I was invited over to Liverpool recently to visit a new community bakery project in the Anfield area and make a present on the Carbon Co-op's community-led retrofit model. The visit included a quick cycle tour of failed regeneration projects and a lesson on local politics in Merseyside.
Empty homes, empty communities
2Up 2Down is a project initiated by an artist, Jeanne van Heeswijk, as part of the Liverpool Biennial. It has grown to see a community work to re-open an empty bakery, retrofit adjoining buildings and free up space for housing.
The project is very much a response to the issue of empty, boarded up properties that blights Liverpool. Under a New Labour government and a Lib Dem leadership, Liverpool Council were enthusiastic proponents of urban regeneration, boarding up and selling off existing housing stock for private developers to demolish, build new properties and sell at a fat profit. Liverpool saw more streets sucked into this than mos and saw an equally strong resistance from activists and campaigners. When the casino stopped in 2007 the wheels fell off the model leaving Liverpool with thousands of boarded up properties.
I was given a quick tour of these areas. In the Welsh Streets (featuring Ringo Star’s birthplace!) row after row are boarded up, the area dead.
Seemingly positions are so entrenched between campaigners and council that solutions cannot be found, though a recent government announcement will now see a measly 16 houses now saved. The long term strategy seems to be to remove gutters and lead from roofs and let these properties rot.
A few blocks away off Granby Street the few remaining locals are fighting back. Residents on this street have waged a campaign of positivity with large scale planting and bright decoration to send the message out that these streets are used and wanted. When planters were stolen by local kids, residents persisted and the kids were won round. The tactics worked and the streets have now been saved from demolition. Check out Ronnie and Sarah’s blog about the projects there.
Unlike some neighbouring ones…
Naughty… but nice - pies and regeneration
On to Anfield, an area that has seen it’s fair share of boarded properties and demolition with more seemingly to come…
2Up 2Down is an antidote to that. The project, initiated by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, now involves a wide selection of the local community.
Situated a thrown-in distance from Anfield stadium the bakery still features a wealth of old equipment and bread-related adaptations.
The group have now formed a community land trust with the plan to refurbish and retrofit the bakery, flats above and adjoining empty homes creating a community hub and desperately needed affordable accommodation.
It’s an example of the kind of community-led regeneration so lacking in the city in the past decade. I’ve personally always thought hot pies and housing regeneration were perfect bedfellows…
The main purpose of my visit was to talk about Carbon Co-op and housing retrofit at one of 2Up 2Down’s regular expert talks. A good crowd of around a dozen plus people attended, made up of an interesting mix of housing activists, local residents, transition town-ers, artists and representatives of housing associations and the PCT.
Marianne Heaslip architect and retrofit expert of URBED and a key part of the 2Up 2Down began with an introduction to retrofit: what it is, how it’s done and the key challenges.
In response, one of the housing activists related how their housing association had tried to implement a street wide, external wall programme (featuring pebble dash effect render!) and that a resident campaign had forced the housing association to cancel the project. An illustration of how a lack of community engagement and resident buy in could sabotage a much needed project.
Marianne was followed by David White, a Liverpool-based, a retrofit and renewables consultant. In a very short, very concise and very clear presentation David explained the Green Deal, it’s fundamental flaws and the community-led Green Deal model he proposed for Merseyside. David’s key point was that the creation of a 100% ECO funding stream for external wall insulation in deprived areas meant that the private Green Deal providers would be heavily targeting these areas for measures but that lack of resources and knowledge around solid wall deployment could lead to some horrendous mistakes and scandals endangering the very idea of housing retrofit for good. In contrast, a community Green Deal Provider would deliver Green Deal works with the communities’ interests at heart, ensuring that solid wall specification was in line with best practice and avoiding the kind of low quality specification that the brokerage system for ECO may encourage.
I then delivered a short presentation on Carbon Co-op's work, effectively a project along the lines of David's Community Green Deal but lacking the large and immediate scale he feels is needed to counter the private Green Deal providers. We would argue that we are heading there but we need to build scale, work with early adopters and learn to use these new technologies before deploying them at a neighbourhood level.
The presentations led to a ‘lively’ debate between participants on housing retrofit technologies, co-operative models and the role of government and housing associations.
In comparing Liverpool and Manchester I was struck by a couple of things. In Manchester the green/community groups are far more organised, coherent and co-ordinated. Nothing like the Call to Real Action or Manchester: A Certain Future has happened on Merseyside. Equally the politicians don’t seem to ‘get’ climate change, the actions required to address it or the opportunities of retrofit etc.
This means that whilst in Greater Manchester there are co-ordinated efforts to realise the potential of Green Deal and retrofit, with local government, economic development agencies, colleges, housing associations and co-operatives/community/social enterprises sitting round the same table, in Liverpool that just hasn’t happened. David White, a lone sustainability consultant, has been doing this work of talking to all the key agencies, one to one, because somehow they don’t see the importance of co-ordinated action or dialogue.
Having seen the effects of housing regeneration I wonder whether this is a hang over from an extremely polarised political landscape. Not only are political parties playing the blame game on housing but community groups and the council are regularly in court trying to settle their differences.
Our post-presentation talk threatened to degenerate into an argument between two or three people, a community activist and a housing association rep. Essentially residents want housing associations to do more, housing associations want residents to accept measures and shut up.
My argument was (and is) that looking for large agencies and the council to act for us is an essentially weak position. If two, three or four residents want to start a retrofit project they can, they can share information and knowledge, meet suppliers and build their own constituency. Ultimately, even in small groups, we can inspire, embarrass, force or bribe the council and other agencies into taking action to support what we are already doing. For me action is the only way to begin to build a consensus and create change.
Marianne’s comment: as for things not happening at a city scale the same way as in Manchester, there is a transition town group but their focus is on the south of the city and more middle class areas (which is fine, as these groups need to cut their emissions more than others) but there can be a division. There are also lots of small scale community projects - recycling and food growing - and initiatives like the Liverpool Food Network. There is an ambition from the Mayor for Liverpool to be a ‘green capital’ and there has been some focus on the ‘green economy’ from the Mersey Partnership (now LEP) and Liverpool Vision - I’m just not sure everyone has realised the full implications of this if we’re going to really go for it - the level of investment and resources needed to do something than is more than simply tokenistic. I also suspect there just isn’t the same critical mass of people interested in this kind of thing as there is in Manchester (possibly thanks to the unique history of places like Hulme? And the fact we’re a slightly smaller urban area overall) - it feels like we need to work at ‘joining up the dots’ a bit more between all the good things already happening to help create that critical mass.