With rumour and speculation continuing about what the future holds for Kirkby town centre, we sat down with Mike Harden, Chief Executive of Knowsley Council, to ask for an update on St Modwen’s regeneration plans and what truth there is to the many rumours which seem to be circulating.
What is the latest?
Unfortunately – and I know how disappointing this is – there isn’t really any “‘new” news to share on Kirkby – despite some sources seeming to think otherwise. We gave an update back in March following a meeting with St Modwen. We said then that we were pushing for a start date from them and we are continuing to do just that. Disappointingly, despite regular contact with them since then, they still haven’t set a date.
I know how frustrating this is for everybody concerned, and it’s frustrating for everybody at the Council as well. I totally understand why people are upset by the delays and why they are desperate for good news. I wish I could provide some certainty or at least an update on timescales but sadly I can’t – like everyone else, I am waiting for St Modwen, because they own the town centre and the Council can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do.
Do you think St Modwen will pull out?
As I’ve said, St Modwen own Kirkby town centre. They spent a lot of money when they bought it from Tesco and they have spent money demolishing buildings and paying technical advisors to put detailed plans together and secure planning permission for the scheme. They also have agreements with major retailers like Morrisons, Home Bargains and KFC. It would make no sense at all for them just to “walk away” and I certainly don’t think they want to do that.
I’ve also seen it said recently that they are about to “hand their lease back”. The simple fact is that there isn’t any such lease, so that’s just nonsense and people are obviously speculating and guessing. I don’t think making things up and passing it off as “news” helps anybody to be honest.
As St Modwen have said in their own public statements, the amount of money which they have spent means that it makes sense for them to finish what they have started in Kirkby. The problem is that town centre retail schemes across the country are struggling as more and more people choose to shop online. With that in mind, St Modwen are being very cautious in taking a decision as to when they start to build additional stores in Kirkby. That’s what the delay is all about and it’s a common situation across the country – it’s not just about Kirkby, although we obviously care more about Kirkby than we care about the rest of the country.
Finishing St Modwen’s proposed scheme in Kirkby will mean them investing more – they will need to add substantial sums to the millions which they have already spent. They want to be extra sure that they can make the scheme a success, and that is what is taking so long.
My own view is that the scheme absolutely can work – you only have to listen to the desire from local residents for investment in their town centre to realise that it makes sense to get started. There is absolutely a need for a supermarket in Kirkby and there is clearly a demand from the local community, so I do remain hopeful that development will happen. But, like everyone else, I am very keen to see that happen sooner rather than later.
What about Morrisons?
I have personally met with Morrisons on a number of occasions and I have absolutely no doubt about their commitment to Kirkby. The Council is talking to Morrisons about how we make sure that local people get the jobs which they will create in their store and I know that they have done a lot of work on their detailed designs and layouts and also are preparing for the supply of food to the store itself. They are keen to get started and are still committed to Kirkby – they just need St Modwen to build them a store and they will move in.
How about the other retailers who have been linked to the scheme? Are they still committed?
As I said before, I know that Home Bargains (who intend to open a bigger store than their current one in Kirkby), KFC and Reel Cinemas have all signed agreements with St Modwen and my understanding is that these remain in place. Again, none of those companies can announce a start date and that creates uncertainty, but the fact that they haven’t got an opening date doesn’t mean that they have pulled out.
What is the Council doing to push for progress?
We are speaking to St Modwen regularly and we have been very clear about our desire – and the desire of the Kirkby community – to see some progress on this scheme. We have made our frustrations known and this has led to some difficult discussions – I suspect that there will be more to come. Again, to be clear, the Council doesn’t own the town centre and we haven’t owned the town centre for decades – all that we can do is keep pushing and doing whatever we can to get this scheme up and running.
In terms of the practical things which the Council can do, we have done them all. The scheme has planning permission, the highways agreements are all in place, and so are all the relevant legal agreements. There is no reason from the Council’s perspective why the scheme shouldn’t start.
It hasn’t just been legal work, either. The Council has secured hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of funding to deliver highway improvements in and around Kirkby to support the redevelopment of the town centre. I know that residents have had to put up with lots of roadworks recently, but that was all about investing to make sure that people can get into Kirkby once it has been redeveloped. That work has been completed now and I appreciate everybody’s patience.
