What market traders think of independent M&S plans

Birkenhead Market traders welcome the idea of a move to Marks and Spencer over fears decades-old family businesses will have to close.

Traders at the market which has existed in some form since 1835 are currently looking to go their own way following a controversial decision by Wirral Council to turn a former Argos unit on Princes Pavement into the market’s new location by 2026.

Alan Featherstone, who runs the Big Flower Shop with his son Will, is speaking to Marks and Spencer about using their vacant unit.

Marks and Spencer left the store in 2018 and is signed onto a lease until 2042 for £235,000 a year according to a property document. In an email sent to Mr Featherstone, the company said it is open to letting a new Birkenhead Market be run from the premises.

Mr Featherstone said his plans would complement Birkenhead’s regeneration. He told the LDRS, “It’s trying to move forward in a positive way. All traders want this,” adding: “I want the council to see the logic in this, see it as a good idea for the town centre and traders.”

The idea of a new market in the vacant unit on St Johns Square was first put forward in 2019 and proved popular with traders. However, Wirral Council considered it too expensive as Marks and Spencer would have to give up their lease at the time and the local authority didn’t own the Pyramids Shopping Centre.

The new proposal has received the endorsement of the Birkenhead Market Tenants Association which said traders were in favour of the idea. Those who spoke to the LDRS praised its location and size, feeling like it was the only option they have left.

Mike Eccles’ family has been running Billy Hills Curtains for 76 years first opening in the market in 1948. He said, “I am 100% behind the idea because there’s no alternative. The size of my business, there’s just not going to be enough room in Argos. Apparently, we have to apply for a position. I have got a business that has existed for three generations.”

He said, “It’s got great advantages. It’s right in the centre of the shopping area. There is a lot of footfall generated in the square. Unfortunately, if we are pushed into the Argos my business is going to fold.

“I couldn’t afford to spend fortunes on the shop. I am desperate to keep it going because I have two workers and I have several outworkers who rely on my business for their livelihood. There’s a lot of people dependent on this business directly or indirectly.

“The number of customers who agree saying we are really hopeful you do go into M&S because the Argos isn’t good enough. Nobody wants Argos at all. This is coming from the public, not just us traders. They say we are keeping our fingers crossed that you do manage to get in there.”

Terry O’Reilly who runs Just SpecsOptical said, “M&S is in a really favourable position. A lot of customers say they would prefer the market to be more in the position of M&S. It’s right in the centre of town and it would fit all traders. It wouldn’t close down businesses.

“What it shows is that they haven’t listened to us at any point or anyone who lives in this town about where to put the market.”

While he has considered it, Mr O’Reilly said, “Not everyone is in the position to move out. There is safety in numbers. If M&S came off, I would put my shop in there 100%. I would be with my friends and I think it would do great. It’s just unfortunate that it wouldn’t be the money the council would have spent on a new market.”

However, there was a strong feeling amongst other traders Wirral Council may look to stop the plans. In order to set up a market in Marks and Spencer, Mr Featherstone has to apply for a market rights licence and the local authority as the shopping centre owner will have to agree to the subletting.

Tommy Roberts

Tommy Roberts of Moneysworth Butchers had once been positive about the council and the market’s future when he spoke to the LDRS in 2023. Now he said, “It just won’t happen, not because people don’t want it to happen but the council will force it to not happen. The council wouldn’t allow it. How stupid would they look? They spend all that money on Argos and we all go into M&S.

“They may give them the licence but they would find a reason to take it off them. They will put a brick wall in front of it. I can’t even explain how bad it is. I would like it to happen but I can’t see it. I can’t see Argos happening either.”

Joe Orr

Joe Orr, chair of the tenant’s association, said, “I do feel optimistic. A locally run project like that would be a lot fairer for the traders,” adding, “I feel like it’s the only option for traders because of the size of Argos.

“I would like to say this is what happens when you do not have a consultation with the traders. Argos is the result of no consultation or not listening to anybody. I do not feel like they have listened to the traders, customers, or community. Everyone thinks it’s a bad idea.

“There are examples of successful projects similar to this around the country which do work and aren’t council run. If the council isn’t prepared to create a market that is big enough for everyone then traders do not have any other option but to go it alone. We have had a lack of support and a lot of promises. They never listened.”

The Argos proposal was approved by a majority of councillors with Labour and Conservative support but has been heavily criticised by Wirral’s Green Party and Liberal Democrats. The local authority said the new market will “breathe new life into Birkenhead town centre” and Argos is “both large enough and keeps the market close to the town centre, while also being in good condition”.

A spokesperson for Wirral Council said, “Work on delivering the new Birkenhead Market remains a key focus of the authority’s ambitions for Birkenhead town centre. The council will continue to work with the Birkenhead Market Traders Association (BMTA) and engage with traders on the proposals for the new Birkenhead Market.

“The intention is to provide a sustainable and popular market and the proposals have followed a number of meetings between council staff, market experts and those trading at Birkenhead Market to find the best way this can be achieved.”

Image: Mike Eccles’ family have been running Billy Hills Curtains since 1948 and is the oldest established business in Birkenhead Market. Credit: Ed Barnes

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