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From a regenerated Mersey to global Atlantic Gateway

“If anywhere in Britain can develop the critical mass and momentum to become an alternative growth pole to London it is the Atlantic Gateway”

Heseltine / Leahy (‘Rebalancing Britain - Policy or Slogan?” 2011 (1)

Now, in 2013, The Atlantic Gateway Partnership is established with its very clear mission to accelerate growth across the North West of England.  It encompasses the two cities of Liverpool and Manchester, linked by the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal.  The business-led partnership themes its priorities around: growth, connectivity, infrastructure and sustainability.  And water is central to how it will deliver them, enhancing the environment, unleashing economic opportunity and regenerating communities.

The partnership works at a strategic ‘top down’ level - lobbying and influencing government to ‘rebalance the economy’.  One priority, for instance, has been securing investment in the ‘Northern Hub’ initiative to improve rail capacity across the area.  This is complemented by ‘bottom up’ work - enabling and encouraging action at the local level. 

One example is Port Salford Greenway, a green link between the Bridgewater Canal and the multi-modal Port Salford - a major investment by The Peel Group.  This will create a safe, green route for walking, cycling and recreation with clear economic, community and environmental benefit, through some of the most deprived areas of the city.  The partnership’s innovative Community Environment Fund has invested in this local, but valuable, initiative.

Atlantic Gateway - while working ‘top down’ in a strategic context - is intensely focused on specific projects and their implementation by partners.  Strategies, policies and plans, however inspiring, are quickly forgotten if there is no action.  It is the delivery of projects that makes the difference.

Recognition of the importance of ‘top down’ meeting ‘bottom’ up is a lesson learned from previous experience of partnership working in the North West within the landscape of the river basin, the Mersey itself and The Manchester Ship Canal.  In 1983, Michael Heseltine, then Environment Secretary, adopted Liverpool as his crusade in the wake of the Toxteth Riots.  He regarded the Mersey as vital to its regeneration:

“Today, the river is an affront to the standards a civilised society should demand of its environment.” (2)

He was right. The Mersey stank with untreated sewage.  Further up the catchment, the Ship Canal was so polluted with chemicals that it occasionally caught fire.  Many derelict and contaminated watersides had negative value and were undevelopable.

Amongst his innovative initiatives was the Mersey Basin Campaign (MBC) - a unique, government backed cross-sectoral partnership.  Its 25 year programme was focused on improving water quality, encouraging waterside regeneration and engaging all sections of society in the process.

MBC began its work in 1985.  By 1999 it had become recognised worldwide as an exemplar of sustainable development in practice, as the inaugural winner of The World Riverprize - a decade ahead of the Thames.

By 2010 the Campaign had completed its mission and was wound up as planned.  Fish had returned to the river.  Waterside investment, development and regeneration was the norm.  Liverpool’s iconic waterfront was transformed. Spectacular change had taken place in many locations across the river basin.  For example, Salford Quays on the Manchester Ship Canal had been rescued from dereliction.  The Quays had become a fitting setting for MediaCity UK.  The process underlined the benefits of cross-sectoral partnership working and marrying strategy with delivery. 

There were important milestones along the way including:

  • The privatisation of the water industry in 1989 which led to  a significant increase in investment by the water company United Utilities
  • The Mersey Estuary Management Plan of 1995 - an innovative framework for co-ordinated action
  • The creation of the Environment Agency in 1996, focusing on better regulation and environmental management by industry
  • The North West Regional Development Agency and its multi-million pound investment in the Mersey Waterfront Regional Park, with its bold 2007 strategic framework
  • The multi-agency ‘Adapting the Landscape’ scenarios in 2009, addressing the challenges of environmental improvement at the landscape scale.

Underpinning all of this was the concept of sustainable development.  Cleaning up the river basin was never conceived as a narrow environmental initiative - economic and community benefits were the intended outcome.  By 2000, the chair of the regional development agency (NWDA) Lord Thomas of Macclesfield asserted:

“The North West was arguably the first region in the world to pollute the environment on a structured, grand, even imperial scale in the desire for economic growth. This new millennium will be an age when we can set our sights on reversing that process based on the principles of sustainable development.” (3)

The demise of the regional economic development institutions and the regional planning regime has left a vacuum in some of the English regions.  Austerity is a threat to holistic thinking and there is increasing risk of misguided quick fixes. The Atlantic Gateway, however, like the Mersey Basin Campaign, is a long term proposition. Sustainability is central to the thinking.

Through the lens of global competitiveness, there is a growing mountain of evidence that successful cities enjoy quality environments, public realm and attractive hinterlands. In the race to attract talent, investors and visitors this is vital. The City of Liverpool exemplifies this - 20 years ago the only tourists were disaster tourists. Now the visitor economy is accepted as integral to the city’s future. The regenerated waterfront is the single most significant place asset. 

Complacency in the face of climate change is inexcusable, and within the Atlantic Gateway vigilance will be needed to ensure that there is no backtracking on investment on critical infrastructure such as flood prevention. By global and England standards, the area is extremely fortunate in water resources, which from a global investment perspective is a competitive advantage.  However, the water company, United Utilities, must continue to be permitted by the regulator to make the right level of investment in renewing Victorian infrastructure to secure the system’s resilience.

Detailed studies for Mersey Tidal Power  have confirmed its technical, though not its economic feasibility.  As energy security becomes increasingly vital to the UK economy, the Mersey remains a real asset for future exploitation as a renewable energy resource.

There is much to be learned from other places with landscape scale ambition and the capacity to conceptualise and think long term while building confidence through tactical wins.  Emscher Landschaftpark in the Ruhr is inspirational in its scope, longevity and commitment to innovation.  Thames Gateway Parklands was the unifying greening dimension to the Thames Gateway.

A commitment in Atlantic Gateway’s commencement business plan was Atlantic Gateway Parklands - now straplined: ‘the landscape for prosperity’.  Substantial progress has been made in securing support for this ambition. Its prospectus will be launched to local, national and global audiences in 2014.

River basin management is a marginal, technical and less than interesting concept to anyone outside the water and infrastructure industries and the green lobby.  This is particularly the case in regions in which water supply is not perceived to be an issue and water quality has reached acceptable levels. No-one ever got out of bed humming to the tune of the European Water Framework Directive. For policy makers, opinion formers, influencers and the public at large there are many other fish to fry.

The Mersey Basin Campaign survived all governments over 25years and achieved its objectives as it embraced sustainable development in the round.  It would quickly have stalled had it presented itself as a narrow ‘green’ or more accurately ‘blue’ programme. The Atlantic Gateway Partnership is gaining traction and support as it constantly underlines the mantras that - accelerating growth is the aim, sustainable growth is the only option, top down and bottom up are sides of the same coin.


1. Heseltine, M and Leahy, T (2011) Rebalancing Britain: Policy or slogan, London, CLG
2. Department of the Environment (DoE) (1983) Letter from Michael Heseltine and Government Consultation Paper.
3. Thomas, T quoted in Menzies, W (2001) An idea whose time has come: sustainable regional development in Northwest England in Hewett, C (ed); Sustainable development and the English regions, London, IPPR

Walter Menzies, formerly CEO of The Mersey Basin Campaign is an independent advisor on sustainable development, chair of the Manchester and Pennine Waterway Partnership, a trustee of the Land Trust and a board member of Atlantic Gateway Partnership.