KIRKBY: From new town ‘slum’ to 21st century rebirth
More than a decade after Everton’s move to Kirkby was vetoed by the government, both the club and the town it left behind are celebrating.
At Bramley Moore Dock, work has finally begun on the Blues’ new 52,000-seater stadium due to open in 2024.
But six miles across Merseyside, work is almost finished on Kirkby’s new town centre ending the decade of disappointment that followed the collapse of Everton’s Destination Kirkby plans.
Local leaders hope the new development – the first phase in broader plans to regenerate Kirkby – will provide a much needed boost to a town that has struggled for decades, let down by central government planners, corrupt councillors and the private sector alike.
‘All they’ve built is for building’s sake’
It was an inauspicious start for Kirkby. One of several housing developments started after the war to provide homes for families living in inner city slums, thousands of houses were built around a former ordnance factory then on the outskirts of Liverpool.
But like many similar developments, the focus was on housing and not the amenities to go along with them.
The development corporation did build schools and health facilities but despite the town’s overwhelmingly young population, little else was built to provide entertainment or recreation.
In 1965, by which time more than 10,000 homes had been built in Kirkby, a Times article said: “Although half the population is under 21 no one has yet built a cinema or dance hall and, possibly for this kind of reason, the 13 and 14-years-olds are the town’s most frequent law-breakers.
“Shop windows are shattered with monotonous regularity, telephone kiosks are damaged at the rate of one per day and windows of unoccupied buildings are now sometimes protected by corrugated iron.”
The lack of amenities, especially for the young, was to become a perennial problem for the new town.
During a 14-month rent strike in Tower Hill in the early 1970s, a documentary crew recorded an unnamed Kirkby resident complaining about housing conditions in the area.
He told the film crew: “All they’ve built for is building’s sake but not to take the children into consideration.
“Have a look around here, where on earth can children play? There’s a field there but it’s barred off from children to play on it. Now they can’t play on there, it’s against the law to play on there, so they’ve got to get on with living where they’re living now.
“You’ve got fields alright over the back for the grown-ups to play football on a Sunday but there’s no places for children to play.
“These councillors up here, and the health and welfare and the lot, they don’t give a damn. I mean this is supposed to be a new town and all I can see about it is slums.”
Corruption played a part too – council leader Dave Tempest, who had dominated local politics for years, ended up being jailed in 1978 along with builder George Leatherbarrow and architect William Marshall for their part in accepting bribes for building contracts in Kirkby.
Further problems followed, most notably the closure of the town’s only supermarket in 1979, beginning a 40-year period without a supermarket in the town.
And yet another documentary, this time a 1980 production for German television, echoed complaints about the lack of amenities in Kirkby.
Another man told the Germans: “Tower Hill’s a dump, it’s a right dump. Once you’re in it, you can’t get out of it.
“There’s nothing for the kids. There’s no jobs in Kirkby. All you can do here is the dole.”
From Destination Kirkby to council ownership
By the late 80s and early 90s, while unemployment remained a problem, things had improved.
The town benefitted from millions in investment under various government regeneration plans beginning with a £26m grant from the Estate Action Programme in 1985 and then further funding under the Major and Blair governments.
Gary O’Connor, now 36, remembers growing up in Kirkby in the late 80s and early 90s positively.
He said: “I always found growing up was really, really good. There was a great sense of community, the town centre was always really, really busy.
“By the time I was of an age, we had a fully equipped sports centre with running track and stuff, we had the swimming baths, we had a great library, there was plenty. I never felt as a child there was nothing to do in the town.”
And as the new millennium began, there was hope that things would continue to get better.
From the mid-2000s, Everton FC began to raise the possibility of building a new stadium in Kirkby, along with a new supermarket, a bus station and other amenities.
The plans received strong backing from Knowsley Council, which also demolished the old sports centre off Whitefield Drive in 2007, clearing a site that had been earmarked for the development’s bus station.
But Everton’s move split opinions in Kirkby and drew opposition from Liverpool Council, which wanted to keep the club in the city.
Eventually, it was the government that blocked the move, deciding in 2009 that it breached policies on keeping shoppers in town centres.
