They've tried Michael Heseltine, acres of flowers, the Tate, renaming the airport after John Lennon. Now the latest wheeze to revive Liverpool's fortunes is to make it Britain's choice as the European Capital of Culture for 2008. The decision last week to select Liverpool was a surprise one - so surprising that amid all the praise for the city's bid, there was little attempt to consider what really matters: can this accolade really transform the city from rundown backwater to sophisticated metropolis?
The past 30 years have been grim ones for the city, with economic decline and political militancy interspersed with attempts to get it back on its feet. After the Toxteth riots, Michael Heseltine took Liverpool under his wing, with regeneration projects like the garden festival and bus tours of dilapidated Liverpool for investors and pension fund managers from London. To most of them, inner-city Liverpool with its slums, abandoned factories and crime came as a shock. To some, though, it spelled opportunity, and property developers spotted potential in its magnificent waterfront. I recall being taken there by one entrepreneur who entertained his entourage with Frankie Goes to Hollywood playing a private gig in the Albert Dock. We were bussed in, while aggrieved locals, banned from the party, hammered on the coach's windows, their demands to be part of the audience ignored.
If becoming a capital of culture really is to signal a renaissance, the first lesson must surely be this: don't keep the Liverpudlians on the outside, hammering on the windows. At the beginning of the 1980s, all Britain's northern cities were in need of revitalising. But the businessmen who moved in on Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Hull, Sheffield and Liverpool all imposed the same formula. The different characters of these cities, so evident when they were each dominated by varied industries - coal, steel, fish, cotton and shipping - have been lost. Now they all have open-air cafes, loft apartments, new museums and waterfronts. To the casual visitor, it's as if a bland Starbucks conurbation stretches across the north from east to west. To those who live there, it's apparent that the city centres are certainly livelier, but the improvements are only visible in what are quaintly known as the cities' central 'quarters'. Elsewhere, there is still deprivation and a sense of hopelessness.
Liverpool's politicians say that being a capital of culture will bring more money to the city via tourism and new jobs. They point to Glasgow, Britain's last such capital, which was transformed by the venture. But today it's forgotten that years of hard work had already gone into regenerating Glasgow before it won the title. What it did do, though, was make the city a 'destination'.
Liverpool certainly needs that. Its location, once its raison d'être, now works against it, with few people going there en route to anywhere else. But if it is going to be the place to visit, it needs better road, rail and air links, not just a fancy title. It needs to ensure that the city's real character emerges, distinguishing it from the other city centres of the north, and making it more than just a capital of consumerism. And it needs to remember that the European capital of culture title does not automatically confer city superstar status. After all, it didn't do much for Graz, this year, did it?
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