Place-based change: Birkenhead’s creative cluster

Wirral’s Festival of Beautiful Ideas took place in April 2017, bringing people together to share ideas for making Birkenhead a better place to live and work. Funded by Wirral MBC, the prize pool was matched by Wirral Chamber of Commerce, bringing it to £12,000. Just three years later, projects developed as a result of the festival are on course to deliver more than £3m of value in both financial and social impact.

The week-long festival included events and hack days in some of the town’s more unusual spaces and places, creating an opportunity for people to talk through ideas and share opportunities. Four key focus areas: Wirral Eats, Wirral Plays, Wirral Makes and Wirral Spaces, became a catalyst for the town’s talent.

Make residents, clockwise from left: Grow-Wellbeing’s Duane, Lisa at Rummage and Roam and Gina at Gina Christina Therapies. Right: Make CEO Liam Kelly

People from across the peninsula were encouraged to bring along an idea or business plan to make Wirral a better place to be. They bid for support from a funding pot of £12,000, to help take ideas to the next stage of development.

Over 60 ideas were submitted, from mobile food and drink carts to furniture prototypes, yoga, mindfulness, and music and making venues. Five individuals received funding in the culmination of the week’s events and three new Wirral-based collectives emerged, including the Wirral New Music Collective and the Wirral Wellbeing group.

Future Yard’s Craig Pennington

Three and a half years later, Future Yard, the product of Wirral New Music Collective’s vision, has just opened. The event also provided the evidence for Wirral Council and Make CIC to work together to open Make Hamilton Square, now 18 months into existence in the council’s former Treasury Building. Make has received an additional £59,000 investment to launch the site from a variety of investors, and a number of the festival’s participants are also now residents in this new creative community hub, which has become a focal point for socially-trading organisations.

A group of STOs, including Grow-Wellbeing CIC, Blossom Haus, which provides mental health services for people under 18 and Pathways to Work are now resident at Make Hamilton. Hilary White Designs, an artist who participated the Festival of Ideas, is artist in residence.

Cllr. Christine Spriggs was Cabinet Member for Culture, Heritage and Creative Economy at Wirral Council between 2017 and September 2020. She worked with Wirral Council officers who commissioned the Beautiful Ideas Company to deliver the festival, and says: “What’s happening in Birkenhead right now is pretty exciting as a new, confident, creative community emerges. There has always been so much creative and artistic talent here on the Wirral, but this has been galvanised by initiatives such as the Wirral Festival of Beautiful Ideas and what has emerged since… The transformational potential of cultural and creative activity in Birkenhead has been driven by this grass roots movement of creative entrepreneurs. It has only really just begun.”

Post-festival, five music events across five different venues proved the music collective’s concept. They resulted in Birkenhead’s first music festival at Birkenhead Priory, which created a financial impact of £282,191. After 97% of visitors expressed a wish to attend more events like the festival, it opened Future Yard – the first live music venue that Birkenhead has had for years – in the middle of 2020. Not only will it support live music in the town, but industry skills and artistic development, with industry-led training pathways for local young people, a 350 capacity live venue, music studios, co-working space and café/bar.

Birkenhead’s Bloom building

“We have a blissfully optimistic idea that you can change a place through music – through enabling and encouraging music communities,” says Future Yard’s Craig Pennington. “Venues are often the places where those things start and it’s musicians that colonise and start those processes. But it’s not just short-term gentrification – our aim is to enable a long-term shift from the bottom, up. The venue is our platform, with performance as its core.”

Liam Kelly is the CEO of Make, and a Commissioner for Town Centres on behalf of Liverpool City Region. “The bubbling of creative activity in Birkenhead is starting to move from a slow simmer to a roaring boil – in spite of a global pandemic,” he says. “Make Hamilton is close to being completely full, which far exceeds forecasts and expectations. Alongside other brilliant projects like Future Yard, Convenience Gallery and others, it’s living proof that both demand and desire exist in Birkenhead, and that we’re ready to take brave next steps in its renaissance.”

A group of STOs including Grow-Wellbeing CIC, Blossom Haus and Pathways to Work are now resident at Make Hamilton, says COO Kirsten Little.

The financial impact of the town’s cultural renaissance* can be estimated at around £2,290,000 this year, rising to a potential £2,790,000 next year as Future Yard opens up and welcomes tenants.

Its equivalent social impact, based on studies of similar place-based social, maker and creator activity within a locality, shows that Birkenhead is estimated to deliver at least £916,000 of social value every year, bringing the total delivered as a result of the Festival of Ideas intervention to date at £3,206,000 (rising to £3,906,000 in 2021).

Make’s community garden volunteers

Collaboration lies at the heart of the approach. It was embedded in the Festival of Ideas, and has continued amongst the STOs that benefited from it. Future Yard, Make Hamilton and Bloom are now embarking on their own cultural triangle, creating a cultural shift to opportunities and perceptions in Birkenhead.

* These figures are derived from those ventures that resulted from or were inspired by the Festival of Ideas, that have been tracked. Not all ventures were tracked as no follow-up resource was supplied. Some of the key ventures have continued to rely on Beautiful Ideas Co and Creative Economist for support, at an in-kind cost circa £30,000 per annum. Average turnover figures have been applied to tenants of key ventures in line with national micro and creative business turnover and available Companies House information. Social impact has been estimated using detailed studies of similar interventions and creative, maker and social activities at 40% of financial impact.