Wirral Council has budgeted for a nearly £125m spend in the next financial year on its regeneration plans.
This is a huge ramp-up of spending compared to previous years as the local authority looks to move forward with a number of projects.
In the next financial year between April 2024 and March 2025, the local authority plans to spend nearly £125m on several key projects out of a total budget of £127.3m with another £30.7m planned spend on regeneration the year after that.
The local authority said budgets are set for maximum spending and can be later reviewed if necessary to allow funds to be moved. Matthew Bennett, the council’s finance director, at a 12 December committee meeting also said he expected council debt levels to increase in the next financial year to help fund regeneration projects alongside grant funding already received.
When asked for clarification on how much it intends to borrow, Wirral Council said, “Funding and borrowing is kept under constant review and reported to councillors through the appropriate channels.”
In 2024/25, nearly £20m is expected to be spent on regenerating the Birkenhead Waterfront, £25.7m set aside for future Birkenhead Market plans, and a £12.251m spend on the Maritime Knowledge Hub, a new research centre, as part of the Wirral Waters development. Nearly £3m is expected to be spent on buying land.
Major changes to Birkenhead’s town centre including its high street, the junction at Charing Cross, Conway Street and Europa Boulevard are expected to move ahead in the new year after final approval was given by councillors to that scheme. Council officers previously said they expected a contractor to be appointed by the end of the year.
After Wirral Council spent £1.5m to support plans to build 1,600 homes at Hind Street behind Birkenhead Central station this year, it is expected to spend another £42m to move that scheme forward. A planning application for the site is waiting for approval.
In February 2023, auditors raised concerns about the council’s management of the scheme’s costs including the use of consultants. In a council internal report, auditors said there were risks that if “consultants are not commissioned correctly, costs and control of the project will be difficult to control.”
Auditors also warned there was a major risk that “without control over funding and tight control on costs thereafter, the project risks spiralling out of control.” Issues around land sale agreements were also not being reported back to the board overseeing the development.
A number of recommendations were made for the council to clarify how it pays consultants and calling for clear responsibility to be outlined over the business case for the development. Auditors are now examining the council’s management of regeneration projects and whether it has tackled some of the issues raised in their earlier report.
A report outlining their findings is expected in early 2024. A Wirral Council spokesperson said, “Funding for projects, such as Hind Street, is a lengthy process involving partners such as Homes England and LCRCA (Liverpool City Region Combined Authority,) and this work remains ongoing for a number of such proposals.
“The council’s internal audit section plays an important role in helping to ensure robust measures are in place to protect taxpayer money and the recommendations of audit staff are a key part of ensuring this is achieved effectively.”
In the current financial year between April 2023 and March 2024, its regeneration and housing capital budget covering land and buildings is expected to be £52m by the end of the year.
£1.5m of this has gone towards the dropped House of Fraser plans for Birkenhead Market, £9.3m for fitting out its new offices, and £10.5m buying the Pyramids and the Grange shopping centres.
The council’s housing trajectory as part of its Local Plan said no new homes will be delivered through regeneration in the financial year ending March 2024 with 160 new homes the next year. Just over 1,500 homes are expected to be delivered through regeneration over the next five years.
Concerns have been raised by councillors across different political parties about the council’s capacity to deliver its regeneration plans both within its regeneration department as well as in planning and legal. It’s also understood a number of staff working on regeneration projects have left in recent months.
The council said it has appointed new staff, adding, “They are already at work to ensure the authority can move forward on delivering the ambitious regeneration programme.”
One approaching deadline is the delivery of 84 to 89 homes on the former House of Fraser on Grange Road which is now being demolished. The council bought this for £2.1m using housing grant funding cover the costs as part of plans to build a new Birkenhead Market and the homes on the site.
A March 2023 council report said the council had to quickly appoint a delivery partner, get planning permission, start work on the site, and deliver the housing by March 2025 to keep the money, adding, “It is imperative to avoid further delay and commence activity to develop and deliver the projects.”
Leaked emails in May suggest the market plans for the site were later scrapped by officers and councillors in December agreed to drop them. The plans for the site are now being reviewed again but if it doesn’t deliver the housing by 2025, this money could be clawed back by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.
When asked how the council will avoid sending money back, Council leader Paul Stuart said he gets regular updates on the site, adding, “We are all on the same page about delivering because we don’t want to see any money going back and we want to see projects delivered.”
Going forward, Cllr Stuart said he’d “like to see spades in the ground” and hopes the two annexes for Wallasey Town Hall are developed quickly once demolished. He added, “One, we need the housing and two, it’s an awful sight to have two derelict plots of land either side of a Grade II* listed building.”
Asked if any building work will start, Cllr Stuart said this would be outlined in the council’s delivery plan for its regeneration projects but did not give any specifics.
He said the plan should be published in early 2024, adding it was “really detailed and really reassuring and you can see an awful lot of work has gone into that with time scales attached to it so I’m confident that we can deliver our plan.”
Image: Visual of how the Hind Street development could look. Credit: Ion Developments