PLACED at 10: Hope, Dreams and Dancing

For our third blog, we invited our good friend, the wonderful Dr Clare Devaney to share her insights into what she feels the priorities should be for our built environment over the next ten years from her personal perspective.

We were introduced, as Clare writes, through a mutual friend who recognised our shared passion for seeing Liverpool’s empty, derelict buildings being brought back into use. Not that they are really empty. They are packed full of memories and stories. But in their derelict state, they are doing little to address the many social and environmental challenges that we face today.

When we met, PLACED was in the early stages of developing an idea for the Hidden Liverpool project — a yearlong programme that used memories and stories of our empty buildings as a way of reimagining them for the future. Clare generously gave her time to support us in the writing of a Heritage Lottery Bid — a challenging thing to pull together. Despite PLACED being a tiny team (of just one on maternity leave) at the time, we were successful in our first application. It is no exaggeration that without Clare’s generous contribution and support, the funding application would have not been successful.

It is a great honour to have Clare as part of our network. Her passion, intelligence and downright Scouse female force consistently shine through in all she does. She is an unswerving voice advocating for positive, community centred change in our towns and cities. And, given where we are today in a country shrouded in inequality, we simply can’t have enough of that.

“There’s a woman doing the thing with empty buildings you’re always talking about”.

So said a mutual friend of Jo and I back in 2011, capturing succinctly the rub. There was a lot of talk. Plenty of us talking about the absolute state of some of Liverpool’s enviable wealth of built heritage. But Jo went beyond the talk to do something about it. Holding a clear vision and unafraid to ask “what if?”, here was a woman with talent, imagination, openness, humour and drive, which all added up to a characteristically scouse approach to getting things done. I’m not saying there weren’t others taking action, but here was an approach to Place that fitted our Place. Hidden Liverpool was held over the course of 2012/3 and was brilliant. I was delighted when Jo asked me to be on a panel with friend and legend Gerry Proctor, inspirational super-Erika Rushton, and with Mayor Anderson #1.

The panel considered the provocation “Our Empty Buildings: Why not knock them down?”, and here I think lies the key to both the biggest challenges for built environment over the last 10 years and the challenges of the next 10 (and beyond). We are eating through the limited resource of space. Property is our most tangible and everyday manifest of capital in a globalised economic system that famed economic geographer David Harvey calls “the annihilation of space over time”. We have carved up bits of land, knocked stuff down and thrown stuff up with carefree abandon. Our land bears the scars, globally of course in our resource stripping of the rainforest and everything else we can get our hands on, but locally too. There are haunting images of the holes made in the fabric of Anfield during the destruction and displacement doled out under the guise of ‘Housing Market Renewal’. Anfield, Toxteth, Kensington — areas still pockmarked with small kick-railed parcels of grass, long since adopted for footy and dog-walking, but which stand as testament to the HMR programme’s wantonness and its abrupt ending.

It would be remiss to talk about displacement without considering the humanitarian crisis of homelessness. It stands to logic that eating through space through hyper-development and not-so-stealth privatisation will leave some people marginalised, and displaced. Growing up in Aigburth in the eighties, the only person without a home that I knew of was an old man with a beard and a trolley full of wares who ‘lived’ in the toilet block opposite Lark Lane Tesco’s (now a steak house). Emigrating in the late 2000s to live in central Manchester, you could see and feel its homelessness crisis growing incrementally, then exponentially, as the cranes and high-rises continued to appear. Too much attention has been paid to skylines and not enough to doorways. Eight thousand people are homeless in Greater Manchester, with eighty thousand on the social housing list. I read recently that nearly 3,000 people are without a home in Liverpool. That’s 3,000 too many. Neither city has ever got enough from developers in terms of the fabled Section 106 monies, or contributions to affordable housing. The affordability of affordable housing is of course subjective, as demonstrated by the subsequent emergence of ‘truly’ and ‘genuinely’ affordable homes. Really genuinely truly absolutely 100% affordable housing is free housing. Housing is a human right.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined and exacerbated these inequalities, and emphatically. The challenge for the next ten years is how we very quickly learn to become better stewards of space, of land, and of heritage, toward equitable progress for all of us. This is about nothing less than the survival of our species, other species and the planet.

Our stewardship of the built environment is integral to meeting that challenge. There is abundant evidence of the relative benefits of reuse and repurpose of heritage buildings over new build, not least in carbon impact. One example close to my heart — and close to my house — is the former Abbey Cinema in Wavertree, where plans to demolish for a new-build supermarket have been delayed by its listing as Grade II. In addition to its architectural and Beatles’ heritage and its place among Wavertree High Street’s extraordinary concentration of listed buildings, the Abbey has hosted a supermarket within its walls for many years. There is no need to knock it down, only corporate interest. The progressive thing to do is to reuse. There are so many glorious buildings across the city crying out for reuse. The Wellington Rooms aka the Irish Centre. Scene of my floundering childhood attempts at Irish dancing. Now covered in rot and buddleia, along with my Riverdance dreams. The Lyceum building on Bold Street. What a waste. Five years and if you haven’t used it, you lose it.

I have high hopes for our new administration, and for Mayor Anderson #2.

A design proposal for the Abbey Cinema building, Wavertree put forward by one of the young people in a PLACED Workshop in February 2020.

Hope comes too from the young people I have had the privilege to meet through PLACED, presenting to a cohort of the PLACED Academy in Manchester, and hosting a workshop in Wavertree as part of the ‘Love Wavertree’ initiative. Here are young people with that same talent, imagination, openness, humour and drive that has characterised PLACED’s work all the way through. I was blown away by the quality of proposals that these young minds produced, by their artistry, design, technical skills and knowledge. There is hope yet, maybe even for Riverdancing.

Dr Clare Devaney
(Writing in a personal capacity)
14th October 2021

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