Squaring The Inner Circle

Lest we forget - Hamilton Square is magnificent but let's not turn it into the magic roundabout.

Lest we forget – Hamilton Square is magnificent but let’s not turn it into the magic roundabout.

We must admit that when we heard about another consultation from Wirral Council we just rolled our eyes and carried on with The Times crossword.

However this latest consultation closes tomorrow and involves proposals for the redevelopment of Hamilton Square.As Hamilton Square is second only in architectural significance to our own Leaky Towers the gorgeous geometry of Wirral’s most prestigious landmark is definitely well worth having an opinion about – especially when bumbling Wirral Council and their pals start talking about mucking about with it!.

Now we all go a bit woozy when we look at maps at Leaky Towers (which might have something to do with that school field trip with a dodgy Geography teacher) but it seems to us the £1.1 million “big idea” involves turning Hamilton Square into a giant roundabout – or more accurately a squareabout.

https://www.wirral.gov.uk/sites/default/files/all/Hamilton%20St_MMD-357912-C-DR-01-0100-0001_P1%20%282%29.pdf

However – could the grand plans go awry as one of our readers commented to Council leader Phil “Power Boy Pip” Davies :

“Whatever you, Cllr Davies, quoted publicly as the reason for withdrawing the proposal, Wirral Council was stopped from introducing ‘Pay & Display’ parking in New Brighton as a result of a coordinated opposition to the scheme. Wirral Council was also defeated in its efforts to railroad a scheme in Rock Ferry against the wishes of the community.” 

Based on the cogent, well informed objections made below by one of our much valued correspondents Dr.Robert Smith we might well be on our way to a hat-trick for people power :

OBJECTIONS TO THE PROPOSED SCHEME DC-STEP-1516-2

£1.1m Hamilton Quarter redesign scheme –

I have had sight of a number of the objections which have been, or will be submitted, with detailed arguments regarding the history, heritage, conservation, previous developments, and the Listed Building status of many buildings around Hamilton  Square itself, and issues related to Woodside

I submit this formal objection and demand for a cessation of this ill-considered, ill-founded, poorly researched and generally totally inappropriate proposal on the basis that I support all other written objections entirely and therefore you accept that they also reflect my views and thereby are included in this objection.

However, I wish to add to all of the other objections these points which are of interest to me regarding Wirral Council ineptitude, lack of transparency and accountability, the wanton waste of hard-won financial resources, and the squandering of opportunities, as well as the raft of community, economic, environmental and built-heritage, historical and social heritage issues.

First, the background to the existing traffic management arrangement.

Just to ‘set the scene’ for my objections, here is a short piece from Mike Hornby in the Liverpool Daily Post, published on the 11th January 2002 quoting the now Leader of Wirral Council, Cllr Phil Davies, regarding the Birkenhead 2020 Vision produced 15 years ago……………..

Deputy Wirral Council leader Coun Phil Davies added: “This is an exciting vision which shows how Birkenhead can be developed and improved over the next 20 years. The document sets up a framework which we will use to attract additional investment and create jobs. It is something which will benefit the whole of the borough, not just Birkenhead, and will enable us to compete with places such as Liverpool and Cheshire Oaks.”
…also with regard to the investment of £82m between 1995 and 2002 – Barry Turnbull, 13th February 2002 – Liverpool Daily Post….
Of the Single Regeneration Budget schemes, Hamilton Quarter (SRB 1) has been the most significant. 
During its time it has been involved in 180 projects, many of them having a cultural and leisure flavour. 

Targets included: 
Ten new tourist attractions (nine achieved) Fifteen pubs and restaurants (12 achieved) Fifty new creative businesses (28 achieved) Seven small performance venues (achieved) 1,500 sq mtrs of exhibition space (achieved) 1.5m annual visitors (500,000 achieved). 
1,000 new jobs (achieved) 100 new businesses (achieved)

However Jim Wilkie, deputy chief executive of Wirral Council, commented: “The Hamilton Quarter has striven to meet outputs but has been hampered severely by significant delays in obtaining decisions on funding bids to Objective 1 and the National Lottery. (More about this point later)
“Business development and growth has been a particularly successful sector. Whilst there was initial scepticism about demand for retail and commercial floorspace, this has proved to be misplaced.” 
He said that the task now was to ensure that the succession strategy moved forward vigorously.

Second, the so-called ‘public consultation’ process –

My view of this whole exercise is that is so flawed that it is of absolutely no credible value, and therefore should be deemed null and void.

