Engage is very honoured to have been asked to publish an in-depth reflection on the proposed zip wire attraction by Richard Hill, a well-known and respected academic and architect, who is extremely concerned by the decision of the City Council Planning Committee and feels it is urgent that as many people as possible come to know exactly what has been agreed and what the likely impact will be.
This reflection will be in three parts looking at different aspects of the recent decision by examining in detail the documents submitted to the Planning Committee members and upon which they have made their decision. You might want to look at the Planning Documents as you read the comments from Richard Hill below:
Part 1: When is a library not a library ?
The basic idea is that users of the Zipwire (note that there will actually be four wires, spaced apart) check in at the Central Library in William Brown Street. They will get kitted out and then walk across to the Beacon. From there they will return, at high speed, to the roof of the Central Library. They will go down to the ground floor, collect their belongings and leave.
Plan of the Ground Floor:
From the proposed plan of the Ground floor we can see how much of the Library is taken up by the Zipwire facilities. Note that there is no as-existing plan: in normal circumstances this ought to have been a reason for not validating the application. The Proposed drawing shows:
- A reception desk for the Zipwire, replacing existing reference desks and intruding into the key public space of the Library, with its splendidly inscribed floor.
- The lockers and other facilities at the rear of the ground floor. In the Application Form this area is described as “a small room … which would be used to change into the required equipment, have briefings and store visitors’ belongings.” This is misleading. The space in question is about 190 square metres – the size of perhaps 20 “small rooms”.
- A lift, which is presumably important at the moment for moving staff, citizens and materials around the building, is given over to Zipworld.
- An amenities area, presently for Library staff, will be available for use by Zipwire staff. (Has anyone asked the Library staff about this ?)
There will of course have to be a good deal of signage (advertising?) in front of and inside the Library, but strangely this is not shown on any of the drawings.
Plan of the Roof Area:
Let’s now look at the plans for the roof:
- The roof terrace is at the moment a quiet space with superb views over the city. The Zip riders will swoop over this area at high speed and it will no longer be an attractive space to spend time.
- A very large galvanised steel structure is added as the landing area, nearly two floors above the roof terrace. There will be a new (galvanised steel) stair and platform lift to reach it.
- These new structures will obscure the glazed link between the main library and the repository at the back of the building. From below users of the Library will see the jumble of steelwork and the steel walkways. Sound will travel easily from the roof (whoops of relief and laughter from the arriving riders, endless clattering of feet on the metal decks, the sounds of the equipment etc.) to those in the Library on the floors below.
Plan of Rear Elevation:
Now let’s take a look at the front and rear elevations, with the steel supports, masts and tension wires, yet further above the landing deck. Here one can draw one’s own conclusions. But note the rear elevation, again with its inscriptions of famous local writers. What would William Roscoe, Linda Grant, John Lennon etc. etc. think about the cat’s cradle hanging over their heads?
The logistics and safety implications of the building proposals are very serious indeed:
- In order to fix the new structure to the structural frame of the existing building the roof will need to be stripped off in large areas, perhaps all.
- Immediately beneath the landing deck is one of the floors of the repository. How can damage, dust, water penetration to the archive materials be avoided? Will the entire floor need to be vacated? That would be normal procedure in a situation of this kind. The meeting rooms on the top floor will be unusable for the duration of the building works and the installation of the wires, as will the terrace itself.
- A large part of the entrance level of the Library will be unusable by the public while the work proceeds.
Some questions need to be asked about the involvement of the Libraries Service in this proposal. The Planning Application Form is redacted from the information available to the public (application 20F/0023 if you wish to check) so there is no publicly available record of meetings. But there must have been such meetings, between the Library staff, the Planning officers, the applicant, the architects and other technical specialists. The Case Officer’s Report on the application says that no comments were received from the Libraries Service.
Part 2: What is “harm”, and when is it “less than substantial”?
Here we need to refer to some basic points of Planning procedure and policy, so apologies for the jargon. A listed building is a “heritage asset”, as is a Conservation Area and indeed a World Heritage Site. In the case of the zipwires application all three kinds of heritage assets are involved. If you want to make a change to a listed building you need (unless it is a very trivial matter) to get consent. It is possible that your proposed change will cause “harm” to the “heritage significance” of the “heritage asset”.
You can cause harm to a heritage asset by harming its setting, without altering its fabric. For example, you might harm the setting of the Grade I listed St George’s Hall by installing zip wires close to it. You might cause harm to the Grade II* Central Library by installing gantries, platforms and other zipwire structures on it that harm its appearance. The Case Officer’s report (click here for the Planning website application 20F/0023 scroll down to find: pacorr\appage\5163928.doc in Related Documents) makes it clear that the proposals involve both those kinds of harm.
Plan of Front Elevation:
However, they claim that the harm is “less than substantial.” A great deal rests on that point. Causing “substantial” harm to Grade I and Grade II* buildings would be against the recommendations of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the application would almost certainly have to be rejected. The Council therefore went to great lengths to argue that the harm is “less than substantial.” That means that they can approve the proposal, provided that they can show that it meets other requirements, which I will discuss in a moment.