What followed was a decade of delay and demolition as Knowsley Council struggled to persuade the private sector to begin building in Kirkby.
Private developer St Modwen bought the town centre in 2015 and proposed a series of developments but did little more than demolition work.
The old In Shops was knocked down to make way for a supermarket that wasn’t built, the old library was demolished in anticipation of a cinema that didn’t materialise and several buildings along the south of Cherryfield Drive were also removed and not replaced, leading once councillor to remark that St Modwen “liked rubble”.
For many residents, it was a time of growing frustration with complaints heard in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s being heard yet again.
One resident, Danny, pointed to the loss of the old sports centre and the library along with declining education standards and a feeling of the town still being “left behind”.
He told the LDRS: “When I look out my door, I see two Kirkbys – the Kirkby I grew up in and the Kirkby that is now.”
Gary O’Connor agreed, saying the town had “almost devolved” and identifying the loss of the sports centre as a key moment that Kirkby got rid of something that had made it “unique”.
He said: “It was never going to be the same once they knocked it down and threw up a fitness centre, which are ten a penny.”
It is a feeling that many of their neighbours share and that saw independent Steve Smith clinch victory in May’s local elections in Whitefield ward, for decades a Labour stronghold.
The Labour council rejects the idea that Kirkby has lost facilities, saying the sports centre has been replaced by the new leisure centre and the library has moved to the Kirkby Centre.
They are also keen to keep looking forward rather than dwelling on the Kirkby that was. Deputy council leader Louise Harbour said: “I don’t think we’ve lost anything, I think we’ve just moved with the times. I don’t want to look back to what it was like in the early 80s and everything else, I want to move forward.”
But cabinet members admit that they too had been left frustrated by years of inaction.
Cllr Harbour told the LDRS during a recent tour of the town’s new development: “Every frustration everyone has had, we’ve had too.”
Finance chief Jayne Aston agreed, adding: “We’ve had some terrible disappointments, sitting in rooms with developers showing us nice coloured maps and nothing was happening.”
It was that frustration that saw the council decide to buy the town centre for £43.8m in mid-2019 and kick-start the development that had already been given planning permission but had stalled in the face of a declining retail sector.
The Kirkby of the future
Now, 18 months after the council took ownership of the town centre – and 12 years after Destination Kirkby was finally rejected – Kirkby is finally on the verge of seeing its long-promised regeneration produce results.
Morissons has taken possession of the town’s first supermarket in 42 years, KFC and Taco Bell are getting ready to open, Home Bargains has agreed to occupy a much larger store and negotiations are ongoing with other retailers to move into the new development.
The council expects the new development to create 500 jobs and bring in £15m a year for the local economy, while neighbours seem enthusiastic about the project.
Mandy Miller, who owns the Fuel Stop in Kirkby Market, said she was “made up” about the development.
She said: “At the end of the day it’s going to bring more people into the town centre.
“It’s all good for the town centre and the people of Kirkby. I’m excited for it.”
Further plans are already in train. The cinema promised by St Modwen has now received planning permission and the council leadership said more businesses are taking an interest in the town.
But the overall impact on the town remains to be seen. The regeneration work may help solve Kirkby’s decades-long lack of amenities, but tentative plans to build a housing development on fields south of Cherryfield Drive are sure to meet stiff opposition, especially after the old sports centre site has been given over to housing as well.
People like Gary also fear that the town will become too “generic”, with a retail centre that “could be anywhere”.
He said: “What we used to have, the look and the feel of the town centre, was quite unique and I feel – after many many years of waiting, granted, and there will be plenty of good to come of it – but it feels like it’s going to be a bit generic.”
And then there are the long-running problems that will require more than a redeveloped town centre to solve. Problems like education – Kirkby hasn’t had a secondary school rated “good” since 2014 – and health inequalities, while proposals to move Barclaycard out of the town centre could add another headache for the council.
But with the return of a supermarket and the promise of more leisure facilities, Kirkby’s 45,000 residents will hope that soon the old complaints that there’s nothing to do in the town will soon be a thing of the past.
Words: Chris McKeon, Local Democracy Reporter
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