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.

David Lloyd

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com Robin

    That snap of the stairwell looks like it should be a front comer for Super Cannes.

    And, though I like Nik Kershaw, I can imagine the juxtaposition was a disturbing one.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David

    Near a tree by a river there’s a hole in the ground, and a three for two on pampers. Never really scanned.

  • KT

    Grim innit. Wirral Council is like a Bannana Republic. That said, Wirral Waters/International Trade Centre etc should raise the game if they ever get it off the ground. May be a little more like Gateshead then.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David

    Yeah. Let’s hope. But I get the feeling I’ll be in Landican cemetery by then 🙁

  • Matt

    It’s a dark place, I used to work in Music Zone before that went bust, we had some genuine good customers but we we’re constantly kicking out drug users and alcoholics for trying to rob stuff, the high street isn’t pleasant. It’s going to take something monumental to change that shopping district and something at it’s very core to change Birkenhead’s negative light.

    PS. We never played Nik Kershaw in store. Ever.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David

    well maybe if you had… Music Zone went spectacularly bust, sadly, didn’t it?(oh, I’ve just remembered MVC! That was a half decent place too.) I wonder how long HMV will remain?

  • James

    Mistakes absolutely have been made over the years up and down the UK, particularly in the 60s & 70s with their builds. Even now, I’m of the view that buildings should have to go before a panel of designers before being allowed to be built. Design is not an optional extra, it’s an essential part of form and function, and ‘good design’ is simply something which achieves what it sets out to do. Unless the objective was to depress the population and send them elsewhere, it would be difficult for me to argue that Birkenhead’s precinct is or ever was a ‘good design’.

    As for what’s happening in the here and now, I think it’s a daft waste that Wirral is separated from Liverpool by authority boundaries. I think it’s true that Birkenhead cannot hope to compete with the status quo, and think it should be a part of a cross-river Liverpool city centre, not some separate entity. Perhaps then it could stand a chance of forging a niche with the Liverpool side able to promote it and push as many of its visitors as possible towards it, without having to consider whether it’s detracting from ‘Liverpool’ businesses and jobs.

    Brooklyn used to be a separate city from New York until sense prevailed, so does Wirral want to be Brooklyn, or New Jersey??

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David

    Sadly, it’s a little bit Staten Island at the moment isn’t it? It is a good point – and odd that such a short stretch of water should make such a huge difference.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com Robin

    Escape from Birkenhead – someone call Kirk Russell

  • Peter

    The people who allowed that ugly building to be built are the same people who got rid of the Arrowe Park Roundabout… We didn’t have a say and they work for us… They are a disgrace..!

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David

    Agree, Peter. And what a disastrous piece of civil engineering that was. And all for the Open in Hoylake, I believe – the BBC’s OB vans not able to get round a roundabout, so they say.

  • Jenny

    I’ve lived on the Wirral for most of my life and grew up shopping in Birkenhead. It’s never been the most attractive or cosmopolitan of places but I still fondly remember the days of visiting Santa in his grotto in the late 1980s in the Co-op and shopping for Christmas presents in the festive wonderlands of Littlewoods and Woolies. Now , all of those are long gone and it’s just massively depressing to visit. I’ve not been since TJ Hughes closed down but I guess that will make the town even quieter. M&S is the only shop I always visit when in Birkenhead and that’s only for the food hall as the other departments are very poorly stocked, uninviting and shabby.

    I lived away for a few years in my 20s, moving back to the Wirral in 2008. Do I visit Birkenhead? Occasionally. But only when I’m in a rush and don’t have time to go to Liverpool or Chester. I even shop in Manchester more than Birkenhead. It really, really needs some decent cafes for starters. There was one semi-decent place – Be Offy or something I think it was called – but I’ve heard that’s closed down now.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David

    Maples Coffee Shop, in Werburgh Square (by the clock) is your best bet now Jenny – although I’d not make a special visit.

  • David Thompson

    It is really sad to see just what a mess has been made of urban Wirral since I lived & grew up in the sunny suburbs of Prenton. The suburbs and the south are as great as ever however Birkenhead through to Liscard is a shadow of it’s former self.

    There has been a lot of new building but it’s been done almost universally badly and where it’s good, such as the Pacific Road theatre and Wirral Museum in the old Birkenhead town hall it’s been closed down or sold off.

    Wirral council should hang their collective heads in shame, especially when you contrast their hapless performance with that of Liverpool which has gone from strength to strength.

    Birkenhead was a vibrant town with a a distinct identity when I was growing up, now it bizarrely looks like an out of town shopping centre or failing business park. Awful and very sad in equal measure.

  • Louise

    Well i happen to disagree, i like the new asda store and think less time should be spent talking about how a superstore should look? even if those jobs that have been created are mainly part time, they are jobs now created in an already tuff climate! Times change and i feel its unfair to make comments about asda when at least someone wants to take an interest in buliding a store in birkenhead! you pay for parking nearly everywere now so stop complaining!

