What next for Meadowhall's £300 million '˜Leisure Hall' plan?

Plans for Meadowhall's proposed £300 million '˜Leisure Hall' have been put under review.

Tuesday, 20th November 2018, 6:10 pm
Updated Tuesday, 20th November 2018, 6:14 pm
An artist's impression of the Leisure Hall, as originally envisaged.

As exclusively revealed by The Star the plans for the huge extension have gone back to the drawing board.

Claire Barber, head of central London retail and Meadowhall for the site's joint owner British Land said adding further leisure to Meadowhall would create a '˜more rounded experience'.

An artist's impression of the Leisure Hall, as originally envisaged.

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She said: 'Our food and beverage at the moment is great but it significantly overtrades. At weekends it's an issue to get a table."

The concept for the extension began to be worked on 'four to five years ago', she explained, when incorporating extra shops seemed feasible.

"At the moment Meadowhall is, I would say, hugely successful," she said, citing annual customer figures of 25 million.

"We are getting some of the highest rents we've ever got in what is actually quite a challenging retail market. And to keep that level of demand-supply tension, I'm personally very nervous about introducing more retail."

She added: "As a business we've recognised for a very long time the changes that are happening in the wider market. We want something that drives the families here, and attracts people from a wider distance to spend more time at Meadowhall, which was part of the original brief and rationale for the Leisure Hall."

A series of retailers and restaurant groups have gone into administration this year, while others have announced store closures or company voluntary arrangements, a form of insolvency. The growth in e-commerce has been identified as one reason for the problems on the high street, but Ms Barber said Meadowhall - co-owned by Norges Bank Investment Management, which looks after the Norwegian Government's pension fund - was holding up well.

"The way we're able to manage the environment and the retail mix is really important. We've got a vast array of retailers we can pick from - we haven't gone value or premium, we've done both and they work well together."

The refurbishment has helped. "Spending that much money is a brave shout and we have seen the benefits of it."

The success of cafés and restaurants 'very much depends on the location', she argued. "Meadowhall is very undersupplied in the higher-end offers. Carluccio's trades phenomenally well, and I think ideally they'd probably like more space. There's also a very big change in terms of what customers want."

The centre is missing street food outlets, 'things like the Vietnamese-type offer' and places that would attract people later into the evening, Ms Barber said. It also lacks enough 'competitive socialising' venues, where visitors can try pursuits such as axe-throwing and table tennis.

But Ms Barber said losing shops from the Leisure Hall meant fresh calculations were required. Before planning permission was approved in 2017, British Land had already waived its right to change the use of food and drink units to retail. "The rents are higher on retail than they are on food and beverage, and leisure, so they help with the financial viability of it. Looking at how we can improve that by losing retail is an area we're really focusing on now. It sounds simple but it's actually really complex, because as soon as you lose space you're actually losing value, and therefore you need to see what you can do with your costs."

The rethink is 'going to take a while', she said. "I would have thought months, because any design change has value and cost implications. We need to spend some proper time understanding what those would be and looking at it, and also looking at a layout that will be relevant for the future."

The team leading the review will meet council officers 'probably in the first or second quarter of next year and go through the plans'. "They are very understanding of the situation. It's really important we get it right."

She praised the council for its work Heart of the City II, the latest version of the long-delayed new retail quarter in the middle of Sheffield. "I think they're doing a fantastic job. It's really great to see changes in the city centre."

Meadowhall's bosses see Queensberry, the council's partners on HOTCII, 'quite a lot', she revealed. "For us it's about making the region more successful. It shouldn't be about Sheffield versus Meadowhall, those days are long gone. We've got to work together."

Nevertheless, she said progress on the Leisure Hall needed to be made. "Because of how quickly the world is changing, it's important we make a decision quickly. You just don't want constant iterations of things, that's not helpful for anyone."

British Land reported a £42 million loss in the six months to the end of September, with the value of its estate falling 6.3 per cent to £12.9 billion.

An opening date of 2022 - based on a construction period of up to four years - was previously put forward for the Leisure Hall, but Ms Barber could not give a revised estimate for completion.

Could one of the outcomes of the review be 'we shouldn't do this'?

"It could be, but I'd be surprised. I don't think we'll come out doing nothing."