IoS special report:

Special report: A story of hope in modern Britain

Liverpool is again thriving – and electing a new Mayor next month may help it find a leading role in UK plc. Jane Merrick reports on a people-led renaissance

Five years ago, he was a 12-year-old boy mourning the loss of his friend Rhys Jones, shot dead in one of Britain's most notorious gun crimes in a deprived neighbourhood of Liverpool. Today, George Fletcher, a talented young footballer with cerebral palsy, is preparing to represent his country this summer at the Paralympic Games.

His is a story of modern Britain. And as the country awaits two spectacular events – the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee – a third, less-publicised landmark in the history of Britain will be passed.

Next month, Liverpool will vote for the first time for a mayor, who will be the most powerful politician in England outside London, and millions of people across the country will vote in referendums for a mayor.

Critics argue the mayors will damage democracy, with too much power and money ceded to one person.

For 17-year-old George, growing up in a neighbourhood blighted by cuts, in a city that has, at times, felt abandoned by the rest of the nation, the mayoral election is a chance for Liverpool to be given a new voice.

Yet Liverpool is also a city being reborn at its grassroots. George's Paralympic achievement has been helped by his local sports centre in Croxteth, which, facing closure by the council two years ago, was taken over by the local community. The gym has been transformed from a dark, forbidding place with security guards on the door to a bright, fully equipped sports centre called Lifestyles.

Next door, the library has undergone a similar transformation. It is part-owned by the local community, with books provided by the council. Visitors have increased by more than 200 per cent in a year, while the number of books issued has doubled.

It is the kind of Big Society takeover that David Cameron could only dream about. But Croxteth residents have little time for labels. Like the rest of Liverpool, they have lived with the term "self-pity city" for years. When 11-year-old Rhys Jones, an innocent bystander, was shot in the neck in a pub car park by a local gang member in August 2007, Croxteth was branded a no-go area.

George is hoping to change all that. He was selected last week for Great Britain's seven-a-side cerebral palsy football team, the youngest member of the squad.

"I always wanted to be a footballer, but knew I wouldn't be able to be a professional footballer," he says. "From going to the gym and getting fit, I had trials for the Paralympic team. So, if it wasn't for the gym, I wouldn't have made it. They have been really supportive.

"People look at Croxteth after Rhys Jones and think it's a bad area. It is still a gang area. But it's not as bad as it used to be. There is good that comes from places like this. It doesn't matter what area you come from, you can still achieve what you want to achieve."

George and his family were friends with Rhys – his brother was in the same class as the youngster at school. "It came as a shock when it happened," George says. "It was very hard for a while."

George, like Rhys an Everton fan, is too young to vote in next month's mayoral election, but he says it is what the city needs – "someone who can speak up for Liverpool and help out their communities". But the young Paralympian will be doing that, too. "It has not yet sunk in that I will be wearing a GB football shirt, representing my country."

Croxteth, in north-east Liverpool, shares the problems facing many deprived areas across the country as the UK veers close to recession. In some streets, more than three-fifths of children are living in poverty. Last week, the city's new food banks served their 1,000th person – a shameful landmark in the 21st century – and, in Croxteth, a man took his own life after having his benefits withdrawn. When the coalition government was elected in 2010, Liverpool City Council, run by the Lib Dems since 1998, turned Labour. Within weeks, they were forced to impose the largest cuts per capita of any council in the country – £198 a head.

The council leader, Joe Anderson, is Labour's candidate for mayor on 3 May, and is the favourite to win, despite anger across the city over the closure of libraries and other council facilities.

In Croxteth, the Alt Valley Community Trust, a local charity, stepped in to save the library and sports centre from closure in 2010. They bought the buildings from the council and have saved the town hall tens of thousands of pounds, as well as helping George's Paralympic career.

The trust had already bought up a local farm, growing vegetables for residents to buy, and turned a defunct old people's home into a "Communiversity".

Next, the trust wants to set up a free school to fill the gap left when Croxteth Community Comprehensive, the only secular state school in the area, was closed in 2010.

Croxteth Labour councillor Peter Mitchell says that, rather than whinge about cuts, the community, with the council, is simply making them work.

"Everyone is working together to deliver the renaissance. It is bottom-up community creating solutions to problems. Everyone knows about the investment in Liverpool city centre, but the north end had been left to rot – we were abandoned."

In the 1980s, when the council was run by Militant under Derek Hatton, the city was virtually cut adrift from Margaret Thatcher's Britain. Militant supporters smashed the glass of the city parks' palm houses because they symbolised the "bourgeoisie" – acts of nihilism that helped to punch a hole in Liverpool's confidence. Today, as Mr Mitchell enthuses about local farm produce and free schools, hallmarks of the middle class, he says: "If you give people quality, they respect it. Why can't working-class communities have nice things?"

With all this community activism, why does Liverpool need a mayor? The Lib Dem candidate, Richard Kemp, says the city doesn't. But Mr Anderson disagrees. He secured £130m from central government to go straight to an election without a referendum, to be spent by the mayor, whoever wins on 3 May. He says: "This election puts us ahead of people. For the first time, Liverpool is being first. This is a dynamic city, and an ambitious city, and a city that will have a leadership role to play in UK plc."

Not everyone agrees. All the 12 candidates are white men, and include representatives of Militant, the British National Party and the National Front – hardly a progressive choice.

The reaction nationwide to city mayors has been lukewarm. A ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday today shows that 56 per cent think they will be an "expensive and unnecessary layer of local government". The mayoral referendums in other cities are predicted to return "No" votes.

Back at Lifestyles in Croxteth, Colly Whitty, the 59-year-old manager, proudly shows off George Fletcher's Paralympic acceptance certificate.

She says: "The self-pity city thing has been going on for years. But when they meet us, they know it is a different story. Will having a mayor make a difference? We have got to make it make a difference." You get the feeling that the people of Liverpool will.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Pre-Press / Mac Operator / Artworker - Digital & Litho Print

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: With year on year growth and a reputation for ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Live Virtual Training / Events

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Manager is required t...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Group has been well establishe...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Group has been well establishe...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003