SPECIAL REPORT | Can Barons Quay be rescued?

Since the retail and leisure scheme in Northwich town centre first opened in 2016, Barons Quay has struggled to attract tenants with only a cinema, a restaurant, and a supermarket taking space in the 225,000 sq ft development. Cheshire West & Chester is projected to spend at least £71m on the project and the council insists it will be a success. Place North West investigates.

It’s a Monday afternoon in Northwich. The main high street, running from Witton Street through to Weaver Way, is surprisingly busy for early in the week. But just a two minute walk away, the area suddenly transforms into something of a ghost town – an imposing new retail centre, all clad in black and glass with neat and tidy public realm – that’s known as Barons Quay.

The few shoppers present are either going to the recently-opened Asda or going to eat at the Wildwood restaurant, the first eatery to open in the newly-built scheme. Speaking to Place North West, most don’t seem to know what the shopping centre is for, given there are very few units open, with others even going as far as to criticise the area as being “unwelcoming” and “a waste of money”.

Since Cheshire West & Chester Council decided to invest in the project in the early 2010s, the overall projected spend on the scheme out of council coffers is projected to be £71m, according to a freedom of information request seen by Place North West.

As of the end of 2016, £54.4m had already been spent, and the council has borrowed £62m to finance the scheme. At present, it seems there isn’t a great deal to show for it, with an Odeon Cinema, an Asda, and Wildwood as the only three tenants.

Asda has taken the largest unit at 28,000 sq ft, although this is significantly lower than the 68,000 sq ft the supermarket said it would take when it was announced as an anchor tenant in 2013. Wildwood’s unit is around 3,500 sq ft, while the Odeon includes five screens.

Designed by Broadway Malyan and completed by contractor Balfour Beatty in 2016, the overall project includes 225,000 sq ft of space in total.

The council has promised more deals to come, including a “major fashion brand” which has exchanged on a 7,500 sq ft unit. A further 13 units are said to be under offer by the council, but this still leaves 14 units vacant, ranging between 15,000 sq ft and 1,500 sq ft, nearly 18 months after the scheme first opened.

Barons Quay 1

Asda is one of the main anchor tenants at the scheme

Only this month the council has added retail agent GCW to its existing team of Brasier Freeth to attract more tenants to the development, and director Nick Warr said there was “fresh momentum” behind the scheme, arguing the agents were “confident that with creative thinking we can deliver the right tenant mix”.

CWAC has denied the development is a failure, and this month, Lisa Harris, director of places strategy at Cheshire West & Chester,  promised more announcements soon with five tenants said to be close to signing up when speaking at Place North West’s Cheshire Development Update.

So what needs to be done to drive the scheme forward?

For some, the scheme is almost beyond redemption. Tied to a struggling retail market, local developers have said the site needs a complete relaunch honing in on a leisure offering rather than retail, or a renewed focus on artisan producers and smaller local businesses to create a sense of community.

Tim Kenney, partner at property consultant Kenneymoore, said Barons Quay was “a classic example of building something of the wrong size, at the wrong time”.

“I don’t think it’ll ever be full,” he said. “It should never have been built, the design is poor, the anchors have half the size of their original commitment. We’re going to end up demolishing that scheme, or we’ll end up changing its use.”

He is not alone in his criticism. Other developers and agents contacted by Place North West point to a lack of tenants as a failing of the council, or at the very least a lack of forward planning, with a number suggesting discussions over pre-lets should have been ongoing for years before the scheme ever opened, rather than the council attempting to “pluck tenants from the sky” once it had completed.

Others, meanwhile, have questioned the wisdom of focussing the first major retailer on a supermarket brand, with a Sainsbury’s only a stone’s throw away and an Aldi, Lidl, and Tesco all a couple of minutes’ drive away.

There are suggestions that some of the current tenants have taken space rent-free, increasing the financial pressure on the council, and with major retailers like House of Fraser, New Look, Marks & Spencer, and Poundworld announcing store closures in recent weeks, the list of potential tenants appears to be slimming.

The council has even looked to have admitted this by signing off an additional £1.3m in February for the scheme, which is being used to promote events, together with creating improved signage and to fund a range of efforts to attract tenants, such as helping with professional fees and providing allowances for bespoke fit-outs.

While this isn’t unusual for retail schemes, it is a suggestion that the location is continuing to struggle.

Harris admitted the scheme may have been “over-optimistic” but denied claims that it had failed.

