Wirral Council faces scrutiny over £1.5m design costs for new market

Wirral councillors have been accused of squandering £1.5m that the local authority spent on developing scrapped plans for a new Birkenhead Market.

Until December 2023, Wirral Council had been developing plans for a new Birkenhead Market on the former House of Fraser on Grange Road in the town. The building is still being demolished but the market plans were scrapped in December.

A motion had been put forward by Green and Liberal Democrat councillors calling for a different scheme to be considered on the House of Fraser site but this was voted down by Labour and Conservative councillors who argued the original plans were undeliverable.

At a Policy and Resources committee meeting on 17 January, questions were raised by Birkenhead councillor Pat Cleary about the costs and if any of the £14m budget had been spent so far. Officers said none of this had been spent so far.

It was previously reported in October that the council spent £1.57m on designing the abandoned plans but this was not confirmed by Wirral Council. However, Wirral Council officers have now said the design costs are around £1.5m but the exact figure needs to be finalised.

The council had hoped to cover the costs using the Future High Streets Fund grant it received to build the new market but it is now expecting to cover the costs from the council’s share of Wirral Growth Company profits. What is left of these profits may also need to be used to help deliver 23 schemes it has received £73m of government grant funding for.

The report said this, and a planned use of £2m to offset costs linked to its offices, “reduces the availability of these funds to contribute towards the market project.”

Cllr Cleary pointed to concerns raised by the council’s independent oversight panel about its regeneration costs, adding, “I think this is a really good example of why we need to keep a very close eye on the delivery plan because we have as you said £1.5m that we are not potentially able to take from the regeneration funds that have been granted to us by government and will be a direct cost to the council.”

On Twitter/X, he said the vote by Labour and the Conservatives “to kill a new market on House of Fraser meant £1.5m was squandered.”

Asked about why his party had scrapped the plans in December, Wirral Council leader Paul Stuart said, “I think we have got to recognise the financial situation that the council is in and that the original plans were so out of budget that we have to be realistic with traders. We have got to be honest even if it is uncomfortable with our residents. It doesn’t negate the excellent opportunities we have got to bring that regeneration into Birkenhead.”

He added, “I am sure there are plenty of people out there that will have alternative suggestions but at some point, something has got to stop and there is so much that went into the internal design and it was way out of scope. For me ultimately, for me there was one thing to do.”

Wirral Council has also significantly scaled back its capital budget for the current financial year and more than halved its regeneration spend. In April last year, the local authority proposed to spend £178m on its capital projects but this is expected to be £97m by the end of the year.

In its Regeneration and Place department, a planned £116m spend has now been revised down to £55.3m, a decrease of 53%. Next year’s capital budget proposes spending £125m on regeneration projects between April 2024 and March 2025 but Mr Bennett said this may need to be revised and plans scaled back again.

The new market’s budget has also been halved from more than £28m to £14m which officers said was to reflect the grant funding available. However, Director of Finance Matthew Bennett said that did not mean it was the only funding available but would be held back until a future regeneration committee decision on what the new market would be.

He said, “What we had originally was something that wasn’t actually deliverable in terms of the finances we had available,” adding: “This corrects that current position but it does not stop the scheme being changed into something else when a viable scheme comes forward.”

Image: The Birkenhead Market plans Wirral Council spent £1.5m to develop. Credit: Wirral Growth Company

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