Lessons from Liverpool

Lessons from Liverpool

By Jackie Watts - Chair, Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network

Without question, the unique maritime heritage in Docklands precinct is significant to Melbourne and to Australia as a whole.

Across the globe, for example in Europe, South America, China and the USA, Docklands precincts like ours are celebrated, enhanced and genuinely valued.

Yet the threat of “investment” pressure from rapacious, inappropriate real estate development continues to threaten such significant maritime heritage precincts.

A fascinating example of this threat hit the global news headlines this week about the maritime precinct of the major port city of Liverpool (UK) on the River Mersey losing its World Heritage status granted in 2004. See bbc.com/news/uk-england-merseyside-57879475

Sobering parallels can be drawn between the sorry saga of Liverpool’s degraded maritime precinct and Melbourne’s Docklands precinct, specifically regarding Central Pier and Victoria Harbour which are, like Liverpool’s famous dock area, significant maritime heritage sites.

But in 2013 Liverpool council approved a Docklands Re-development Plan worth £5.5 billion for skyscrapers, a cruise liner terminal and thousands of apartments on the Docklands site. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) warned Liverpool that such insensitive planning (particularly the Everton football stadium on heritage waterfront land) would have adverse consequences, including the possible loss of Liverpool’s World Heritage status.

UNESCO said the planned developments could “irreversibly damage” the city’s historic Docklands Precinct, warning that Liverpool may lose the “outstanding universal values” for which it was granted World Heritage status in 2004. In relation to such “outstanding universal values” is of course, potential economic loss of declining property values – the elephant in the room – which are eroded over time.

Fast forward to 2011, UNESCO expressed concern that the height of planned buildings included the tallest tower outside London, which would significantly alter the skyline and fragment the dock areas. Might sound familiar to Docklands residents?

UNESCO found “serious deterioration” of the historic site and threatened the heritage significance value of the city’s waterfront. Again – familiar to Docklands residents? There are, of course, differences today between Liverpool, recognised as a former major trading centre during the British Empire; and Melbourne, which remains a fully operational major national port city – one with rich maritime heritage. Fast forward again to 2021 – Liverpool Docklands is set to lose World Heritage Status.

How perplexing it is to consider that this could happen to Liverpool – site of the most marvellous Royal Albert Dock opened in 1846, the first structure in Britain to be built from cast iron, brick and stone, with no structural wood, as well as the first non-combustible warehouse system in the world, later to feature the world’s first hydraulic cranes. Yet Liverpool, despite this extraordinary world-renowned maritime heritage, appears to have succumbed to the irresistible lure of inappropriate and insensitive development.

Liverpool appears to have been induced by developers to squander its maritime heritage values. Melbourne, although initially reluctant to value its maritime heritage assets, now seems, to an extent, to be “pausing”. A pandemic-induced re-focus perhaps? A realisation that Docklands developments which detract or threaten our remaining maritime heritage assets are simply “not on”.

Docklands residents are only too aware of this. For example, there is still time for Central Pier to be sensitively restored and redeveloped; derelict wharves enclosing Victoria Harbour can be restored; ferry infrastructure to enable expanded waterway activation can be installed.

With intelligent development planning in Docklands, maritime heritage can be preserved and celebrated. This will benefit us all. A reminder that MMHN was established to address the decades-long “amnesia” surrounding maritime heritage in Melbourne, which is all about Docklands and the decades of neglect on Central Pier, degraded wharves of Victoria Harbour, the inexplicable thoughtlessness of the Bolte Bridge which was built too low to enable shipping close to the CBD and Victoria Harbour.

Persistence is raising the significance and value of maritime heritage with bureaucrats and politicians and is taking effect. Vigilance and staunch proactive advocacy around maritime heritage infrastructure is the ONLY defence.

Soon Development Victoria will be consulting widely on the future of Central Pier. Be sure to have your say when the time comes! •

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