Wirral Council set to miss out on £9m in funding as high interest rates derail Maritime Knowledge Hub plans

Wirral Council is set to miss out on nearly £9m back as it financially backs out of £25m plans for a maritime research hub.

The local authority had previously committed to funding plans for a new maritime research centre renovating the Central Hydraulic Tower on the Birkenhead docks.

Peel Waters, who are developing the docks as part of the UK’s largest regeneration project, said it would be “a pioneering regeneration project which will offer so much to the UK’s maritime sector” and look at reducing emissions in the maritime sector.

Wirral said it is still fully committed to the scheme and will look at contributing finances in the future if a viable scheme is brought forward.

However, it has withdrawn £12.3m from the scheme’s budget this year and £8.85m for the scheme from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority is set to be distributed elsewhere in Merseyside. No funding has been committed towards the scheme going forward.

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 funds of £8.85m.

A 17 January report 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.”

At the meeting, the local authority’s finance director Matthew Bennett said, “There is currently no viable scheme for that project. However, work is ongoing to determine whether a viable scheme is possible and what the funding around that scheme will be and again that will need to be considered.”

He said it was possible the scheme could be brought forward again for funding but added, “This is simply, I suppose, managing expectations in some respect as that MKH scheme in particular was expected to expend money next year which actually in my opinion was unrealistic.”

Peel Waters previously said they hoped to get the scheme off the ground in 2023 after planning permission was granted in March. It previously said it has also spent a significant amount of money preparing the site for development.

Richard Mawdsley, Director of Development for Wirral Waters, said they hoped to see “significant progress shortly,” adding, “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.”

At the same meeting, the council heavily scaled back its capital programme for the current financial year and halved its regeneration budget including funding for any future Birkenhead Market plans. Officers said proposals to spend £125m for the next financial year may need to be revised down in light of this.

Image credit: Ellis Williams Architects

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