Leaked emails suggest council officers pulled plug on House of Fraser Birkenhead market plans in May

Wirral Council’s regeneration chief put the brakes on major plans to deliver a brand new market for Birkenhead months before it was public, leaked emails suggest.

In 2021 the council outlined plans to move the town’s market from Grange Precinct to the site of the former House of Fraser store on Grange Road.

The major plans, which would have seen the building demolished and replaced by a £28m new facility were billed as a key part of the council’s vision for a revitalised Birkenhead.

However, no promised planning application was ever submitted for the new market and in September it was revealed the council is now considering instead moving the market to the former Argos building on Princes Pavement.

Wirral Council has repeatedly said no decisions have been made about the market but emails seen by the LDRS suggest council chiefs may have decided to pull back from the original plans months ago.

An email sent by the council’s regeneration boss David Hughes on 18 May, two days after the council publicly announced it had bought two shopping centres in Birkenhead said, “The purchase of the Pyramids/Grange earlier this month enables the Council to review all options for the existing and proposed market. Therefore, with immediate effect, please halt all work on the new market proposals and note that the council are not to enter into any development decisions, agreements, building contracts.”

The email instructed officers not to enter agreements with the council’s joint developer company, the Wirral Growth Company or its partner Muse until further notice and approval by the council’s senior leadership team.

This email was sent months before councillors, the Birkenhead’s MP, and the public knew about a change of plans for Birkenhead Market.

Later that day, council legal officers advised in response, “We need to get everything tied off in terms of where we stand in terms of the position that you outline.  Clearly that means that we don’t sign the Development Agreeement for the market (or the demolition agreement).” The council later continued to develop the plans into July costing it £1.57m as it had already committed to doing so.

A council spokesperson said any final decision on the market is made by councillors, adding, “During this time, the views of all interested parties have played a major role in developing a practical and sustainable solution, and all appropriate processes have been followed and information shared as widely as necessary.”

Birkenhead Market. Credit: Paul Redfern. Commissioned for LDRS partners

A timeline of events

Wirral Council moved ahead in 2021 with plans for a brand new market in Birkenhead on the site of the old House of Fraser building on Grange Road and said it would deliver this by 2025 alongside new housing of between 84 and 89 residential units.

The market proposal was a key cornerstone in the local authority’s 2040 Framework for Birkenhead, an ambitious plan to reshape and develop Birkenhead with thousands of new homes, parks, hotels, offices, and new facilities.

A £28m budget was put forward in February for the site with the market funded through £14.3m of Future High Streets grant funding, selling off land, and using profits from the Wirral Growth Company. The council in July estimated the new market cost was now £31.6m.

When the council announced the market plan in 2021, it said it would be “a catalyst for driving growth throughout the borough” including “delivering a strong and thriving Birkenhead town centre.” It also said there was “a sound basis” for putting it at House of Fraser as a gateway to the town centre.

Using £2.1m of grant funding from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority to buy the site, a March 2023 report later said, “The Grange Road site can accommodate both the new market development and (on the car park fronting onto Argyle Street) the new residential development.” Now the council is now arguing this is not possible.

In March, the plans for the market were being developed with the design changing to a brick arch design, public consultation, and engagement with market traders. This would have been followed by a planning application in the summer of 2023.

On 14 June, the council’s finance director Matthew Bennett said the £8.5m of Wirral Growth Company profits were not yet committed towards the market and was waiting on advice about using them. On 20 June, David Hughes assured councillors there would be no delay in submitting the House of Fraser planning application.

Birkenhead’s MP Mick Whitley said he first heard the market plans were changing in June but was given “firm assurances” this wasn’t the case. In July, the LDRS approached Wirral Council to confirm whether it was planning to move the market into the Argos building. It said it wasn’t.

Earlier in July, officers made a recommendation for councillors to use £2m of Growth Company profits to offset its new office rents and moving out of the Cheshire Lines building. These profits were previously part of the market budget and the report was voted through by councillors.

At the beginning of September, the council revealed its St Werburgh’s masterplan with the market still on the House of Fraser site but later that month, David Hughes acknowledged the council was reviewing the plans and didn’t provide any more details.

After that meeting, the LDRS reported the council planned to move Birkenhead Market to Argos, with a proposed £6m spend. This was when some councillors and Mr Whitley said they first found out.

In November, Wirral Council’s policy and resources committee moved a £12m planned spend on the market back a year and last week, the Argos plans were published in full for the first time ahead of a regeneration committee meeting on 6 December. The council now says this would be a permanent market.

What market traders think of the Argos plans

The 6 December council report said the House of Fraser plans are now unaffordable and cannot be delivered, arguing Argos is a strong alternative proposal accommodating 60 to 70 three-by-three metre stalls.

Councillors are now being asked to take the Argos plans forward with further designs and a market consultant ahead of a new report in the spring of 2024.

But the council accepts that a lack of engagement with market traders means alternatives may need to be considered. Market traders said it was only this week when the papers were published that the Argos plan was confirmed to them.