Barons Quay 6

Cheshire West & Chester said Barons Quay’s Odeon had “exceeded expectations”

“It was delivered on time and on budget, and we’re in discussions with a further five occupiers with announcements due very soon,” she said. “We will change and react to the market, and we will look at more leisure.”

But further questions have been raised over the council’s expenditure on the project, with capital costs expected to reach £71m.

Developers contacted by Place North West suggest the scheme is unlikely to be worth even a third of that value even when let, leaving the council facing a lack of return on investment, particularly as the current tenants are likely to be rent-free or have been given “sweeteners” to move in.

And, in the freedom of information request, the council admitted the scheme was not based on a traditional private sector business appraisal.

“The Barons Quay business case was not based on a traditional private sector development appraisal with a target level of profit on cost or return,” said the council.

“There were a number of reasons for this, principally that the council’s involvement in the scheme resulted from market failure, i.e. the private sector weren’t taking the development forward, and that Barons Quay delivers a wide range of non-financial benefits to the area, as well as financial and economic benefits.

“When the funding of the scheme was agreed the council targeted a long term return that exceeds the cost of capital in order that the scheme is self-financing. This remains the case.”

The council has defended its approach throughout, and has openly admitted on multiple occasions that the struggling retail market has continued to impact lettings at Barons Quay.

In a statement to Place North West, Graham Pink, director of commercial management and delivery, said there had been a 22% increase in footfall since Barons Quay opened, and the cinema had “attracted significant footfall well above expectations”.

“It’s no secret that the retail market is facing challenging times but the council remains confident that, over the longer term, the development will deliver the retail and leisure needed by a thriving market town,” he said. “The Odeon cinema, Asda and Wildwood restaurant currently occupy 44% of the Barons Quay development with further lettings currently in the pipeline.

“Town centre events, are also an important part of the council’s wider cultural strategy for the town to attract new visitors into the centre.

“The upcoming Charlatans music festival with an extensive waiting list for tickets shows the strength of Northwich and underpins the confidence the council has in its future.”

This music festival will start in May and points to the council looking increasingly towards leisure to kick Barons Quay into gear.

IMG 2001

A rejuvenated Weaver Square forms part of the council’s plans for Northwich

Developer and agent consensus is that a focus on leisure will be one of the ways forward, with the success of the likes of Altrincham Market at the forefront of peoples’ minds.

Other examples elsewhere in the area include Warrington’s Time Square, which is currently under construction. In this instance, early conversations have been taking place 18 months before completion to attract tenants outside the traditional retail and leisure giants, with a focus more on bespoke and local occupiers.

Also in Northwich, CWAC has invested in Weaver Square, acquiring the lease for the 66,000 sq ft shopping centre in 2014, after the previous owner ceased trading in 2012.

The council has a 99-year ground lease on the precinct, which at present is largely empty, and has appointed architect Fletcher Rae to work up a masterplan for the area. The masterplan is now out to consultation, and Harris said the shopping centre would form an integral part of the regeneration of the town centre, acting as a complementary offering to Barons Quay.

Whatever happens next, the council faces a fight to turn Barons Quay’s reputation around from being a white elephant to a success.

As one shopper tells Place North West: “When we find out what the council want to do with this place, I hope it gets in the papers.”

Hopefully, for the right reasons.

Your Comments

Read our comments policy

The developers have designed a cheap, soul-less place with no trees and nothing of architectural merit and they’re surprised nobody wants to go there? Let this be a lesson to other developers – developing real estate isn’t just about profit profit profit. Placemaking is vital to creating a successful space

By Anonymous

This is the most obviously mistake even before they got planning. They have made a complete horlicks of it. Wrong scheme, wrong location, dreadful design. Heads should role at CWAC.

Leisure won’t save it as all the mid market F&B boys are in retreat.

Knock it down and build decent housing to bring the existing centre back to life.

By Saw this a mile off

Sorry, but who actually funded the development? Or was it the council themselves who raised the money? I have developed shopping centres myself and the only way to get them funded was to have 65% of the units pre-let to big-name covenants. That’s why i can’t understand how they got the money. What was their business plan.

just nuts.

By Mike Riddell

Anonymous – the irony is the Council are the developer. Thought they new better but I cannot think of a single private developer that has made such a mess of an urban regen / retail scheme.

