Historic hydraulic tower faces uncertain future

A historic industrial tower is set to “remain derelict for years to come” as Wirral Council looks to pull out of a £21m project.

The Hydraulic Tower on Tower Road on the Birkenhead docks that can be seen from Liverpool was expected to be turned into a £25m new maritime research centre right at the heart of the Wirral Waters regeneration project.

The business case for the development said it could deliver economic benefits of £18m, 275 jobs, and nearly 50,000 square feet of business, teaching, and workspace.

Though Wirral Council had said previously it had “backed this project all the way” and its support was “the only way to make this scheme viable,” officers are now asking councillors to bring discussions to a close due to potential risks to the local authority at a meeting on 16 July.

The council previously said the project if delivered would be “an incredibly exciting element of the renaissance of the dockland areas” and “play a crucial role in helping us supply the maritime specialists of the future”.

Doubt was first cast over the future of the project after Wirral Council said interest rates had made previous plans to back the scheme unviable in 2023. Following this, the council removed the project from its regeneration programme in January 2024 but in March, the local authority was still pursuing further talks to reach a new agreement.

However a July 2024 economic, regeneration, and housing committee report said that while “alternative solutions may be found in due course,” current proposals would mean “the Council would be exposed to the risk of operating the asset and servicing the proposed lease over a period of 50 years”.

Since March, the scheme had been reduced in size by 10% meaning planning permission would be needed again and the project’s budget which was once £25m has been reduced to £21.1m. £8m of this proposed to be funded through freeport funding and another £1.7m from the council’s Wirral Waters Investment Fund.

Private funding would then be secured through the council taking a 50-year lease on the building and gathering income from occupiers. Though this is considered acceptable for Peel and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, the report said the council’s reasons for investment were more for regeneration and “there are still very significant risks”.

The report before the committee said the council couldn’t predict for the next 50 years. It said while the council had been provided with information about how the project will be funded, it said there was little information about operations or how the maritime aspect “would be developed beyond that of similar businesses being in the same building”.

The report also states a similar project was developed in 2000 in Tranmere but is not currently used by the maritime industry. Council officers said that while a different project, “it does give a clear indication of the type of issues and risks the council could face in the future”.

Richard Mawdsley, development director for Wirral Waters said they were disappointed with the recommendation put forward, adding, “Across the Peel Waters portfolio, it is important to us to respect the heritage of the areas we are regenerating as well as providing opportunities for our current and future communities.

“Wirral Waters sits within an area with a strong maritime history and The Maritime Knowledge Hub would have celebrated this, delivering a genuinely transformative impact for the area and creating jobs for local people.

“The Maritime Knowledge Hub has always been an ambitious and challenging project however these transformational regeneration projects cannot happen without true collaboration and without the support of the local authority, and so we are disappointed to see the Officer’s recommendation not to support the project any further.

“We will look at alternative solutions but without the support of Wirral Council, this iconic building may remain derelict for years to come.”

Image: Peel L&P

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