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City centres can be reinvigorated by repurposing major sites

18th December 2019

With Black Friday a distant memory, and Christmas and the January sales fast approaching, many people will be watching the seasonal trading announcements of the major retailers with interest. Karl Elliott, Managing Partner of Clague Architects, considers the outlook for retail in town centres.

The team at Clague has been at the heart of some of the most exciting city centre retail projects over recent months, each the result of structural changes taking place on the high street.

This year will go down as the one when the challenge of how best to repurpose what were once major retail sites in our towns and cities came to the fore. The decision by Debenhams to close 22 of its stores – including those in Ashford, Canterbury, Chatham and Folkestone – sent a shockwave through many high streets.

The move from bricks to clicks has brought a revolution to many town centres, in some cases dealing a body blow as major retailers vacate significant sites. It is clear to see how brick-based retailers struggle to compete. Retail accounts for 5% of the economy, yet retailers pay 10% of all business costs and 25% of all business taxes.

Changing consumer habits, combined with the need to cut costs, has forced household names to reduce their bricks and mortar presence. The result is a pressing need to repurpose many of our town centres in orderto sustain strong local economies, requiring landowners and local authorities to work together.

January 2020 will see Debenhams vacate 93,000ft2 of retail space in Canterbury, with the vast majority of its second floor unused for many years. Working for London-based property investment company – NinetyNorth – Clague has brought forward designs to redevelop the space with The Guildhall Quarter proposals. The plans will be considered by Canterbury City Council early in 2020.

Also in Canterbury city centre, Clague has been at the heart of the team responsible for the proposed regeneration of the former Nasons Department Store and other buildings on the site. Now owned by Setha Group, following its recent purchase by the London-based property investor and development company.

At the recent public exhibition, Setha Group unveiled plans for its Biggleston Yard project reflecting the area’s commercial and industrial heritage around the former foundry and forge within the site. The plans, if approved, would bring new commercial, retail, leisure and flexible space, alongside 28 serviced apartments, a further 38 residential units and space for community uses to the city.

The Biggleston Yard proposals will see an investment of £15-20m to provide a total of 6,868m2 (73,927ft2) of mixed-use development, plus 800m2 (8,611ft2) of public open space.

However, the challenge is much more than simply new development. In the case of Biggleston Yard, it is about helping to tell the story of Canterbury’s industrial heritage and reconnect it to local residents, celebrating its recent past.

The response to the proposals from the public was overwhelmingly positive with almost three quarters of the visitors to the Biggleston Yard exhibition being very supportive of the plans.

Of the 365 people who attended on 5 and 6 December, more than 74 per cent of those leaving feedback were very supportive and further 17 per cent were quite supportive. It was reassuring to see that only four per cent described themselves as opposed or quite opposed with the remainder being undecided or neutral.

The work doesn’t stop at tackling vacant retail space, there are also large offices across Kent which no longer meet the exacting requirements of today’s office-based businesses. A case in point is Newingate House, just beyond the city wall in Canterbury. The major refurbishment and redevelopment of this 70s building, arguably one of the ugliest in the city, offers the potential for a mix of uses, providing the widest possible benefit to the local economy.

It’s clear that much needs to be done to ensure our town and city centres continue to work for our communities and underpin our economy.

The repurposing of many now largely defunct and unsustainable spaces in the heart of our towns must be a priority if we are to retain a strong sense of civic pride and economic vitality.

The team at Clague is keen to be at the heart of this work and we are already working with many forward-thinking developers, landowners and local authorities to bring about positive change.

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