For business reasons, I tend to spend a lot of time in Liverpool these days, and a few weeks ago, I was drawn to the Titanic Hotel in the Port of Liverpoolâ€™s Northern Docks. One of my business partners is a staunch Everton supporter, and so we inevitably got around to talking about the clubâ€™s on-going battle to build a new state-of-the-art stadium at the old Bramley-Moore Dock. And the timing was right, as the club had just announced a series of design amendments in a bid to appease the Governmentâ€™s heritage adviser Historic England, who are attempting to block the development.
Everton submitted their planning application last December, as part of their Peopleâ€™s Project, a massive programme of investment in both their proposed new home at Bramley-Moore Dock, and the redevelopment of their historic Goodison Park home. But ever since, theyâ€™ve been embroiled in an increasingly bitter scrap with an influential heritage lobby involving â€“ among others â€“ Historic England and UNESCO. For Liverpoolâ€™s stunning waterfront is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and there are conflicting views as to how the derelict Northern Docks should develop.
Most football clubs tend to endure some sort of battle when they look to move home, but since making the decision to move away from Goodison Park, Everton seem to have faced more difficulties than most.
The club has been at Goodison Park since 1892, and, given that the club has remained in the top tier of English football since 1954, it has hosted more top-flight games than any other English ground. In addition, it has hosted an FA Cup Final, and when England were World Cup hosts in 1966, Goodison Park was a Semi-Final venue. Put simply, Goodison Park is one of English footballâ€™s great stadiums. Located at the heart of the tight terraced streets of Walton, it generates a special atmosphere, and Everton is always one of the most popular away days for supporters of other clubs.
But the implications of the Taylor Report and making Goodison Park all-seater reduced its capacity to just under 40,000, which has contributed to the club becoming less competitive on the pitch: Everton are English footballâ€™s fourth most successful club, but they havenâ€™t won a trophy since 1995 when they beat Manchester United to win the FA Cup. As a result, Everton have spent more than twenty years looking for a new home.
Their first attempt came in 1996, when then-Chairman Peter Johnson revealed plans to relocate the club to Kirkby Valley Golf Course just off the M57 on the fringes of the city but in neighbouring Knowsley, around 4-miles from Goodison Park. At the time, the clubâ€™s support was hostile towards a move, and fans group â€˜Goodison for Evertonâ€™ commissioned a feasibility study by the architects responsible for the redevelopment of Twickenham that demonstrated that it was possible to redevelop Goodison Park.
The club continued their search for a new site, and at the turn of the new Millennium, they published plans to relocate to the Kingâ€™s Dock on the waterfront to a new 50,000 capacity stadium by which time, 85% of supporters polled said that they supported the move. In order to progress the scheme, Everton were granted preferred bidder status for the site, and set about raising Â£30million towards the project. The club worked on the project for almost four years before being forced to pull out in 2003 after they failed to raise the required finance.
Amid the growing recognition that Everton were in need of a new home, the club continued to search, and in 2005 came possibly the most controversial proposal of them all: a ground share with arch rivals Liverpool on a site in Stanley Park. Predictably, the idea went down like a lead balloon on both sides, and the proposal was canned; Liverpool pursued the Stanley Park site alone â€“ the club eventually abandoning it themselves in favour of expanding Anfield â€“ while Everton again went back to the drawing board.
In July 2007, Everton unveiled plans for a new stadium with a capacity of just over 50,000 on the edge of Kirkby Town Centre in the neighbouring borough of Knowsley. It was part of a retail scheme â€“ Destination Kirkby â€“ being promoted by Tesco, a second proposal to take the club out of the city of Liverpool. However, before committing fully to the project, Everton balloted their support to determine whether or not it was the right option. The result of the vote was announced on Goodison Parkâ€™s 115th anniversary, and it was positive, and the club moved forward with their negotiations with Tesco and Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council.
Four months later, a planning application was submitted by the club alongside Tesco, and in June 2008, it was unanimously approved by the Council. However, the application was called in by the Government amidst widespread opposition and numerous objections.
The scheme was attacked politically by Liverpool City Council who were desperate to keep Everton in the city. Warren Bradley, then leader of the City Council described the stadium proposal as â€œa cow shed in a small townâ€ and Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council, St Helens Metropolitan Borough Council, and West Lancashire District Council all argued that the proposal would harm their various town centres and regeneration plans.
Developers Grosvenor Group â€“ the Duke of Westminsterâ€™s property company that own the Liverpool One shopping centre â€“ and St Modwen both laid into the scheme, arguing that it would damage both Liverpool and Skelmersdale respectively. In addition, the stadiumâ€™s location â€“ four miles from Goodison Park â€“ and its transport connections were criticised heavily despite the clubâ€™s CEO Keith Wyness claiming that it would be the â€œbest served transportation wise of any stadium in the north west, if not the UKâ€. The scheme was also panned by the Governmentâ€™s design adviser CABE who described it as â€œat best, a lost opportunityâ€.
