Chester Northgate Market Square
The market square forms an integral part of phase one

Council opens door to Northgate rethink

Charlie Schouten

The second phase of Chester’s Northgate project could be in line for major changes while its first phase, featuring a cinema and a market, will start on site next year, according to Cheshire West & Chester’s deputy chief executive of place, Charlie Seward.

The £300m Northgate scheme, featuring a cinema, market, a hotel, retail, and leisure, secured planning permission last year but has come under heavy criticism in recent months, with a group of property professionals led by Tim Kenney of property consultant Kenneymore and Guy Butler of developer Glenbrook submitting an open letter in opposition to the scheme.

The primary areas of concern have been the council’s proposals to build more than 40 new shops as part of Northgate’s second phase, along with demolishing the existing Crowne Plaza and replacing it with a new hotel only yards away.

However, speaking to Place North West, Seward said the council was “not wedded to a specific vision” for Northgate’s second phase, and would “absolutely take it to public consultation” if there were major changes.

“We already recognise the change in market conditions, particularly in retail, and the challenges afoot,” he said.

The hotel move, which was heavily criticised by the scheme’s objectors as “burning money”, is also under review, Seward added.

“We don’t have to make a decision on moving the hotel at this point we will only make that decision when we’re clear about what phase two comprises,” he said.

“The primary motive for the move was to create a much more attractive and indeed more valuable footprint for a phase two development along the lines that we secured planning consent for.

“So we’re not obligated to do it – we have the option and the choice to do it, and an agreement that we can do it – but we absolutely don’t need to make that decision at this point, and we’re not wedded to it as a course of action that we’re obliged to take.

“As we engage with all sorts of stakeholders over the next few months, and we review phase two in the context of changes in the market, we will then take the decision whether we do or don’t need to do anything with that hotel.”

Chester Northgate Map

A map of the consented development – the first phase centres on Hunter Street to the North

Issues have also arisen after House of Fraser, an anchor tenant for a potential 100,000 sq ft department store in phase two, pulled out of the scheme following a CVA earlier this summer. The proposed store is shaded in copper on the above map.

Seward said the council was “looking at options” for the site of department store, including talking to other potential operators for retail, or for alternative uses. He also promised there would be “more consultation and engagement” on the mix for the site.

Both Tim Kenney and Guy Butler met with Seward and the council’s new chief executive, Andrew Lewis, in a meeting chaired by Peter Carstensen of the Chester Growth Partnership, on 30 July, and Seward said there was “a great deal of agreement” on both sides.

This was primarily over the delivery of phase one, which centres around a relocated market, a six-screen cinema, restaurants, and a public square.

Seward said there would be more work done on phase one “in the coming weeks and months to make sure we get it right”; this is set to include reviews of the amount of food and beverage space, and the potential to add more leisure uses in the first phase.

Car parking, too, will be looked at in phase one, which Seward said was “absolutely critical” to the Northgate project “and to the wider city to drive footfall and to create a gateway”.

Two food and beverage tenants have already been secured – Cosy Club and Tapas Revolution – but the amount of restaurant space is being reviewed: “We do believe F&B has a big role to play in phase one, albeit of the right size and quality, and in the right place,” said Seward.

Leisure use could also play a role in phase one, he added: “We are exploring whether we could bring other cultural or leisure uses into phase one; we’ve always had space to play with in that part of the scheme so we’ll be in dialogue again with various organisations and the community about what could work there.”

According to Seward, the council will make a decision on the first phase in the coming months, with council sign-off coming by the end of the year, and enabling works starting in the New Year.

While contractors have been shortlisted to deliver the scheme, including Laing O’Rourke and Vinci, a final decision on who will build the project has not yet been made and is unlikely to be made until the outcome of the inquiry into the council’s Compulsory Purchase Orders completes.

Seward added the outcome of the CPO was “not absolutely critical to progressing phase one in terms of land acquisition” but added it was important to “de-risk” the project for potential tenants and investors.

Chester Northgate Town Hall Square

The entrance to phase one by the town hall

He also defended the role of Rivington Land, the council’s development manager, which had been singled out for criticism after it was revealed CWAC had paid the company £1.6m for its role.

The company was appointed as development manager in July 2014, only seven months after its formation, but Seward said Rivington was “procured through a very open, transparent, and legally compliant process”.

“Rivington put forward a very compelling case,” he said. “Whilst their company hadn’t been around for that long, the individuals behind it had many years’ experience working in this environment and delivering major city centre schemes all over the UK and Ireland. They were appointed on merit.”

Going forward, Seward said the council would look to work “proactively” with all the projects stakeholders, including the new working group being set up by Carstensen.

“There will be more consultation and engagement with people who have an interest in Northgate, and that will then inform what scale of retail we want to include within phase two, and what its configuration will be,” he said.

“There is an opportunity here: we haven’t started this, so what we can do is come up with a scheme that can come up with a mix that’s appropriate for the next generation rather than having to build something that’s a legacy of the last 10 years’ thinking.”

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Good news for a friday … new CEO must be cracking whip … let’s hope sports direct are seen as the anchor !

By town hall burgers