Birkenhead election special: Residents ‘cynical’ things can be turned around

A once thriving Wirral town that feels left behind and “sad” could be set for major change – but people are “cynical” that things can be turned around.

Candidates are campaigning across Birkenhead seeking votes ahead of the general election on 4 July.

The seat has always voted Labour and the party, who polls suggest will form the next government, are promising to help transform Birkenhead into a new town.

Labour has put forward policies it says will help speed up the town’s regeneration, build new homes, and offer new industry jobs with a focus on renewable energy. This includes moving forward an initial 1,200 homes in the town, an investment in insulation upgrades, and improvements to its night-life

However, they’re facing a challenge from the Green Party, who hope to build on recent council election successes. The Greens argue they will offer real change for Birkenhead on pay, homes, and public services and be a true advocate for the town in Parliament.

The Conservatives who have often come second in the past argue they’re also offering a choice to voters pointing to policies around offering police officers in every community to tackle crime, protecting the Wirral’s green belt,  and investing in defence, a key industry.

According to independent research unit Centre for Cities, Birkenhead performs poorly in relation to productivity and jobs despite having a strong employment rate with 4,570 more jobs in 2022 than in 2010 when a Conservative-coalition government was elected. In that period, productivity only increased 0.3% each year compared to 1.5% every year from 1998 to 2010.

People’s spare cash also grew 1.3% every year between 1998 to 2010, a period when the country was governed by a Labour government, but in the following 12 years after 2010, this was 0.2%.

According to Centre for Cities, the average person would have had £17,500 more to spend if pre-2010 trends had continued.

At the same time, housing has become less affordable in Birkenhead, with prices now 7.5 times that of local people’s earnings. Around 3,000 more children were living in poverty in 2021 than in 2014.

To address these issues, Wirral Council has long been developing plans to regenerate the town centre with new homes, a new industrial park, and major developments.

However, many in Birkenhead, feel they are yet to see progress. Two new office blocks have been built where the council is currently the only occupant while plans for a new Birkenhead Market have changed several times. The Wirral Waters development which promises to deliver 13,000 new homes has only completed 30 so far, though 500 more are currently being built.

Several people who spoke to the LDRS said the legacy of the town’s former MP, the late Baron Frank Field is still remembered fondly as a politician who “did so much for the whole place”. Nowhere is this felt more than the Number Seven Cafe on Princes Pavement.

Number Seven Cafe on Princes Pavement, Grange Precinct

The discount cafe and supermarket was first set up with the help of Lord Field in 2018 but initially didn’t have a long-term plan for its future. For its more than 1,200 members, it’s a lifeline that stops people from having to use foodbanks by offering a variety of different foods at lower prices than in mainstream shops.

Project manager Moira McAdam said, “That was always the plan, to abolish the need for places like this but I realise that is never going to happen, that things are never going to go away. All we can do is help people get out of this spiral they are in.”

She said families have been pushed into poverty due to the rise in prices, adding, “People that were fine one minute, their situation can change the next.” However, for some, they aren’t able to receive certain benefits because they have more than two children.”

Going forward, Moira wanted to see the controversial two-child benefit cap on go as well as assurances the Household Support Fund, aimed at supporting those who can’t afford essentials, will continue.

She added, “It will be interesting to see what happens going forward. I do not think it’s going to be great whatever happens. People need to be aware that people are still struggling. Maybe things have come down a little but that doesn’t really help people.

“We have been in a situation for the last few years where people are having to choose between heating and eating. It’s a much used phrase now but it’s a true phrase.”

Despite promises to turn the town around, Moira said, “Even if you deliver all those promises, Birkenhead is dead. It’s not like it used to be and people are very cynical. People need clarification on what is happening in layman’s terms,” adding, “You can regenerate all you want but if people do not have money, it will be difficult.”

Lord Field, who died in April, continued to be involved in the cafe even after he was no longer MP. Moira said, “I think it would be very mixed for him as it is for us because the reason we are such a success is a sad reason. It’s because a lot are struggling. It’s good we are here and Frank had this vision and followed through with it.

“It’s sad because we are never going to be in that world. I can’t see a day where we do not need this place.”

