The Future is Birkenhead
Over the last few years Wirral Council and partners have been quietly setting the gears in motion on a major programme of regeneration across the peninsula, writes Tom Roberts of Mott MacDonald.
At the heart of the ‘Left Bank’ initiative is Birkenhead, a £1bn opportunity with capacity for 21,000 new homes. Beyond the numbers lies an incredible place packed with stories, heritage, grass-roots culture, and untapped potential.
Make no little plans
Central to Birkenhead’s emerging regeneration story is the 2040 Framework. This is a compelling vision to intensify and repopulate the town, tear down redundant highway flyovers, deliver a new mass transit system, and create green, active streets.
For me, the centrepiece of the 2040 Framework is the Dock Branch. This ‘High Line’-style linear park will sit within the cutting of the former Dock Branch railway line that runs through the town. It’s an infinitely Instagram-able idea that will undoubtably be both major visitor attraction and catalyst to wider regeneration, but also central to health, wellbeing, and low-carbon living. It’s a poetic nod back to the strong connections the town once had with New York City as well.
The 2040 Framework has since been supplemented with an overarching design guide, a series of ‘Neighbourhood Frameworks’, and several more focused masterplans for the most complex sites. Whilst non-statutory, this work will play an important role in guiding change in coming years. A brownfield-first local plan – recently submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for sign-off – is key to unlocking all of this from a planning policy perspective.
This time it’s different
Speak to any long-in-the-tooth Birkenhead resident, and they might tell you that this sounds all too familiar. Of course, there have been previous attempts to lift the town, but timing is everything.
With more than £100m already secured from the Future High Street Fund, Towns Fund, Town Deal, and Levelling Up Fund, Wirral Council have been one of the most successful local authorities in the country at attracting central government funds over the last few years. Several major projects have gone from felt pens to fully funded in just two years. Many will point to Wirral being a swing seat, but it’s hard to argue that the sheer potential of Birkenhead hasn’t been central to these repeat investments from Whitehall.
Layer on top of that substantial contributions from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s Sustainable Transport Settlement and Active Travel Funds, and private capital flowing most notably into the town centre and Wirral Waters – all signs are looking very positive indeed.
Challenges still clearly remain, not least around viability in some areas. A successful outcome on the local plan should at least give investors confidence that values aren’t going to be undermined and chipped away by peripheral development. The major catalyst projects in the town centre and on the waterfront will have the biggest impact, alongside pump-priming investment in the public realm.
Lighting the touch paper
You’d be hard stretched to find a place with the wealth of ingredients that Birkenhead is blessed with: spectacular heritage at Hamilton Square and Birkenhead Park, the value of a waterfront with world class views, and, of course, its proximity to Liverpool. Birkenhead has always felt like a sleeping giant.
Over the last few years, a local cultural renaissance has been building – led by the Left Bank Collective – including new music venues and community gallery spaces. Future Yard is making a name for itself as one of the best new music venues in the country, drawing visitors who previously might never have had a reason to come to Birkenhead.
In a similar vein, the doors of Eureka! swung open at Seacombe Ferry Terminal last week. National Museums Liverpool will open a new transport heritage museum at the Dock Branch. BIG Heritage has also announced its intention to launch a new Battle of the Atlantic Centre on the waterfront. The list goes on…
Early next year, the Northbank of Wirral Waters will welcome its first wave of dockside dwellers. Following that, the town centre will see construction begin on the new market and completion of the first phases of the commercial district.
Bringing all this activity together, a new ‘urban room’ known as “BirkenEd’s Place” will open in the town centre next week, providing an open-door venue where communities can meet design teams, and input on projects as they move through the design process.
To borrow and adapt from Rudyard Kipling’s Birken’ead Drill – this is a place taking its chance and not standing still.
- Tom Roberts is technical principal and cities lead for Liverpool City Region at Mott MacDonald