Birkenhead needs a reason to exist, and for people to invest in it. ‘Failed post-industrial town’ isn’t it. ‘Liverpool’s south bank’ could well be. The town (and Wallasey) is facing a fight for survival, of that there is little serious doubt. Unemployment runs at nearly twice the national average (at 6.6%). Long-term youth unemployment rose by 100% last year, and the towns’ shopping centres are little more than a procession of discount stores and payday loan sharks.
But their lifeline is just one kilometre away. And it might well be a rescue mission that benefits all of us. If only we were brave enough to take the plunge…
Here, then, are seven solid reasons why Google maps needs the word Liverpool to stretch across both sides of the Mersey…
There are currently, separated by just 1,000 metres of water, two councils with a desperate battle on their hands. Budgetary black holes, services in crisis, summers of discontent predicted by Uncle Joe.
Liverpool, over the next four years, has to shed a further £143 million in savings on top of what’s already been announced. Meanwhile, five minutes away by Merseyrail, Wirral Council has to reduce its spending by £100 million over the next three years.
“We have no choice but to become a different Council, and this is going to mean radical and rapid change,” says Wirral’s Council Leader, Cllr Phil Davies. How radical? Withholding care from our most vulnerable, or engaging in a serious discussion about real change for the better? To negotiate, as Nelson Mandela said, about the things that you hold most dear.
Currently, Liverpool Council employs 19,000 staff (over 30 of whom earn over £100,000). Wirral council employs 12,000. Two councils, staring at each other from the banks of the river, running two separate departments for waste, schools, parks and leisure, housing, roads, libraries. Two of everything. And two salaries.
To put this into some kind of perspective, Glasgow Council employs 20,000 staff to keep a city of 600,000 souls running smoothly. The combined population of Liverpool and Birkenhead and Wallasey is 600,000. Yet, because of 1,000 metres of water (narrower than rivers running through many major cities), we have to pay 11,000 more salaries to fund the same level of services enjoyed by Glasgow’s council tax payers.
Does that even begin to make sense? And talk of West Wirral subsidising Birkenhead with greater Council Tax receipts is mere hand-out mentality. The greater gravitational pull of a larger Liverpool (plus the public sector savings) would easily make up for the shortfall.
If the Wirral is split at all, it’s right down the middle – Birkenhead has much more in common politically, culturally and demographically with Liverpool than it does with Heswall and Caldy. Let a leaner Wirral Council cater for the Dee side of the peninsula (let’s face it, they never bought into Merseyside anyway), and worry itself with the stuff that’s relevant to West Kirby (its increasingly aged population, farming, and, er agrotourism) and let the urban heartlands on both banks of the Mersey work together: the synergies are already there, and we laid the cables to connect us all 80 years ago, beneath the Queensway Tunnel. Let’s use them in a more joined up way.
The Prenton Park massive may well shout ‘we are not scousers, we’re from Birkenhead’ – but the tribalism of the terraces isn’t going to get Birkenhead, let alone Tranmere, into the Premier League any time soon. The town is dying. Either we accept managed decline, or we throw a lifeline across the water. Try throwing it west, to the gated communities of Gayton. They’d set fire to it. NewcastleGateshead realised they had more that united them than divided them, and they’ve grown as a result of it. We need some of that thinking here. Only Birkenhead doesn’t have any value as a brand. So it should make way for the money shot.
Peel wouldn’t say so publicly, they’re far too shrewd (unlike us), but the Liverpool City Region is nothing more than a municipal fudge. Secretly, they see Wirral Waters (main pic) and Liverpool Waters as the north and south banks of a brave new city: and a river runs through it. Wirral born Peel Development Manager Richard Mawdsley, at a presentation for Wirral Met College last week, said, of the Mersey that it should be seen ‘as a feature, not a barrier’. Currently, as far as Birkenhead is concerned, it’s the latter. A sea-change in the way we see the river is the only way Birkenhead will secure a route out of its problems.
Some are already ahead of us. Stena Line already operates a service they advertise as Liverpool to Belfast – that it technically leaves from Birkenhead doesn’t seem to have stopped the world turning on its axis.
There are many, many cities across the world divided by a river at least as wide, or wider, than the width of the Mersey between Liverpool and Birkenhead. From Louisville Kentucky, to Kiev, Sydney to Seoul – vibrant, economically successful conurbations that join hands across the water. Build a bridge – like the Wonhyo in Seoul (pic), or the 1.5km Paton in Kiev, and suddenly, the Mersey’s banks are closer than ever, and any argument about the two locations being separate becomes all but academic.
Yes, the Mersey should be what connects us, not what cleaves us in two.
People with a penchant for looking backwards, not forward, will claim that Birkenhead, of Viking stock, and Liverpool, of Anglo-Saxon heritage are like oil and water. But is this a valid argument for the 21st century? Yes, the two have proud and discrete histories. And, yes, we’ve got previous form – usually coming to blows over ferry rights. In Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England, Birkenhead’s right of ‘ferryage across the Mersey, granted by charter in 1318’ was the hot political potato of the 19th century, as Liverpool sought to claim the river rights. Fortunately, these days, we have Merseytravel. And they rule over everyone.