Liverpool City Council presented the club with two alternative options within the city boundaries, but Everton dismissed both in favour of pursuing the move to Kirkby. However, on 25th November 2009, the Government quashed the planning permission for the Kirkby project, leaving Everton, once again, to go back to the drawing board.
Fast forward to Christmas Eve 2019, and Everton submitted another planning application for a new 52,888 capacity stadium, that could rise to 62,000 in the future, this time at Bramley-Moore Dock in Liverpoolâ€™s Northern Docks. It is a spectacular proposal that would bring life and vitality to an area characterised by dereliction and under-utilised assets, and would be a tremendous addition to the cityâ€™s spectacular waterfront and World Heritage Site.
At the same time, the club â€“ through Everton in the Community â€“ is working alongside local residents and businesses to build upon millions of pounds that the club has previously invested in the Liverpool 4 neighbourhood, to create a community-led legacy through the redevelopment of Goodison Park.
Whatâ€™s not to like? Well, there are those that donâ€™t, particularly when it comes to the redevelopment of Bramley-Moore Dock.
The reason for Bramley-Moore Dockâ€™s being has long since gone. It was built for the import and export of coal that was used to power the steamers that travelled all over the world from Liverpool. As containerisation battered the docks during the 20th Century and eroded the portâ€™s influence and economic role, Bramley-Moore Dock fell into disuse and dereliction. Evertonâ€™s proposal reverses this. Yet despite working positively and proactively in a collaborative manner with heritage bodies such as Historic England and UNESCO, and making a series of amendments to the scheme in order to address their concerns, it is seemingly not enough, with Historic England objecting to the proposals and requested that the application be called-in by the Government. The ultimate decision looks likely to be taken away from the local authority, and placed in the hands of a minister in Whitehall.
From a footballing perspective â€“ notwithstanding the challenges caused by the COVID19 pandemic â€“ the development of the new stadium at Bramley-Moore Dock needs to happen for Everton. The club now has serious financial backing and a genuine world-class manager in Carlo Ancelotti, and if they want him to be around in the long-term, and to compete for trophies, then Bramley-Moore Dock happening is crucial.
And looking at the local planning and regeneration issues, there is clearly a very strong case for the project to proceed.
The redevelopment of Bramley-Moore Dock will anchor the regeneration of the Northern Docks â€“ Everton say that the stadium development will generate a Â£1.3billion boost to the local economy, create more than 15,000 jobs, and attract 1.4million visitors to the city â€“ and bring life to an area scarred by dereliction and post-industrial decline. So, those from the so-called heritage lobby are missing the point in a very big way.
Central to the objections is that Bramley-Moore Dock would be filled-in, arguing that this would cause harm to the heritage significance of the dock system, and thus the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and this is a massive irony.
At the heart of the World Heritage Site are the Three Graces, the Port of Liverpool Building, the Royal Liver Building, and the Cunard Building, three beautiful and unforgettable buildings that are arguably the most important visual image of the cityâ€™s waterfront and the World Heritage Site. And these buildings were built on a filled-in, redundant dock â€“ Georgeâ€™s Dock â€“ which by the 1890s was too small and shallow for the commercial ships of that period.
Given their position on Evertonâ€™s Bramley-Moore Dock, would the likes of Historic England have objected to the building of the Three Graces all those years ago?
Heritage is important. Itâ€™s what makes places different and unique. But heritage designations do not mean that places and buildings have to be frozen in time. Places evolve as circumstances change, and just as Georgeâ€™s Dock had served its purpose and needed the change that was brought about by the Three Graces at the beginning of the 20th Century, Bramley-Moore Dock finds itself in the same place now.
A placeâ€™s historic environment should provide the context for exciting new architecture; this is what happened with the development of the Three Graces, and it is what Everton are trying to achieve at Bramley-Moore Dock.
In the words of Dan Meis, the architect behind the Everton scheme:
â€œI believe that the historic fabric of the dock is a priceless asset that will help inform a state-of-the-art stadium unlike any other on the planet and one that will capture the magic and memory of Goodison Park. I am striving for a design that feels like it grew from the Docks and can simultaneously look like it is from the future and yet has always been there.â€
Everton have gone the extra mile in terms of design, and gone out of their way to accommodate the heritage concerns, producing what will be a genuinely iconic new stadium, befitting of the city of Liverpool and its waterfront setting, but as with the last time the club proposed to move, it seems increasingly likely that their fate will be in the hands of a Government minister.
Will Everton be left with a bitter taste in their mouths once again? Or this time, will the Toffees find a new home, sweet home?
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