Long in decline, Birkenhead has started out on what will be its biggest transformation since just after Second World War with new investments potentially worth up to £10bn. Tony McDonough reports
Birkenhead is to undergo its biggest transformation since just after the Second World War in a regeneration plan that could leverage up to £10bn in investment.
In an interview with LBN, Wirral Council’s head of regeneration and place, Alan Evans, said a number of projects are, or are about to, get under way that will reverse decades of decline and decay in the Liverpool city region town.
They include thousands of new homes, 150,000 sq ft of new office space, a new market, demolition of the flyovers close to Birkenhead Central Station, a reworking and simplification of the road system, a reconfiguration of the Pyramids shopping complex, a new market and a new £13m ‘linear’ park. More projects will follow.
Wirral Council has secured close to £100m of funding from both the Government and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority to kick-starts its transformation. This, said Alan, could leverage more than £4bn in private sector investment in the next few years.
And when this is combined with Peel L&P’s Wirral Waters projects, worth an estimated £5.5bn over a number of years, it adds up to the rebirth of Birkenhead that could see a total investment of up to £10bn.
Over the past 20 years, Liverpool has been the recipient of billions of pounds of investment. Thanks to projects such as Liverpool ONE, the waterfront arena and convention centre and the £400m Liverpool2 container terminal, the city has enjoyed an economic renaissance.
However, just a mile across the River Mersey, Birkenhead has seen this new era of growth and prosperity largely pass it by. It is a town with a great history. Monks at Birkenhead Priory, Merseyside’s oldest existing building, started the world-famous Mersey Ferries there in 1150.
In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution saw Birkenhead take off and become a centre for shipbuilding and other industries. In 1801, Birkenhead’s population numbered just 110. A century later it had swelled to almost 111,000 and in 1951 the population totalled more than 142,000. However, in the 2011 census it had plummeted to under 90,000.
Now, thanks to investment from both the public sector, major financial institutions and local entrepreneurs, the recovery of the town is well under way.
Alan Evans has already completed the overall strategic plan for the town – Birkenhead 2040. Next job for him and his team is the working up of the detailed masterplans for the individual elements which will go out to public consultation in the next few months.
“This is the first strategic plan for Birkenhead since 1947,” he said. “We are building investor and developer confidence and we are now seeing a significant amount of interest from private sector and institutional investors. We have also sought to be a catalyst for business growth but we have never before had the kind of investment proposal that we have now.”
There is already clear evidence of this claim. In the last few weeks it has been confirmed that international institutional investor Canada Life Asset Management has agreed to fund the £75m construction of two grade A office buildings in Birkenhead town centre.
Comprising 90,000 sq ft and 60,000 sq ft, the larger of the two buildings will be occupied by Wirral Council staff with the second building being made available to the local market. The development is being brought forward by Wirral Growth Company, a joint venture between Wirral Council and Muse Developments.
It is a huge statement of intent for the town. It offers sharp contrast to Liverpool where the city’s commercial district has seen its pipeline for grade A office space dry up, with no sign of any new stock coming out of the ground.
But for Birkenhead, this is just the start. Wirral Council has been more successful than any other of the six Liverpool city region local authorities in applying for regeneration cash from the various Government pots.
It has secured £25m from the Town Deal Fund, £24.7m from the Future High Street Fund (with a further £3.4m for New Ferry a few miles up the road), £19.6m from the Levelling Up Fund and up to £24m will be pouring into the town from the Combined Authority. Here are just some of the projects coming down the line:
New road infrastructure is to be created that will see the remodelling of the network that will remove barriers between the town centre and the waterfront. The current gyratory, confusing for both motorists and pedestrians, will be replaced by a single road.
A disused railway line that once served Birkenhead’s bustling docks is to be transformed into a £13m ‘linear park’ linking the town centre with Wirral Waters and the waterfront. And the Dock Branch Park project will also open up areas of land next to the old line that could see the construction of up to 1,000 new homes.
Originally built in the 1840s, making it one of the oldest railway routes in the country, the line runs from Hind Street to Birkenhead’s docklands. Carrying freight to and from the waterfront, the line was closed in the 1960s as the docks declined. Now it is to form a new route for walkers and cyclists.
Woodside Ferry terminal, which is already home to a new food and drink hall and outdoor ‘makers’ market’ will also be revamped in a major project starting next year. The existing landing stage, which has come to the end of its natural life, will be replaced.
