At Morrisons' car park in West Kirby a woman drives up in a Rolls Royce and a fur hat. She is not the least bit aware that she looks ridiculous, and waves regally to another woman in a fur hat. The wind off the Irish Sea whips around them. As they hurry into the supermarket, they don't even glance at the amazing view, a vista of water where the Dee estuary meets the world.
No-one in the genteel Wirral resort of West Kirby can remember any fuss being made when the hulking red-brick supermarket – formerly Safeway – was plonked on this prominent site on the seafront. But everyone in West Kirby knows about the fuss being made about the plans to put a £10m hotel on the public car park in front of Morrisons, as part of the plans to regenerate the town and its neighbour, Hoylake.
"It's not that we're against redevelopment," says local Conservative councillor, Gerry Ellis, "It's just that what the developer is putting forward is much too big for the site. The original plan was for a two-storey building, with 40 bedrooms. Everything has had to be doubled, because we're told it wouldn't be commercially viable otherwise."
Plans for the hotel, known as Sail, are being developed by Carpenter Investments, owned by Alan Beer, director of Wirral-based Beers Timber & Building Supplies, and Dave Brewitt, who owns and runs the Hope Street Hotel in Liverpool. The company won the bid after a competition held by Wirral Council, and have engaged cool London-based architects Studio Egret West.
The hotel has 80 bedrooms, all sea-facing, a spa and swimming pool, plus retail and restaurant space, and replacement car parking. The scheme will also rebuild the sailing school, which adjoins the Marine Lake. Built in the 1960s, it is certainly past its best.
"I'm a resident in West Kirby," says Beer, "And this spot is the most spectacular on the North West coast. It is however, something of a hidden gem. We believe the hotel will not only be used by local people, but for overnight stays, small conferences, product launches and special events."
West Kirby, developed by the Edwardians into a seaside suburb, has long been popular with day-trippers. Commuter trains take less than half-an-hour to Liverpool Lime Street. Property prices are higher than regional and national averages; at least £300,000 (Land Registry), and reflect the fact that most of the local money is earned in the cities of Liverpool, Chester and Manchester. There is a moratorium on residential new-build.
Beer and Brewitt believe that West Kirby could become the seaside destination of choice for discerning visitors from Manchester and beyond. The scale and design of the hotel matches their ambitions. You can see why conservative locals are unhappy, but it does respond to the site quite spectacularly. "There is no reason why this building can't be a Stirling Prize winner," says Brewitt.
The town centre is compact, and at lunchtime, populated mostly by older shoppers and well-heeled mothers wheeling children in buggies. The butcher is doing a brisk trade, the cafes are busy, but there are noticeable empty units. Some of the shops still have glass and wrought iron canopies; there are plans to renovate these as part of Wirral Council's regeneration masterplan, which wants to turn West Kirby into "an accessible, attractive, elegant 'classic resort', with the potential… to evolve into a regional recreational resort".
Talk about changing hearts and minds. Usually it means persuading the beleaguered residents of some post-industrial slum that demolition is the best thing for it. But in West Kirby, it is a much more subtle process. It's as if the town is standing on the edge of modern transition, looking in and wondering if it dare jump. The prospect of change goes beyond the physical environment; it threatens the very social fabric of the place.
"The golf club is such a dominant force around here," says one mother in her forties, understandably wary of giving her name. "It dictates the social life, even amongst the younger end. There has to be an alternative to that – I know there is an alternative to that – so why can't we have it in West Kirby? I think this hotel could be what some of us need."
Kevin Adderley, head of strategic development for Wirral Council, has heard all the arguments about why West Kirby doesn't need regenerating. But, he says, "We do need to safeguard what we have got. It is clear that West Wirral is an extremely important asset, not only for leisure, but when it comes to companies relocating and looking for somewhere which can offer a good lifestyle minutes from a wonderful beach and a wonderful seaside town like West Kirby."
The ripples go further than the new hotel and sailing school. The Concourse sports centre, an ugly concrete block, looks like it could be heading for the skip. And along the seafront at the Sunset Lounge bar, proprietor Roger Jones has been given notice to quit. The Sunset Lounge, built as tearooms in the 1930s, adjacent to Coronation Gardens, is like an over-sized beach chalet with amazing views out across the Marine Lake towards Wales. With its mismatched chairs and beer mats, its ramshackle charm offers a refuge for West Kirby residents who don't aspire to wear fur hats to the supermarket.
"The council are planning to redevelop the park, and it looks like we're having to go with it," says Jones. "I'm gutted, obviously. There is nowhere else like this in West Kirby, see how welcoming we are to everyone…" – he gestures at an elderly lady in a wheelchair, bundled up in a blanket sipping a cup of tea – "the mums come here after school for a glass of wine while the kids play in the park. Where will they go now? And we have the only loos along here since the public ones were closed."
So what's in the plans when the sun finally sets on the Sunset Lounge? "What we are looking for, halfway along the prom, is more of a destination, more of a sort of a higher quality food and leisure offer," says Adderley. The big story in West Kirby is obviously the big hotel. But it is clear that this is not the only regeneration game in town.