By pedant

A dreadful waste, all thanks to CWAC. The much anticipated regeneration scheme Northwich Vision (scrapped when Vale Royal was sadly merged into CWA in 2009) should have been progressed. This scheme is a ‘white elephant’ and does nothing to benefit Northwich – a town that desperately needed the previous scheme to bring an injection of vitality and real ‘regeneration’ of what could be a vibrant town focused around the riverside. http://www.northwichguardian.co.uk/news/4680849.Northwich_Vision_plans_scrapped/

By H Wood

Come on, don’t make the same mistake again. Northgate Chester. Bigger, more expensive, been a pet project for even longer than this one was. Northgate was a 90s vision, it needs to change. Design has nothing to do with it. Shrink and evolve the high street and face facts. Manage decline of the high street don’t build more! External advisor led scheme (£££) posing as Council staff claiming to hold Council interests. FOI that. Turkeys and Christmas. Wish it had worked but it won’t. #dotherightthing

By Learn the lesson

I walked through this a week or so ago. It looks like an office block, a corporate HQ maybe, forbidding, it says “KEEP OUT” in BIG LETTERS. Not a good idea for a shopping complex!

By Frank

Instead of re-affirming its failings, anyone got any views as to how this can be improved and made into a success?

By Same Old Housebuilder Bashing

If CWAC are serious why don’t they knock several units into one and relocate the Market – they obviously want rid of Weaver Square so they can turn it into housing. They’ll never let BQ in its current state. And the experts are right, there needs to be leisure focus; where’s the Bowling Alley and other Social Elements?

By Cid

Yes to the above. Offices. I think the Council are looking to relocate from HQ Chester…

By Boris

CWAC do not listen to what the public say or ask for. We keep hearing about announcements but nothing comes along, They also do not realise that the high street retail in general is down, adding multi nationals to a small town would kill off local trade…So you fill one thing up and empty another. Weaver Square should have had the investment as the invasturture was already there, instead they are going to spend more money bulldozing the area.

By #Another

I attended the planning meeting on the day that consent was granted. I stood up and went on record to tell the committee this was the wrong scheme for the time. I was mocked for being the “lone descenter” to the regeneration of Northwich. I listened to the officers and the councillors wax lyrical about how “they were going to deliver where market forces had failed”. At the time it was piffle….now itheir arrogance has been proven to be reckless. Not content with wrecking the towncentre, CWAC are now rumoured to be going around offering “free” deals to the tenants of other investments in a desperate attempt to right their wrong. That’s not responsible regeneration – it’s just a race to the bottom. Sadly, there is NO solution to this mess. It is a very expensive mistake and I hope the local taxpayers are not made to suffer. As for Chester Northgate – forget it. Demand for retail property is contracting. Learn the lesson – You will NOT beat market forces. I suggest CWAC should just concentrate on repairing the pot holes on the highways of Cheshire and leave development to the professionals.

By Tilly

And what about the consultant teams who bid to work on the project and move it forward in 2009 /10. I was approached by a consortium & said I would only be part of it if I could be totally honest about how inappropriate the scheme was. The consortium declined that suggestion but went on to win their respective slices of pie…..

By A Developer

A classic example of a local authority, so entrenched in its own self-perpetuated political delirium, that it could not (and does not) see the shear madness of its endeavour. A complete waste of public money used to build an empty shopping centre with large units in a small market town at the very point retailers were being impacted by changes in shopping habits and online retailing. Now the f&b brands are consolidating or collapsing they have no chance. At least it only cost £71m. Slow clap CWAC. Good one

By Anonymous

Not everyone has a car to get to out of town shops, we have nowhere to purchase hardware goods , we could do with something like Wilko’s where you can buy assorted goods all under one roof

By Anonymous

Most people from the town saw this coming from a mile off, a total waste of tax payers money. You’d have thought the council would have done their homework first and got a few retailers on board rather than building something that wouldn’t look out of place in Canary Wharf and leaving it empty. Plan B had surely got to Bea bowling alley or something similar now they can’t get the retailers in.

By What a waste of tax payers money

Out of keeping with the beautiful historic buildings in Northwich, it’s a carbuncle in the town. Who ever designed and approved it should be ashamed.

