BIRKENHEAD'S MP has slammed plans to move Birkenhead Market into Argos as “a disaster” for the future of Birkenhead in a scathing letter.

The letter sent by Mick Whitley MP, who represents the Wirral town in Parliament, called on Wirral Council to change course arguing it would be a repeat of the controversy around St Johns Market which he called “a failed revamp followed by a Council lock out as a result of the collapse of trade in a sterile new environment that customers are repelled by.”

In December 2023, the council decided to put its long-developed plans to build a new market hall on the former House of Fraser on Grange Road on hold with leaked emails suggesting the plug was pulled as far back as May last year. Before December, a proposal had been developed to move the market into a former Argos store on Princes Pavements.

The plan has proved controversial as councillors complained about being “kept in the dark” and market traders, who have campaigned against the move, feeling like they weren’t being heard. In light of the opposition, councillors decided to explore two alternative schemes but would still advance the Argos plans to the point it was ready for a planning application.

The other two options considered by the council were to revamp the existing market or a portion of St John’s Pavements in the town’s shopping centre. However, on the back of a study conducted over the last three months, Wirral Council officers are recommending councillors move ahead with the Argos proposal when its regeneration committee meets this week on March 27 arguing this is the only feasible option.

A council report said this “would see the reuse of a unit that is currently vacant and delivers the space needed to deliver a modern market offer for Birkenhead. The occupation of this unit will provide an anchor to improve footfall and benefit other retailers in the area and improve the net operating income from the council’s estate.”

In the letter to the local authority’s Labour leader Cllr Paul Stuart and regeneration committee chair Cllr Tony Jones, Mr Whitley called for a rethink, adding: “The people of Birkenhead want an attractive market not a cheap third choice collection of stalls in an unsuitable location. A new market or a revamped market that the traders believe has a future is the option you must consider because it is the option that meets the real needs of the people of Birkenhead.”

He added: “Places like Chester and Bury have revitalised their town centres and stimulated economic renewal through the investment and development of attractive markets. Birkenhead should do the same. Its people deserve better than the Argos offer.

“Already many traders feel betrayed by the process. A considerable number have voted with their feet by closing, or relocating their businesses away from the market. Those remaining are deeply concerned that they are being subjected to a process of managed decline and the fate facing them is going to follow the same route as the traders at St Johns Market Liverpool – a failed revamp followed by a council lockout as a result of the collapse of trade in a sterile new environment that customers are repelled by.

“Any final decision taken on Wednesday that I regard as contrary to the interests of the traders, to my constituents, and to the revival of the town centre will be a disaster, not just for the market itself but for the very future of a genuinely regenerated Birkenhead. 

“That is why I am convinced the whole issue requires a rethink. A botched market will cause more problems than it will solve as the experience of St Johns Market over the water proves. It will hurt businesses and the many people they employ. It will deter investment and allow the shameful decline of Birkenhead’s town centre to continue unabated. The Council must not be the authors of such a grim future. 

“They should revisit the issue, look into further funding options and listen to the traders and the people of Birkenhead. A failure to this now will surely rebound on the Council and its Labour Councillors well into the future.”

£28m had previously been allocated to the new market construction but the planned budget going forward is £13.7m with a design team appointed to finish designs before a planning application is submitted. Once the new market is completed in the former Argos, it’s planned that any traders left in the existing market will be moved over by 2026.

Mr Whitley said the council stepping back from the House of Fraser plans was “a bitter blow” and a retreat from its regeneration ambitions. He has also called an investigation into why the previous plans the council spent £1.5m developing were no longer considered affordable.

Mr Whitley said: “The lengthy delays in actioning the original proposal for such a project and now the abandonment of the proposal on grounds of cost should be recognised for what they are – a dramatic setback for the regeneration of my town.

“I believe there needs to be a serious review of why the project was allowed to drift to the point where the Council decided it is now unaffordable. An honest accounting of when decisions to deliberately stall the market project were made and implemented needs to be provided to the people of Birkenhead.”

The letter has prompted similar criticism from other political parties who also oppose the Argos move. Liberal Democrat councillor Stuart Kelly accused Labour councillors of being “out of touch on this issue,” adding: “I agree with Mr Whitley, he seems to be the only Labour politician in town who ‘gets it’. The option for the market to move to the former Argos unit is being rejected by traders, shoppers and now the town’s Labour MP.”

Wirral’s Green Party have also confirmed they are still against the Argos move. This means despite being the largest party on the committee, Labour will need the support of its two Conservative councillors to approve the Argos move as it does not have a majority. 

However, Conservative Cllr Andrew Gardner said: “The Conservative view on the Regeneration Committee has always been one of working with all stake holders, including members from other groups, officers, the people of Birkenhead and in the case of the Market the traders themselves. 

“We are the only party on Wirral that can be seen in recent times to takes consultation results seriously. We will take this approach next Wednesday in the debate and decision making process. The traders can be assured of a strong voice from the Conservative members”

In response to the letter, Labour leader Cllr Stuart said: “The future of Birkenhead Market is of paramount importance. It will play a vital part in the regeneration plans for the town centre and the Market must be delivered in the right way.” 

The previous £31m budget for the market would have involved some borrowing and money from land sales called capital receipts, However, Cllr Stuart said this could not be supported as the council looks to pay back an emergency government loan from 2021 and its current budget for services “couldn’t support the additional borrowing costs.”

The council is also part of a pilot that gives it greater freedom on how it uses regeneration funds pooling money for a number of different projects. Pointing to this, Cllr Stuart said: “Given the council cannot afford the borrowing costs and the capitol receipts are needed elsewhere, what projects in the Simplification Pathfinder pilot programme Plan is Cllr Kelly suggesting we scrap to fund an alternative proposal for Birkenhead Market to the one highlighted in the report?”