Expert Eye: Tony Clark, Knowsley Council
July saw the opening of the £38m Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot and its delivery demonstrates that Knowsley can put on a show in more ways than one.
Long before the playhouse opened, its transformational impact on the town was already becoming evident. According to Tony Clark, Knowsley Council’s Assistant Executive Director for Development and Infrastructure, Prescot high street is now “the place to go”.
Knowsley Council is overseeing a major strategic plan for the whole borough that aims to bring its multiple town centres to life. Regeneration plans in Prescot and Kirkby are now continuing apace with Huyton and Halewood now also in their sights.
“What was amazing about the launch of the Shakespeare North Playhouse was the fact that it got not just local media attention, but national media attention too that also picked up on the wider regeneration story taking place,” said Tony.
“It really shone a light on the fantastic things happening in Prescot and across the rest of the borough. “It demonstrated the imagination and creativity of the range of partners that are working with Knowsley Council to deliver on transformational regeneration.”
Tony also talked about two other projects that have gone hand in hand with the Shakespeare North Playhouse to breathe new life into the historic town which dates back to the 14th century when a charter was obtained to hold a three-day market.
Prescot Townscape Heritage Initiative is a five year £4m project to repair, restore and reuse historic buildings and spaces in the town centre. It has been backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Tony explained: “This has led to retail units being refurbished and that has been successful in attracting new occupiers. The chef Gary Usher opened his Pinion restaurant in Prescot (its development was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, The Rebel Chef) and the Lord Strange Bar to name but two.
“We have also delivered the Prescot Connectivity project to improve sustainable travel in the town. Some £10m has also been invested into Prescot bus station and train station along with extensive public realm improvements most notably to Eccleston Street which is our traditional high street.
“This will provide improvements for local residents, support our town centre businesses and make it easier for visitors to get to the Shakespeare North Playhouse.
“We are also seeing a number of high quality residential developments in Prescot to add to the influx of new business investment. The opening of the playhouse is just the start. We are seeing new businesses working together with existing businesses.
“That was what was most satisfying about the media coverage of the opening. It didn’t just focus on the theatre itself but on the whole range of local people who have made it happen by committing so much of their time and efforts over many years. It really is quite a success story.”
Kirkby town centre
Tony acknowledged that over the years Kirkby town centre has seen “ many false starts”. A proposal to build a new stadium for Everton FC and a supermarket little more than a decade ago is one of the more recent and well known examples.
However, the tide has now turned. Knowsley Council acquired Kirkby town centre for £43.8m along with support from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.
The 94,000 sq ft development project has seen the opening of a 45,000 sq ft Morrisons superstore, a petrol station, car park, a 25,600 sq ft Home Bargains, Taco Bell and KFC drive-thru restaurants.
Next up is the delivery of a new multiplex cinema. The council has already signed up Reel to operate the cinema which will also be surrounded by a number of new food and drink outlets.
There is further interest from other well known national operators and the council will make further announcements as soon as they are confirmed. Kirkby is a place where businesses want to invest. “People in Kirkby tell me they have waited 30 to 40 years for the town to be transformed by the private sector," said Tony.
“The council stepped in and, with the support of local people, made it happen. What you now see is a vibrant town centre - a viable place that will attract investors.
“In our consultation exercise conducted in March 2020 we asked residents ‘what makes a good town centre?’. They told us they wanted to see MORE leisure amenities and activities for young people and families.
“The investment to date has now attracted strong interest from operators who would fulfil that. We hope to make further announcements in due course once we secure commitments.
“All this activity is also helping to fill up the few remaining vacant units in the town. And we are also looking at land to the south of Cherryfield Drive for a new housing development – a better choice of homes in terms of style, size and budget was also highlighted through our consultation.”
Huyton town centre
Knowsley Council is currently the only occupier of a seven-acre 'civic campus' site in Huyton Village Centre. However, the council now plans to use the site to spark another flagship regeneration scheme.
Tony explained: “We have made real progress on the high street in Huyton. Improvements have been made to retail premises and this has attracted a number of new food and drink outlets which, once again, is exactly what residents have asked for.
“Now we want to focus on the creation of a mixed-use regeneration project on the seven-acre council site, bringing new jobs, homes and footfall to the high street. Much of the council estate is ageing and it has a much larger footprint than we actually need. We have taken steps to demolish a number of buildings to ensure our sites are ‘construction ready’.
“The plans are to build a new hotel, residential and commercial spaces and create new public realm. Some office space will be occupied by the council, but we also want to create office space for new business or those looking to expand or relocate.
“This will be a whole new commercial district in the town built on a brownfield site. And we are really keen to hear from businesses that would be interested in occupying space in this flagship development. The council will be the anchor tenant and will act as a catalyst for the rest of the scheme.”
Knowsley is currently working with a development partner on proposals and aims to go out to public consultation in the coming months to further shape those plans. And, similar to Prescot and Kirkby, new homes will be a key part of the development plan.
Tony adds it isn’t just new family homes they want to see but also encourage town centre living. He said: “We have town centres with excellent transport connections. Encouraging people to live in the towns can only help make them even more vibrant.”
So far Knowsley has missed out on recent Government funding. Missing out on allocations from the Town Deal, High Street and Levelling Up funds has been a source of frustration for the council. However, they have now submitted three Levelling Up Fund bids for Round 2 of Government support:
• Seeking funding for Prescot town centre to transform the former Picture Palace into a new cinema as well as improve public realm.
• Looking for backing for the Huyton development plan.
• And funding to improve transport connectivity in Halewood, create new additional facilities and extended Halewood District Centre, subject to consultation.
“It has been disappointing that we haven’t been successful in securing Government funding so far. It doesn’t stop our regeneration efforts but it would certainly accelerate them. In Knowsley, we have a successful track record of delivery and if we say we are going to do something, then we will.”