WIRRAL councillors have been told to “admit they got it wrong” after a construction worker said he faced daily abuse working on a controversial £19.7m project.

Eric Wade worked on the West Kirby sea wall for seven months and while proud of the work achieved, he said he and other workers faced verbal abuse over the project due to hostility from some local people. Since the wall’s completion, public perception has reportedly become more positive towards the project that was built to protect seafront homes.

When approached about the abuse reportedly faced by staff on the ground, Cllr Liz Grey, who also chairs Wirral Council’s environment committee, criticised local councillors for what she called “a social media campaign of hostility” against the project arguing this “brings out the worst in some people” even if councillors didn’t intend for this to happen.

Hoylake councillors, Tony Cox and Andrew Gardner, were regular critics of the sea wall during the construction calling it a “scandalous folly” and “one big white elephant,” particularly after a loss of parking led to businesses claiming they’d seen a massive drop in business in the town. The wall’s increased costs to £19.7m were criticised too though Wirral Council’s contribution remained the same.

Cllr Grey was also heavily criticised personally though the project was approved by several committees and councillors from three political parties. Cllr Cox called Cllr Grey “a disgrace” with “zero compassion to hard working local business owners and the hardship her actions are causing them” while Cllr Gardner said “the sea wall is a disaster of her and the Labour group’s making.”

In response to Mr Wade’s experience, Cllr Grey said it was time for councillors against the project to “admit that they got it wrong,” adding: “People look to us for leadership and if that is what they see, it sort of gives a green light to that behaviour. 

“It creates an atmosphere of anger that isn’t necessary especially when most people could see that it will be lifesaving. We ought to be really grateful that we got the Environment Agency funding to do it. 

“When you have got council officers and contract workers going above and beyond, on their days off and working long hours out of professional pride and a sense of duty, it’s horrible for the local councillors not to be thankful in public and admit that they got it wrong. They should definitely bear some responsibility. Nobody should have to face abuse because of the job they are doing. It’s just not on.”

One Wirral Council member of staff even stepped away from the local authority in May 2023 as a result of criticism over the project. In an email leaked to the LDRS in April 2023, Colin Clayton, who was the council’s assistant director for parks and environment, criticised Cllr Gardner claiming his actions “directly impacted” on the mental wellbeing of senior staff leading to staff “going off sick with stress.”

In the email sent to senior Conservative councillors and officers, Mr Clayton said: “Before I leave I would like to place on record that your highly orchestrated, obsessive campaign to attack at every stage every action that Officers working on the West Kirby Flood Alleviation Scheme and Hoylake Beach has achieved the following.”

He said officers felt “professionally undermined by the constant criticism. Our integrity has been challenged beyond anything that could be considered reasonable.

“It has been completely demoralising to be subjected to such a barrage of complaints, challenges and the scrutiny and what we have been exposed to is beyond anything I have been subjected to in my 26 years at Wirral Council.”

He added: “I am sure that you did not intend to achieve these objectives, but I thought I would make you aware of the consequences of your actions. You are of course free to act as you wish and thereafter to live with your own conscience.”

Mr Clayton told the LDRS he did not leak the email but was “extremely upset” about the impact criticism was having on other staff, adding: “To have your work constantly challenged and scrutinised is totally demoralising, especially when you’re doing your best for all sides and acting with integrity in a neutral manner for the communities you are serving, irrespective of their differing views and wants.”

Cllr Gardner and Cllr Cox were repeatedly approached for comment. When previously approached about the email, a council spokesperson said it would not have been appropriate to comment while Cllr Gardner said he would not comment “given the mental health issues at stake.”