:With the bus station moved, many of us were expecting to see the bulldozers moving in and work beginning on the next stage of the Northgate development. Following on from good news announcements about tenants signing up to the scheme including Picturehouse cinemas (September 2016), House of Fraser (Feb 2017) and Cosy Club (June 2017), we met with Council Leader Sam Dixon and senior construction manager Clare Huber for an update
Cllr Dixon commenting on the recent report to Cabinet- which some in the media implied would lead to the council picking up the bill for the scheme in the absence of a funding partner commented that the report was “frank” and its setting out of the risks had led to a familiar social media debate.
Clare Huber, having worked on other development schemes in the past commented that it wasn’t unusual for schemes to take a long time to come to fruition. Whilst the Northgate project is on its third iteration, a similar development in Oxford took 6 attempts. Taking on board public cynicism she said that the council was working slowly for good reason. “You have to do it in a managed way and you have to chip away at some of the risk factors. These risks sometimes take a long time to deal with .” For example the final design work wasn’t started until House of Fraser signed up, which led to a 6 month delay, but was the “right thing to do” because of the public funds involved.
Of the funding strategy which was previously expected to be revealed in December of last year Clare acknowledged that “things shift” and that whilst managing public expectations could be a challenge, many milestones had been achieved so far. The Compulsory Purchase Order to acquire 70 properties at the edges of the footprint of the scheme was the next big step, with the order going to Inquiry in early 2018.
Once the Order is passed, Steven Tranter Cwac Finance Officer said that I was their “expectation that a private sector investor will come in and take it forward. There are a huge range of possibilities and we live in uncertain times. We need to give the public and the inspectorate the confidence that we can deliver the scheme in a variety of circumstances. We have invested time and money in the project and under certain circumstances the council would be prepared to further support the progression of the scheme. We are not saying we are writing a cheque for the whole scheme, we are acknowledging that we live in a commercial world and we don’t know where the world will be. ” The team stressed that managing risk costs money and acknowledged money had been spent so far in order to make the project more attractive to outside investors. Discussions with outside investors were said to be “ongoing”.
Cllr Dixon highlighted the political consensus behind the Northgate vision, something which hampered previous iterations of the project. “Northgate is happening” she said. “With Storyhouse, Northgate has already begun. Its a development which many predicted as late as 2013 would never happen.”
I asked the team about the viability of the retail side of the development given the recent departure of Disney, and soon Argos? Clare Huber remains upbeat saying: “There are lots of people on our target tenants list. Lots of people want Chester. The visitor numbers are up, 35 million to Chester a year . Shops are closing because Northgate’s not here- It’s central to the revival of the city’s retail hopes.” This was echoed by Steven Tranter who said that GAP were unable to find suitable premises at the end of their lease and it was hoped they would return to Chester. .
“If you look at the previous schemes they were retail focused. We anticipated 350,000 visitors to Storyhouse in a year. 285,000 have visited since May. You add it the picturehouse cinema, the market, a new Crowne Plaza with luxury spa facilities and sky bars. ” The scheme will have an increased residential focus with up to 120 houses of which “30% will be affordable as policy. This is city centre development, future proofing the city for the next 60- 80 years. We know we need modern click and collect facilities and car parking. We are future proofing this for driver less cars…”
Sam Dixon also addressed fears that the rest of the city would be left behind, saying that the scheme linked up Watergate street and Northgate street , as well as the location of the bus station shifting the flow of pedestrian traffic. She also stated that the authority was “100% behind the market” and that a range of measures were in place to help the current traders including new signage, website and a reduced parking offer. The shopper hopper bus has been used widely with 27,000 passengers since June.
Regarding the restaurants in the old library, work is still expected to begin in late 2018, with a tender out for the main contractor. This element of the scheme is expected to open prior to the rest of the development, with Cosy Club waiting patiently. Meanwhile the old bus station, currently looking derelict, will remain hoarded off for now. Potential uses are being looked into, but a temporary car park has been ruled out due to the need for investigative works and the cost of conversion.
In conclusion Cllr Dixon stressed the importance of the scheme to the overall revival of the city’s hopes . “We’re in this for the long haul” she stated.