From the Euston Arch to the Liverpool WHS: Loving & Hating Industrial Heritage

Albert Docks, Liverpool

2021 has seen a number of high-profile losses and demotions of industrial heritage sites. The last standing element of the Ironbridge Coal-fired power station, the chimney, was demolished in September. Also in the same month, the four remaining chimneys at the Stewartby brickworks in Bedford were demolished. Whilst at the end of September the Dorman Long brutalist-style concrete coal bunker on Teeside was demolished in a highly unusual move at night, having been listed and then within days de-listed the week before. Coming after the loss of World Heritage Site status for the Liverpool Waterfront in July, it can feel as if industrial heritage is under attack in England.

Such an impression is further emphasised by the comments of the Teeside mayor, Ben Houchen, who is quoted in the local and national press as saying about the Dorman Long coal bunker: ‘our heritage does not lie in a rotting coal bunker, our heritage lies in the people that built this great region. It lies in the structures that stand tall across the world, from the Shard to Sydney Harbour Bridge and One World Trade Centre.’ The irony in this statement is that not only can most of the local community not travel the globe to see these ‘locally made’ products, but it also reduces the argument to one of the value of architectural beauty, presenting an elitist, exclusive, and top-down, approach to heritage.

Amongst these losses, that of World Heritage Site (WHS) status for Liverpool has had the highest profile and is the one that will have the longest impact internationally, the saga becoming a case study for differing approaches to urban industrial heritage conservation for decades to come. The city of Liverpool was inscribed as a world heritage site in July 2004 due to its global role as a commercial port at the height of Britain’s global empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, and its role in the slave trade. UNESCO called it ‘The supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain’s greatest global influence’.

The WHS extended along the Mersey waterfront including Albert Dock and The Pier Head, through to Stanley Dock in the north, and encompassed William Brown Street, the historical commercial districts, and the Rope Walks area. Yet it was placed on the danger list for world heritage in 2012 by UNESCO because of the building of the Mann Island development (which partially obscured views of The Three Graces on the waterfront), the city’s plans for development around the edges of the WHS including the Liverpool Waters development, and the city’s lack of a management plan for the WHS. Then mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson argued that the WHS ‘heritage status should not stifle growth in the city’. In 2018 Liverpool retained its status as world heritage site, with the promise of a management plan detailing measures to protect the ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ of the site. However, in 2019 UNESCO were concerned that building within the buffer zone of the world heritage site had not halted and warned that continue new build within the boundary could lead to Liverpool losing its WHS status. Finally, in the summer of 2021 World Heritage Site status was removed because of perceived irreversible damage to the Outstand Universal Value and Integrity of the WHS and the perceived in ability of the City and UK Government to protect the WHS from further redevelopment.

The Mann Island development looming over the Albert Docks and hiding the Three Graces, Liverpool

The final straw was the granting of planning permission by Liverpool City Council to Everton Football Club for a new football stadium at Bramley-Moores dock (a scheme opposed by Historic England), part of the Liverpool Waters development along and within the northern edge of the WHS. This was a project praised nationally by Civic Voice for its inclusion of the local community in the design and planning process, but which saw a vicious online social media campaign led by a small minority of football ‘supporters’ against anyone who thought it was a bad idea to save the ‘pile of old bricks’ that was the dock and Liverpool’s WHS status. The Bramley-Moore development highlights the failure of UNESCO, the UK Government, and Liverpool City to reach out to the local community about the value and importance of the World Heritage Site to Liverpool as a global city. It also underlines the dichotomy between the static preservation needs of a World Heritage Site as outlined by UNESCO guidance and the need of a city to continue to evolve in order to remain socially and economically viable. The conclusion to draw here might be that preserving industrial heritage in an urban context is impossible, yet the 50 plus years of industrial heritage conservation elsewhere in the UK shows that this is clearly not the case.

So how can we change such anti-industrial heritage attitudes? The history of industrial archaeology and heritage shows that strongly held anti-heritage views by individual local politicians and business interests are unlikely to be changed in the short term. Industrial archaeology and heritage in the UK has a long history of being controversial beginning with the demolition of the Euston Arch in 1962, signed off by the Prime Minister of the day in order to enable the rebuilding of the Euston Railway terminal station. Projects such as the re-use of Battersea Power station, The Baltic in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Shrewsbury Flax Mill all show how industrial heritage can be a catalyst for the regeneration and renewal of local communities and neighbourhoods. Furthermore, a study by Historic England in 2020 has shown that the heritage sector is worth, directly, £14.7 billion annually and supports 206,000 jobs, with a further 355,223 jobs supported indirectly to the value of £23.3billion.

Engagement with local groups and individuals can make local differences in the long term. The promotion of protection through national legislation and guidance (the local listing initiative in England being a recent example from 2021) is a major factor in the existence of c. 600 protected industrial heritage sites in England, and a further 200 similar sites in Scotland and Wales, all open and accessible to the public. Politicians come and go but the argument around the re-use of buildings, and industrial structures in particular, continues to shift in favour of retention, repurposing, and re-use. The Architecture Journal backed the re-use of built structures as the norm in July 2021, whilst the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) estimates that 35% of the lifecycle carbon from a typical office development is emitted before the new building is even opened and that figure for new residential premises rises to 51%.–built-environment-november-2017.pdf Historic England and the AIA have been promoting re-use of industrial buildings for decades, of course, along with their value to local communities and the local economy. These viewpoints acknowledge that industrial structures need to be allowed to evolve and need to be given a purpose in order to survive in the 21st century. That is an approach that is lacking in the UNESCO World Heritage Site guidance for dealing with urban sites.

The arguments about Liverpool’s WHS future from 2012 to 2021 were presented as a binary choice: heritage or progress, just as it was for the future of the Dorman Long tower and the Stewartby chimneys. Yet evidence gathered across Britain during the 21st century , by architects, industrial archaeologists, heritage professionals, and local communities actively re-using industrial buildings, demonstrates that you can and should have both.


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