Birkenhead market traders issue plea to council

Birkenhead Market traders fear they are “witnessing the demise of Birkenhead as a market town” ahead of a key vote.

Store holders within the market in the Grange Precinct are asking for Wirral Council to abandon its plans to move it into a former Argos building on Princes Pavements.

The proposal is reportedly opposed by all market traders but the local authority believes high footfall, transport links, and potential future housing developments in the area could see it become a success.

Councillors are being asked in a meeting on 27 March to approve a recommendation to move forward with the Argos renovation to the point it is submitted for planning and the market is delivered by February 2026. A council officer report said this is the only option out of three considered that can be delivered before funding deadlines.

Market traders had asked for two options to be considered by the council which it did alongside developing the Argos plans further.

These could see the market stay where it is but be refurbished or move to St John’s Pavement which is a busier area of town according to a leaked report. However the council report said both of these options are not deliverable either due to funds, size constraints, or the time it would take to deliver either.

Joe Orr, the head of the market tenant’s association, said they held an emergency meeting with traders to ask them whether they wanted to move to Argos and not one trader said yes, adding many were now worried about their future. The association wants to see the current market refurbished arguing this is the best option for the market and for traders.

The council report said consultation has happened with market traders about the plans but this is disputed by Mr Orr who said, “Up until last week, they didn’t reveal any information. Every question we had wasn’t being answered.” These concerns have also been raised by Birkenhead’s MP Mick Whitley in a letter to the council.

To develop the options, Wirral Council commissioned architectural firm Corstorphine and Wright as well as market specialist Raymond Linch from Market North West Limited, who said the new market should include kitchens and bars, hairdressers and beauticians, as well as fresh food and general stores.

As of January 2024, 17,006 square feet of the current market are currently occupied by 43 units. However, Mr Linch in his report said, “many of the traders are ‘filling’ their space” and believed only 5,000 square feet of lettable space will be needed in the new market.

Mr Orr said the market traders previously had been promised that they would all be moving into the new market, adding, “This is now being taken away and I don’t think the traders were aware of that and that there would be an application process for all traders.”

Tenants association vice-chair Greg McTigue said he believes they were “witnessing the demise of Birkenhead as a market town,” adding, “As far as we can see, they are just going to close what’s left of the market when they want everybody to move but there’s no provision for the larger store holders. For some people, it’s their livelihoods. It’s for people to pay their mortgage.”

Details of the Argos plans and how much the local authority was initially proposing to spend on it were first reported by the LDRS, months before this was acknowledged by the local authority. A report was also leaked that made a damning assessment of the market as well as a number of recommendations.

Pointing to this, Mr Orr said, “It feels like the traders are caught up in it. We have had meetings with them where they have had several opportunities to tell us about those reports but nothing. It feels like such a slap in the face to hear about it through the press.”

Terry O’Reilly who runs the Just SpecsOptical was one of the traders who put forward the St John’s proposal. He said the leaked document reported on by the LDRS “goes in line with everything we have been saying.”

He said, “You just have to talk to someone in the town who has been here for 20 years,” adding, “Put it this way, Costa and Greggs have their own teams in terms of assessments. Why aren’t they going to Princes Pavement? Why are they going to St Johns?”

The council report said the St John’s proposal “would only be able to offer trading space to a limited number of existing market traders” due to its size and would likely run at a deficit of £142,000. If it were to expand, this would be more difficult due to the new Coffeee House cafe next door.

When previously asked why the council was putting Argos forward in December, Wirral Council leader Paul Stuart said, “The point has been made it is not too far from the current market,” adding, “I like most people have never seen behind the counter so when I went and saw the other side of it. It’s very difficult to understand before you see the total size of the building itself.”

In response to a critical letter from Mr Whitley, Cllr Stuart said councillors would debate the options put forward, adding: “The future of Birkenhead Market is of paramount importance. It will play a vital part in the regeneration plans for the town centre and the Market must be delivered in the right way.”

The previous market plan’s budget would have cost more than £31m with some borrowing and money from land sales called capital receipts to fund it. However, Cllr Stuart said this could not be supported as the council looks to pay back an emergency government loan from 2021 and its current budget for services “couldn’t support the additional borrowing costs.”

He said that in order to fund similar plans, the council would have to look at moving regeneration funds from other projects.

Image: Joe Orr, the chair of the Birkenhead Market Tenant’s Association

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