  • R S Davies

    Back in the late ’70’s the migrant workers from the Wirral had a saying, “Birkenhead’s a great place to come from, but terrible to go back to.” And there was a profound element of truth to that, the skilled left for Germany and Holland, and just about anywhere work could found.
    What on earth does anyone do with Birkenhead to create the town that people want? There was a coherent vision once, but the money ran out just before WW1. Then progressively the employers left one by one.
    I recall Birkenhead and the Wirral of the 60’s when it had hardly staggered out out of the tawdry post-war gloom. Men trudging to Lairds or one of the many depressing workshops or offices, waiting for the next lock-out. Or women swathed in cheap overcoats , laden with shopping, struggling to the grime covered terraces and all too often tanked up on Collis-Brown and cooking sherry.
    The sun shone for a short moment in 1972, and then we were hit by the ’73 Oil Crisis and inflation, and everything started to come apart. Even this moment never enjoyed the sense of security that the rest of Britain relished, and exploited.
    And although in our mawkish sentimentality we conjured up some bucolic vision of community, we conveniently overlooked that the Wirral was divided amongst itself. With creation of Merseyside, two thirds of the Wirral wanted nothing to do with the Anglo-Celtic communities of Wallasey, Birkenhead and Bebington. But they commuted in and out of these areas everyday to make their money, and then fled back to the suburban homes beyond the boundaries of the inverted Pale.
    Looking back to that time, who would have known that across the Dee existed another country with its own language, history and culture, and that emigrants from that country lived among us. Where was the celebration and exploration of this diversity? It was best summed up by a comment made by a grammar school teacher, “You dirty hafod dweller” to describe a boy from Snowdonia whose first language was Welsh and stumbled occasionally over English. The Anglo-centric smug Orangemen, clad in their three-piece suits decorated with fob watches and Lodge symbols, whose fear of the new and profound insecurity led to them voicing ideas that denied any sense of unity. But just how much did the religious divisions in education separate us all at birth and deliver up our to the often brutal and perverse Catholic Brothers?
    I suspect that only when everyone on the Wirral recognizes that the only option is to work together for the common good will anything change. Last week I drove from Eastham to the Tunnel, and actually Birkenhead looks better than I remember it and there are signs of better times.

  • Dan Longman

    It is indeed a sad story. Birkenhead was once thought of as ‘the city of the future’ but these dreams never materialised. We need investment. Wirral Waters should certainly improve the area’s image in future years, but Grange Road may suffer further still. Only time will tell.

  • Tori H-D

    Depressing. As a perennial creeper, Tesco is bad enough but Asda, with its Walmart roots, is even worse. Sadly however, (and just like the Park Road Tesco) it amounts to the consumers and whether they actually use it. Inevitably, they do and any efforts to encourage support for local traders fail miserably. Loyalty’s a great thing when it works!

  • Edward Lamb

    Superb piece. My sister works at Wirral Council do I’ll encourage her to spread it far and wide. That said, all Wirralites (me included) must take a share of the blame.

  • Dan Longman

    The town centre has been dead for years. All such investment goes across the water. Might as well give Asda a chance.

  • Alex Nolan

    I lived in one of the worst parts of Birkenhead for a while. This piece captures the essence of a slide into oblivion that has been going on over there for far too long now. Is there any good explanation for why the council / government have never taken more affirmative action in the area?

  • Sevenstreets

    As a Birkenhead chap I agree, we’re in this together. But it’s difficult to support a town when it aggressively fights you back. Look at how they wanted to close down all the libraries, then axe Pacific Road. And what’s happening with the John Peel centre/Town Hall? Nothing. There needs to be a vision thing on the peninsula. Oxton’s Fraiche proves that people will come here if there’s a destination. They won’t if there’s another bloody Asda. (D)

  • Dan Longman

    Council, as usual, incompetent.

  • Joe Forrest

    Whilst also in the past 3 weeks 2 Morrisons have opened in Wallasey!! And next door to the monstrous New Brighton one is going to soon open a giant Home and Bargain! Ohhh it’s supermarket heaven!!

  • Sevenstreets

    and, by the looks of it, an open air spa. Not Spar. That’s optimistic.

  • Alison Bailey Smith

    I am not sure how it is going to pan out, I did not live near here when there was a big store where Wilkinsons is, but I am hoping that the jobs it creates and the fact that it has an entrance from the pedestrian side will help the independent shops carry on. I used to like shopping in Birkenhead (not that I went often) but recently have felt it slightly more alarming. The town planning in Bhead needs a massive shake up. I do feel that it may help the Laurie Centre.

  • Alison Bailey Smith

    As that was kind of cut off on a limb before, beyond the car parks.