By A local shopper

This is what happens when CWaC thinks it is a retail property developer, they do not have the depth of knowledge or talent, or important risk taking leverage to deliver these projects…they seem greedy, should they sell both projects off to professionals, take a smaller return and get out of this business? Agents, advisors and consultants aren’t developers either. Ugliest development around and looks like some mid level civil servant with a planning degree was let loose with tax payers money…no quality here! No hope for Northgate either without the highest quality different offer, and a luxury development partner. Why isn’t Chris Matheson or Sam Dixon doing anything? Eating pizza in the rat infested old Chester Market no doubt?
So sad to watch the wealthiest areas outside London managed so poorly.

By Get out of the property development business.

let’s face it Cheshire west and Chester council are a shambles they never truly listen to what people ask for. What the people of Northwich what now is there own council back yes Vale Royal borough council. local councillors of the old vale Royal council at least listened to the people of Northwich The Barons quay shambles would never of happened under them!

By true north

Why don’t the council move in, to kick start the scheme…

By Mike

I have just read this article and there has been no mention of the multi storey car park that is full on a daily basis for free parking. I think this development has brought Northwich up to date and hope that it attracts the the retailers that Warrington and surrounding areas have, to save the trip out of town every time you want a day shopping !
Cheshire West and Chester Council need to offer an incentive like lowering the business rates and rent to give the development a chance !

By Anonymous

Access to the town from Davenham, Hartford and Winnington is already grossly inadequate, and if the development does prove to be a success visitors will soon give up because of traffic gridlock. CWAC should have addressed this during the planning phase but options are now seriously dimished.

By David Barker

More trendy bars and restaurants please, like salt house and Bombay quay. Knutsford and Stockton Heath are about the closest but we’d be more inclined to stay local for food and drinks if it was available.

By Anonymous

Could be used as college as Hartford college won’t be there very soon At least it wd bring life into town and shoppers. Shame it BQ is useless and unwelcoming. The design could at least have some sort of link to the historic town which is now suffering. CWAC should be taken to task for wasting all that money to build something totally alien to what the town is known for, community.

By Weaverham resident

Time to report this dreadful incompetent council to the ombudsman, surely.

By John Stirzaker

Get a Nando’s in there & watch the footfall grow. The nearest ones are Stockton Heath or Warrington.

By ChickenLicken

It should of been local people making local decisions. Northwich needs its own borough council back or at least become a unitary authority. we should never of been merged with Cheshire west and Chester council. it’s been a disaster from day 1 and I just don’t mean Barons quay.

By northwich resident

The are no public toilets , baby changing facilities or facilities for disabled people in the entire development. Unbelievable and shameful. In fact, CWAC Council removed existing toilets etc to make room for the development. When asked about this, council spin doctors advise visitors to facilities in Asda. Be warned.

By Sean O

What annoys me is that there seems to be no accountability for the bad money wasting decisions that were made in the face of the evidence that retail was in decline.
These people in CWAC still hold their positions despite their utter incompetence.
Their involvement in Northwich has been a disaster for the retail business side of the town pretty much from when they first took over from Vale Royal and and created the pointless one way traffic system.
BQ is totally out of character for a small riverside market town and is unlikely to ever get the footfall to make it viable.

By Anon

Move the artisan market to the Quay;subsidize them and encourage more such retailers to participate; the present lack of atmosphere contrasts tellingly with the vibrancy of recent market days. I have faith that CWAC will get there and Barons Quay will no longer appear like Darth Vader’s rejected back up headgear,after the destruction of his uni erse.

By Mark Allison

Cut our losses. Level most of it and hand it to Witton Albion FC for their new ground.

By Alan Lowe.

I suggested we buy the “Shakespeare in Love” Globe Theatre from Dame Judie Dench but it was deemed a silly idea, now there is one being built by a school in Liverpool and another one in a town centre is proposed. It would have been a great attraction and brilliant for teaching kids, but hey!, we need more shops!!

By Alan Lowe.

It would attract more tenants if it didn’t resemble a chemical weapons research facility.

By Mike Rainer

BQ is a Complete waste of time and money.
1. in a small market town existing facilities should be rejuvenated , not left to rot.
2. In a small market town emphasis should be given to small traders , not large existing businesses – grow the Artisan / market trader success of recent years.
3. New developments should compliment existing architecturally , else you create unattractive unwanted buildings with no legacy.
4. Public spaces should be welcoming , not look like they have been built cheaply , like a series of sheds. With Cheshires rich collection of attractive architectural heritage , to not acknowledge this on any way is a failure of the highest order.

