Not even torrential rain can deter Kirkby locals from heading into the town centre.

13 miles away a mini tornado is wreaking havoc in Widnes, but today in Kirkby there is an enduring sense of ease - but for the incessant rainfall.

In the town centre, friends and family are sitting outside drinking coffees out the way of the rain.

Read more:Kirkby's first supermarket in over forty years opens its doors

It’s the same story a few yards away at the revamped market area where a healthy crowd are perusing the stalls.

Everything feels cosmopolitan and communal. It feels abundantly new. And, yet somehow, it feels like Kirkby and its people have been like this for years - such is the ease of those among the unforgiving elements.

Hope on the horizon

On Irlam Drive, to the side of the established town centre and market, a new retail development has sprung up from the ground.

The complex is a definitive statement of a new Kirkby.

To its right sit a row of high rise flats erected in the 60s and 70s.

The two opposing developments bookend the timeline of what is still a young place: the definitive markers of a post war new town, a development which signals which direction the town is heading.

As the rain clears, a faint rainbow straddles the road separating the flats and new complex, as if to suggest how Kirkby is stretching beyond its past and preconceptions to somewhere more hopeful.

Photo of a rainbow on Irlam Drive, Kirkby
Hope on the horizon in Kirkby
A 42 year wait

On the new retail complex a Morrisons supermarket has just opened.

In other parts of the city region, the opening of a new supermarket could easily go under the radar. But in Kirkby, it’s one reason for the buzz about town - and it’s understandable why.

The Morrisons is Kirkby’s first supermarket in 42 years. For four decades the town’s residents have had to travel out to Walton, Aintree or Ormskirk to do the majority of their shopping.

The opening of the superstore marks not only a significant moment in the town’s regeneration plans, but in its relatively short history.

Even in the nearby traditional market, there’s excitement about its opening.

Mandy, who owns Mandy’s Fuel Stop Café, told the ECHO: “Everyone is just really excited that we've now got a supermarket.

“Before this, I was having to take my money out to other places and spend elsewhere. I was always having to travel out to buy items for the café too - travelling to industrial estates on the outskirts.”

Mandy has worked on the market for six years and notes how Kirkby has gradually started to change “for the better”. She also welcomes the arrival of somewhere she can go to quickly replenish stock and continue to serve passing trade - something which she says has rarely diminished.

She added: “The footfall hasn't really changed for us over recent years. It's stayed the same for us - even through the pandemic.

“And hopefully with this new phase of regeneration it'll bring more people into Kirkby, which is what we really need.

“I think this is the start of a new future for Kirkby.”

Photo of Many, owner of Mandy's Fuel Stop Cafe
Mandy has worked at Kikrby market for six years
Coming to fruition

Inside the brand new Morrisons, which is kitted out with its own bakery, butchers, fishmongers, petrol station and market kitchen, cabinet members of Knowsley Council are as visibly overjoyed as the local residents being shown around the new concept store.

The market symbolises not only the arrival of essential infrastructure and amenities for a town of upward of 40,000 people, but the fulfilment of a promise to residents who’ve often been viewed as forgotten or left behind.

Speaking to the ECHO, Knowsley Council leader Graham Morgan said: “This is a fantastic time for the residents of Kirkby.

“They thoroughly deserve this facility and its fantastic offer."

Next door to the Morrisons will soon be a Home Bargains megastore. Elsewhere on the complex a new KFC and Taco Bell opened a few months ago. And a long promised cinema will be added to the town’s offer in the next phase of development.

Photo of inspections of the new KFC on the complex
Inspection of the new KFC on the complex

Cllr Tony Brennan, director of regeneration at Knowsley Council, told the ECHO: “To see where we were and where we are now is absolutely fantastic.

“That's through faith in Kirkby and the Kirkby people. We took ownership of this, we ran with it and we've delivered.”

The sense of occasion isn’t lost on deputy council leader Louise Harbour. Talking about the significance of recent regeneration work, she told the ECHO: “I'm absolutely thrilled.

“I'm 41 and I've lived in Kirkby all my life and that's the first time I've been able to step foot in a supermarket that is ours.”

Taking ownership of the situation

The journey to today’s celebrations is surprisingly short one.

Just over two years ago, Knowsley Council hit out at the developer that owned Kirkby town centre after it appeared on a list of the worst shopping areas in Britain.

At that point it placed in the bottom 10 of 1,000 shopping areas ranked by The Mirror, with the poll taking into account factors like empty shop units.

The developer, St Modwen, who had owned the town centre since 2015, had planned for a number of years to redevelop the town centre. But following demolition works to clear the site for today’s complex, the works did not get underway.

