Home For the record Kirkby – what’s happening?
For the record

Kirkby – what’s happening?

by Laura Johnston

Why has the Council made such a radical move?

Put simply, various private sector companies have made a series of promises over decades that they would regenerate Kirkby town centre. None of the private sector plans have ever been delivered. The Council believes strongly that local residents have waited long enough for the redevelopment of their town centre. We have two options in terms of moving forward – either carry on being dependent on the private sector, or alternatively look to take control. The Council has never owned the shopping centre in Kirkby so buying it would be a significant change in direction and also a significant risk. It would be a radical decision and is not a decision to be made lightly – this is not a “normal” thing for a local authority to do.

Where would the money come from?

The Council cannot take control in Kirkby in a way which would damage services or increase Council Tax or Business Rates – we are looking to find a way to buy St Modwen out without putting other key public services at risk and without making the people of Knowsley pay for it. Businesses in Kirkby – both existing and future – will continue to pay rent, so this rental income would be used to fund the purchase over a number of years. It will be important to pay a realistic price and we are also looking at potential support from other investors or grant-making bodies. We have commissioned independent valuations of St Modwen’s assets in Kirkby town centre and are also carrying out an analysis of the potential income from rent – this work will result in an offer to buy the assets and a business plan as to how the purchase will be funded.

Will I be paying for this through an increase to my Council Tax or Business Rates?

No. The Council has no intention of increasing Council Tax or Business Rates to pay for taking control of Kirkby town centre. We hope that new development in Kirkby will attract more people to live in the town (which would generate more Council Tax) and more businesses to locate here (which would generate more in Business Rates), but we do not intend to increase Council Tax or Business Rates to fund the redevelopment of Kirkby town centre.

Why do you think that the Council can succeed in bringing forward the redevelopment?

We are in a different position to the private sector – they need to achieve a profit on such investments, but the Council doesn’t have to generate a return for shareholders and instead we are looking at the wider benefits to the town. We just need to be able to break even for this to be a viable move.

The public sector has a successful track record of delivery – along with our public sector partners, we have promised and already delivered over £100m of investment in Kirkby – the redevelopment of the Kirkby Centre, a new Bus Station, the St Chad’s Health Centre, the new Kirkby Leisure Centre, highways improvements, and a new Kirkby Market.  What we now need for Kirkby is an enhanced retail offer, providing our residents with the shops they were promised – and, of course, the supermarket. Everything to deliver this is already in place – planning, occupiers and a contractor – the Council’s primary objective is to get the scheme started.

We know that Kirkby residents have waited a long time for the facilities they need and deserve. By taking control, the Council can finally bring about the redevelopment which has been promised by the private sector for so long.

Won’t it mean going back to the drawing board and starting all over again?

No – the retail scheme already has planning permission and a contractor is on standby ready to build.  Morrisons, Home Bargains, KFC and a cinema are all committed to the scheme. If a deal with St Modwen can be agreed, it will include a date for this development to commence. The Council is not starting from scratch – it is our intention to deliver the scheme which St Modwen has promised and nobody has walked away from that scheme.

What timescales are you looking at?

Buying the assets from St Modwen is the quickest way for the Council to be certain that the retail development will happen.  There are already plans drawn up, planning approvals in place, and a contractor on standby. So, as along as a deal can be done with St Modwen, we are not starting from scratch. We are in the process of confirming independent valuations of the town centre assets and that will determine how much we should pay and help us understand how we can fund the deal. We hope that St Modwen will make a quick (and positive) decision once our offer is put to them.  As soon as we have information to share, we will.

What are you doing about the rubble on the former InShops site which is causing dust?

The piles of rubble are in place because St Modwen has already paid for and completed the necessary demolition works prior to construction of the proposed retail development. The rubble is still in place because it will be re-used in the construction phase. The period between the completion of the demolition work and the start of the next phase has lasted much longer than anybody would have wished. At the present time, this land (and indeed the rubble) is still owned by St Modwen, so the Council asked them to address public concerns about dust. St Modwen has confirmed that work was completed on Tuesday, 11 June 2019 to reduce the heights of the piles of rubble so that they are now lower than the hoardings surrounding the site. The remaining smaller piles of rubble have also been covered with protective sheets to alleviate any further dust problems.

Has the rubble been tested/sampled?

As part of any demolition work, a survey must be undertaken of the building to be demolished. One of the aims of such a survey is to identify the presence of any materials containing asbestos and these must then be removed if they could present a risk. The majority of asbestos removal works must take place under special licence and the process also requires notification to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

A survey of the buildings in this case was carried out prior to the demolition work, and therefore there is no need for any further testing of the rubble. The scheme of works for asbestos removal and management for the site are listed on the HSE’s asbestos system as having been undertaken in 2017.

