Heritage in the dock
By Paul Unger
Developers claim new planning guidelines for Liverpool?s historic docks are hampering growth
Liverpool achieved world heritage site status five years ago across six areas of the city in recognition of its rich mercantile maritime history.
The historic dock estate and the grand streets that the city?s merchants and ship owners helped establish were to be preserved, UNESCO decided, in recognition of the vital role the port played in the growth of the British Empire.
The six areas awarded world heritage site status were Castle Street and Dale Street, Lower Duke Street and Ropewalks, Pier Head, William Brown Street, Albert Dock and Stanley Dock.
The supplementary planning document required by UNESCO to guide the management of the area and neighbouring ?buffer zones? ? taking in virtually the whole city centre ? has only recently been drafted and its public consultation closed on 14 April.
Whether world heritage status is a blessing or a curse was debated by developers, not just in relation to subjective notions of what makes a fitting new building today, but also the very objective matter of making a profit.
The supplementary planning document, and the planning regime deployed in anticipation of it during the last five years, inevitably requires developers to do justice to the quality of the world heritage sites, not only in terms of design and materials, but also height.
Developers say they need height to generate profits. The guidance insists new development must not be at the expense of the area?s heritage, nor should it intrude on people?s sightlines of historic buildings.
Guy Butler, projects director at Grosvenor, felt the wrath of the Liverpool world heritage lobby while planning the tallest building in the 43 acre Liverpool One ? the Cesar Pelli-designed One Park West residential building on the Strand and Chavasse Park.
?The original design was four storeys higher, producing a tower of 21 storeys, with two buildings either side,? says Butler. ?We worked incredibly hard to get support and the planners were amazing, very commercially aware and right behind us. But eventually English Heritage said it was too tall and not in keeping with the world heritage site.?
As a compromise, four storeys were removed, which reduced the value of the scheme?s flats by ?16m and meant the building went ahead at a loss to Grosvenor.
?We weren?t able to hang around with the development programme of Liverpool One,? continues Butler. ?And so we couldn?t risk a public inquiry and a two-year delay if English Heritage opposed us. We thought: this is an interesting building by a world-class architect, which could be treated as an exception, but they said no. Ask the architects or the planners now and they will say it spoilt the building.?
Other projects around the Pier Head have had to bow down ? literally ? to the world heritage site credo that the ?outstanding universal value? of the protected buildings and monuments ? in this case a trio of century-old buildings dubbed ?the Three Graces? ? is paramount.
The Museum of Liverpool promises to be a low and elegant addition to the sensitive skyline. Similarly, Neptune and Countryside?s Mann Island will feature cut-away walls that preserve more than a dozen enshrined sightlines.
Both of these forthcoming schemes require either hefty grants or publicly subsidised land acquisition to cover the expense of the natural stone cladding ? limestone at the museum and granite at Mann Island ? called for by both English Heritage and planners.
Tall buildings will be limited, the supplementary planning document dictates, to cluster areas north around Old Hall Street, Princes Dock and south in Brunswick and Queen?s Dock to protect the panorama of the city centre skyline.
There is a line of tall buildings emerging to the north with residential towers by Millennium Estates, Beetham and City Lofts. More are proposed by investor Ray Smith and the ubiquitous Peel Holdings.
If Peel had its way, the 60-storey Shanghai Tower in Princes Half Tide Dock to the north of Pier Head would be the centrepiece of its much-discussed Liverpool Waters.
?It?s time to enhance, not just protect, our architectural assets?
Robin Ellis, Downing
The developer wanted to build in the water itself but was told by Liverpool City Council and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment to forget it. Not only has the supplementary planning document ruled out losing any more water ? Pier Head was itself built on a reclaimed dock ? but, being so close to the world heritage site, the building could be deemed too tall. Peel will almost certainly have to move its Shanghai Tower northwards.
Lindsey Ashworth, development director at Peel, made his feelings clear in typically direct Peel style at Property Week?s Regenerate! Liverpool conference in February, when he complained that the supplementary planning document was all about heritage and contained ?no urban design vision?.
Ashworth says: ?The planning document fails to consider or factor in the economics of regeneration. It doesn?t consider the prospects of large-scale physical regeneration as a development opportunity in parts of the world heritage site.?
Put the city?s economic growth before views, Ashworth says, adding: ?And if you want to see the cathedral, go to the cathedral.?
The council claims the World Heritage Site status is a tool for tourism and was instrumental in securing the city a place at the Shanghai World Expo 2010.
Others agree that the heritage badge needs to be used more prominently. Robin Ellis, senior agency surveyor at Downing, owner of the Port of Liverpool Building, one of the Three Graces, says: ?A shift in the language the city uses when talking about its historic and world heritage sites would help to diminish the perception that more rules will hamper growth. It?s time we focused squarely on enhancing rather than simply protecting our architectural assets.?
There will be intriguing test cases if and when the Merseyside police headquarters, the Baltic Triangle and Queen?s Dock are redeveloped and when the defunct HSBC on Castle Street and Dale Street is sold.
Test of character
Commenting on the forthcoming supplementary planning document, a spokesperson for English Heritage, which is certain to be involved in all these cases, says: ?The objective of this planning document is to remove as much uncertainty as possible for developers working within world heritage sites. We were among those who contributed funding towards the creation of this document and we will be submitting our formal response shortly.?
Also preparing a response is the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, where John Sutcliffe, founder and managing director of structural engineering consultancy Sutcliffe, is head of the planning committee.
Sutcliffe says: ?Each development should be seen on its merits and if a tall building is of world-class quality then it could be acceptable.?
He adds: ?But there is no point having planning guidance if we are not selling the world heritage site as part of our tourism offer.?
Caught in this storm of comment and criticism is the council?s world heritage officer, John Hinchliffe. ?It?s a balance between careful introduction of new buildings and preservation of areas of outstanding value,? he says. ?It is not just a conservation document. We can have both tall buildings and protected views, but if we let people build whatever they want wherever they want, then Liverpool?s special character would be lost.?
An interesting twist to the consultation came in early April when Communities and Local Government said it would automatically refer applications within world heritage sites to the secretary of state if plans were objected to by English Heritage.
Michelle Steel, planning associate at Drivers Jonas, says the decision should not be seen as a threat to developers: ?It is an additional layer of regulation for checking the sensitive design issues around world heritage sites but will not automatically mean a call-in for an inquiry.?
For now, developers are still digesting the implications of applications being referred and Liverpool?s new planning document.
?It could be argued that this document should have been in place long before now,? reflects Katy Lightbody, associate partner at planning consultancy DPP Heritage. ?However, the document ups the ante and it is clear that proposals for development will need to be fully justified and able to withstand robust scrutiny.?
Whether profit can survive such scrutiny or whether reliance on grants is a long-term solution are both questions open to debate.