I would strongly recommend to Wirral Councillors and Chief Officers that they should have listened to Wirral people – not only businesses – first, before engaging in this seriously flawed, farcical ‘public consultation’ exercise with a pre-determined scheme.
Merseytravel, Wirral Council and the Wirral Chamber of Commerce do not own Birkenhead and Hamilton Square, they have stewardship and responsibility for it on behalf of the Wirral public…Birkenhead BID and Wirral Council  are content to exclude local communities, which speaks volumes regarding accountability and the public service function of Wirral Council and its relationship with Wirral Chamber of Commerce.
The so-called ‘public consultation’ is yet another, fundamentally flawed, Wirral Council process, in that there has been no prior public consultation regarding how the people of Wirral view Hamilton Square, why they stay away, and what will attract visitors to Wirral, to spend time/money in the area. It would appear that 4 alternative new schemes have been produced, but only one put out for ‘public consultation’? Why?

This creates a serious consideration of bias, accuracy of information, the possibility of a biassed outcome due to misinformation (ie lack of alternative views due to previous, behind closed doors, selection). More worryingly, previous consultations may point to the possibility of disinformation being promoted to ensure an outcome that may well not reflect in any way public need or true public opinion, and raise additional questions regarding propriety, transparency and accountability.

The promoted process of communication, or public interaction, to convey opinions and/or objections has been very limited; as has the timescale for consultation. There is the obvious potential exclusion of a number of sections of the Wirral-wide community due to the almost exclusive ‘internet-only’ promotion of the council route via which to lodge objections. For those individuals without domestic internet provision, they may well be denied access due to severely reduced library opening hours and thereby excludes those who use the internet access facility provided by libraries.

This point is important, but particularly relevant in the context of proposed changes to Wirral Council Cabinet meeting times. The advertised time for the proclaimed Hamilton Square ‘public consultation’ drop-in viewing at Birkenhead Town Hall was 3pm – 7pm. This was in what appear to be fairly poor surroundings, attended by ill-informed invigilating staff and representatives from the scheme’s developers. Presumably, this was in some way considered to be the time of day that would enable the greatest number of potential attendees to inspect the proposal? One obvious observation comes to mind related to this decision, but is applicable to something else. If this is the basis for the choice of this timing, why is Wirral Council considering moving public Cabinet meetings to 10am on a Monday morning, if not to exclude, or reduce  public attendance?

In terms of equality of opportunity to be fully consulted, this has actively been denied to people with limited mobility, lack of transport and internet access. Hamilton Square may currently be the neglected ‘jewel in the crown’ of Birkenhead, but Birkenhead Town Hall is one of Wirral’s most impressive buildings, and contained within a public square of European importance, in terms of its architectural, historic and heritage merits. Due to the Pay & Display parking scheme in and around Hamilton Square this creates discrimination also between potential attendees who have to travel a distance, may or may not be in employment, but will have to pay to park before 6.30pm, but not between 6.30 and 7.00pm.
Wirral Council, the Accountable Body for SRB schemes.

Wirral Council has an appalling record of failure and wanton waste of public money, running for decades, in central Birkenhead and Woodside. Animation is the key to ‘breathing new life’ (again) into Hamilton Square and the surrounding area (the very starting point for the Hamilton Quarter programme commencing 1995). This new, incomprehensible proposition, judged against many more successful examples including the previous Hamilton Quarter programme, and ‘breathing new life’ into public places across Europe and beyond, illustrates the totally discredited premise upon which this proposal is predicated.
The nature of the businesses currently based in Hamilton Square, mostly do not require footfall to survive. They are predominantly appointments only businesses, there is now a reduced banking presence, but a number of accountants, solicitors, training providers and estate agents, etc. The existing traffic management arrangements are perfectly suitable for these businesses – in fact the bulk of these business were consulted during the Hamilton Quarter redesign of Hamilton Square, and fully supported the changes to reduce through-traffic flows, and create a more ‘pedestrian/public friendly’ environment.

The previous works to pedestrianise Hamilton Square and to make it accessible and usable by the public, including wheelchair users and people with mobility problems, were undertaken after many months of public consultation, plus community access groups advice, and qualified professional advice. The reduction of through-traffic flows aimed to significantly reduce environmental and noise pollution, and vibration damage to the fabric of the buildings.
It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to reintroduce buses and larger commercial vehicles into Hamilton Street and Hamilton Square. What is the ‘perceived need’ for this change, and where has it been conclusively researched and argued? If the seriously questionable  justification for this proposal is to ‘introduce more activity’ into the Square, this is completely the wrong way of going about it, and Wirral Council is therefore guilty, once again, of failing to learn from its own and others’ experiences which are extremely well documented regarding the use, by the public, of ‘public space’, particularly in an urban environment.

