Today’s disclosure of Cabinet papers under the 30 year rule reveal that Tory ministers tried to persuade Msrgaret Thatcher to write off Liverpool after the 1981 riots and abandon it a process of ‘managed decline’. In the interests of fairness, Geoffrey Howe now says he ‘can’t remember’ saying this and Thatcher didn’t actually agree to it, although she didn’t give Heseltine – a classic Tory wet, who believed in state intervention, where are they all now? – anything like the resources he reckoned he needed to do the job. (And as someone said in response to Howe saying he can’t remember, that’s why we have Cabinet minutes – to remind him!)
I was at university in Liverpool from 1983-86, chosen on the basis that Echo and the Bunnymen were from there so it was the next best thing to Manchester who wouldn’t let me do Russian from scratch. I wasn’t aware at the time that such decisions are perhaps made on slightly more serious grounds. I wanted to be in the North West and I wanted to study Russian (because the NME said in its review of Still Ian Curtis wrote ‘The Kill’ about Crime and Punishment and Magazine’s “Song from Under the Floorboards” was lifted from Notes from the Underground) so that was that.
The city back then looked like it had just been through the Blitz. There were crumbling tower blocks with what looked like only one flat per floor inhabited, with their washing airing outside, the rest with broken or boarded up windows and balconies half-hanging off. Rows of terraced houses were the same, one family living in the midst of dereliction. Peering through the doorways or into the basements of the terraces in Toxteth you coud see piles of rubbish, old mattresses, as if they’d once been squatted but were now too far gone and rat-infested even for that. Once on the way into uni I remember being convinced I could see a dead body amidst the basement squalor, sprawled on a dirty
mattress, and lingering for ages, not knowing what to do about it. I didn’t do anything in the end, thinking it was just my imagination, fuelled by too many books and records from the dark side.
There were also immense areas of wasteland, even in the city centre, where buildings had at least been demolished but no-one wanted to build anything. Coming from the South of England – albeit a grubby industrial town which wasn’t very southern at all, except for its location – this was something I’d never seen before. Space is always at a premium in the south, every last bit has something squeezed onto it or into it. But even now, thirty years later, after an amazing
transformation, there is still space in Liverpool.
The regeneration of Liverpool has been amazing, and Heseltine – who emerges from today’s Guardian story as something of a hero – has to be given some credit for that. I think I’m right in saying that after the next wave of riots, in 1984, he was given more of the support he needed, and the Merseyside Development Corporation played a major role in kickstarting the process of regeneration.
When I was in Liverpool for Labour conference this year, which was the first time I’d gone back since leaving uni, I spoke at a Centre for Cities breakfast fringe, and the representatives from Liverpool there said that although the regeneration now is primarily private sector-led, it couldn’t have happened without the public sector playing an early role. This was also something I observed in Shanghai when I was there before Christmas. Yes, it’s the huge corporations and the glossy retailers that dominate the landscape, but it was the State that built the eight-lane highways and the Metro and put the utilities in place, and, in many cases, gave the companies the land for free, or at a knock-down price. There is no such thing as a purely private sector-led recovery, despite what this Government would have you think. They abhor ‘big government’ and in abolishing the Regional Development Agencies they ignore what the history of Liverpool tells us, that state
intervention and political leadership are absolutely essential.
Here’s the Guardian article… interesting how many Tories on Twitter are rushing to say ‘but she didn’t do it, did she?’ as proof of Thatcher’s good-heartedness. Well if you read the piece you’ll see that Heseltine was begrudgingly given a pittance of the money he reckoned he needed. They probably thought he was empire building, but I think he was absolutely genuine in his approach on this. And I can think of many other ways in which the Thatcher government abandoned the North (its industrial strategy, laissez-faire approach to unemployment, blinkered focus on the service sector) so I’m not giving any credit where no credit is due.