After a letter signed by 120 property professionals called for the council to down tools on its £300m Chester Northgate project, Cheshire West & Chester Council has responded by arguing the city “needs to improve its retail offer”, stating: “We believe this because it is what retailers and our advisors tell us”.
The initial letter, put forward by Tim Kenney of property consultant Kenneymoore and developer Guy Butler of Glenbrook, called for a pause on the £300m project in Chester City Centre ahead of a review into the scheme’s progress and plans.
Signed by property companies including Mason Owen, Queensbury Real Estate, Jenics, Christopher Dee, and Blackrock Real Assets, as well as signatories from the University of Chester, the letter argued the private sector has “lost confidence in the council to deliver a successful regeneration within a reasonable timescale”.
Describing Northgate as “misguided and unviable,” the letter was sent to council leader Cllr Samantha Dixon, deputy chief executive Charles Seward, and Chester’s Labour MP Chris Matheson last month.
“We agree sustainable and deliverable development on this important site is critical to the future vitality of Chester, however progress over the recent years has been slow and the proposed scheme is now both misguided and unviable,” it concluded.
The council has now responded with a letter of its own, signed by Dixon and Seward, with the full text available below.
In the letter, the council argued the Northgate scheme remained a “once in a generation opportunity” but also acknowledged the project had been hit by the slowdown in the retail market which has seen a number of high-profile high street chains and restaurants announce store closures in recent months.
“Despite the current difficult trading conditions, we believe Chester needs to improve its offer to retailers. We believe this because it is what retailers and our advisors tell us and because it is also backed up by our own research,” argued the council.
The council, advised by GVA and Rivington Land, already owns around 85% of the land required. Gardiner & Theobald is the project manager for the scheme while Aecom is the quantity surveyor, and the council has also shortlisted two contractors – Laing O’Rourke and Vinci – to potentially build the scheme.
“Chester should be competing with other similar cities such as Cambridge, Oxford, Exeter, and York. Much that it disappoints us all, we currently lag behind these cities, despite the wonderful history and architecture our city can offer visitors,” added the letter.
“We think that to abandon the ambitions for an appropriate level of retail development in the scheme will lead to decline rather than a renaissance.
“Nevertheless we acknowledge that as far as possible, Northgate needs to complement, rather than compete, with the city’s current retail offer and we are keen to work with business to manage any potential impact.”
The £300m mixed-use scheme in Chester city centre has picked up pace since the award of a new planning consent in 2016. Early last year, House of Fraser signed as retail anchor and Crowne Plaza agreed terms on a new conferencing hotel, although House of Fraser has since signalled its intention to close a number of its stores around the country.
In later phases, Northgate is earmarked to include 45 further shops, 12 restaurants, a Picturehouse cinema, 120 apartments, 1,000 parking spaces and 25,000 sq ft of offices. Retail and leisure tenants, including Tapas Revolution in a 3,000 sq ft unit, have already been announced.
The council reiterated the project has support of both the main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, and maintained the second phase of the scheme, which includes the project’s main retail elements alongside car parking and residential, remained “flexible” due to its outline planning consent.
Concluding the letter, Dixon and Seward invited both Kenney and Butler to meet with the council to debate the issues raised and “the posed by the current market conditions”.
“We all have the city’s best fortunes at heart and I hope you agree that the city needs a clear and bold vision to secure its future as a thriving city that people choose to visit, shop, live, and spend their leisure time,” it said.
Response to Proposed Chester Northgate Development
Dear Mr Kenney and Mr Butler,
Thanks for your letter regarding your concerns over the Chester Northgate development. There is much in your letter upon which we agree. Northgate is a once in a generation opportunity to shape our city’s future and we fully acknowledge the need to take care that what we build meets the needs of the city for many years to come. In so doing, we are keen to engage with the widest stakeholder group as possible and we have engaged over many years with local businesses and residents. This goes back to the inception of the One City Plan in 2012 which set the blueprint for a new vision for the city.
Chester Northgate represents 25% of the city’s core area and there is no doubt that a development of this scale will impact on the existing city centre and that this impact needs to be positive. It is equally clear that the retail sector is experiencing some of the most turbulent times in living memory driven by changing shopping habits and economic uncertainty. For this reason, the council has set criteria that need to be met for the development to proceed. This was included in the report to the Council in October 2017 and was presented as part of our evidence to public inquiry.
Much progress has been made on preparing the way for the development with the relocation of the bus exchange and the council’s investment in the hugely successful Storyhouse. We intend to build on this success and Phase 1 of Northgate includes a new cinema, market and restaurants, and a new public square. We were clear in our planning application that, whilst Phase 1 was for full and detailed consent, Phase 2, which includes the main retail elements of the scheme together with housing and associated car parking, was granted approval in outline form to provide some flexibility.
Despite the current difficult trading conditions, we believe Chester needs to improve its offer to retailers. We believe this because it is what retailers and our advisors tell us and because it is also backed up by our own research. Chester should be competing with other similar cities such as Cambridge, Oxford, Exeter, and York. Much that it disappoints us all, we currently lag behind these cities, despite the wonderful history and architecture our city can offer visitors. We think that to abandon the ambitions for an appropriate level of retail development in the scheme will lead to decline rather than a renaissance. Nevertheless we acknowledge that as far as possible, Northgate needs to complement, rather than compete, with the city’s current retail offer and we are keen to work with business to manage any potential impact.
Within the council, the development enjoys the backing of both main parties, demonstrated by the unanimous support when the council last considered the scheme in October. Progress is reported regularly to a member working group comprised of senior members of both the Conservative and Labour groups who scrutinise and challenge officers and advisors on all aspects of the development. The group met as recently as a fortnight ago. Many of the issues raised in your letter were considered and I have shared this response with members of the group.
We remain keen to engage fully with all those with an interest in the project and would like to invite you as principal signatories to the letter to meet with officers of the council to debate your concerns and the challenges posed by the current market conditions. We all have the city’s best fortunes at heart and I hope you agree that the city needs a clear and bold vision to secure its future as a thriving city that people choose to visit, shop, live, and spend their leisure time.
Cllr Samantha Dixon, leader of Cheshire West & Chester Council
Charlie Seward, deputy chief executive, place, Cheshire West & Chester Council