Work on Everton’s new £500m stadium in Liverpool docklands could start this spring if councillors give the go-ahead next week – but UNESCO is maintaining its hostile stance. Tony McDonough reports
World culture and heritage body UNESCO is maintaining its hostile stance towards Everton’s FC’s plans to build a new stadium on Liverpool’s waterfront.
This week, planning officials at Liverpool City Council recommended that the £500m arena at Bramley Moore Dock, within Peel L&P’s £5bn Liverpool Waters development, be approved. Councillors on the planning committee will make the final decision at a special meeting on Tuesday, February 23.
Bramley Moore Dock was designed by Jesse Hartley and opened in 1848 and the project will mean it will be filled in. This has caused dismay among heritage groups, namely Historic England and the Victorian Society.
However, council officers have concluded that the benefits of the project far outweigh such concerns. Not only is it estimated that it will create up to 15,000 jobs and offer an annual £1.3bn boost to the local economy, but it will also open up the historic north docks to the public, which are currently hidden from view.
In their report they concede that, despite great efforts by Everton FC to mitigate the impact on the Grade II-listed dock through careful design, the project will cause “substantial harm” to the original structure.
However, they add: “The stadium development will create a new venue for the city and provide new civic spaces that are privately managed to encourage access to the World Heritage Site (WHS).
“This demonstrates that the proposals will generate considerable and tangible benefits for both the immediate communities within which the project sits and wider stakeholders across the Liverpool city region.”
Everton has gone to great lengths to both minimise the impact on the site and offer an enhanced attraction for public by bringing the docks back to life and offering initiatives such as a heritage trail.
While Historic England and the Victorian Society have acknowledged the wider benefits of the scheme, despite their objections, it is UNESCO, as overseer of the WHS, that has mounted the strongest opposition. And, it is in fact just the latest skirmish in a long-running battle with the city.
Ever since property and ports giant Peel unveiled its Liverpool Waters masterplan in 2006, UNESCO has been generally hostile to any substantial development on the northern docklands complex.
Liverpool Waters, a 60-acre site stretching from Princes Dock close to the city centre to though Central Docks and up to Northern Docks, is a 30-year plan to create a mix of homes, commercial and leisure space. It isn’t technically part of the World Heritage Site, but within a buffer zone.
However, UNESCO regards this distinction as semantic and seeks to preserve the integrity of the buffer zone with the same zeal as the principle WHS site, which covers much of the city centre and the world famous waterfront and its Three Graces.
Formed in 1945 as a branch of the United Nations, UNESCO is not afraid to court controversy as the self-appointed guardian of the world’s cultural assets. In 2013 it upset families of Cubans who had been executed by the Fidel Castro regime with its plan to recognise the ‘life and works’ of Castro’s henchman-in-chief, Che Guevara.
And, back in 1984, the US withdrew all co-operation with UNESCO citing the “highly politicised” nature of the organisation. It complained of a “hostility towards the basic institutions of a free society”.
UNESCO’s brief covers 1,121 World Heritage Sites – 869 cultural, 213 natural, and 39 mixed properties across 167 countries. And Liverpool is by no means the first location it has crossed swords with and threatened to withdraw the WHS badge. The historic Italian city of Venice, no less, has also found itself in the crosshairs.
Its determination not to budge an inch over development on the waterfront has angered many people in Liverpool. Mayor Joe Anderson has frequently expressed his frustration at the organisation but has also attempted to hold out an olive branch. In 2018 Peel revised its Liverpool Waters plans and it seemed an uneasy accommodation had been reached.
But the plan for the stadium at Bramley Moore Dock has reignited the old conflict. Last summer a long-time UNESCO critic, Frank McKenna, chief executive of business group Downtown in Business, said: “I can’t be the only one who is fed up with the city having to constantly go cap in hand to this faceless, unaccountable body… It is time to tell UNESCO to take back their vanity badge.”
UNESCO’s comments on the stadium are contained in the council report. It says the 52,888-capacity arena “would have a completely unacceptable major adverse impact on the authenticity, integrity and outstanding universal value of the WHS”.
The objection also re-iterates that this opposition to the scheme is consistent with UNESCO’s previous advice that it is not appropriate for further new developments within the WHS property, and its buffer zone, to be approved and built until such time as an overall plan or the development of the docklands is agreed.
Historic England and the Victorian Society have adopted a more conciliatory tone despite both having major concerns about the impact of the stadium. Historic England acknowledges Everton’s desire to develop a new arena and commend the manner in which the club have engaged the public and stakeholders.
However, it remains firmly opposed to the filling in of Bramley Moore Dock and recommends councillors refuse the application. If, as expected, the committee approves the the plan, Historic England insists the project be “called in” by Secretary of State Robert Jenrick.
If that were to happen it would mean Everton’s ambition to begin work on site this spring, and kick-off the 2024-25 season there, would be thwarted. Calling in the project would mean it would then be subject to a planning inquiry. The club says it would remain committed to the scheme in this eventuality but it would push back the timetable on what will be a three-year build.
In the Victorian Society’s view the proposals require further justification and greater elaboration before they are given consent, It is urging councillors to withhold consent and seek further information and amendments.
Should the application be approved, the society says it is willing to work with Everton and offer further advice that could be used to “mitigate the harm”.