Every major city in the world is, as the cliche goes, a collection of villages. A city in pieces and parts: distinct regions, each with their own identity, history and rhythms. London’s boroughs, New York’s, even Paris’ arrondissements are, at once, separate entities and part of a greater whole. Birkenhead’s identity, I’d argue, wouldn’t be lost, but strengthened. Look at how distinctive New York’s East Village is, or the Rive Gauche of Paris. Yet, conversely, how little known Almada is (it’s on the opposite bank of the River Tagus to Lisbon, but because it doesn’t sit under Lisbon’s jurisdiction, the pleasant town doesn’t benefit from the pull of the city’s brand. And doesn’t get anywhere near the same tourist cash.) Which brings us to…
Where does the Grand National take place? Aintree? Liverpool? Sefton? Liverpool can’t say it’s a city-based race, for fear of seeming predatory towards its geographical home, Sefton. But no one in the world thinks the Grand National is a Sefton race – no-one other than Sefton councillors, that is. The racecourse ends just yards from Liverpool’s borders, but geography isn’t the issue here, it’s association. Liverpool is the brand. And the brand’s hero shot? Liverpool’s iconic waterfront. But for tourists wanting ‘that’ snap, the only way to get it is to hop over the water (it’s incredible at Seacombe Ferry at dusk!)
Hotels along the Birkenhead waterfront (one train stop from Liverpool ONE, remember) would have the view. But try getting a tourist to stay in Birkenhead. No chance. Try getting a tourist to stay on Liverpool’s south bank, in the cultural ‘Birkenhead’ district – a stone’s throw away from Hamilton Square (second only to Trafalgar Square in London for having the most Grade I listed buildings in one place) and, voila, a desirable tourist district emerges. See, it’s all about the association. Not the place. Cities with an easygoing ‘south bank’ see a healthy spike in tourism (Stockholm’s Södermalm (pic), London’s south bank, New York’s Brooklyn). These Sunday morning decompression zones, away from the buzzing nightlife and shopping of the centre, but comfortably close to dive into them, are tailor-made for tourism. And no-one’s arguing against tourism as Liverpool’s most-likely lifeline. Liverpool’s compact core doesn’t have a chill out zone. Yet.
The Wirral is already beating Liverpool when it comes to great restaurants, so why not turn Hamilton Square into a dedicated food zone, like London’s Borough Market? It’s closer to the city (and prettier) than Lark Lane.
Which brings us to…
We all know about the unholy mess surrounding the Liverpool Marathon – with ‘commercial pressures’ (read Liverpool ONE, we’re guessing) putting a dampener on the proposed route and, to date, cancelling the event altogether. A suggested alternative, to finish in Birkenhead, was given short shrift. But if Birkenhead was a district of Liverpool, would it seem quite so ridiculous a proposal? Liverpool’s Strand is an important artery to cut off. Birkenhead’s Woodside (or the handsome piazza outside the Town Hall) would make for a suitably grand finishing line. It’s just, well, it’s just not Liverpool. New York’s Marathon (which jogs through all five boroughs) finishes in a park. Why can’t ours finish in the world’s first public park? In the Liverpool district of Birkenhead?
Hamilton Square was modelled on the graceful geometry of Edinburgh’s New Town: a place with more squares than a Moleskine geometric jotter. Lively ones, too. Sadly, Hamilton Square is windblown and forlorn these days. Birkenhead’s Town Hall ceiling still sags, while the Council dither over its future use, and a John Peel centre for performing arts seems an ever-diminishing pipe dream.
These days, the town hall’s only use is for births, deaths and marriages. The town itself? Always the bridesmaid. But the waterfront, the Square, and the swift transport links make riverside Birkenhead the perfect backdrop for concerts, Biennial installations, film locations pop up markets and expos. All we need is Liverpool.
There is no doubt, Liverpool is a strong global brand. Next year, the International Festival for Business will see 60 days of business expos, seminars and keynotes. Business leaders from across the globe will descend on the city. And event organisers, Clarion, have scoped out 70 venues across Liverpool to host talks, dinners and award ceremonies: but none in Birkenhead. Wasted opportunity? We’d say so. Imagine all those photo opportunities of ‘that’ view, from Wallasey Town Hall, or Fort Perch Rock, or Woodside Ferry Terminal?
There is also no doubt that The Great Float, the ‘inland sea’ that runs three miles inland from the Mersey between Birkenhead and Wallasey is unmatched anywhere along the north bank of the river. It is, simply, prime business real estate (with that stunning view of Liverpool’s waterfront). Unlike Liverpool, where the docks are built along the coastline, and the growth of a new cruise facility must be priority number one, Birkenhead’s inland system etches out a watery wonderland of trade and export opportunities.
The new International Trade Centre (which will be the largest in Europe, when it’s completed next year) will see companies from Asia set out their stalls. But they’re coming because, as Clarion’s James Gower puts it, “they understand Liverpool. It’s a city that punches well above its weight globally.” In other words, Birkenhead’s already trading on the fact that it’s, essentially, Liverpool. And Liverpool? It gets twice the docks, twice the brownfield development sites, and the ability to sell offices with a view to die for. Trade and commerce is our future. We’ve been municipally minded for too long. And whatever you think of Birkenhead as a part of Liverpool one thing’s for sure: it’s gotta beat ‘Liverpool City Region’. New York’s five boroughs work together as one council. Now that’s a city. What say we have a bit of radical thinking for once?
Liverpool can save Birkenhead. But, with a bit of joined-up thinking, we’d say the reverse was also true.
So, come on, tell me. What are the arguments against? Oh and, by the way, I live in Birkenhead, and love it. I’d just like to see it have a future as proud as its past.