Can the Council do anything to help St Modwen have more confidence in the scheme?
As I’ve said, the issue for St Modwen is a commercial one – will their scheme make enough money for them, in other words. We have already been as flexible as we possibly can be. For example, some months ago, St Modwen told us that they wanted more certainty about how many of the new units would be occupied before they began building them. So we offered to rent a certain amount of any vacant space from them in order to help the numbers stack up and kick-start the construction. St Modwen welcomed our proposal, but obviously it still isn’t enough because they haven’t started.
I can hand on heart say that we have done absolutely everything we can at this point to get things moving and we will continue to look at every option. We aren’t prepared to wait forever to see something positive move forward, but getting St Modwen to start is still the best option I can see.
Why can’t the Council just step in and redevelop the town centre?
Put simply, because it’s not ours. St Modwen owns the town centre.
How did St Modwen get control of Kirkby town centre then?
Again, I’ve seen people saying the Council sold the land to St Modwen and made a fortune in doing so. These stories are passed off as “news” by “journalists”, but they are actually absolute rubbish or “fake news”.
St Modwen bought the town centre from Tesco when Tesco pulled out of about 50 development schemes across the country. Tesco bought it years ago from another privately owned company. I’ve worked in Knowsley for more than 20 years now and the Council has never owned Kirkby town centre in that time. The fact that the private sector has been “in charge” is perhaps the reason why it has been so difficult to make progress – private companies have a duty to their shareholders to make a profit and it seems to me that the needs of local people come second to that.
I’ve sometimes been asked why the Council didn’t impose conditions on St Modwen when they bought the land or when we gave planning permission specifying that construction had to begin by a certain date. As I’ve explained, the deal to buy the town centre was between St Modwen and Tesco, so there wasn’t any opportunity for us to do anything like that when they bought it. And unfortunately, planning legislation doesn’t allow us to do anything like that. Planning permission, once granted, is valid for a certain length of time but there isn’t a power under the law that enables us to compel the developer to implement any scheme any sooner than makes sense for them.
What do you say to the people who think you aren’t doing enough?
I totally understand why people are disappointed. They see a town centre which hasn’t been developed as was promised, and also one which is standing “ready for development” now that all the demolition work has been completed. They quite rightly and naturally look to their local Council for answers. They are incredibly frustrated and I completely understand that – I do honestly feel the same way. But there is only so much that the Council can do in a town centre which is owned by a separate private sector organisation. Right now, we have no control over this situation – I wish we did.
In terms of some journalists or bloggers sharing their own theories about what we could or should do in Kirkby, people are of course entitled to share their opinions. I would say though that it is easy to sit outside of the process without any real understanding of the complex legal realities and commentate on what we should be doing. I would much prefer that people did their research and didn’t come up with stuff which is just miles away from the truth (the recent prison nonsense for example). If there was a ready solution which would result in progress, believe me, we would have put it in place by now.
I am not making excuses though and I am absolutely not looking for sympathy. I understand that residents don’t see the work we are doing behind the scenes but they can be absolutely sure that we, as a Council, are completely committed to the redevelopment of Kirkby town centre. I think that is more than evident when you look at the more than £100 million that has been invested by the public sector in the town – predominantly the Council. This money has delivered a new Kirkby Market, a new bus station, public realm improvements, new leisure facilities, a new Kirkby Centre with Gallery and Library, and a new Health Centre at St Chad’s, as well as the significant highways improvements. All of that public sector investment and improvement in the town should make it an attractive proposition for private sector investment, which is the last “piece of the puzzle” (albeit of course a big piece) which we all so desperately want to be slotted into place.
Where should people go for more information?
I can promise residents that the Council will continue to be open and honest in terms of our updates and knowledge. We might not always be able to provide the answers or reassurances which people want, but we will endeavour to keep the community updated regularly. And, if people have new questions, then just ask. We’re on social media and will answer questions whenever we can.
Alternatively, I see no reason why residents who want answers shouldn’t put their questions directly to St Modwen themselves. If you want to show St Modwen just how much you want them to get cracking, why not tell them via email or social media, and remind them just how much local appetite there really is for this development? Just a thought…