Is there a “Plan B” if negotiations with St Modwen are unsuccessful?

The Council’s very clear aim is to deliver the development which St Modwen has promised. The plans for the development have already been approved and tenants including Morrisons, Home Bargains and KFC are all still committed to the scheme. In the event that a deal with St Modwen can’t be secured, we would have to look at other sites in or near to the town centre. However, these sites may not provide the same scale of opportunity and would be subject to plans being drawn up, consultations carried out, planning consents sought, and tenants being secured before any construction can commence.  This would be a more timely process. Our aim is therefore to agree a deal with St Modwen, and we hope that this will be possible.

What about the land which the Council owns in Kirkby town centre?

Our aim is to deliver the St Modwen retail scheme, so gaining ownership of St Modwen’s land and assets is our priority. At the same time as these negotiations are ongoing, the Council is pushing ahead with site investigation work on smaller pockets of land in and around the town centre, including the former Council building on Cherryfield Drive, the former swimming baths, former library, and former Webster House. The tenders have now been returned (on Friday, 28 June 2019) and will be evaluated next week (week commencing 1 July 2019). We expect to award a contract next week with activity on site then commencing in mid to late July 2019.

Our ambitions for Kirkby have always been much wider than the retail development – it’s about the town centre as a whole so it makes absolute sense to get any land that we own primed and ready for development. Site investigation work will commence over the coming weeks (in July 2019) and will include land surface assessments and other technical assessments. Once complete, the information from these assessments will pave the way for other future developments to the retail scheme.

Why hasn’t the cinema scheme started given that this development will be on land which the Council already owns?

Whilst the cinema scheme is planned on Council-owned land (the former Kirkby Library site), the cinema development was until very recently a St Modwen scheme. St Modwen had committed to deliver it and they had lined up a cinema operator.  St Modwen has recently decided to “stand down” from this scheme, so the Council has only recently stepped in and taken control. We are now in discussion with potential occupiers (cinema, restaurants) for the development, but construction cannot start until those occupiers have committed to rent the space. These negotiations are ongoing and are going well.  We hope to make progress quickly.

How can I share my suggestions for Kirkby town centre?

The scheme that the Council is looking to deliver was subject to a public consultation process back in 2017, which helped to shape St Modwen’s planning application. We are still looking to deliver that scheme (which has planning approvals and is technically “ready to go”), but we need to secure ownership of the land in order to make it happen.  There are 12 Elected Councillors in Kirkby who you can share your views with – their contact details are available on the Council’s website.  In addition, you can email your thoughts and suggestions to MajorDevelopments@knowsley.gov.uk.

How are you sharing updates with people who don’t have internet access?

Councillors Graham Morgan, Jayne Aston, and Tony Brennan have been interviewed by BBC Radio Merseyside, BBC North West Today, and the Liverpool Echo – all of those media outlets have aired or published updates as a result.  We are providing regular updates to the local media, including The Challenge. Our Elected Members are sharing updates with constituents at their surgeries and other interactions with residents. In addition, residents can use PCs for free in our libraries and One Stop Shops to access the information on our website. In our One Stop Shops, Digital Champions are on hand to help residents to get online and find what they need.

Are the negotiations going to be done in public?

No, unfortunately this wouldn’t be feasible. Private sector businesses don’t generally make public the details of their finances, as they don’t want their competitors to know about their business models etc. The Council has to respect that approach, and the fact that there are commercial sensitivities around our discussions. If we said that we wanted to publicise every aspect of the negotiations, then there would be very little chance of any deal actually being done. The outcomes of our discussions will be shared once they are concluded.

Is it true that the Council is working closely with Lidl?

We are keeping in regular contact with Morrisons who have already committed to coming to Kirkby – it is our very clear priority to deliver a Morrisons store in the heart of the town centre. The Council is definitely not working with Lidl on any scheme for Kirkby town centre, but we do talk to Lidl and other retailers about the potential for stores elsewhere in the Borough.

What’s next?

Residents have asked us to “do something” about the lack of progress by St Modwen in Kirkby town centre and that is exactly what we are doing.  It is essential that we don’t waste public money and that we don’t damage key public services by doing this deal.  So independent valuations are being carried out and technical market appraisals are ongoing.  Our conversations with St Modwen are progressing positively so far and we expect to make an offer in the next few weeks.  If and when our offer is accepted, we will confirm and announce a start date for construction on the retail element of the scheme.

Question and Answer published on 29 April 2019

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…