Council Leader Cllr Paul Stuart reflects back on 2023
It’s been a busy year, again, and looking back at the previous 12 months at this time is an opportunity to reflect and admire the amazing things done in our borough. It is also a chance to take stock and see what remains to be done. As a borough we are at a once in a generation point of opportunity – with major grants secured for regeneration we have a chance to make sure Wirral is a place that provides what the residents of this peninsula need – good homes, jobs, and places to enjoy.
Last May saw the local elections in which – in a change to previous years – the whole council was voted for by the people of Wirral. Labour won the largest number of seats (You can see the election result here) following which I became leader of the council. At the time I said “we must be honest and realistic with our residents about the challenges we face” and I have endeavoured to do that in the last eight months.
Like most councils across the country our financial situation has been difficult and we have had some tough decisions to make so that the authority is on a sound financial footing. We are continuing to make good progress with our finances and although there is still some way to go I am optimistic we can ensure the authority is in a better position in the coming years.
But despite the challenges we have faced, as a council and a community, we have seen many more amazing achievements this year. From the thousands of trees planted during 2023 to the completion of the amazing seawall in West Kirby which has won for the Best Landscape Project at the Merseyside Civic Design Awards, there is much to praise.
We have seen our communities coming together in so many different ways through the year, from the incredible work of the Birkenhead-based voluntary group to preserve and improve the Flaybrick Memorial Gardens who were recognised with The King’s Award for Voluntary Service, to all those involved with helping set up the Memorial for lost babies which was unveiled this year, they have done an incredible service for so many people.
Volunteering and community spirit have been something of a theme for Wirral this year. In May we saw many communities coming together for the Coronation celebrations for King Charles III, with street parties and other events across Wirral. And soon after, in July, so many volunteers were also stepping up to help in delivering one of the most high-profile and significant sporting events on the calendar – the return of The Open to Hoylake. We saw amazing volunteers helping to provide warm welcome for our golfing fan visitors and helping to put Wirral on the map. At the time it was a real pleasure to welcome our guests and pay tribute to the community groups, individuals, businesses and many teams from across the council who worked so hard to make sure Wirral was ready – and I’m pleased to say the event was a massive success.
More than anything else it is the people of Wirral who make this place what it is, and this year the incredible residents of the borough have excelled. From the foster carers who were recognised for their exceptional contribution to the lives of the children they care for (Wirral Foster Carer Appreciation Day) to the work of the many groups who put so much effort into making their communities and villages look beautiful.
I’m pleased to say Wirral Council has also played a vital role in helping those most vulnerable in our communities, and we have seen some impressive successes which should be recognised, such as Wirral seeing a drop in the rate of young people entering the justice system by almost 27% in 2022 compared to the previous year thanks in no small part to a number of preventative projects run by the Wirral Youth Justice Service, a statutory partnership between the council, Merseyside Police, Probation Service and health partners. I am also incredibly pleased to say that 2023 saw the first of several Family Hubs planned across the borough opening its doors in Wirral, and which will make services easier to navigate and more joined-up, ensuring families receive the right help at the right time.
The last year has also seen Wirral playing its part in our cultural life, both locally and nationally. We had the incredible news that Birkenhead Park is even closer to being classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And marking its historic 50th anniversary, Wirral Country Park saw a new entrance opening to The Wirral Way at West Kirby. Following a hiatus due to the pandemic it was great to see live bands returned to Birkenhead Library for performances, and towards the end of the year our much-loved Transport Museum was transferred to new operators and is looking forward to a new chapter. Throughout the year we also saw a number of television production companies finding out what we all know – Wirral has fantastic locations and assets which look great on camera.
When I was first elected Leader of the Council I said we “should be well-prepared to seize the opportunities of the future, improving life for everyone”. The council has secured significant funding from Government for regeneration through its Levelling-Up, Future High Streets and Town Deal funds, and we have been asking you – a lot this year – about the ideas we have developed, to get your opinions on the projects we are looking to press ahead with and make sure they align with the needs of the communities they are for.
