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Make no mistake ... M&S Birkenhead closure is a disaster; lorna hughes ON THE HIGH STREET GIANT'S SHOCK DECISION TO CLOSE ITS STORE IN THE TOWN.

Byline: lorna hughes

IF YOU speak to people in Wallasey of a certain age, they'll tell you it all went downhill for Liscard when Marks & Spencer moved out.

Now, shoppers in Birkenhead will be wondering if Wirral's biggest town is about to go down the same path.

Some might shrug and say it's not really a big deal - there's an Asda superstore down the road and shopping habits have changed, sending shoppers to the internet and out-of-town retail parks.

Yet, make no mistake about it, M&S leaving Birkenhead is a disaster for the town centre, and not just for sentimental reasons.

We've been dumped by one of the country's biggest retailers, and it hurts.

Seeing Marks & Spencer standing proud next to The Pyramids always seemed like a sign that Birkenhead still had something to offer as a shopping destination, and could stand up to the bigger, shinier kids on the block at Liverpool ONE and Cheshire Oaks.

Marks & Spencer said it needed to ensure "we have the right offer in the right locations".

The problem facing Wirral Council and the owners of the Pyramids shopping centre is that, with PS1bn redevelopment plans on the cards for Birkenhead, why isn't the town seen as the right location for M&S? Other big names have come and gone - Living, Topshop and HMV, to name a few - while WHSmith downsized to a smaller unit next door to TJ Hughes.

But Birkenhead can still attract big names.

H&M and Pandora are both relatively recent arrivals. Things seemed to be on the up, meaning M&S's decision came as a surprise to many. The writing was probably on the wall when the M&S food hall opened in Bidston last year.

In the excitement, we all missed the inevitable knock-on effect, a couple of miles down the road.

Centre director at Pyramids Shopping Centre, Derek Millar, said: "Unfortunately, this is one of eight Marks & Spencer stores that are proposed to close as part of a nationwide strategic restructure.

"This news is hugely disappointing for the town, and especially for the dedicated team who have served our shoppers for many years."

Wirral Council leader and Birkenhead ward councillor Phil Davies echoed those sentiments, also saying M&S's decision was "hugely disappointing" but said there were positives in Birkenhead, including the council working with The Pyramids owners to plan for the town's "long-term success".

He added: "Good public transport links, PS2 all-day parking and plans to re-invigorate the market are positive signs, and the business community, residents and shoppers are keen to see Birkenhead invested in and improved."

Birkenhead Green Party councillor Pat Cleary said the council had to take its share of the blame for M&S closing and called it a "massive blow".

He told the ECHO: "While there are wider pressures, especially internet shopping trends, Wirral Council has to take a huge share of the blame for decades of failure in town planning and a lack of strategic public investment.

"Birkenhead has suffered as more and more out-of-town retail space has been permissioned. Inevitably, this has dragged spending away.

"Instead of prioritising Birkenhead with its excellent public transport links, our Labour-run council has allowed more local spending to be sucked into soulless retail parks with free parking which destroy our town centres, especially Birkenhead.

"In terms of investment priorities, the council has got it all wrong. The millions committed to the so-called golf resort in Hoylake should go into revamping Birkenhead.

"The council is years behind in responding to the changes in shopping trends.

"If any good is to come out of this, it requires re-prioritising the council's investment programme."

Cllr Cleary said the shopping centre's centre of gravity needed to shift back towards Hamilton Square and existing rail links.

In a more radical step, he called for a "complete end to out-of-town retail development in Wirral and an up-front promotion of Birkenhead as Wirral's prioritised retail centre".

Birkenhead MP Frank Field said the closure was "hugely concerning news" and has called for a re-think.

He said: "To begin with, we will be asking M&S to set out more fully why they are doing this and the cost basis for doing so, as opposed to the goodwill they will lose."

Wirral Council has big plans to revitalise Birkenhead town centre by creating a new civic centre, commercial space - and even a new market hall.

Last year, it bought Europa Buildings, home to Mecca Bingo and a branch of Wilkos, to form a "central part" of the redesigned town centre.

The council is also taking full control of Birkenhead Market by buying the leasehold of the site.

Not everyone wants to elbow their way through the crowds to go shopping in Liverpool, and the closure of M&S will put even greater pressure on the local authority to get this one right.

The rumours about Beatties/ House of Fraser closing have been swirling for years, but few would have expected solid and reliable M&S to go first.

Until then, we'll just have to hope that, like Asda - which closed its Birkenhead superstore before returning a few years later - M&S will one day fall in love with Birkenhead again.

Wirral Council has to take a huge share of the blame for decades of failure in town planning and a lack of strategic public investment Birkenhead Green Party councillor Pat Cleary


Marks & Spencer, in Birkenhead - set to close Picture: JAMES MALONEY
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Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Feb 1, 2018
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