As we are all well aware, we live in times of austerity, at least as far as national government is concerned. In their turn, local authorities and other public bodies dependent on central funding are being relentlessly squeezed as grants are repeatedly cut. Therefore, it is of little surprise that virtually all of those grant reliant organisations are increasing their council tax or precept by the maximum amount allowed by central government without being penalised – that is, 5.99%.
The latest to fall in line is Wirral Council. Unlike their counterparts across the Mersey, the controlling Labour group is fully aware of the electoral challenge which they face in the forthcoming May elections. Not for them the “luxury” of a virtual “one party state” status accorded to other Labour-controlled local authorities within the city-region (with the exception of Sefton). They have a fight on their hands if they are to retain control of the council.
This partly explains the rush to announce a variety of initiatives, along with concomitant jobs and visible improvements in those parts of the borough in dire need. Ten weeks before the election, mind you, there is little mention of the golf course plans – and higher band housing – proposed for the green belt. No votes there; but New Ferry needs rebuilding and the condition of Liscard has been highlighted of late. However, the biggest challenge remains Birkenhead, home to the iconic Birkenhead Park (the model for New York’s Central Park), and also home to the magnificent architecture of Hamilton Square.
Sadly, much of the rest of the borough’s principal town, like so many other parts of this once-sceptred isle, desperately needs a massive infusion of investment. This partly explains what many see as rash or inflated promises of a number of investment schemes more related to electoral needs than practical viability. The latest which I have looked at outlines a partnership of the council with Muse developments, designed to accelerate improvements in Birkenhead and elsewhere. Apparently, a tentative agreement on this partnership was reached by the council leader with Muse at last year’s MIPIM jolly in Monaco last year.
This joint venture – to be known as the Wirral Growth Company – is ambitious, and I wish the enterprise well, for the good of Wirral and its residents. Yet an investment figure of £1 billion has been mooted, and this is where doubts begin to creep in. It may well only be an aspirational figure, but, amongst the general public, such huge amounts quickly assume the standing of a target figure as their hopes and expectations are raised. Ultimately, that does little for the electorate’s faith in their elected representatives if and when such heady heights of investment fail to be realised.
Surely this is a danger in Wirral. Look at Wirral Waters – ten years into a thirty year time frame promoted by Peel, and aided by the council. What is there to show for it? Very little, to the casual observer. Part of Wirral Community College and Tower Wharf, looking out on a waste land. These two comparatively small developments were themselves reliant on the council’s input and financial support. The council owns the college and Tower Wharf was built by the council in partnership with Longmeadow Estates (now itself in liquidation!).
You might ask: who were the beneficiaries? Well, one was Asif Hamid – call centre operator, chairman of cash-dispensing quango, the Local Enterprise Partnership, and member of the city-region’s Combined Authority alongside Wirral’s council leader. Great play has been made of his job creation at Tower Wharf – 400 jobs have been claimed. Some have questioned this as simply the transfer of pre-existing low-skill, low-pay opportunities from his other Birkenhead sites. Anyway, he now has a modern set of premises at least partly funded by the tax payer.
The other beneficiary is our old friend Peel, who have promised so much but delivered so little. We all remember the false promise of an International Trade Centre, set to galvanise the development of Wirral Waters. It failed to materialise, as did the assurances of Peel protégé Stella Shiu who took up the baton of the trade centre, only for her and the Sam Wa company to drop it somewhere between Birkenhead and Beijing. It was the Financial Times which finally showed this woman to have been a fraud, and she has now happily disappeared over the investment horizon.
Even within the past week, there has been another attempt, according to Wirral Council, to “kickstart” development on the desolate Wirral Waters site. An announcement was made of an intention to build flats on the site at a cost in excess of £200,000 each. The questions again flood in. Where are the affordable homes? Who will buy these flats? Who are they designed to attract? Will flat buyers want to look out on a waste land? I am all for building new homes, especially for those at the bottom of the housing ladder. What I do not favour is building the wrong buildings in the wrong places for the wrong reasons and the wrong people. Nor, if I was a councillor, would I favour presumptuous claims or exaggerated projections for speculative plans put to me by chancers. The last ten years of Wirral Waters is testimony to scepticism.