And the historic U-Boat tourist attraction, next door to the terminal building, is also to get a refresh. This will be overseen by Big Heritage, the company that operates the successful Western Approaches attraction in Liverpool.
Around 1,400 new homes will be built in Birkenhead thanks to an £8.3m project to remove two flyovers in the town paving the way for the construction of 1,400 new homes.
Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s Transforming Cities Fund is funding the demolition of the flyovers in the Birkenhead Central station/Hind Street area, paving the way to create a brownfield site for residential and commercial development.
There will also be a re-alignment of the highway network to ensure routes into the town centre and the tunnel are maintained and improved. The aim is to improve the gateway to Birkenhead town centre by creating a new community of homes and businesses.
The first phase is planned for 2023/24 and will include cycling and walking infrastructure. Alan Evans said: “We also want to create a garden village on the site – build a real sustainable community. You can be in Liverpool by train in five minutes and in Chester in 30 minutes so it can be an ideal commuter location.”
Wirral Growth Company acquired the former House of Fraser department store for £2m earlier this year. It will demolish the 70,000 sq ft building and construct a new market that is expected to open in 2024.
The original plan was to demolish the old 90,000 sq ft market well before the new one was complete and relocate the traders to a temporary facility in St Werburgh’s Square. However, the traders were unhappy with that plan and they will now stay put until the new market is ready to occupy. Alan said the council was looking at making improvements to the current market.
Outside the main indoor shopping centre is the Pyramids precinct which contains multiple retailers. It has a tired and rundown look and feel. The council has spoken to its owner, the pension fund of confectionary giant Mars, with a view to a refresh with fewer shops units.
Alan believes by working with everyone involved they can create a more modern and vibrant retail core. The new offices being built are adjacent to the shopping complex and have the potential to offer significantly increased footfall.
First unveiled more than a decade ago, the £5.5bn Wirral Waters scheme, on the so-called ‘Left Bank’ of the Mersey, has seen a number of false starts but work is now well under way on a variety of projects.
It is already home to Wirral Met College and call centre operator The Contact Company, and now other developments are emerging on the huge waterfront site. It is based around different neighbourhoods, including Four Bridges, Northbank and the MEA Park.
Work is well advanced on the first of 1,100 factory-built ‘modular’ homes that will be ready for occupation in spring 2022. They are being accompanied by new public realm that will open up parts of the site out of reach to the public for more than a century.
And not far off completion is Hythe, a 25,000 sq ft speculative office development that will offer grade A flexible office space aimed at local SMEs. Peel L&P has secured £8.5m from Merseyside Pension Fund for the project and support from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.
It is hoped work will begin soon on the £23m Maritime Knowledge Hub that will incorporate a Victorian hydraulic tower and the MEA park will be a waterside manufacturing, logistics and distribution campus.
“Peel L&P are doing a great job at Wirral Waters,” said Alan. “We have been working with them over the past 18 months to make sure we provide a link between the development and the town centre.”
Small business entrepreneurs are already busy helping to create pockets of activity around the town. Woodside Area Community Interest Company is behind Woodside Ferry Village which has become a real destination venue.
Inside the ferry terminal are a number of well-known food and drink operators, including Bacaro, Caffe Cream, Sukhothai, Cowfish Smokehouse, EastZEast and the Refreshment Rooms. Outside of the venue a regular ‘makers market’ has been established offering flexible retail space for local independent businesses.
Make CIC has set up home just off Hamilton Square. Its model, successfully established in Liverpool, brings together skilled makers, artists and entrepreneurs to create a collaborative, creative environment. Its Birkenhead base now has around 40 tenants.
A new ‘work village’ called Start Yard has been set up by Chris Lee in a former industrial garage building next door to Birkenhead Priory and Cammell Laird shipyard. It is aimed at entrepreneurs in the early stages of their business development and comprises 16,000 sq ft of space.
Alan Evans says the transformation of the town has started in earnest and wont be stopping. He explained: “It was evident that we had to regenerate Birkenhead. But some people told us it was not possible and others said it would not happen.
“We have quickly gone from having a series of good ideas to a number of investable propositions. We are driving a new future for Birkenhead. Our role in terms of place leadership will be critical to delivering that. We are creating lots of little sparks that will turn into a roaring fire.”