In Birkenhead there are promises of a brighter future, with major investment plans moving forward for the Wirral town. But on the ground right now, huge challenges remain.
Like the rest of the country, the residents of Birkenhead will head to the polls at some point this year to elect their Member of Parliament. Whoever is chosen will find a town in a state of flux, with potentially exciting times to come, but with real problems too.
Birkenhead, a town where 17% of children live in poverty, has been promised major regeneration plans along its docks and in its town centre helping to reverse a decline. By the next time voters go to the polls, likely in 2029, it could look very different.
But those development plans are not the priority right now for the people running Wirral Foodbank, based on Dock Road. The food bank supports people with emergency food parcels across Wirral but most are based in Birkenhead and Seacombe, some of the most deprived areas in the country. The charity said demand has steadily increased since it opened in 2011 but last year, this soared by 54%.
Manager Richard Roberts said, “The last 12 months was our biggest year on record, we had just over 16,000 emergency food parcels and the main reason was the cost of living crisis. People cannot afford the essentials and the people on the lowest incomes are disproportionately affected.”
The food bank relies heavily on donations to help fund emergency food parcels as well as its Food Bank Plus project, helping people deal with wider issues around poverty such as debt. However, to pay for the surge in food parcels, it had to use £100,000 of its reserves.
Mr Roberts said they had anticipated this but the current situation is unsustainable as demand is not going down compared to last year. 34% of users are also coming in for the first time.
He said support for those on the lowest incomes was not keeping pace with rising prices, calling for a fairer and more accessible benefits system and an increase in the basic Universal Credit allowance. He added, “That will at least keep pace with the cost of living crisis and reform of the current system to make it simpler.”
A similar situation is also being seen at Tomorrow’s Women, an organisation, which acts as a one stop shop for a range of different services for women, including a domestic abuse refuge.
Kate Chadwick, who works there, said mental health, electricity bills, food, and difficulty accessing benefits were regular issues for local people, adding, “At the moment the big thing is finances. We get a lot of people calling saying they are struggling with money. We have had a lot of people saying they can’t afford presents for their children.”
She said she was told by one woman she was going without food so she could get presents for the children.
However on the other side of the town, despite cuts to services and many struggling, Gina Hughes who helps run Our Happy Hub, a community interest company, said positive changes were being seen on the Noctorum Estate with a sense of community returning.
The Happy Hub relies on grant funding to host sessions for people in the community and recently saw its warm hub funding cut that gave people a hot meal. The group is now pitching for funding but Ms Hughes said short-term grants make “it hard to keep going long term especially when you work full-time yourselves.”
Ms Hughes said there were positive changes happening as the EVOLVE project is set to be rolled out in the area. A joint project led by Merseyside Police which allows people and groups to bid for up to £2,000 for projects to help rebuild the communities affected by serious organised crime.
A collaborative group has been set up, a social supermarket, and Our Happy Hubs are also working with nearby schools. Ms Hughes said, “There’s a sense of community, you see the shift totally from the people coming through, it’s just given them a change in perspective that has been dampened for many years.
“The library we have been working with the council to open. There are no shops, there used to be three shops on the estate and now the nearest ones are a mile either way off the estate. The transport links aren’t the best either. I do not think a bus runs past after 5. All those little things over the years which the community has lost so it’s nice to see those things are starting back up again.”
Meanwhile, Wirral Council will be hoping ambitious regeneration plans along the Birkenhead docks, Woodside, and the town centre can be delivered and the next government will be holding the purse strings to do this. The projects hope to bring in new jobs, businesses, places to eat and drink, parks, as well as thousands of new homes.
Chris Lee set up Start-Yard, a new creative hub in Birkenhead that has created a space for new small businesses to establish themselves. The hub is set to expand and with more businesses moving to Birkenhead, he hopes this will help bring people back to the town.
He said, “We are at the start. It’s a good start and there’s lots to go on. I am really positive about the way things are going and if Start Yard is a barometer of what is going to happen, we are in a good position.”
However, he thinks Birkenhead needs to be made more attractive for businesses, adding, “Birkenhead at the moment, it’s quiet. It’s a town but the shopping offer isn’t that good, the retail offer isn’t that good, the nightlife isn’t good, the restaurant culture is none.”
He argues a package should be put together marketing Birkenhead highlighting “what things it offers that is different or over and above other towns,” adding, “One of the things that Birkenhead needs to get known for is why it’s a place to grow and start your business.”
He said, “The rail network is fantastic, it’s more affordable. It’s close to Liverpool and only a mile from Liverpool city centre. The Baltic Triangle is actually further away.”
He points out places like Start Yard support new businesses which help bring young people into the town who will spend money there if new bars, nightlife, and more of a cultural offer is created. He added, “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because it attracts people in but you have got to make it work. Things are happening but I just want it to happen quicker.”
Image: Ryan Warburton