Council leader says investors still have confidence in regeneration plans

Wirral’s council leader said there is still confidence in the local authority’s regeneration plans for Birkenhead amid controversial changes to the town’s market vision.

Cllr Paul Stuart said he didn’t think investors have concerns or change in perception about the local authority’s ability to deliver its ambitious regeneration plans for urban areas in eastern Wirral. His comments come following a 6 December regeneration committee meeting where councillors dropped the local authority’s original plans to move Birkenhead Market look at three other options.

The council’s controversial U-turn over delivering a brand new Birkenhead Market on the old House of Fraser site on Grange Road has led to criticisms and suggestions that the council appears to be stepping back from its wider regeneration of Birkenhead. At the same time, the council is rethinking plans for a museum and how it will fund a maritime research centre while another project has stalled.

The council’s draft Local Plan is currently under government review and includes ambitious proposals to build thousands of homes across Wirral by regenerating and building on previously developed land rather than on green belt.

However, to get several key projects off the ground, the council could need as much as £350m in a worst-case scenario to make them viable. This means bidding for public money, something Wirral has successfully done so far with over £100m, is crucial going forward.

Wirral Council has now dropped the House of Fraser plans, a key flagship project at the centre of its 2040 Framework for Birkenhead and it is now instead considering options to refurbish an old Argos, create a new market on St John’s Pavements, or refurbish the existing building.

Asked whether concerns were growing about the delivery of future regeneration projects, Cllr Stuart said, “I don’t think so. I think investors, the government and hopefully more of our residents will see we are adapting to the pressures we’re under. We are still having that determination to deliver and get things built with the resources we have got.

“The alternatives if we continued down the track with the House of Fraser site, the money has to come from somewhere so what other projects would people want to sacrifice for the current House of Fraser plan? I don’t think anyone wants to sacrifice some projects in their entirely but that is what would have happened.”

He added, “Hopefully we are still able to deliver something for everybody.”

Asked why the council had changed its plans for Birkenhead Market, he said, “I think we have got to recognise the financial situation that the council is in and that the original plans were so out of budget that we have to be realistic with traders. We have got to be honest even if it is uncomfortable with our residents. It doesn’t negate the excellent opportunities we have got to bring that regeneration into Birkenhead.”

He added, “At what point do you kind of stop? Because I am sure there are plenty of people out there that will have alternative suggestions but at some point, something has got to stop and there is so much that went into the internal design and it was way out of scope. For me ultimately, for me there was one thing to do.”

Councillors at the committee meeting were given the overall costs of the scheme which has increased from £28m to £31.6m but no other details about why costs had gone up. Cllr Stuart said he thought councillors have been provided with enough information but took on board comments about people not being kept in the loop.

Leaked emails also show the local authority’s regeneration director David Hughes ordered officers to stop all work on the plans in May, months before it was public. Birkenhead’s MP Mick Whitley said he heard plans were changing in June but was given assurances this wasn’t the case and the LDRS first approached the council on Argos in July which it denied.

Cllr Stuart said he first heard about the market plans in June or July but said this was “in the sense that people were talking about it but nothing concrete.” He insisted no decisions had been made on the market until 6 December.

On the emails which were made following the purchase of the Pyramids and Grange shopping centres, he said, “I can understand the decision when the council is taking on such a huge asset at that point, then reflect on the projects that we have got before committing into anything further.”

Image: Wirral Council leader Paul Stuart. Credit: Edward Barnes

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