After years of false dawns and undelivered plans, Muse Developments, in partnership with Wirral Council, is determined to deliver real change in the town.
In 2019, Muse and the council joined together to form The Wirral Growth Company. Joining up with Muse made sense – the developer has a strong track record for delivering regeneration schemes and delivery is something the council needed.
With the new joint venture came a stream of ambitious plans for regeneration – a £1bn masterplan with offices, apartments, a hotel and more.
Place North West met up with Mike Horner, development director with Muse, for a walkaround tour of Birkenhead to get a better idea what the community’s future looks like.
Offices in Birkenhead
In July, Wirral Growth Company secured approval for the first phase of its town centre overhaul: two offices totalling 150,000 sq ft.
The larger of the two will be nearly 90,000 sq ft and be the new council offices. Up to 800 administrative staff will be relocating to the property. The smaller of the office buildings is 58,000 sq ft and will be let on the open market.
Horner recognises the importance of getting this element right in order to instill confidence in residents for phases yet to come.
“If we get off on the wrong foot, then it’s an uphill struggle,” he said. “But if we can take people with us as well, they’ll see what we’re doing, embrace it and encourage us to do more.”
In addition to the first 150,000 sq ft, later phases of the 27-acre masterplan include an additional 130,000 sq ft of workspace.
Building offices in Birkenhead, which is close to Liverpool, could be a shrewd move. Liverpool has a notoriously paltry pipeline of office stock, so occupiers looking for space in Merseyside may well look at the other side of the Mersey as a viable option.
Offices, “sadly lacking” in Birkenhead according to Horner, will be a welcome and necessary introduction to a town centre that has long been dominated by retail.
The Pyramids and Birkenhead Market
The Pyramids shopping centre is a hulking, impenetrable brick structure that dominates a large chunk of Birkenhead. Councils across the country have mobilised to acquire similar assets over recent years, but Birkenhead’s shopping centre remains under the ownership of the Mars Pension Fund.
While Wirral Growth Company will have little control over the future of the Pyramids, one element of Birkenhead’s retail landscape that the JV is aiming to overhaul is its ageing market.
The former House of Fraser building, which the council bought earlier this, has been earmarked as the site of a new, smaller, more modern market.
Altrincham is often cited as an example of the catalytic impact a market can have on a town centre, and Muse is planning to do something similar in Birkenhead, with a focus on food and drink.
However, convincing traders that occupy the existing outdated market that change is good is an ongoing battle.
“Initially, people are always a little bit sceptical,” Horner said. “But ultimately they want to move forward and be successful. You’ve got to embrace change and allow it to happen.”
The importance of flexibility
A key element of any town centre regeneration strategy is homes, and Muse and the council plan to deliver 650 in Birkenhead over the next 15 years.
But it is not just residents the growth company is targeting; it wants to boost the town’s visitor economy too.
“Birkenhead is a sizable town that is punching well below its weight,” Horner said. “We need to give people a reason to visit and work in Birkenhead and get to know it.”
The scale of the Birkenhead project provides ample opportunities to create spaces to allure visitors. The development site comprises 10 plots and spans 27 acres from the market north up to Price Street.
Having such a sizeable chunk of the town at your mercy allows for in-built flexibility.
“If you’ve got a masterplan that has a variety of different plots as ours does, you can develop and maintain momentum in line with the market,” Horner said.
“Today a plot might be [designated for] an office building but in five years’ time it might make more sense to put residential on that plot. It is absolutely crucial that you have flexibility within your parameters from day one.”
The vision of delivering a modern, and fit-for-purpose Birkenhead took a huge step forward last week when Canada Life Asset Management agreed to back the first phase of offices with a £75m loan.
This is a vote of confidence and one that the council has worked hard for. In teaming up with Muse, the authority has shown it is serious about putting in the hard yards to bring about change.
Canada Life’s investment is also tangible evidence to present to those people who have criticised the council for not acting in the past.
“We have come in to work alongside the council to make sure things do happen on the ground and that local people start believing in the change and feel positive about their town and it’s future,” Horner said.
“We are starting to see that now, which is great.”