke’s predecessors had pumped millions in dividends into secretive companies in Panama and Bermuda, but that’s another story.
Killing ‘Rave’ Culture
McDonalds. Liverpool ONE. Around 3am. Punters burgeon from all sides of the building while rough sleepers sag around in doorways, or patrol the outskirts of the throng in search of some change. These are the peak hours of the ‘night-time economy’ that has been structured largely by the alcohol lobby and its political allies.
Years of campaigning by the alcohol industry has resulted in licensing de-regulation and an increased share in the urban leisure market. Chains such as J.D. Wetherspoon’s, Slug and Lettuce, All Bar One, Bierkeller and Vodka Revolution dominate. Each of these compete to buy as many premises as they can, and keep them open for as long as possible.
Phil Hadfield, a researcher on the night-time economy, calls this “paradise lost”. The dominance of these chains comes at the expense of less alcohol-oriented activities and cultures. A particular danger, Hadfield writes, was an ascendant rave culture. This “eschewed alcohol and licensed premises in favour of soft drinks and spontaneous partying in warehouses, motorway service stations and the rural wilderness”.
Ever wary of a danger to profits, the alcohol lobby played its role in suppressing rave culture. This took place through legislation such as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which increased police powers against promoters and free party organisers.
Yet there was clearly a ‘market’ for dance culture. So rather than being snuffed out with a single legislative bullet, it was, Hadfield writes “safely corralled within licensed premises…sanitised, commercialised, and infused with an alien alcohol-oriented aesthetic”.
Alcohol to the rescue
The emergence of cheap and abrasive ‘pub-clubs’ (think Oceana, Mansion, Level and Krazyhouse) that offer 2 for 1 cocktails to students and hand out shots in the ‘garden’ are a result of this strange mixture of alcohol lobbying, de-regulation and regeneration.
Far from being a ‘Liverpool thing’, there is nothing specific or original in the corporate colonisation of the night time economy. But there is a deep and insidious connection between alcohol consumption, the ownership and structuring of city space, and the closing down of cultures that don’t fit within this template.