Photo of the new Morrisons store at Kirkby.(Pic Andrew Teebay).
The new Morrisons store while being built

In a bid to kickstart the regeneration, Knowsley Council made the ambitious move to purchase the town centre from St Modwen.

A sale of £43.8m was approved in July 2019 and finalised in November the same year.

In more ways than one, Knowsley Council were taking ownership of the land and its challenges - many of which had hindered previous development plans.

By December 2019, works began on the regeneration of the town centre - something which had been in the pipelines for almost 20 years with the town at one point the prospective new home for Everton FC.

Speaking about the decision to purchase the town centre and push forward with regeneration, Cllr Morgan noted how it was one of the first decisions he made once leader.

He said: “One of the reasons we bought the town centre is because there were too many failed promises from the private sector.

“It was a risk. We got over that risk and delivered on time and we're here today to open something that the residents wanted.”

Photo of Kikrby Market
Kirkby Market

Cllr Brennan added: “Through this investment and regeneration, we've been able to put 500 people into new jobs.

“250 of them are where we're sitting now. That's real impact on people's wages as we go forward.”

Cllr Harbour is quick to remind us how the site where the store now sits was a “muddy mound” only last February, on the day of ground-breaking.

For her, she sees the trend of progression in Kirby and insulating its own economy with new amenities as something that will “continue” and “skyrocket”.

Traditions and the future

Back over in the market, Mandy, who owns Mandy’s Fuel Stop café, is reaffirming how the new developments are a “real positive for the area.”

There is a sense the Morrisons will add to the circular economy of the town centre, rather than create its own force field of commerce a few hundred yards away from the other shops and independent traders.

Mandy points to a nearby stall, Martin’s Deli, and notes how she purchases most of her meats from him.

Martin Davis, 69, owner of the deli, has worked at Kirkby market over the last 30 years.

He has seen first-hand how the town has changed over the years, and the multiple failed developments of the land to the side of his stall.

He told the ECHO: “It's taken an awful long time, but we finally have a supermarket and retail park.

“The supermarket will definitely improve things. It'll cause more people to stay in the town.”

Mr Davis is however less resounding in his positivity for the overall plans.

Given the new Morrisons will contain its own baker, butcher and fishmonger, he worries about how much it will impact on the local highstreet and traders.

Photo of Martin from Martin's Deli
Martin Davis has worked on Kirkby Market for 30 years

He said: “[The Morrisons] is going to facilitate for large portions of the population, but in terms of businesses in the city, it's going to create a slightly more difficult landscape. But that's up to us to rise to the challenge.

“To move forward, in allowing supermarkets to offer everything that they do, it's going to affect the tradition of a town.

“But nothing stays the same. Small businesses always will feel the pressure.

“I've got a lot of customers, and I think they deserve a supermarket, they've needed one. The town deserves one. Even if it's detrimental to the smaller businesses. I don't think you can avoid that.”

When asked whether the new superstore, with its concept features, will puncture the circle economy of the town centre, Cllr Morgan stressed it was important to “get the balance right”.

He said: “I think the [town and market] will be included. Of all the footfall in the town centre, a lot of people still use the markets. There will be a lot of work and support we will give to the stall holders, and we will carry on doing that as well.

“If we can do that right, and the footfall comes through, everyone will benefit.”

The new new town

On the surface, the arrival of a supermarket and retail outlet may appear to follow a style-guide of brand-led regeneration - whereby the name of the products people spend their money reflects the engrained value of a place.

But it seems like the regeneration plans are more than just about commercial opportunity, even with a recent flood of business inquiries about moving to the town, as Cllr Brennan points out.

In developing the town’s leisure offer through a new cinema, restaurant and bars, which is the next phase of the plans, the circular economy of the town will be further reinforced in its ability to hold on to the money of its residents.

No longer will it be two buses or a train for their shopping or an evening out.

Children playing in Kirkby, Liverpool. 18th March 1965
Kirkby has always had a proud community and history

Faye Lynch, the community champion at the new Morrisons, shares the sense of optimism on today’s rain soaked horizon.

She told the ECHO: “I think myself and a lot of others think this is the start of a new Kirkby now.

“It's only going to grow from here.”

Perhaps stifled by its post-war planning and inability to write its own narratives, Kirkby looks to be finally finding out what it is and what it can be. The new, new town.

No longer the “forgotten” place that’s the last stop on the line. The place where Everton FC nearly moved to. The place where people were pushed out to when Liverpool expanded. The place where regeneration just didn’t get going.

Perhaps Cllr Harbour summarises the new possibilities best: “People always say that Kirkby was the forgotten town.

“It was never forgotten by us. We've had to wait and look for our opportunities and create our opportunities which we've done.”