By Cllr Graham Morgan, Leader of Knowsley Council
As I write this latest update, the sun is shining and the sky is blue – yes, it’s still very cold out there and we know winter is far from over, but from inside looking out it’s a really beautiful day. The type that really lifts your mood.
It has felt at times over the past year that the bleak moments were never ending – and it still feels like that at times, I know. But there is always light at the end of the storm – and that will be the case with this pandemic, too.
We remain, of course, in a very serious situation. Levels of COVID-19 remain high in our communities and our hospitals are still extremely stretched. We know that lots of people are still struggling with the effects of this virus, and so far 361 Knowsley people have lost their lives. The impact has been truly horrendous. But we are also seeing our rates of infection coming down – and we are currently going in the right direction. If we can all hold our reserve and continue sticking to the rules, we can have real hope that the storm will end soon.
So far this year, our thoughts have been dominated by the lockdown and issues of COVID-19, of course. But it is important for us all to remember that there will be more to this year than what we have experienced so far. In fact, we have lots of positive things on the horizon in Knowsley, and I think it’s important for us to remember them.
In Kirkby, for example, work on our new retail development is progressing well. This is a huge and very significant project for our borough, and one which we have all wanted for so long. The latest pictures from site are just wonderful to see – by summertime, we’ll be doing our first shop in the new Morrisons store which will be at the heart of our new town centre.
Things are clearly tough for our retail sector, and in particular our hospitality businesses. But major names like Taco Bell are still all committed to Kirkby and looking forward to serving their first customers later this year. And we are also about to start work on a cinema and restaurants development – even more for people in Kirkby and surrounding areas to look forward to.
In Prescot, The Shakespeare North Playhouse is now a new part of the skyline. By this time next year, we’ll be making plans for its grand opening and revealing a programme of live performances which we’ll be able to enjoy right here on our doorstep. This was an amazing achievement even before COVID-19, and it’s even more impressive now that the project remains on target for 2022.
You may have caught the latest instalment of our Shakespeare North playwriting competition – “As You Write It” – on BBC’s The One Show recently. In case you’re not aware, we have been working with the TV show on a national young person’s playwriting competition. The three eventual winners will have their plays performed at The Playhouse in 2022 – wow, what an experience for those young people. Currently, nine young people have been shortlisted and in the coming months The One Show will document their journey as they turn their initial ideas into real plays by working with real experts like award-winning writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce and acclaimed playwright and university lecturer Evan Placey. If you didn’t catch the latest programme, you can watch it on iPlayer.
There are more reasons to be optimistic, too. We’ve seen figures in the last week that the UK’s economy shrank by 10% over the course of last year – understandably. But we’re seeing strong confidence in Knowsley from investors, which is great for our local economy, for jobs and opportunities for our residents.
Last Thursday, three major planning applications were approved for high quality family homes in Halewood. The homes will be built on land which we identified as being suitable for residential development a few years ago when we calculated how many new homes were needed to meet demand in the borough. These developments of about 1,300 homes will include four-bedroomed homes AND affordable homes. Not only will they help to meet demand, but they also come with significant investment into the local area. We have ensured that the planning permission is granted in return for guarantees from the housing developers that they will invest millions of pounds into the community – creating new school and nursery places, expanding healthcare facilities, improving roads, and enhancing public open spaces. Both new and existing Halewood residents will feel the many benefits of this investment.
And that is something really important to remember. These new developments don’t just bring new homes but also investment which is here to benefit all our residents – in lots and lots of ways – big and small. A perfect example of that is that we have, this week, stepped in to resolve a flooding issue on the site used by Whiston Juniors Football Club. We will be able to use our connections with Tarmac and funding which we have as part of the Halsnead Garden Village development to get this work done. It means a lot to the Club and to the many local families who will be desperate to use the pitches on site once the lockdown is over.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of confidence from businesses wanting to move into the borough and create jobs. You may have seen some positive speculation in news reports this week about a major internet retailer (a company I think you all might have heard of!?) potentially signing up to a major development here in Knowsley. Although details haven’t been officially confirmed, council officers have been working very closely with the developer to secure planning permission for a huge (835,000 feet2) warehouse on Knowsley Business Park. If this news is confirmed (and I’m very hopeful based on what I understand to be the case), this will mean opportunities for local companies during the build and many hundreds of new jobs which is just great news. I’m sure we will be hearing more in due course.
So, for now: Yes, we must remain primarily focused on the fight against COVID-19. We must keep following the rules and playing our part. But the sun will come out again – soon, hopefully – and when it does, I’m really confident that our borough will be in good shape.