While many of the changes being talked about may seem far away at this time, we actually have a tight deadline to use this funding and are determined to make sure this money is used in Wirral and is well-spent. We have developed Masterplans – large documents which set out the ideas for development – for numerous areas (and there are more to come) and asked what people liked and didn’t care so much about them. These answers will help develop how we press ahead in key locations along the Left Bank area from New Ferry and Bromborough, through Birkenhead and the town centre, Wirral Waters, Seacombe and Liscard, to New Brighton. Meanwhile we have seen the topping out of massive new Millers Quay apartment buildings at Wirral Waters where local students have had the chance to benefit from major development within sight of their college at Wirral Met. There has also been the handover of new offices to the council for fitting out, plus significant movement on New Ferry’s regeneration and continuing work to bring in 20mph roads to improve road safety across the borough.
Underpinning this work is our brown-field first Local Plan – this is a planning document which is incredibly important and sets out the vision for future development in the borough, where we need new homes, offices, industry and commercial sites and green spaces, and the infrastructure to support that while also protecting out Green Belt. This year has seen our plan being scrutinised in public hearings – as all Local Plans are – by Government inspectors. Thanks to the team to have worked on this in recent years, it has been a mammoth task. We are currently awaiting the views of the inspectors and will update you on this hopefully early in 2024.
A major step in our efforts to breathe new life in Birkenhead town centre happened in May when the council was able to buy the Grange and Pyramids shopping centres. This means the authority has control of some of the key sites in the town to support its regeneration.
We also very recently received the fantastic news that after its initial disappointment at losing out in a bid for funding Liscard is now to receive £10.7 million Levelling-Up cash as part of what will be a major boost for the town and local traders. This follows on from earlier in the year when Liscard hosted the first Youth Market which saw young local entrepreneurs given the chance to set up stalls and sell their products at the event in the Cherry Tree Centre. In another major triumph the council has been given the green light to take part in a Government pilot project to give greater freedom to use the regeneration grants in ways that best reflects local needs.
This time of year is also worth taking a moment to take a moment to think about those we have lost, and remember what they brough to our lives. In 2023 we sadly lost some well-known Wirral people in Paul O’Grady in March and who the council was able to honour with the Freedom of the Borough during the summer as well as Glenda Jackson who we also lost and was awarded with Freedom of the Borough. More recently Dean Sullivan, famous for his role in the Liverpool-based soap Brookside, has also passed away. Both will be remembered for the contributions they brought to our cultural life, but not everyone receives this level of attention and I offer my condolences to all those in our borough who have lost loved ones this year.
While some of what the council does is high profile and receives much attention, I would also like to acknowledge some of that which does not always get recognised – things like (but not only) those that work within the council behind the scenes who make sure councillors have the information they need and committees are able to take place, and those working on delivering new computer and software technologies to streamline and improve the services we deliver to residents, along with so many other dedicated public servants we are lucky enough to have here at Wirral.
Looking ahead to 2024 we already know this borough will be having a busy but exciting 12 months. Wirral will be the Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture and a programme of events for everyone to get involved will be made public soon.
It is imperative that we make significant progress with our regeneration plans and see even substantial changes being brought about. Regeneration is about making the place better for people and I am looking forward to us changing the borough to make it an even more amazing place for the residents and businesses already here, as well as those who choose to join us.
So I expect to be seeing real changes to the skyline of the borough. We know already that the demolition of the annexes either side of Wallasey Town Hall, and former House of Fraser are underway, while the new apartments at Wirral Waters are helping develop a significant community there. In Birkenhead’s Commercial District council staff will be moving into the new office buildings which, as we attract more tenants this will see hundreds if not thousands of people working in the town centre, bringing more custom to the businesses and hopefully attracting new investment, while elsewhere work is also pressing ahead at West Kirby, New Brighton, New Ferry, Liscard and Seacombe to deliver major improvements for residents and businesses across our borough.
It is very likely that 2024 will see a General Election and the changes that can lead to, but whoever emerges victorious from it but our focus will be fully on making Wirral an even greater place to live, invest in, work in, bring up a family, retire.
Happy New Year.