“Complete transformation” of Toxteth, 40 years after the riots


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Forty years after the riots began in Toxteth, the changes sparked by the unrest have led to a ‘complete transformation’ of Liverpool.

During nine days of civil unrest in July 1981, 468 police officers were injured, 500 people were arrested and 70 buildings were so badly damaged by the fire that they had to be demolished.

The riots, which saw the worst violence on July 5 and 6, were sparked by the arrest of a young black man.

Over the next four decades, the city experienced tremendous regeneration, was named European Capital of Culture in 2008, has a visitor economy worth £ 4.9 billion a year, and elected this year its first black mayor.

Then Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine on the streets of Liverpool after the Toxteth riots (PA Archive / PA)

For Lord Michael Heseltine, who had served as environment minister two years earlier, there was a sense of “personal responsibility” when he saw the riots unfold.

The conservative peer, who was awarded the Freedom of Liverpool in 2012, had previously worked on plans for the city’s regeneration.

He told the PA News Agency: “I had been involved for two years and hadn’t realized the intensity of this problem.

Lord Heseltine said the riots “injected a degree of urgency” into the plans.

For others, however, the shocking scenes were predictable.

Liverpool waterfront stock
The Royal Albert Dock, which was regenerated following the Toxteth riots (Peter Byrne / PA)

Dave Clay, 70, worked for the Merseyside Community Relations Council at the time and was a member of the Liverpool Black Organization, which he said warned a parliamentary committee of the problems to come in 1980.

Mr. Clay, author of A Liverpool Black History, spoke of issues of employment, housing, education and police relations with the black community.

He said: “My feelings at the time were anti-police.

“I had no doubts, in most of my life experience the police were racist.”

He said that while he had focused on organizing the community to tackle problems, a younger generation reacted differently.

“We can say they should or shouldn’t have, but they did,” he said.

“The police stepped up and it escalated into a major and major confrontation. “

In the aftermath of the riots, Lord Heseltine spent three weeks in Liverpool and, for the next 18 months, worked on projects for the region.

Speaking to people at the time, he said, there was no “positive movement” or “leadership.”

But, he said on his return to the city in 2011, the difference was “absolutely staggering.”

He said: “Everyone we saw had ideas and said if you help us, you give us the opportunity, we can make things happen.

“It was a complete transformation.”

Even now, after the city’s main hospitality and tourism industries were hit by the coronavirus pandemic, Lord Heseltine has said he doesn’t think Liverpool will ever return to what it was in the early 1980s.

He said: “I think the progress is so built into the system, there are so many companies in the public and private sectors.”

Mr. Clay, who was part of the L8 advocacy committee formed to provide support to residents during the riots, agrees that the unrest has resulted in change, but not necessarily the change the community wants.

He said, “They took away the soul of the community.”

Politics - Toxteth Riots
The aftermath of the Toxteth riots in Liverpool (PA Archive / PA)

He said that when people were moved out of the area and many buildings were demolished, the community was dismantled.

Improvements to the area were designed to attract the middle classes, and investment in the city has not empowered black businesses, he said.

But, Mr Clay acknowledged that Liverpool now have their first black MP, Kim Johnson, saw their first black Lord Mayor when Anna Rothery took office in 2019 and this year elected their first black mayor, Joanne Anderson.

He said, “I know there are a lot of black youth opening doors.

“All is not negative.

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