Council signs off first phase of Chester Northgate

Cheshire West & Chester Council has agreed to provide £6m of funding to get the first phase of Chester’s £300m Northgate project under way, due to start on site next year.

A council meeting last night agreed to support a revised vision for the first phase of the project, which will see a swathe of the city centre transformed.

The £60m phase focuses on a new market; public realm; food and drink space; and a cinema. Under the council’s timeline, ground works are set to begin next autumn, with construction starting in early 2020. The new market will have to complete before the existing market can be demolished.

Housing and car parking are also likely to be part of the mix in the final plans, which are due to be submitted early next year following additional consultation.

The £6m of funding agreed by the council will be used to support this application, as well as further feasibility studies, tenant negotiations, and starting enabling works. A main contractor has yet to be appointed, but a shortlist of two, Laing O’Rourke and Vinci, remains with an announcement expected soon after council sign-off

The tenants already signed up to the first phase are Zizzi’s, Cosy Club, Tapas Revolution, and cinema operator Picturehouse.

The first phase will be brought forward ahead of the second phase, which focusses on a retail offering and the proposed relocation of the city’s Crowne Plaza hotel.

The retail-led second phase, formerly set to be home to a House of Fraser department store before the retailer pulled out this year, has been singled out for criticism by objectors to the scheme, led by Tim Kenney of consultant Kenneymoore and developer Guy Butler, but council bosses told Place North West this month there would be “constant reviews” into the shape and mix of the second phase as phase one is brought forward.

Instead of being primarily retail, the second phase is more likely to focus on housing, leisure, and cultural offerings, which were among the key points raised in an open letter to the council signed by around 140 property professionals earlier this year.

The council meeting yesterday also heard the case for the hotel’s move, described as “burning money” by objectors to the scheme, has “significantly weakened” following House of Fraser’s withdrawal, and said “much-needed parking” might go in its place.

Shadow cabinet member for communities and wellbeing, Cllr Stuart Parker, said: “We have a clear but realistic vision for Chester Northgate that will support a lively leisure and culture offer in the city, as outlined in the One City Plan. This project will benefit local retailers and Storyhouse and provide jobs, car parking, housing and office space in the heart of Chester.

“In the fast-moving world of development, things can change quickly and can challenge us, but our realistic approach means we are aware of the risks, have plans to manage these and we take care to only release funding in stages when there is a strong business case to do so and the project achieves its programme targets.

“Councils across the country are needing to take an active role in the regeneration of their town and city centres. But locally we always balance our potential investments with the level of risk – and when the time is right, we will seek investment from the private sector to deliver the remainder of the development.

“Our investment in this initial phase together with our investment in Storyhouse and the new bus interchange will provide confidence that the Council is serious and is willing to invest in the future of the city.”

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… interesting … but how can you commence phase 1 when phase 2 or three or four is still not known?

This conundrum has a few more twists and turns before the proper solution for Chester is found.

A market and a cinema for the City are fundamental building blocks but, what will actually be kept under ‘constant review’ – perhaps the consultant budget should be something of major scrutiny given the amount of tax payers money that has been wasted on a scheme which will not see the light of day?

Phase 1 is critical – who is leading on the definition of a new market – CW&C are hardly competent to undertake the task given the nature of the markets at Chester (showing some signs of improvement), Ellesmere Port (most probably the Council’s most vibrant market as it serves a local need), Northwich (the retailers have been let down due to the intransigence of the Council, but there is a masterplan under consultation and no sign of any real investment, except for buying back an asset from a developer that was previously owned by the Council) and Winsford (been left in the wilderness ever since the Council sold it to a developer and then decided to buy it back – you can see a pattern emerging – and yes there is a masterplan being muted for the town centre).

I agree that Council’s should be proactive and, enable and facilitate development, but they don’t have the commercial skills to deliver – they must seek appropriate support from the development and construction industry and procure it properly – sorry for the rant but something does not appear to be quite right here – its only an opinion.

By Norman Davies

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