Meetings will be held with the council on 4 and 5 December but many traders pointed out these will take place just before the meeting on 6 December. A petition opposing the move to Argos has also been set up by Joe Orr, chair of the Birkenhead Market Tenant’s Association, with 1,200 signing it

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

Mr Orr said he wanted to see proper engagement, adding, “There’s been seven proposals so far and if any one of them was good enough, I think the traders would have jumped at the opportunity to grow and change location. The proposals just haven’t been big enough and we’d lose too many traders if we move to Argos.”

Though the market currently only has 44 traders, many say the stalls would be too small and potentially too expensive. Mr Orr said, “My worry is that it won’t work and Birkenhead which is a market town won’t have a market. I think the council aren’t seeing that a good market doesn’t just benefit market traders, it benefits the whole community.”

He added, “We found that one trader wanted to try it. We went around asking traders that simple question, are you happy with Argos and would you go into it? I think the issue is lots will be forced into doing it because they are trying to make a living.”

He wants the council to propose a more central location and some traders suggested developing the area around St John’s Pavements instead but the council said this would be challenging due to plans to develop more offices in the town.

Terry O’Reilly who runs Just SpecsOptical said, “Argos doesn’t look remotely big enough. We said we wanted St Johns, they said it’s just not feasible. To build those offices they demolished a whole run of shops and it would give the market pride of place, it would be beneficial for the whole town.”

He said nearly 30 traders have left since the council took over the market in 2019 and others said more plan to leave with two in the last week. Greg McTigue from Wirral Mobility said he eventually expected only three or four to move into a refurbished Argos.

Trader Lin Henry said, “They promised us a new market and all we want them to do is abide by that promise and if they can spend £6m converting Argos, then surely you can spend half of that bringing this place up to standard. It’s just appalling, we feel neglected.”

Tommy Roberts of Moneysworth Butchers in Birkenhead Market. Credit: Edward Barnes

Every trader who spoke to the LDRS said they are considering leaving or closing down. Tommy Roberts who runs Moneysworth Butchers said, “I am not going to go and I have been here 40 years, it’s just one of those things,” adding, “There is no point spending £6m on a building that you are not going to fill. House of Fraser would have been fine but they never follow through with anything.”

A council spokesperson said, “Wirral Council has been working for several years to deliver a new market in Birkenhead which will benefit the town centre and meet the needs of traders.

“Throughout what has been a complex process of seeking the best way to bring a viable Market option forward, a number of alternatives have received varying levels of consideration.”

The spokesperson added, “No decision has been made on a permanent location for Birkenhead Market. As already indicated, there have been ideas, suggestions and proposals considered to varying degrees of detail for the new market but at this point no final determination has been made.”

Growing political concern over Argos

Politicians from Wirral’s Labour, Green, and Liberal Democrats parties have expressed concern about the Argos plans.

Birkenhead’s Labour MP Mick Whitley said he was alarmed by press reports of the Argos move, adding, “I intend to push the relevant authorities to provide clarity on the future of Birkenhead Market so that the traders can be reassured, so that customers of the market stall can be reassured and so that there is no backsliding on the regeneration plans that can put Birkenhead back where it belongs as a reborn and thriving town.”

Oxton Liberal Democrat councillor Stuart Kelly said, “That’s the problem with this council. Members believe things are happening, things are changing and officers aren’t keeping members informed about what’s going on.”

As the local authority’s planning chair, he said the market was the lynchpin for its regeneration plans, adding, “If we can’t do a market, where do we stand with all the other major schemes that back up the Local Plan?

“If we can’t deliver the local plan, then the green belt becomes more at risk. We really need to get a grip of what’s going on in the regeneration department and give members some confidence that we’re back on track.”

Birkenhead Green councillor Pat Cleary said he had similar concerns and argued council officers hadn’t been tasked with bringing market costs down.

He added, “If we don’t deliver effective, transformative regeneration in Birkenhead, then the wider borough is going to suffer because the green belt will then be exposed to the threat of being built on. This is a concern not just for the people of Birkenhead but the whole public in Wirral.”

The £2.1m Wirral Council used to buy House of Fraser also risks being handed back in March 2025 if residential developments on the site don’t go ahead. The council is now proposing either a pub, wine bar, or bar where the market would have gone alongside the new homes.

The former store is currently being demolished and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority said it was in regular talks with the council “working with them to help develop the right scheme for the site.”

Councillors are also recommended to consider whether the local authority wants to continue with the Wirral Growth Company which was set up “to lead the regeneration of key sites within the borough.”

The company is behind the House of Fraser market development, its new Birkenhead offices, and a housing and Lidl development in Moreton. If councillors do not go ahead with House of Fraser, it will have no live projects after June 2024.

Set up in 2018 under then-leader Phil Davies, it promised to create thousands of jobs for local people, “drive huge growth in the local economy,” and be “perhaps the most ambitious, entrepreneurial and impactful programme the council has ever embarked upon.”

A spokesperson from WGC said, “Wirral Council and Muse enjoy a valuable working relationship through the Wirral Growth Company which has seen a number of high-profile projects successfully brought forward.”

David Hughes, Wirral Council leader Paul Stuart, Cllr Janette Williamson who was council leader until 24 May, and regeneration committee vice-chair Andrew Hodson did not respond to requests for comment. Cllr Andrew Gardner also declined ahead of the 6 December meeting.

Lead image: Argos plans for Birkenhead Market. Credit: Corstophine and Wright

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