It is worth reading the advice of the Council’s own Conservation Department, as quoted in the report:
“There are conservation concerns over the proposal, as the works will fail to preserve the character and appearance of the William Brown Street conservation area. The proposal will also fail to preserve the setting of a number of the listed buildings; St Georges Hall (Grade I), Museum & Library, Wellington Column, Walker Art Gallery, Picton Reading Room, Steble Fountain, Sessions House & College of Technology and Museum Extension (all Grade II*), Monument to the King’s Liverpool Regiment, Gladstone Monument, Lester Monument, Balfour Monument, Rathbone Monument, Forwood Monument, Nugent Monument & retaining wall, gate piers and terrace wall (all Grade II) and will fail to conserve the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City World Heritage Site (WHS).”
That seems pretty clear. The proposal fails to “preserve the character of a Conservation Area”, fails to “preserve the setting of a number of listed buildings”, and fails to “conserve the Outstanding Universal Value” of the World Heritage Site. Surely all that amounts to substantial harm?
The Case Officer has taken a different view, and states that the proposals involve “less than substantial” harm to the heritage assets. It is best to read the report for yourself, but for an illustration of the flavour of the argument here is Para. 2.6, which states that the proposed structures on the top of the Grade II* Central Library:
“would appear as an incongruous feature above the roofline of the existing buildings and have a negative impact upon this important collection of listed buildings, having a harmful (less than substantial) impact upon the character and appearance of the William Brown Street conservation area. The applicants consider that the existing tree coverage within St Johns Gardens makes this acceptable, however, this is subject to seasonal tree coverage and where you view it from.”
Note the phrase “(less than substantial)” with its brackets. This usage appears in other parts of the Case Officer’s report. It seems like an afterthought, added to an earlier draft. Towards the end of the report the insistence on “less than substantial” becomes stronger and in para 2.12 it states that:
“the level of harm caused will be towards the lower end of the less than substantial harm spectrum.”
There is no further discussion of the idea of a “spectrum of less than substantial harm”, nor any justification of why this proposal lies at the “lower end” of such a spectrum.
I believe that the Case Officer’s judgement is flawed, that the harm to the heritage assets is in fact substantial, and that therefore the proposal should have been rejected.
What follows from the Council’s judgement that the harm is “less than substantial”? The National Planning Policy Framework says (para 196) that in such cases “harm should be weighed against the public benefits” of the proposal. Accordingly, the Case Officer’s report argues that the proposed zipwires will provide public benefit by enhancing the leisure offer of the city and that they “will generate extra visitors to the existing cultural attractions …”
On the face of it this seems perverse: harm to important heritage assets is justified by the argument that increased numbers of visitors will visit just those assets which have been subjected to harm. Perhaps it would have been better not to have harmed them in the first place, and then even more people might visit them.
Part 3: What is public space and what is public benefit?
Liverpool has many fine public spaces, but the two most important are The Pier Head and the complex of St George’s Hall, St John’s Gardens and the William Brown Street buildings. The St George’s Hall complex is essentially two areas: the Plateau facing Lime Street, which is the site of great civic celebrations and political gatherings; the second area centres on St John’s Gardens, with its backdrop of neo-classical buildings. Memorial events also take place here, but they are low-key and “reflective” in character.
Some of the supporting documentation (for example the Heritage Impact Assessment) to the Application tends to obscure the difference between the two areas, suggesting that because large popular events take place on the Plateau it would be acceptable also to have a popular attraction suspended over the gardens. Objectors to the proposal have, quite rightly, focussed on the need to keep the reflective quiet atmosphere of the gardens intact, and to do so throughout the year, not just for short annual commemorations.
The proposed zipwires will hang over a public space, and basically, they exploit a convenient difference in level between the observation platform of the Beacon and the roof of the Library. The experience of riding the zipwire will be entirely private: individuals will be trussed up in protective gear and feel (I am told) as if they are flying through the air. The revenue from the ride will go to the operator and so at the simplest level a public space will become a source of private profit.
Plan of Roof Section:
Leaving aside the argument that some riders might also choose to visit other buildings in William Brown Street – the Library, World Museum and Walker Art Gallery – and thus generate tourism revenue for the city, the “public benefit” of the zipwires can only be in allowing the Council to charge rent for the use of part of the Library. This raises a number of questions:
- Does the definition of “public benefit” in the NPPF allow for a straightforward rent-seeking arrangement by a local authority in respect of heritage assets? I do not know the answer to this question.
- Does the Council have the power to hive-off part of the Library to a commercial organisation, and to grant change of use for islands of space within a public building? This is different from simply leasing out part of the ground floor as a café. It is made more complex by the fact that the Library is run on a leaseback basis, as part of a public/private partnership arrangement.
- The biggest question however, is how much rent is the Council expecting in return for having caused harm to heritage assets in its guardianship? For how much is it intending to sell the City’s silver?
These questions are not addressed in the Case Officer’s report. The third question would normally be considered as a matter of commercial confidentiality. But how can it be, if there is to be a calculation weighing “harm” against “public benefit”? The Council are keen to make minute distinctions of harm but how will they decide what rent to charge? Will it be “to the lower end of less than substantial”, like their estimation of the harm involved?