The £82m Hamilton Quarter Project 1995-2002, was designed to ‘breathe new life’ into the area after over 30 years of decline, most of which can be laid squarely at the door of poor Planning and Council decision-making. A prime example of Council driven deterioration and degeneration, of a once thriving retail centre of Birkenhead.

No-one would argue against improvement and progress as concepts, but the reality for Birkenhead has created nothing better than a now 4th-rate shopping experience at best, predominantly created by the actions of the local Council. That sadly is still the position as can be seen from the period between 2002 and the present time. The successive failures of Wirral Council to create a sustainable and adequate succession strategy (or any credible strategy) being a primary cause, but the greatest failure being that  this deterioration has been presided over by a great many of the same politicians over that period, and longer.

As previously mentioned, the Hamilton Quarter created a Birkenhead 2020 Vision for Wirral Council, wholeheartedly supported by Cllr Phil Davies, when there were still 20 years to deliver those aspirations. Now Wirral Council (in the guise of Cllr Phil Davies/Martin Liptrot) tries to be ‘clever’ with 20 – 2020 Vision undeliverable Council ‘pledges’, thinking it’s a good tag line, but true accountability 5 or more years in the future, ie now, is exactly what my objection to this scheme is based upon.

Hamilton Square was partly pedestrianised, and through- traffic reduced, to hand the Square and its surroundings back to the People of Wirral, workers and visitors to enjoy. It also served to reduce traffic noise, pollution, environmental damage and damage to the built environment. remember the electric buses – now that was innovation. This benefited those working in offices around the Square, those using the area, and also served to reduce the environmental pollution continuously damaging the fabric of the largest collection Grade 1 Listed buildings in the UK.

That properly-consulted traffic management change was delivered during the £82m Hamilton Quarter regeneration programme. Over 7 years there developed an extensive programme of cultural activities and indoor and outdoor events, shops, cafes, bars and venues including Pacific Road Arts Centre, Wirral Museum and Historic Archive, the Assembly Rooms (in Birkenhead Town Hall), Shore Road Pumping Station, Egerton Bridge, Woodside Tourism Office, and The QuarterDeck at Woodside.

Above is the list of some of the multi-million pound investments in Hamilton Quarter developments which were instrumental in attracting significant numbers of new people to the area of Hamilton Square and Woodside.

Here below is the multi-million pound list of activities and sites stopped and closed by Wirral Council since the end of the Hamilton Quarter programme.

The extensive programme of cultural activities and indoor and outdoor events were stopped, and Pacific Road Arts Centre, Wirral Museum and Historic Archive, the Assembly Rooms (in Birkenhead Town Hall), Shore Road Pumping Station, Egerton Bridge, Woodside Tourism Office, and The QuarterDeck at Woodside, all closed by Wirral Council.

The introduction of Pay & Display parking was a major contributor to the subsequent decline of the developments, and killed the area of what little ‘new life’ remained.

A number of the funding problems associated with the Hamilton Quarter and resulting in the loss of National and Heritage Lottery funding was precipitated by Wirral Council not committing, in the submission for grants, to the revenue funding for the future operation and maintenance of some of the proposed developments. As a result money had to be redirected from other funding sources to deliver some elements of the programme, which compromised the delivery of various projects, and also the future of completed developments.

The notion of the redesign, and reintroduction of through-traffic to Hamilton Square, particularly across the front of Birkenhead Town Hall, has to be one of the most damaging propositions for the area. The area now, and for the past 10 years has more than a passing resemblance to the Hamilton Square/Woodside before the Hamilton Quarter programme and £82m investment.
Cllr Phil Davies’ original 2020 pledges for Birkenhead 2020 are worthy of review – as they were given in 2000, it is time to look at the state of things after 15 years. Will a media consultant’s advice be ‘Forget all the past – let’s just start again – no-one will notice’.

Given Wirral Council’s track record of significant underachievement and its contribution to further degeneration in central Birkenhead, this proposal indicates to me that there is absolutely no comprehension, understanding, nor expertise at the senior levels in Wirral Council and its Administration.

Just now, the greatest threat to Hamilton Square is Wirral Council shooting itself in the foot, again, with a £1.1m bullet.

Sincerely

Dr Robert B Smith FCMI, FISMM