Was Liverpool improved by its 2008 European capital of culture status? With arguably the biggest draw of the 10-years-on celebrations having just stridden through the city, it seems like an apt time to weigh an answer. For me, though, there cannot be a clear judgement: my view will never possess an empirical understanding of Liverpool through the 70s and 80s; plus, I was only eight years old when it was announced Liverpool was to wear a much-deserved cultural crown when 2008 came. I was quite oblivious to the city’s social and economic standing at that age, and you’ll have to forgive me for the Michael Owen poster that was then adorning my wall.
Peer behind the dense layer of glass and shiny cladding added to the city centre, though, and you see that 2008 marked the year Liverpool was brought in line. Gone were the days of Militant, the red stronghold within Liverpool City Council. By 2008, Liverpool, like much of the UK, was in the eye of the New Labour storm – financial ruin only months away. However, the years of redevelopment granted by EU money allowed Liverpool to compete. Some streets are now unrecognisable compared with how they stood 10 years ago, Mann Island the gleaming example. The Albert Dock was to be the thread of the city’s tourism net, a far cry from the silent structure it was when close to abandonment. The further building of a multipurpose Arena and Convention Centre allowed Liverpool to attract touring events to the city, and leave these very visitors singing about our own offerings upon departure.
Since 2008, Liverpool has hosted the Labour Party conference three times, returning in 2011 for the first time since 1925. Last month the conference took over the city for the second time in three years. On the Saturday, people flocked to see Jeremy Corbyn deliver a speech in the early evening shadow of the Liver Birds. With monuments to our 2008 achievements glistening in the damp backdrop, the current Labour leader fixated on the need to overturn austerity, the growing injustice of Universal Credit and an economy rigged for the few. Hardly a tone that suggests we’ve waded through a decade of progression. But, sadly, he was right. Three further days of rhetoric and the delegates were gone. 10 years later, with our cultural status enhanced, we’re now seemingly optimistic about upheaval rather than redevelopment.
The European capital of culture status boosted Liverpool’s star rating as a place to stay. Come, peruse the streets, host your events, bring your bridesmaids and ushers, throw up in Concert Square. In many ways we became a perfect surrogate. But what do we, as a city, hold on to? What changes for the people that don’t check out and drag their heels and cases towards Lime Street on a Sunday morning?
Things still come and go: art exhibitions, bands, politicians. We’re a port city, we should be used to transience. But departures don’t have to be a complete hacking of the roots. The Giants graced Liverpool one last time before their inevitable departure. Sure, they divide opinion, but they were able to light up one million faces on the streets of Liverpool – here, thanks to our title of European capital of culture, now 10 years past. With or without the body-length Echo pull-out, they won’t be forgotten any time soon.
It’s all about engagement. If Liverpool is to avoid falling into a vacuum of EU-funded neoliberal regeneration, the city, its range of people, and its cultures, has to be brought out to collide head-on with events passing through. By simply being a surrogate to money-spinning tours and events, we risk losing connection to the creative culture that arrives and leaves with little more than an Instagram-worthy photo of the waterfront.