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In conversation with: Liverpool’s acting mayor Wendy Simon

As acting mayor of Liverpool, Wendy Simon has her work cut out dealing with the twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit, but she is keen to put investment and regeneration at the heart of the city’s recovery plan.

Deputy-Mayor-of-Liverpool-Wendy Simon
Deputy Mayor of Liverpool Wendy Simon. (Photo by Jennifer Bruce/Liverpool City Council)

To call Wendy Simon a proud Scouser would be something of an understatement, but that she is the acting mayor of her home city is something of an accident. On 4 December 2020, Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson was arrested as part of an investigation into building and development contracts in Liverpool. As deputy mayor, Simon stepped in. In her first statement upon taking on the role, she identified a key priority as being “to establish a platform of confidence that reassures investors in our city so that we deliver schemes that provide quality jobs and training opportunities for the people of our city”.

Speaking with Investment Monitor, this is a theme she is keen to expand upon. “Pharma and life sciences will remain a big part of our story, as will creative and digital, because we have an innovative city that is constantly changing with the times,” she says from the living room that serves as her temporary office. “We recognise the skill base we need to have and work towards providing that. Our universities are excellent, and they adapt along with the city to whatever the demands are with regards to providing the skills needed.”

On why investors from these sectors should come to Liverpool, Simon is unequivocal.

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“Liverpool is a safe place to live, a great place to do business, a great place to raise a family, we have a lot to offer employees and clients through our cultural output,” she says.

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“We had a period when our population wasn’t growing because people had to leave the city to find work, and we weren’t bringing in the investment to bring in the jobs that these people needed. One of the key things we have now is that the skills are here within the city to satisfy any investor. We work with our education sector to ensure that, to make sure that people are being trained to fill the roles that investors need, that employers need.”

Attracting talent, retaining talent

Simon is keen to emphasise how Liverpool is now attracting talent – principally through its highly regarded universities – and keeping that talent. This is done through ensuring that high-quality jobs are available, but Simon stresses that Liverpool’s liveability is another of the city’s offerings that has undergone something of a transformation. At the heart of this is a world-famous cultural offering.

“We do a lot to support our cultural economy and promote the city as a tourist destination,” says Simon. “If you are going to invest in Liverpool and the Liverpool City Region as a whole, we have this cultural offering that few places can match. When it comes to quality of life, we have beaches and countryside on our doorstep. Since 2015 there has been an average of £1bn a year in commercial investment, which is unprecedented. On the back of being the European Capital of Culture in 2008 people are becoming familiar with the city, with its growth story, and the confidence that it exudes.”

The European Capital of Culture celebrations helped to reset Liverpool’s image on a national scale, which was needed. While the city’s peerless music and football heritage mean that its international standing is the envy of many UK cities, within the UK the ‘Scouse stereotype’ – often based on an unfair caricature of shell-suited, bubble-permed men from the city that became popular in the 1980s – has frequently been used as a stick to beat the city with. Simon is happy to challenge this.

“We are aware that Liverpool has a poor image with some, but now when people visit they aren’t making tired jokes about losing the hub caps on your car, they were saying how amazing it is that we have got a Tate Gallery, or referencing all the cultural richness we have. The narrative has changed, and for generations going forward that will hopefully stay.”

Liverpool’s Brexit and Covid challenge

Like any city in the UK, Liverpool is entering 2021 with two issues at front of mind: recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and negotiating the first few months after the UK’s departure from the EU. It is here when Simon looks to ongoing developments in the city as offering reasons for optimism. “We were the first city in the UK to submit our recovery plan from Covid-19, and it has 40 shovel-ready schemes. We have two key flagship projects in the city.

“One is Bramley-Moore Dock, which if it comes off will be a game changer. It has been a derelict dock and is now set to host Everton’s football stadium, but it will be a catalyst for an area that is the poorest in the UK in Kirkdale. Then there is the Festival Gardens Scheme, which is a 1,500-unit residential project. The investment in that site, however, should have been there decades ago when the area was recovering from the Toxteth riots [which took place in 1981]. So these schemes are symbolic.

“There is a lot of focus on the city centre – and quite rightly as it needed it – but we are now beginning to push out beyond the fringe of the city centre. We are attracting investment to these poorer areas.”

Of Brexit specifically, Simon sees some upside for Liverpool given its favourable geographic positioning. “The port of Liverpool predicts it will be a beneficiary in some ways from Brexit, as we are Atlantic-facing and we have a historically strong relationship with the US. We spent £250m in developing Liverpool 2 and the ports and the infrastructure of the city, and as a city we have forged really strong links with Boston and New York and we want that to continue.”

A community-minded approach

When Boris Johnson was elected as the UK prime minister in December 2019, he promised to ‘level up’ a country rife with regional inequalities that saw widespread social and economic deprivation in large northern cities such as Liverpool. As a former social worker, Simon has seen enough of the inequalities and poverty that exist in her home town, which had already started a levelling up agenda of its own.

“There are parallels between the national levelling up agenda and our own city plan,” she says. “We started something similar in 2018, recognising what we had to do locally. However, we are talking about how we align our services and communities, as different communities in a city the size of Liverpool have very different needs, and we have now had to align that with government policy.

“The problem we have is in relation to government funding. Liverpool is reliant on this funding, and we have some of the most deprived communities in Europe. We want to give these communities hope. We want to give them the skills that investors need. We want them to be able to take advantage of the opportunities on show.”

Communities are a theme that Simon frequently relates back to, and in a city as closely knit as Liverpool, such a focus will probably go down well in the mayoral elections in May, in which Simon will be standing and hoping to shed the ‘acting’ part from her job title. Brexit and the Covid-19 recovery will test Liverpool to the full, but it is a test that Simon is keen to pass. Come May, she may even be able to coordinate this recovery away from the confines of the office in her front room.

Read our ‘Future of British Cities’ series article focusing upon Liverpool.

Richard Gardham

Richard Gardham

Managing editor

Richard Gardham is the managing editor of Investment Monitor, joining from the Financial Times where he was production manager across a number of titles, including The Banker and fDi Magazine.