Iona Watterson is walking with her friend Maggie Weaver and dog Maise in Birkenhead Park, the first publicly funded park in the world which is bidding for UNESCO World Heritage status. She said, “We have lived in Birkenhead all our lives and we have seen it go from a thriving community to absolutely nothing. There’s nothing to bring people into Birkenhead so we are not going to get the economy growing.

“They need to put money in to get shops, more things into the town. It’s just so sad that there’s no proper shops.”

Maggie said more was needed than just new houses, adding, “This town hasn’t got the infrastructure to support it. They built a whole new town in Moreton but where are the schools and doctors? We need a new hospital desperately.”

Other issues people told the LDRS would be influencing their vote at the election were pressures on schools and teachers, a lack of social housing, wages and NHS reform, concerns about rising taxes, the conflict in the Middle East. Antisocial behaviour is a big issue for many, with some saying they are scared to go into town after 5pm

Terry Weston, Chief Executive of the Engineering College in Birkenhead

One way money could be brought into Birkenhead is through new jobs. Neighbouring Cammell Laird shipyard, the Engineering College currently trains around 450 apprentices for 105 different companies.

Terry Weston, its chief executive, said, “I personally think to level up the economy, there is little point in moving the City or the banking sector out of London and up north when actually what the North West needs is a strong base in engineering and manufacturing.”

He said a lot of their trainees were “young disenfranchised white males” from disadvantaged backgrounds but by training them and getting them skilled jobs “in a way we are helping them to change their lives”. He added, “We see people who come from single-parent families or there is no male role model in some cases and the training schemes give us the opportunity to support them.”

In order to improve accessibility and help apprentices finish their courses, Mr Weston wants to see a pre-apprenticeship training scheme brought back in, arguing this gives the college flexibility and helps remove social barriers.

He added, “They could go into it hitting the ground running, shorten the training, and go into production quicker.”

Despite a past decline in industry in Birkenhead, there are signs things are shifting. Cammell Laird took 50 apprentices from the college this year but will take 75 next year across eight different engineering trades.

Up the hill from Birkenhead is Prenton Park where Tranmere Rovers Football Club, an EFL League Two club, have been since 1912. Mark Palios, its chairman and former player, said it was “an anchor institution” for the community but also very much tied into the town’s future.

With high levels of deprivation in the area, the club has a number of projects tackling issues like food poverty and gambling, cheaper tickets for those who can’t afford them, and offering alternatives for those with special educational needs.

The club could also be a key part of the town’s regeneration with early-stage plans exploring a brand new Championship-standard stadium right on the Birkenhead docks off Wallasey Bridge Road. While this is a way off, Mr Palios said the club is “in a good position” and attracting interest from investors.

He called on a future government to “really make the words levelling up mean something,” adding, “That will be something that will secure the safe, sustainable future of the club and at the same time, it helps facilitate the regeneration of Wirral Waters and the north end of Birkenhead.”

One issue that will be key to the club’s success is the introduction of an independent football regulator. This hopes to protect the future of English football for its fans but the bill to bring it in didn’t make it through Parliament before the election was called.

Mr Palios wants to see this picked up after the election with a focus on greater fairness in the sport to help lower league clubs like Tranmere Rovers, arguing the big clubs were currently hoovering up the cash. Pointing to Manchester City’s recent fourth Premier League win, he said short-term thinking was reducing competitiveness and the game “couldn’t save itself and it needed intervention”.

He felt the new regulator needed more powers, adding, “The new government should change the bill so that the regulator should be much more proactive with regards to distribution.”

He said, “Whoever gets in, it’s an unfinished job that needs finishing off properly,” adding, “My concern is that while we can make the club self-sustaining within the context we are in, we need to have competitiveness and we need other clubs to survive.”

Six candidates are standing in Birkenhead. They are:

GreenJo Bird
Freedom AllianceCatherine Evans
Liberal DemocratsStuart Kelly
LabourAlison McGovern
Conservative and UnionistSarah Payne
ReformTony Stanley

Lead image: Moira McAdam, project manager at the Number Seven Cafe. All images credit: Ed Barnes

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