The applicant has helpfully provided a report on economic and financial aspects of the proposal (see the Economic Impact Assessment in the Related Documents). I am not expert in such things and it would be good if others were able to comment, so that there could be an informed public debate. Given that the Council’s recommendation rests on the weighing-up of harm and public benefit, and given that the public benefit can only conceivably be financial, it seems to me that public knowledge of the proposed financial arrangements is relevant to the Planning approval.
Finally, I should stress my main point about the Council’s recommendation – namely that there has been a misjudgement of the scale of “harm”. In fact, I believe that the harm is substantial and that therefore the application should have been rejected for that reason. Finer discussions of the balance of harm and benefit, which only apply when harm is “less than substantial”, are interesting but irrelevant from that broader perspective.
UPDATE 22nd JULY 2020 by Richard Hill:
Questions on Consultation
St George’s Hall
The St George’s Hall Trust submitted an objection, which can be viewed HERE: St George’s Hall Charitable Trust Statement. Unfortunately it was submitted only one day before the Planning Committee meeting, however its implications are very important indeed, since it raises the possibility that the Zipwires proposal might jeopardise Liverpool’s World Heritage Site status. Given the seriousness of this objection perhaps consideration of the application should have been deferred to allow further discussions.
National Museums Liverpool
There was no response to the application from National Museums Liverpool, who run the World Museum and the Walker Art Gallery. Was this because they weren’t specifically consulted, or because they chose not to comment?
The Victorian Society
It seems that the Victorian Society were not consulted. They have issued a Press Release condemning the Approval, which can be viewed HERE: Victorian Society Press Statement
Historic England’s (HE) response has now been made publicly available in its entirety and can be read HERE: HE Zip Wire Submission
The Planning Case Officer’s report gives a misleading impression of the advice given by Historic England. HE state in their response to the application that they “had some discussions with the applicant prior to the formal planning application submission; however the application contains further information then (sic) previously reviewed and elements such as the roof top gantries proposed on the library have developed since those discussions.” A little later in the report they add “These gantries are much greater in scale then (sic) were verbally suggested in pre application discussions, and while they are positioned on a modern extension, they would be visible in views of this exceptional group.” And later again: “were the council minded to progress this application steps should be taken to further minimise the impact of the gantries.” The gist of all this is omitted from the Case Officer’s report. To summarise, what seems to have happened is this:
- It seems that the applicant’s presentation to HE in the pre-application meeting radically misrepresented the scale of the proposals, either from genuine ignorance or for some other reason.
- When Historic England saw the actual application drawings, they were concerned (“concerned” may be a polite way of putting it) and recommended that the Council go back to the applicant to seek modifications to the design.
- We know that no modifications were made: the consented drawings are those issued with the application, with no revisions.
Perhaps the Council ignored HE’s recommendation, and no further meetings took place with the developer on the question; perhaps meetings took place and it was decided that no modifications were needed. Either way, it seems that there are serious questions to be asked about this aspect of the consultation process.
The question of Listed Building Consent
Approval was granted on 30 June for Planning and Change of Use. No application appears to have been made for Listed Building Consent. Major changes are proposed to the Grade II* Central Library. One of the stranger things about the Zip wire’s proposal is that no application has been submitted for Listed Building Consent. We understand that normally applications for Listed Building Consent and Planning Approval are made in parallel. The proposal involves Listed Buildings (Grade II* and Grade I) and at some point we assume that an application will be made. We would welcome the Council’s view on this very important matter: when will an LBC application be made available for public consultation ?
Are the proposals for the Central Library feasible?
The Planning Application drawings show the construction of the roof landing deck only in outline. I have already pointed out the logistical problems of building the deck, and the implications particularly for the archives stored in the Repository.
I am not a Structural Engineer, and an Engineer’s comments on the following would be very useful.
Can the steel structure be built on top of the parapet wall of the 2013 building, as the drawings show? I doubt it. It would require removing the parapet and reconfiguring the structure below it. This would also involve removing at least the top panels of the commemorative names on the left-hand side of the façade. All would have to be rebuilt to match the existing, on the same plane as the existing, and with no fixings visible.
The Planning conditions (3,4 and 11) require that details of the rooftop structure be approved by the Council. It may be that the details, once they have been worked through in detail, are at variance with what is shown on the Planning Approval drawings. At that point they should be rejected. Applications for discharge of Conditions are in the public realm and objectors to the Zipwire project will no doubt be monitoring them closely.
Without Listed Building Consent, and without approval to the Conditions, the Planning Approval on its own will not allow the project to proceed. In the immortal words of Baroness Hale it may be “a blank sheet of paper.”
You might want to show your opposition to these plans by signing one of the two petitions started to get a re-think on the permission granted to the City Council to go ahead: SAY NO TO LIVERPOOL’S ZIP WIRE had the majority of signatures (but has now been suppressed) so please go to this one: STOP THE LIVERPOOL ZIP WIRE started by Cllr Richard Kemp.
You can also support the fundraising towards a Judicial Review at Go Fund Me: Stop the Liverpool Zip
You can also read other Engage articles about the Zip Wire: