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Liverpool: Governance, Growth And Going (Somewhere)

October 15, 2007

Abrupt curtailment of the 2007 Mathew Street Festival, silly ideas about removing fish so the docks become a concert arena, questions about preparations for the Big Year. Liverpool 2008 is a drama unto itself. The leading arts venues have devised a pretty good cultural programme for European Capital of Culture Year, but concerns about what else needs to be done remain…. There’s a jolly good row going on in Liverpool just now.

The minority Labour Group on the City Council wants an independent review of the 2007 Mathew Street Festival – not to mention an explanation for the recent Sir Paul and the Fish fiasco – whilst the ruling LibDem Group so far appears content to receive a previewed Mathew Street report from their own officers.

Costs and concerns
This furious debate concerns the abrupt cancellation of the international Mathew Street Festival as an outdoor event, and questions about hundreds of thousands of pounds apparently expended on a now-abandoned plan to stun (and remove to claimed safety) the piscine inhabitants of one of Liverpool’s splendid docks, before draining it to create an arena for Paul McCartney’s much trumpeted appearance in the city during the 2008 European Capital of Culture year.
Given such corporate Who Dunnit dramatics, one might well ask whether professional entertainers are required at all.

Liverpool life as theatre
But of course there’s more than this to add into the ever-changing theatre which constitutes the City of Liverpool. In less than one hundred days (as I write) the momentous 2008 will be upon us.
And, to be fair, some excellent cultural events have now been announced for the year. We are to have Klimt at the Tate, Simon Rattle with the Berliner Philharmoniker (and later with the RLPO, as a member of which he began his career), adventurous programming from the Everyman and Playhouse, the Turner Prize, the Anne Frank Exhibition and much else.
It’s a huge relief that these events have been secured; many were afraid we were about to have a ‘cultureless’ European Year of Culture, with all the embarrassment that would bring.

Culture and leadership
But, perhaps as at this stage in other cities who have been through the Year of Culture experience, there remains continuing concern about how it all fits, and who’s in charge.
There seems little convincing evidence those being paid the most (who some say are departing in droves) have brought the most to the cultural agenda. That was very largely done by the individual arts organisations.
And this brings us to the big question: What’s it for? And which of our white, male hegemony of leaders is going (or able) to tell us?

Bringing in the real world
One place where we can begin to find answers is the Grosvenor (Liverpool One) development. This 17 ha mixed use site in the heart of the city centre has an investment value of £920m and will be completed in 2008. It is almost entirely privately funded and has a huge emphasis on retail and leisure.
Leading this venture is the sharply focused Rodney Holmes, a man who knows a challenge when he sees one. Unflappable and consistently approachable, Holmes is nonetheless ready when events so demand to articulate his requirements.
Recently, these demands included specific actions for the preparation of Liverpool for its year of glory (and, as it happens, the opening of the Grosvenor venture) – demands also supported by Jim Gill, the respected CEO of city-centre regeneration company Liverpool Vision, who now chairs the Countdown Group to deliver what is required.

Past or future?
Slowly, then, the cultural and commercial components of Liverpool’s future are falling into place. But it would be hard to give full credit to city leaders in all this. Rather, it feels that individual elements of the visible fabric of the city have taken things into their own hands and, in the end, just got on with it.
And this is perhaps the problem. Whilst those with vision look to the future, the official powers-that-be continue to hark on about the Beatles and Scouse (a traditional hotpot meal or a dialect, depending on context). Scouse and the Beatles are both in their different ways attractive elements of our heritage for visitors and residents alike, but can they take us forward?

Leadership and local understandings
Whilst the heritage elements of Liverpool life still resonate with many Liverpudlians, fewer feel any warmth towards the great cultural events and enterprise opportunities which 2008 presents.
There is a failure of leadership, an unwillingness to articulate ambition and opportunity, which it seems cannot be shaken off. Frequent cries by the local citizenry that ‘all this is fine, but it’s not for me’, meet only with reassurance that there will ‘also’ be things for ‘the community’ (as there surely will).
Missing is head-on challenge to the notion that excellent formal culture and serious enterprise are somehow not for ‘ordinary people’.

Involving the people
Grosvenor’s Liverpool One has a significant community engagement programme. All the flagship cultural organisations have their versions of the same. How do these fit into the greater scheme of things? Where are the cultural and entrepreneurial horizons and ambition? The missing link is our civic leaders.
There’s no longer any civic mileage in The Beatles’ When I’m Sixty Four. Paul McCartney is now older than that. And Scouse is a matter of minor gastronomic / historical interest but hardly the whole story in a city which aims through Liverpool One shortly to offer the full five stars for its more affluent cultural and business visitors.

Exclusion zones?
Whilst some in Liverpool 8 (Toxteth) still believe, or feel comfortable declaring, that the city centre is a ‘no-go’ area for people of colour, whilst those in the outer zones continue to claim total invisibility, whilst the roles of education and enterprise are seen as so irrelevant by so many, Liverpool’s resurgence remains painfully fragile.
Tempting as for some it may be to lay blame here or there for this state of affairs, blame takes us nowhere. It’s action which will do the trick.

Courage to change
We need leaders who seek out and actively nurture Liverpool’s diversity in talent and persona;
leaders who proudly proclaim they personally attend and enjoy the best of our cultural offerings formal and informal, and they want everyone else to as well;
leaders who have the courage to explain that heritage is precious but also that sometimes things need to change;
leaders who see the fit between culture and knowledge, who value Biotech and Beethoven as much as the Beatles;
and leaders, most importantly of all, who understand the fundamental difference between ‘disloyalty’ to a city and serious citizen engagement in the on-going debate.
Change of this sort cannot be achieved by default or vague sentimental aspiration. It requires deep focus, a core shift in the culture of our city. And it requires absolutely no more silliness involving, say, festival financial fiascos or stunned fish and Macca.

The cabbie is correct
One takes the views of cab drivers with a pinch of salt. But my driver yesterday was spot on. Liverpool’s buzzing at the moment, he opined. But what will it be like in 2009?

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