  • Corky Ninja-Kitteh Cork

    Its kinda sad really, when the immediate future of any town, let alone Birkenhead or New Brighton, depends almost solely on whether one of the Supermarket Giants opens a store there, or a major developer decides its time for a trading Estate (which in self has crept up from a suburban mammoth to an Urban necessity). People can’t afford loyalty anymore, small enterprise was effectively killed off years ago if i’m honest, and these corporations know full well that people will eventually follow their line. It only falls to who gets their foot in the door first. Councils are in desperate need of money, and ethics or history don’t count when a wedge of it is dangled under their noses.

  • Sevenstreets

    True enough – to a point. But there are towns who’ve successfully shunned supermarkets and offered a viable alternative. Ludlow springs to mind…

  • Dan Longman

    Talked a little more about this in latest blog post: http://danielklongman.tumblr.com/

  • Sevenstreets

    Love that quote from the Liverpool Mercury. Amazing. Cheers (DL)

  • Will Adams

    “There is nothing as depressing as a shopping trip to Birkenhead.”

    Ever been shopping in Liscard David?

  • Ted

    Yes, the new Asda is really ugly and brash, but my complaints are about the customers.
    Rude, arrogant, and unhygienic….
    I’ve been jostled and almost knocked to the ground (I am disabled), I have been almost run over by kids wearing roller skates or wheels, and I have been verbally abused when challenging the dangerous and filthy habit of letting children ride inside trollies.
    …..and I’m not singling out Asda, Tesco in Bidston is much the same.

  • http://twitter.com/jeannemarine Joan M Grey

    I’m an ex-Birkenhead girl living in Australia for more than 30 years. I’ve been back to the Wirral only a few times, mainly when my father was still alive but it wasn’t until this year that I walked down Grange Road for the first time since 1979. The reason I was on the Wirral in the first place was to obtain some historical information about family members who had worked on the Birkenhead Docks all their lives. My father was a Shipwright with Camell Lairds and later Haarland and Wolfe, and my great-grandfather was a foreman-stevedore with the Blue Funnel line. This entailed a visit to the Borough Road library (a place I had not visited since 1966 when I used to go there to do my homework) so decided to walk back towards the market via Grange Road. To say it was a disappointment would be putting it mildly. However worse than the general air of dereliction and depression was the sight of a group of youths with their girlfriends obviously drunk in a small park near to the junction of Grange Road and Borough Road. As I passed one of the males stood up and urinated against a tree. His mates and the girls thought this was hysterical. As I walked down Grange Road and through the Precinct I kept an eye out for a police office but didn’t see a one. My only option was to Tweet the Merseyside Police from my phone, alerting them to what I considered to be criminal behaviour in the vicinity, but alas, nobody at Merseyside Police reads their tweets. I suppose as I left I don’t have any right to complain, but still, the Birkenhead of my girlhood was a charming place, full of interesting architecture from the 19th century, and the gorgeous shops of Grange Road. My mother and I often used to go “down Grange Rd” to Robbs, or Beatties. Often we would go to the market on a Friday to buy material for our dressmaking. My father and I used to go to Birkenhead Market every Saturday morning and buy fresh produce as he had grown up near to the old Priory and was used to having the best quality food from Birkenhead Market his whole life. I can still remember the lovely smells of freshly cooked pies, the sight of freshly slaughtered hens ready for the pot, even the tripe looked delicious (although I must admit I never ate it). I spent all of my childhood leaving near to the Park, and a group of us in the neighbourhood would go there every day in the summer holidays, in winter we would toboggan down the hills by the Duck Park using our own home made sleds. We also lived not far from Bidston Hill and the Thermopolyae Paths (The Mops) and had marvellous times there as children too. Our parents never had to worry about us for a second as Birkenhead was a safe place then. it was a fabulous childhood, full of freedom. So sad, all of it gone, or what remains is kind of frozen in time, like Hamilton Square, a previously bustling place, full of life, now practically deserted.

  • david

    Great post Joan, and sadly all too true. I know who you’re talking about re: that gang of drunks. Horrible.

  • martin

    im a retailer in Birkenhead, part of a national chain, we are 30% up like for like and on a national basis beating many of our larger city stores. In fact, we are only 5% down on sales to our Liverpool store. I like many other businesses in Birkenhead are seeing the reality, rather than opinion. Like every other town in the country (including Gateshead) the high street is seeing major change, those retailers that can change are doing very, very well, those that cannot, close. Its that simple. I know of plenty of retailers seeing double digit lfl growth in the town. Just like any other town, Birkenhead has suffered no more, no less.

    The town and country is changing, I suspect here, what most people are objecting to is change. Change isnt easy or quick and it sometimes goes through a difficult transition. But accept it and embrace it and the rewards are there… There is plenty of proof of that nationally and in Birkenhead