LGiU’s Chris Naylor reports back from a recent conference in Liverpool (see previous blog post) that was unashamedly pro Europe.
Positive comments about Europe are thin on the ground right now. So it was refreshing – indeed uplifting – to spend a day hearing how the EU has been crucial to one of the UK’s major cities, Liverpool, and its immediate surrounds. And too to hear direct from senior Brussels staff a ‘can-do’ commitment to working with Liverpool going forward, as part of the new Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.
All this facilitated by the University of Liverpool, who programmed the day, reminding us of the value of the international networks that a dynamic university brings to the table – and of the importance of a major HE institution closely engaged with its locality, revisiting its founders’ intentions.
Joe Anderson, Liverpool’s Mayor, spoke passionately of the significance not only of hard EU cash, crucial in stemming what central government had diagnosed as ‘dead man’s decline’, but also of the EU’s role as catalyst, where initial EU commitment had unlocked £10s and £100s of millions more from other funders – most obviously for major projects such as the Airport and the School of Tropical Medicine. In parallel, the recognition of Liverpool as a ‘European city’ – most obviously as Culture Capital – had built pride, confidence, aspiration.
Janet Beer, the University’s Vice Chancellor, outlined literally hundreds of research projects, many in collaboration with business and other HEIs, also bringing in similar sums, and building links with for instance CERN internationally and skills development locally.
But alongside this – perhaps ironically, but convincingly, for those of us who’ve participated in EU funded projects – was praise for the values that came with EU investment. There was true commitment to diversity and equality, enabling for instance women’s training programmes which otherwise would have got nowhere. And to genuine community participation in bottom-up project design and development which otherwise might well have been overlooked. In Liverpool these values had been embraced as important to re-engaging and revitalizing local society.
Perhaps similarly ironic is that a major seaport, which had grown up on the back of Atlantic and global trade, on the ‘wrong side of the wrong country,’ has been so successful with EU partnerships. And the creation of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority seems likely to if anything enhance that, EU officials confirming their preference to work with larger sub-regional groupings – albeit accepting the need to flex such groupings on a project-by-project basis.
In parallel with Liverpool’s regeneration there had also been a reinvention in EU thinking of the place of cities in the EU agenda. Cities in decline had been a focus of investment because of their awful problems. Now cities in resurgence were an investment focus because of the attractive solutions they offered to policy objectives of tackling poverty and environmental damage.
However such a progression in thinking about cities’ importance could not be taken for granted in the UK: Liverpool’s advocates should already be preparing messages for the new government, they shouldn’t, in the words of Will Hutton, ‘have their mouths open when it breaks’. Especially as the Cabinet Office were already ‘in double figures in terms of post election scenario planning’.