It took less than a year to build, and cost around £30million. And, we have to admit, it’s bloody ugly. But Asda has opened in Birkenhead – and, like some implanted, genetically modified cell, the experiment has begun.
During the past year, traders in beleagured Birkenhead have suffered drastically reduced footfall. During the past generation, this stretch of Grange Road has bulldozed a fine department store (Robbs) built and then demolished another supermarket (what was that? Oh yes, Asda) and seen the steady march of discount stores replace high street stalwarts, lively independents and bustling cafes.
But now the 90,000 square feet centre is open to the public – promising 320 new jobs (although less than half will be full time), and nearly 700 parking spaces (250 more than before) – has it all been worth it? Is Asda the saviour of Birkenhead?
And if so, at what price?
Asda (owned by US retail behemoth Walmart, let’s not forget) offered to pay just £500,000 for the space to build their new retail palace and car parks (pic r), rather than the £2million Wirral Council wanted. What was the final price they paid? We don’t know, because the deal was hammered out in secret.
Still, it’s infrastructure, and it’s new. Previously, the only new builds Wirral was investing in around Birkenhead town centre were parking meters. Every side street, every gas-works approach, every sordid alleyway – stealing from those who are the town’s only carers: the few of us left who still spend money here.
Seriously, parking shouldn’t be free in Birkenhead. We should be paid for visiting. We should be able to park up, go to the machine, and, like a pay out on the Penny Falls, collect a handful of sparkling coins. A ‘thank you for your support’. And a free alloy wash while we shop.
You have to pay at the Asda car park – but if you shop at Asda you get your money back. To us, that seems like another slap in the face for traders who’ve been seriously affected by the past year’s upheavals, and an unnecessary advantage to Walmart – not known for their altruism to competition.
Michelle Monroe, manager of discount store Aladdin’s Cave, admitting: “It’s certainly affected trade in this part of town because it’s gone very quiet around here. It’s like a ghost town.” Other traders talk of takings down 80% year on year.
So what does Asda offer? Well, there’s Ugg-a-like boots, a snip at £17 (why pay a couple of hundred quid? Oh, because you don’t want floppy leg syndrome after a fortnight. OK.), a cafe, deli, and pharmacy. A cacophony of blaring red price points signalling multi-packs of paninis for a quid, aqualungs of cider for £3. It’s not subtle. And it’s not pretty. And they’re piping Nik Kershaw’s ‘The Riddle’ to the pasty faced, dazed shoppers, as they hunt out the cat litter.
A generation ago, they ripped out the heart of a once handsome market town, with its core of tight knitted shop-lined and traffic calmed streets and replaced it with the brutal series of wind-funnelled corridors known as Grange Precinct.
Birkenhead, some claim, is too close to Liverpool to develop a strongly independent offering. Like Mercury stuck in the Sun’s fiery orbit.
We’re not buying it. Birkenhead’s population (around 85,000) is more than Gateshead’s: and there’s a town not afraid of its bigger brother, Newcastle, across the water – bullishly commissioning eye-popping cultural and retail offerings. Did Brooklyn look over the East River jealously, and think ‘Manhattan’s too close. Let’s not bother.’ No. It re-doubled, re-positioned itself, and became a contender.
Birkenhead seems to have accepted its bridesmaid status far too readily. Forget the rollbacks at Asda, Birkenhead’s rolled over. Given up.
Even Oswestry’s come up with a plan to save it from the mighty Shrewsbury, with ‘shop local’ incentives. Remind me, Wirral Borough Council, what’s the incentive for staying this side of the Mersey? Oh yeah, the great view from Woodside.
As Darwin almost said, it’s not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.
There is nothing as depressing as a shopping trip to Birkenhead. And Asda, whatever the soundbites and stats, only adds to the gloom.
And what of House of Fraser? Its shelves are like a bread shop in Kabul. Thinly spread with merchandise where, once, gifts galore used to inspire and detain the Beatties devotees.
I spoke to a cashier in cosmetics. She said that it’s getting embarrassing ‘we’re trying to pad out the shelves with stuff, but we’re just getting less and less stock in from head office. We don’t know what’s going on…’
We do. House of Fraser have lost heart. And, when they go, the last person to leave Birkenhead can turn out Asda’s £5 box of Christmas lights they’ve no doubt lined up Diva Fever to switch on.