'Block Meadowhall extension to save Sheffield city centre' urges council chief

Meadowhall expansion plans will damage Sheffield city centre and should be blocked, a council chief says.

By David Walsh
Wednesday, 30th June 2021, 9:16 am

Nalin Seneviratne, director of city centre development, wants to stop the £150m extension fearing a ‘gross oversupply’ of leisure could damage attempts to reinvent town following a string of high profile shop closures, including John Lewis and Debenhams.

The move reignites the old row about Meadowhall sucking the life out of the city centre - but on a new battlefront.

And it comes after lockdowns and a massive surge in online shopping damaged both sites.

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Sheffield City Council is spending £480m on the Heart of the City 2 project. Picture: Chris Etchells

Mr Seneviratne has formally objected in his role as a champion of the city centre, independent of Sheffield City Council.

In a letter to the planning department he states: ‘The Meadowhall expansion project opening in tandem with Heart of the City 2 will leave both centres fighting to attract a limited pool of tenants – to the detriment of both, but likely impacting on city centre more’.

It adds: ‘Both John Lewis and Debenhams have now closed. The loss of these anchor stores changes the retail landscape of Sheffield significantly and the impact of the Meadowhall application must be considered against this current position’.

In particular, council chiefs want ‘destination leisure operators’ in the newly-vacant department stores.

John Lewis in Sheffield city centre will never reopen bosses confirmed this week.

But a survey predicts that if the extension goes ahead Meadowhall will move up the national rankings from 26 to 23 while the city centre will fall from 42 to 55.

The city centre is the worst it’s been for shop closures, with more than a third of units on Fargate empty. It has led to rents tumbling, opening the door to leisure operators.

Council chiefs are now pinning their hopes on ‘leisure and cultural strengths rather than seeking to compete directly with Meadowhall’.

The city centre area currently has almost 10 times more jobs in the arts, entertainment and recreation than Meadowhall, they say.

Darren Pearce, Centre Director at Meadowhall, Sheffield. Picture by Simon Hulme

Only last week, The Star revealed the authority was spending millions on a five-storey building on Fargate to create a major events centre.

Mr Seneviratne wrote that £480m Heart of the City 2 redevelopment project was designed to build on the city centre's leisure and cultural strengths rather than seeking to compete directly with Meadowhall. And with the loss of key retailers it was even more important.

He also disputed Meadowhall’s claim that the proposed expansion could ‘co-exist and complement’ the city centre.

Planning permission for a £300m ‘leisure hall’ was granted in 2018. The project was pulled early in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Staff wave farewell on the last day at Meadowhall Debenhams, the department store also closed in Sheffield city centre - Credit: Gillian Marriott

British Land submitted a revised application for a £150m scheme at the end of 2020.

It has been estimated the development would support the creation of up to 1,560 jobs and pump up to £71.5m into the region's economy.

The masterplan includes converting the M1 distribution site off Vulcan Road into a leisure park with activities in warehouses - like trampoline centre Jump - as well as an outdoor adventure area.

The project also proposes new ‘big box’ shops selling outdoor equipment, sports and homeware.

And the existing Vue cinema would be expanded and modernised. The centre also stages drive-in cinema and theatre productions.

Meadowhall director Darren Pearce insists the project is still on track.

Mr Seneviratne states: 'The competing Meadowhall expansion project opening in tandem with Heart of the City 2 will leave both centres fighting to attract a limited pool of tenants' Picture: Chris Etchells

A British Land spokesperson added: “We continue our discussions with Sheffield City Council regarding our plans for Meadowhall which we believe will bring real benefits to the whole Sheffield City Region.”

Rotherham Council and Dransfield Properties, owners of Fox Valley shopping centre in Stocksbridge, have previously objected on competition grounds.

But Sheffield Chamber is supporting Meadowhall and says the “hugely important” asset must move with the times.

Sheffield councillors and officers cannot comment on the scheme until it comes to the planning board.

Sheffield’s long delayed Local Plan - the blueprint for how the city will be developed - won’t be finalised until 2023. It will state what can be built and where, significantly strengthening officers’ recommendations.

Without it, development is piecemeal critics say.

Sheffield business people voiced their opinion on the row.

Gareth Barber, managing director, BG Energy Solutions Group, said: “Typical Sheffield City Council stance on any development in and around Sheffield.

“Point the finger for their inability to give the city centre an identity and a place where people want to go.”

Karl Austin, managing director of KDA Web Services, said: “Of course it will cause more damage to the city centre, it has masses of free parking, rather than often scarce, expensive parking in the city centre. It's far easier to just get in the car and go to Meadowhall than it is to go in to town, find and pay for parking, or use park and ride and find half the shops are closed.

“Same applies to leisure as well as retail.”

Brian Fowler, solicitor at Foys Solicitors, said: “(Mr Seneviratne) overlooks the fact that there is no free parking coupled with little incentive for individuals to head into town.

“He needs to focus his efforts on creating an opportunity out of the old John Lewis building and thinking outside of the box rather than knocking Meadowhall and its plans to adapt to a post lockdown world.”

Matt Vause, head of marketing at TC Harrison Group, said: “Meadowhall is a destination for a lot of people outside of Sheffield.

“But under no circumstances should 'Town' suffer at the hands of it. Equally the council need to address some majors issues as to why people aren't going into town.

“Parking issues, lack of destinations, ridiculous rates, poor infrastructure and a general lack of joined up thinking.”

In a sign of retail’s woes, in February, property company NewRiver snapped up The Moor for just £41m - less than half the £89m asking amount.

Previous owner Aberdeen Standard took a huge hit on the deal after buying The Moor in 2010 and spending £120m redeveloping it.

NewRiver boss Allan Lockhart said the price reflected the impact of Covid.

Filling empty shops and boosting footfall after lockdown was top priority, but up to 1,100 private and 300 student flats could be built in the next six years.

Local journalism holds the powerful to account and gives people a voice. Please take out a digital subscription or buy a paper.

Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.

How the Event Central Building Could Look (Courtesy University Of Sheffield).
Artists' impression of the proposed expansion at Meadowhall.
Nalin Seneviratne, director for city centre development.