For more than 20 years, the promise of a regenerated city centre in Sheffield filled with top shops, restaurants and bars has been on the horizon.
But after decades of false dawns and frustrations, council bosses now hope their £480 million Sheffield Retail Quarter plans can come to fruition and make the city centre a true competitor to Manchester and Leeds.
A new report is asking councillors to back their proposals so far – while warning of the potential obstacles that lie ahead in making the dream of a more appealing city centre a reality.
Back in 1994, Sheffield Council commissioned a retail study by a firm called Hillier Parker, which highlighted ‘the inadequacy of Sheffield’s retail offer’ and called for ‘significant new investment in a major new retail scheme’.
That study formed the basis of the city’s retail strategy in a council development plan that was adopted in 1998 and made the regeneration of the city centre a key council aim.
In February 2000, the Government set up an urban regeneration company known as ‘Sheffield One’ to assist in the regeneration of Sheffield city centre.
A city centre master-plan was published later that year by Sheffield One – with its findings very familiar to the arguments still being made 16 years later for the proposed Sheffield Retail Quarter.
That plan concluded there was ‘a lack of quality shopping, particularly of high price fashion and flagship stores’; that there was ‘a mismatch between the accommodation available to retailers and the size and configuration of accommodation that they require’ and ‘continuing development in competing centres will make them more attractive than Sheffield city centre’.
The latter warning has proved particularly true as rival northern cities such as Leeds and Manchester went on to pull ahead of Sheffield as attractive shopping destinations.
Following the IRA bombing of Manchester city centre in 1996, its rebuilding was recognised as a national priority. An award-winning masterplan to redevelop it was completed in six years, by 2002, with damaged listed buildings rebuilt and new pedestrian routes linking shopping areas combined with public open spaces.
Leeds has also had significant investment in recent years, with the £350m Trinity Leeds shopping centre and the £60m First Direct Arena both opening in 2013.
Sheffield city centre has also lost trade to Meadowhall, which is now the sixth most-successful shopping centre in the country and has recently announced its own £300m expansion plans.
With ambitions in Sheffield to match the likes of Manchester and Leeds, the council appointed Hammerson UK Properties as its development partner in 2001 – with £600m plans to revamp the city centre approved in 2006.
But that scheme, which eventually became known as ‘Sevenstone’, was put on hold in 2009 – and in July 2013 it was announced that Hammerson was withdrawing as the council’s development partner.
In negotiations, the property company said it could not commit to a start date for construction of the project to create new shops between The Moor and Barker’s Pool, including a flagship new John Lewis.
Ironically, Hammerson is now involved with the £150m building of the Victoria Gate scheme in Leeds, which will be based on a major new John Lewis store due to open in October.
The Sevenstone scheme has been replaced with the new £480m vision for Sheffield Retail Quarter, with regeneration specialist Queensberry Real Estate selected as the council’s development partner earlier this year.
The new report going to councillors from planning officers Dinah Hope and Mike Hayden said the impact of the 2008 financial crisis has resulted in a ‘much-altered economic landscape’ which is reflected in the new proposals – with shopping becoming ‘part of a rounded experience alongside leisure, work and culture’.
Councillors on the planning committee are being asked to approve outline plans submitted so far – while recognising further changes may be needed in future.
The key elements of the new scheme include extending Fargate to the west to create a ‘New Fargate’ linked to a new public square and anchor department store, while a ‘Sheffield Way’ system of pedestrianised streets and spaces will be created to better connect existing areas of the city centre.
But concerns have been raised by conservation groups such as Historic England, The Victorian Society and The Twentieth Century Society about planned demolitions of existing city centre buildings to make way for the new facilities.
Meanwhile, talks are still ongoing with John Lewis about the planned demolition of its existing store and relocation.
Despite the difficulties, council bosses believe the revised plans – which contains 18,000 square metres less retail floorspace than Sevenstone – are achievable.
It is hoped the completed New Retail Quarter will create around 2,500 jobs and bring an additional £300m a year to the city centre that people now spend elsewhere.
The first phase of the scheme, which is due to be completed by 2019, is to involve the building of new offices for HSBC on the site of the Grosvenor House Hotel.
The report said the rate of empty shops in Sheffield city centre has fallen from a high of 10 per cent in 2012 to just 1.5 per cent currently, indicating there is strong demand from retailers but a lack of appropriate places.
It added 150 retail and catering businesses have been identified that do not currently have a presence in Sheffield city centre but whose needs for buildings with space of between 75,800 square metres and 105,000 square metres could be met by the new development.
Sheffield Council deputy leader Leigh Bramall said: “There is strong momentum behind SRQ and gaining planning endorsement will form an important part of that.”