Wirral Council said it’s still fully committed to £25m plans to build a “world-class” research centre as it looks to put the project on hold.
A report has asked councillors at a Policy and Resources committee meeting on 17 January to remove the project from its regeneration programme “until such time as a viable scheme is brought forward for consideration”.
Another report published by the council shows the £12.3m budget for the current financial year being removed with no money dedicated towards the project in the next four years.
The Maritime Knowledge Hub is a huge project proposed by Peel L&P to transform the derelict Central Hydraulic Tower on the Birkenhead docks opposite the entrance to the Birkenhead ferry terminal.
Planning permission for the Wirral Waters scheme was granted in 2023 and promised “world-leading facilities” researching how to make the $3tn maritime industry more sustainable.
The hub is part of the Wirral Waters plans to transform the Birkenhead docks in one of the largest urban regeneration projects in the UK and has been supported by local and national government.
Despite the pause, Peel said interest from potential occupiers was strong and “hope to see significant progress shortly”.
According to a 2023 council report, the project ran into difficulties due to high interest rates following the government of Prime Minister Liz Truss which made previous plans to fund the project unviable.
It had been agreed in March 2021 that Wirral Council would borrow nearly £12m alongside investments from a Wirral Waters fund of £2.2m, and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority of nearly £9m.
However, the January 2024 report said estimates for how much would be raised through business rates were insufficient meaning more borrowing would be needed. This “would add to the overall capital financing, and therefore revenue, costs through additional MRP (annual charges linked to borrowing) and interest payments.”
It said no viable business case has been brought forward and given the council’s current financial position, “the current balance of financial risk between public and private sector investors within the indicative proposals could not realistically be accepted by the council at the current time.”
The council added because the funds from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority are time-limited, these need to be allocated to other projects so the money can be spent before funding deadlines.
In a 9 January council press release providing an update on its regeneration plans, Wirral council leader Paul Stuart said, “As with any series of major projects on this scale, we can’t do everything we had hoped for, circumstances change, costs rise for reasons such as inflation, and the risks of some projects change and grow such that we don’t feel it is an appropriate and prudent use of council taxpayers’ money.”
A Wirral Council spokesperson said, “The Maritime Knowledge Hub project is experiencing challenges with concerns the robustness of the business plan. The current Capital Monitoring report therefore recommends there is a risk that the project will be stalled whilst these business plan issues are addressed.
“Nonetheless, the council remains fully committed to progressing with this project and will continue to pursue other areas of funding and work with the Combined Authority and Peel to prepare an investable business case for the development of the Maritime Knowledge Hub.”
Richard Mawdsley, Director of Development for Wirral Waters, said, “Occupational interest is strong, including from universities, researchers, small and medium enterprises and private maritime sectors and the Maritime Knowledge Hub is really taking shape.
“The full business case is still in progress, as are our discussions with Wirral Council and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. We hope to see significant progress shortly and to get onsite as soon as possible.”
Image: Central Hydraulic Tower. Credit: Peel L&P