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
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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.