Bixteth Street Gardens in winter is not a place of stunning beauty. No spring flowers are in evidence early in February and the trees are yet to bud. Yet the alarm call of a blackbird and the twittering of small songbirds in the trees can be heard around the site – along with a hardy group of campaigners trying to save the gardens from development.
The Save Bixteth Street Gardens group is desperate to protect one of only two green spaces in the business district – and one of only a strikingly small number of open spaces with mature trees in the entirety of Liverpool city centre.
Mandy Williams says the park is vital for the wellbeing of residents and workers alike in the district.
“We have dog walkers in the morning, office workers at lunchtime and families with kids at 5pm. All summer it’s been absolutely packed – even into autumn and winter. We need the space – both office workers and residents alike.”
Nicola Throp agrees. Together with Mandy – and a group of residents and local office workers – she is trying to raise awareness that Bixteth Street Gardens could disappear before people realise it’s threatened.
“We’re trying to get out there and make people realise that if we don’t fight for it Bixteth Gardens could be gone in a couple of weeks. It’s not just green space – it’s about Liverpool’s heritage and it seems to be attacked on all sides.
“We have to cling on to the things that make the city attractive, not just for residents – but to attract people to come here because it has green space and historic buildings. What is a city if you take away all the amenities for residents?”
Bixteth Street Gardens are part of a site included in a proposed development of Pall Mall that will see prime office space, a hotel and new public realm built on the site of the gardens and nearby car-park. This scheme – by developers Kier and CTP – will flatten Bixteth Gardens and remove more than 50 mature trees. But not without a fight.
“I said to one of the developers I’ll tie myself to the trees,” says Victoria Crowney, who is out walking greyhounds Bodie and Carter in the gardens. They’re all regular visitors.
“He said ‘well, that might do it’. He seemed sad that the trees were going to go.”
The developers’ £4.2m plan is to build 400,000sq-ft of Grade-A offices, a new hotel and redeveloped open space here. The council says it could generate £200m and create in excess of 1,000 jobs. Mayor Joe Anderson is keen to approve the Pall Mall development as part of the council’s plans to redevelop the business district – and there is a perception that despite a glut of offices in Liverpool, the city lacks high-quality office space. New developments offer the simplest route to creating it.
Anderson says the plans will “deliver a much-needed high quality green square and new public realm for workers and residents to enjoy throughout the year”, adding they would “set a new benchmark for our open spaces and help shape the wider development of the district.”
The fight over Bixteth Street Gardens is just another front in Anderson’s battle to open up parts of Liverpool to developers. The Mayor of Liverpool says the city desperately needs more homes, prime office space and investment. But he is matched by a growing group of intersectional campaigners, who object to development on environment, architectural and societal grounds – not to mention some of his own councillors.
Mandy has campaigned against the Bixteth Gardens redevelopment for a year and says the council and developers have attempted to blindside residents by suddenly advancing their plans to cut down trees and cordon off the area from the public – preparatory works known as remediation.
“Up to 20 of us went to the planning committee meeting and we weren’t listened to,” she says.
“It was waved through and the developers have been given permission for remediation while they don’t have planning permission for the next stage.”
Campaigners are suspicious about the lack of a promised planning application from developers. As of February 2019 the developers have no permission to build on Bixteth Gardens, merely to level the area.
The lack of a planning application has led campaigners to fear a limbo period between remediation works and before development starts. They argue that Brexit, public pressure or a sudden development in the fortunes of the developers could mean that Bixteth Gardens is destroyed without any prospect of redevelopment – “the worst of both worlds,” says Mandy.
“We’re in a position where they could flatten the park and then not develop the land, so we’re just left with this hole in the ground. What happens to the 53 trees, the wildlife?”
“It gives the impression they don’t value these spaces.”
Both Mandy and Nic are keen to acknowledge that the council faces difficulties investing in Liverpool at a time of austerity – but point to a series of struggles within the city to preserve green space, including Sefton Meadows and Calderstones Park, that adds to a building narrative of public, open spaces being opened up to builders. In the case of the latter the fight went all the way to the High Court, which quashed planning permissions for housing developer Redrow the council had approved.
“The council has to fight tooth and nail every time to allow developers in,” says Nic.
“It’s not as if a consultation goes out and they listen to residents and then they change their mind.
“It gives the impression they don’t value these spaces; ultimately they see them as development opportunities and that’s certainly how it’s perceived.”
Those in favour of the redevelopment point out that the plan contains a blueprint for a new, green public space – more than is currently on offer, in fact. Tom Gilman, managing director for the North at Kier Property, says the scheme will deliver both office space and “high-quality piece of public realm and a green space amenity which can be used by the whole community”.
Terry Clarke is sceptical, highlighting a nearby public space in the middle of the nearby St Paul’s Square: a high-rise, high-density plaza surrounded by mix of commercial and residential property.
“It’s devoid of greenery – it has trees stuck in concrete holes and they’re deprived of light because they’re surrounded by glass monoliths around it. That’s what they want to turn this place into.”
Terry lives 200 yards away from Bixteth Gardens, in Holy Cross parish – an area bisected by Scotland Road and the flyover that runs behind the World Museum and Central Library. Terry says it’s one of the oldest areas in Liverpool and his family go back seven generations there, but Holy Cross has been lost in geography and the minds of Liverpudlians. It’s a sort of buffer zone now between Vauxhall, Islington and the northern edge of the city centre. But to Terry it’s home.
“I brought my children here when they were three and four. They used to love running up and down the hills. All the local children from Holy Cross school would come here on a weekend and call it Teletubby Hills. Now my eldest daughter, who is 35, brings her children here. This has always been an amenity to the community.
“It’s a safe place; a quiet place. It’s a haven – an oasis in a concrete jungle. It’s so nice to have such a calm, peaceful place – especially on a busy day when the wheels of commerce are turning all around here. But all you can hear now is birds and the 51 mature trees are pumping out the oxygen.”
Campaigners have highlighted the wildlife that also calls Bixteth Street Gardens home, with images of bird life and rabbits on the group’s social media feeds. Terry believes that although a council survey found no evidence of them there, Bixteth Street Gardens – or one of the old tunnels underneath it – is home to a bat colony.
Alex Beavan, who lives close to Bixteth Street Gardens, says a judicial review may be the only way to prevent the Pall Mall development – or at least stop remediation in its tracks while the request is considered.
“What we’ve learned from previous efforts is that the judicial review is the way forward for us now. After the planning application went through we knew this was the only avenue we could pursue, which the Save Calderstones group had done successfully,” he says.
Although the Bixteth Gardens redevelopment has not yet gone to judicial review, time is a factor for all parties. Campaigners believe a grant for remediation work provided by the Local Growth Fund – a government-backed scheme to help councils realise new projects with the private sector – was time-limited. This had the effect of forcing developers to start remediation without a planning application.
Nevertheless, Alex is puzzled by the fact a planning application has not been forthcoming.
“Why have a site ready if you haven’t got a plan for what’s going to happen on the site?”
It belongs to us
Back at Bixteth Street Gardens it feels like those trying to save the space are running out of time.
Terry Clarke gestures to some large metal containers by the side of the side. The campaigners believe they contain tree-cutting and earth-moving equipment and their presence – along with a number of steel barriers around the gardens – is a reminder that developers can legally start cutting trees down at any time.
“The odds are against us now. All I can hope is that people hear about this and ask the council to listen to those who say this park should not be destroyed.”
But Terry is defiant when he considers the gardens he has enjoyed for generations – with his children and grandchildren.
“This is a space that we need. It belongs to us.”
All images by Pete Carr