Talk of regeneration is in the air. But haven’t we been here before? We talk to Wirral Council Leader Phil Davies and ask him: what’s different this time around?
Birkenhead is back in the news; people are talking about the town’s regeneration potential as part of the Northern Powerhouse, do you share that optimism?
Not only do I and my council colleagues share that optimism and sense of potential, in many respects we are pushing and driving it! Wirral has a great history and Birkenhead, in particular, has a strong heritage of innovation and firsts. The original ferry across the Mersey was a King’s Charter 800 years ago to the monks at Birkenhead Priory, Birkenhead Park was the world’s first publicly-funded park, the first submarine was built here, first public trams, first public library outside a major city and first School of Art outside of London.
The town is probably most famous as a seaport and for shipbuilding, and the return of Cammell Lairds to the Birkenhead waterfront in the last decade was a real “feel-good” moment for the town. Since returning, they have gone from strength-to-strength and re-established this side of the Mersey as an important centre for maritime engineering. So it’s easy to see why UK and international investors, looking at the opportunities behind the Northern Powerhouse brand, see Birkenhead, and the wider Wirral, very favourably.
When you talk about Birkenhead’s next chapter, are you talking more about ‘evolution’ than ‘revolution’?
Yes, I think that is probably correct. Clearly the waterfront – the view over the UNESCO World Heritage skyline of our sister city Liverpool – is an obvious regeneration opportunity. Connecting the waterfront to Hamilton Square is another opportunity.
To bring this architectural gem back as the heart of downtown Birkenhead is a key goal. But there is also a touch of revolution as well. We are already attracting new investment in low carbon and clean energy solutions, Unilever – based in historic Port Sunlight – have their Advanced Manufacturing Centre under construction and new digital industries in customer services and logistics have headquarters in the town.
So there is a real opportunity to blend existing advantages in maritime industries, our fast-growing tourism and visitor economy, as well as attracting new industries that tap into our excellent schools and colleges.
The Council is seeking new investment – but what role do existing businesses and organisations play in Birkenhead’s future?
The council, the City Region Combined Authority and other partners are taking the lead on attracting inward investment, but Wirral’s business community are the engine behind both the economic growth we seek, and the social improvements we believe it will deliver. But it is Wirral businesses that will create the jobs, pay the wages, build the houses, offices and new infrastructure which regeneration will achieve. That is why it’s important all parties work collaboratively towards the same objectives.
This may be what is different about the way we are approaching this opportunity to redevelop Birkenhead than, perhaps, previous efforts. Rather than a series of one-off schemes, there is an emerging vision for the whole of Birkenhead. We are looking at how to connect the water with the historic town centre and the shopping district. We are incorporating into our plans the developments on and around Wirral Waters, along the A41, and across the docks and floats to Wallasey.
Some might say this public consultation is simply box ticking; how would you respond to that?
Residents nowadays expect to be more involved in the big decisions that affect them. We are constantly consulting with residents, businesses, service providers and users to shape better outcomes, so I think residents are becoming more familiar, and comfortable, with these kind of consultation exercises.
Gathering the ambitions of local residents, asking questions and finding out what would attract people from across the wider Wirral to re-engage with Birkenhead; discovering what visitors and businesses think brand Birkenhead stands for; is really vital in delivering growth.
Crystal ball time; talk to us about your vision for Birkenhead, 2020?
We first set out the shape of that vision in our Wirral Plan last Summer. We identified 20 pledges that were about making Wirral residents happier, healthier and wealthier by 2020. I am a Labour politician, a Labour leader of the council and, therefore, am driven by improving the lives of residents.
I am optimistic about the future and think if we can deliver regeneration on the scale we are contemplating, by 2020 we can have made some significant progress in repositioning Birkenhead and Wirral in the Liverpool City Region, across the Northern Powerhouse and in delivering better outcomes for our residents.
If we look at the experience of other places that have already trodden the regeneration path we know that it is a long-term project, and that successful regeneration projects have a magnetic effect on future investment.
But we know they start because a large-scale intervention or catalyst occurs – the Olympics in East London, Commonwealth Games in Manchester, The Capital of Culture in Liverpool – the list goes on.
But many, if not all of these schemes, had doubters who said it couldn’t be done – but it was because the will of the people made it happen. There is a great quote I was reminded of in discussions with my team when we were talking about our ambition: “Dream big dreams. Small dreams have no magic.” That seems very appropriate don’t you think?