The future of Birkenhead Market will be decided in a few weeks' time. This is crucial, not just for the future of Birkenhead, but also for Wirral's precious green belt. Cllr. Pat Cleary explains why.
Wirral’s new Local Plan is currently subject to government examination. The draft plan is based on several key principles which have been unanimously agreed by all four political groups in Wirral (which is under no overall control i.e. no one party has a majority on the council). Those key principles include:
- Housing supply needs to expand significantly. The 15-year supply growth required by the Plan is 6.1% or 13,360 dwellings. Adding a buffer or contingency the Plan targets overall supply growth of just over 16,000 dwellings.
- All of this supply growth is to be achieved in existing urban areas: Wirral’s Local Plan seeks to meet all of the Borough’s housing and employment development needs over the next 15 years within existing built-up areas, largely through the redevelopment of brownfield sites and by putting the heart back into the older urban areas. This is commonly referred to as a “brownfield first” strategy for new housing.
- The regeneration of the wider Birkenhead area is fundamental and crucial to meeting the housing supply figures. Approximately 50% (~8,000 dwellings) of new housing is targeted for this area which is described in the Plan as “nationally significant” in terms of its potential to deliver new housing.
This is encapsulated in the Plan’s 15-year vision for Birkenhead by which time the town will have:
“grown into a thriving urban community on the left bank of the River Mersey. Chosen as home by families and entrepreneurs alike, drawn by the unique, historic waterfront environment and iconic design. A place of creativity, innovation and fun, a place to put down roots. The connectivity of city-living, in harmony with nature. A place with room to breathe and space to grow. We are Re-imagining Re-discovering Re-connecting Birkenhead.”
Changing Birkenhead – how it works and feels, how it is perceived by residents and potential investors – is fundamental to delivering the housing numbers and, by extension, protecting the greenbelt.
That’s because of what is often termed “market failure”. Land values and house prices are currently too low to attract private developers to build new housing in Birkenhead. Brownfield land reclamation is expensive and property values are currently too low to justify reclamation and redevelopment. The area needs pump priming with public money to address the cost of new housing supply and improve demand via regeneration.
For that to succeed it’s crucial that the green belt is protected as it will always be cheaper for developers to build on green belt land than reclaim and redevelop brownfield sites.
Simply put, the regeneration of Birkenhead is crucial for protection of the green belt and protection of the green belt is crucial for the regeneration of Birkenhead.
That’s why everyone in Wirral, no matter where they live, should be concerned about and supportive of the regeneration of Birkenhead.
Without a thriving Birkenhead Wirral’s green belt will not be protected.
So, where does Birkenhead Market fit into all of this?
To its immense credit, Wirral Council has been hugely successful in attracting government regeneration funds. The main government schemes have now been combined into one fund known as Pathfinder. Wirral Council’s Pathfinder funds total £73m. This money needs to be spent by March 2026.
A flagship part of the regeneration programme for several years has been a new Birkenhead Market. This would be built on the current House of Fraser site (aka Beatties). It would replace the existing market and link to a refurbished public realm incorporating the new market, St Werburghs, Central Station and the new housing site at Hind Street (up to 1,600) new homes.
To date, at least £600,000 has been spent on designing the new market. Extensive public consultation has been largely positive in its responses. The new building promised not just market stalls, but a badly needed food and beverage offer for the town and a significant residential scheme of over 80 apartments. £2m in additional grant funding for the housing element was also secured.
All in all, a very exciting prospect for the town and something that started to move the dial in terms of how Birkenhead is perceived.
But, recently that narrative has changed.
Earlier this year rumours started circulating that the council’s regeneration team was abandoning plans for the new market due to rising costs and the council’s newly acquired purchase of the Pyramids and Grange shopping areas. Instead, traders would be decanted to the former Argos building.
None of this was discussed with or presented to councillors. No options have been presented to the council’s Economy, Regeneration and Housing Committee. The new market remains a part of the Wirral Growth Company. Its website continues to advertise a new market on the House of Fraser site. This remains the only scheme approved by members.
Alarmed by these rumours, Green councillors have consistently asked for a clear delivery plan for regeneration schemes and full disclosure of options available for Birkenhead Market. Neither has been forthcoming. What we do know following our questions is that at least £24,000 of public funds has been spent investigating a market “decant” to the Argos building. This spend has never been discussed with or authorised by members.
Inevitably, given the lack of transparency, reports have surfaced in the media - Councillors 'kept in the dark' as concern spreads over Birkenhead plans is one recent headline which neatly encapsulates the frustration of elected members who, let’s not forget, are the ultimate decision makers. It is no longer just Green councillors who are raising the alarm. The local MP, members of other parties and the Towns Deal Board have all voiced concerns.
What was an exciting narrative about the creation of a new, vibrant and thriving Birkenhead has become a story about booting market traders into a substandard premises which is described as a medium-term solution at an eye-watering cost of over £6 million. The plans for a new market in Argos flies in the face of all the urban design principles set out in Birkenhead 2040, the delivery framework of the Local Plan.
Shockingly, market traders have not been consulted on this. When ward councillors met with the Market Traders Committee last week there was no support for the proposal. Meanwhile, since the council took control of the market to facilitate the wider regeneration of the town, the number of traders has fallen by almost half and it can now take up to ten weeks for the council to issue a new licence to operate in the market. It is truly shocking how the current market has been mismanaged by the council.
Meanwhile, despite the uncertainty about its future, Wirral Council has begun to demolish the House of Fraser site.
This stuff really matters. The last thing we need is a version of the St Johns fiasco in Liverpool. Plenty of other places have got it right most notably Northgate market in Chester. Ellesmere Port has what look like eminently sensible plans to refurbish its existing market within the kind of cost envelope well within Wirral’s grasp.
There is now a very brief window to rescue this situation. Wirral Council needs to urgently regain and restore the narrative around the future of the market and, by extension, the future regeneration of Birkenhead and the protection of Wirral’s green belt.
December 6th is the date for the next meeting of the Economy, Regeneration and Housing Committee. According to the council’s Chief Executive:
"A comprehensive report (on Birkenhead Market) of the Director of Regeneration and Place will be submitted to Economy, Regeneration and Housing Committee meeting on 6 December 2023".
Green councillors are demanding a full and detailed appraisal of the options for Birkenhead Market. These must include:
- A new facility on the House of Fraser site
- Refurbishing the existing market
- A move to Argos or another site within the town centre.
Such appraisals must be realistically, rigorously and honestly costed, must incorporate the results of public consultations held to date and must reflect the views of market traders. Any recommendations must be consistent with the Birkenhead 2040 framework and the new Local Plan in fulfilling the promise to help transform Birkenhead and protect the green belt in Wirral.
Specifically, assurance is needed for councillors, residents and businesses that council policy has not been changed to property management rather than the regeneration led plan which has been set out and unanimously supported by all parties of the Council.
It's time for the secrecy to end, for open and transparent decision making and for Wirral Council to show that it really cares about the future of Birkenhead.