How Liverpool ONE Sold Us A Lie

Developers promised us a paradise. But after lockdown, with the rest of the city blazing with independent spirit, this wedge of town feels like a monument to broken promises.

by David Lloyd

When Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster’s international property business which owns most of our city centre, celebrated ten years of Liverpool ONE, it couldn’t have been more pleased with itself. 

The tills were ringing in Debenhams, Topshop were doing a brisk trade in skinny jeans, the mid-market restaurant bubble had yet to burst and no SARS virus had passed from a bat to a pangolin. Truly, these were halcyon days. 

“Our vision,” Grosvenor said in its self-congratulatory online post at the time, “to rejuvenate a city centre in a way that is sympathetic to its history… is probably the most successful project of the modern era”.

Funny how three years can feel like a lifetime ago. How it took a pandemic for us to see what’s been hidden in plain sight all along. Liverpool ONE is not, and never was, a “sympathetic” this or a “social benefit” that. It never was the realisation of Liverpool “gaining a new centre at its heart” whose “layout followed the existing street pattern, rather than building a hermetically sealed box”.

Liverpool ONE sold us a lie.

The scheme (for that’s what it is, a scheme - not a city centre) is cleft in two by the great charmless chasm of South John Street. But this is not a street. Not in any meaningful sense of the word. Not like Hope Street, Bold Street or New Brighton’s Victoria Street are streets. It’s an arse crack; devoid of life the moment the last dress is wrapped in Zara. 

Streets - real streets - have a vital energy flowing through them, whenever you visit. Even in the middle of the Covid pandemic Brighton’s Lanes, London’s Shoreditch, Manchester’s Northern Quarter, Edinburgh’s New Town or a thousand other city centres felt like places where you could wander, sit and depressurize. A tapestry of urban fabric that enhances the city they knit into. 

Somewhere. Not anywhere.

On the other hand, how many of us choose to wander down South John Street when the shops are closed? Parade past the chain restaurants of Paradise Street’s upper level? And who knows, even 13 years later, where Wall Street is? 

When Covid struck, we saw Liverpool ONE’s streets for what they really were. Shop units stuck together with cement and superlatives. Or, rather, we didn’t see them. Because if we’re not consuming, there is absolutely no reason at all for us to wander down them. None. 

No longer able to hide behind Grosvenor’s giddy rhetoric, it became clear to see South John Street for what it really is. A replicant in its death throes. Now, like tears in rain, Debenhams too has gone. And the masterplan doesn’t seem so masterly any more, does it?

“Far-sighted thinking” Grosvenor exclaimed on their site’s birthday celebrations. But I bet they didn’t see that one coming. They didn’t see that, 13 years later, Liverpool ONE’s aesthetic feels as anachronistic as those Essex barn Tescos of the 80s. 

They didn’t predict that city centres should offer a social infrastructure that’s deeper than a scatter of pianos and some flash mobs. That the rhythm of our lives has fundamentally changed. That the 15 minute city movement would crystalise our desires for city centres that promise real urban transformation. For everyone. Not just those about to shop. 

Of course, Covid has left deep scars that no-one could have predicted. And, of course, the team running Liverpool ONE has done a good job of animating what they were given (after all, they’re not the ones who built this ‘city’ of cliff walls and dead-ends).

Whereas three years ago the mood was of celebration and slaps on the back, now has to be the time to rethink our relationship with consumerism. But as the wise old sage said, if we want to get there, we really wouldn’t have started from here.

But here is where we find ourselves. Because Liverpool ONE has wiped away our history, and started the clock again. Tantalisingly, a slither of hope remains in that nexus of streets by Harvey Nichols. 

College Lane is just about the only place in the entire master plan that connects with the city’s past. Even some of its shop fronts are sandblasted survivors of what went before. And, tellingly, this is the most harmonious and enjoyable stretch of the entire place. Imagine people living here. Kids playing here. Independent businesses being able to afford to start here. The scale is right. The feel is right. Why? Because it’s the Liverpool we call home. 

There is no doubt that Liverpool ONE, by any financial metric, has been a huge success story. Grosvenor has doubtless made billions from it. Heck, they admit as much in their corporate love-fest of a site. 

We gave them our city. Now it’s time for them to really repay us. Easy to do when the tills are ringing, and the ROI is a home run. Harder to do when you’re in it for the long game, and the spoils are trickier to measure on a profit and loss spreadsheet. 

Look at Grosvenor’s website now and you’re hit with headlines like “business closes $300million of investment capital”, and “Grosvenor group signs £1.1billion syndicated multi-currency revolving credit facility”. This is the company that owns South John Street. Your streets and our streets. 

The company that grants you permission to sit on its manicured grass, and permits you to sing if it likes the sound of your voice. The company that plans a city based on algorithms, trends and focus groups. The company that built us a shopping mall, forgot to put a roof on it, and called it a city centre with real streets.

Can this also be the company that will reverse engineer Liverpool ONE to be a place where kindness (we love Mary Portas’ podcast The Kindness Economy), wellbeing and genuine inclusivity spark real, lasting regeneration? Metrics they’re championing in other, forward-thinking cities like Helsinki, Portland, and Melbourne: places that put people, hyper-localism, accessibility and livability first?

“We believe that Liverpool ONE has shown how the idea of place can be a driver for large scale, city centre urban regeneration,” Grosvenor says of its “regeneration built on a world-class line up of retail and leisure brands”.

Sorry, but that thinking is as out of time as it is out of place. That thinking is exactly why your billion-pound incursion comes with built-in obsolescence. 

What about regeneration built by us? The city’s food and drink scene is fired up with independents - look around the incredible restaurants dotted around Ropewalks and the Georgian Quarter, the DIY street food startups of the Baltic Triangle, the joyous riffs on world food and vegan grub around Smithdown and Lark Lane. When HMV, Lakeland or Ben Sherman leave because they can’t afford your rents, isn’t it time to think about seeding the city centre with start-ups that may become “world class retail and leisure brands” of their own one day? 

Isn’t it time to think about finding a way for real families to live here, rather than the transient population and absentee landlords of One Park West? Isn’t it time to admit the principles you built your city on are crumbling? That your empire is passing, as all empires do?

So thanks, Liverpool ONE, for your Apple and Victoria’s Secret, your LED Christmas tree and your ever-vigilant security. Thanks for the fast fashion and the artificial grass. The crated-in penguins dancing on ice for our entertainment. But while you were paying out your bonuses - dunno if you’ve noticed - but we’ve changed. 

We want a high street that makes our heart sing and make us feel connected to the city itself, not a monoculture of chains selling stuff we don’t need (and we can get online anway, without the added Q-Park tax.) We want accessibility and authenticity. Creativity and inclusivity. Everything we love about Liverpool.

And we want our streets back. 

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