By Northwich Resident

Free rents to big money sucking companies and still charging excessive rents and rates to local people who care about their community and want to set up business/social enterprises to assist. Lets forget the retoric that there is an even playing ground in business and if you can’t get on as a business its your own silly fault. How can all these small businesses compete when they don’t get similar sweetners? We have created a massive problem where the only way to get these big business’ to come is to give in to demands no matter how damaging to our local economy/communities. If a small business stops paying its rent, rates, BID subscription it gets threats of eviction or court. Business’s which have been in the area for several generations. I’m just a mere shopper so the only thing I can consider doing is boycotting the big shops which get free shop fittings, free rent, make profits while the sun shines and then withdraw once they have to pay their way. It talks about creative solutions in the article but the solutions being profferd are the same old solutions. Gimp up to big business and serve their whims and fancies. We need a revoloution of thought and action which looks for genuine new ways, which borrow the best of the past, understand the reality of the present and build a better future for us and our children.

By Beth

Totally agree barons quay has just been one big nightmare and Cheshire west and Cheshire bosses need to resign over this!

By northwich residents

If no one is taking up units can they not do a mixture of what Mark suggested with the artisan market – and let small independent shops and eateries have the units for 6 months free. With then beneficial rents for say the next 12 months while new local independents establish themselves rather than just the chains.

By Bob Dawson

There needs to be a public enquiry. Lessons need to be learned and the people responsible for this should not be allowed to walk away or hold their heads up high.

By Let the finger pointing commence

With the Sainsbury’s/Asda merger it will be interesting to see what happens to Barons Quay’s lead tenant. If they go, it will make life interesting. But I’m sure CWAC will know how to deal with it.

By RuthAnn

I wish the Barons Quay development every success, nobody should want this to be a failure but I do think the planners missed a big opportunity of not making more of the river frontage in this location. It would have been a much nicer place to visit and far more attractive to the leisure market, as it is the river is bounded by an access road which is highly unattractive, it would have been perfect for a restaurant / cafe location as we see in many European cities.

By Mr G F A

Personally i think that Barons Quay has been a wonderful success and all those involved in bringing such a wonderful facility to Northwich should be thoroughly congratulated!

The only possible failings that i can see are:
– Not enough capacity: the development should have been much bigger to cater for all the retailers that will be desperate to be apart of this wonderful opportunity. The number of vacant units around Old Northwich demonstrates that retailers are desperate for new opportunities.
– It should have been more imposing on the surrounding town to create a real disconnect between Old Northwich and New Northwich

When the research tells you that the private sector are not willing to take a development forward, this is clear indicator of a fantastic opportunity awaiting; the council were correct in their decision to exploit this opportunity.

Just look at some of the benefits Barons Quay has delivered:
– A brand new multi storey car park where once only a car park stood
– Brand new Supermarket handily positioned for those who cannot make it to Sainsburys
– A brand new restuarant that could not have come to Old Northwich due to lack of free space
– New Northwich is now several degrees cooler than Old Northwich thanks to the fantastic design designed to block out the sun; great for those sweltering summer Northwich days

By Mike Jones

Who ever thought this a viable operation?

Heads should roll – soon!

By Nick

What about Hartford campus?
Interest coveres the college budget shortfall …..

By Nick

its totally ut of character and scale to the rest of the town. looks like 1970’s building. what are the vast expanses of grey terrace for? why didn thtey landscape it and make it into a useful space with plants and trees. absolutely awful. shame on Broadway Malyan for producing such a hideous design. wheres the soul, character? just vast anonymous boxes of glass and steel, which a stupid bit pointlessley cantilevering out. It might look a bit better in manchestercity centre. what a msontrous carbuncle. where is the space for start up businesses and independant retailers? where are the outdoor eating spaces? who wants to sit on a vast expanse of windswept grey concrete tiles next to a bldh that looks like a 1970’s office in a out of town business centre? absolute disgrace

By jolyon lacey

Everyone shut up and look at it now

By Callum

I live 800 yards from it , I was there today……it stills looks appalling , out of scale poorly designed and bleak. Fill it with shops and it would still be a horrible development. I would predict it’s demolition within 20 years and replacement with more housing

By dcp

Related Articles

Sign up to receive the Place Daily Briefing

Join more than 13,000 property professionals and receive your free daily round-up of built environment news direct to your inbox


Join more than 13,000 property professionals and sign up to receive your free daily round-up of built environment news direct to your inbox.

By subscribing, you are agreeing to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

"*" indicates required fields

Your Job Field*
Other regional Publications - select below