Development around Crewe continues apace, with road remodelling, new housing and enhanced civic offerings already delivered or under consideration. But what about the town centre?
I’m talking about the proposed transformation of Queensway and Market Square, much of Victoria Street, the bus station and tumble-down depot off Delamere Street.
The latest promise to breathe life into the town’s retail core and night time economy should be happening this year. In fact, it should have happened last year. Actually, it should have happened the year before that… blah, blah.
There have been economic challenges. Everyone accepts that. What continues to frustrate and, increasingly, annoy many is the lack of regular communication from the powers that control the public purse within Cheshire East Council (CEC).
When did this all start?
I’ve banged the Crewe regeneration drum for well over a decade. Some will remember the Crewe TV blog I once ran that promoted the town, rattled cages and drew opinion from all quarters. Many of the early features and photos that appeared on that website back in 2006 were about the town’s proposed regeneration. Yes, 2006.
Market Square was changing, there was a bold and controversial proposal to relocate the Britannia War Memorial, to remodel what was Municipal Square (now Memorial Square) and eventually transform Lyceum Square. The latter is now a plush storage facility, the undoubted jewel in Cheshire East Council’s car parking stock. Don’t start me on that one!
But let’s not be too harsh. Plenty has been done. I have applauded most of the work completed, despite moans and groans from the wider public that wants more. Some still demand a Primark, most crave better quality retail and they don’t want betting offices, coffee bars and charity shops. No!
In 2006-07, with Howard Curran at the helm as Mayor of Crewe and Nantwich Borough Council, there was a concern. There could be too much redevelopment around Crewe town centre, Howard told me one day, and it might cause disruption and congestion.
That seems daft some twelve years later, but I understood his point. Digging up the two main squares looked a considerable task, so starting a new shopping development could have brought the centre to a standstill.
However, as we all know, the retail renaissance never happened and the Big Bill clock tower remains standing, sometimes ticking.
Will rebuilding start in May?
The old joke goes like this:
“Are they starting the new Crewe shopping centre soon.”
“Yeah, it’s all beginning in May.”
“Cool. Which May?”
Indeed. Planning issues, finding investment partners, linking up with a building contractor and securing “anchor” stores has proved problematic. It’s been a saga for over a decade, with the name Modus forever cemented in Crewe [lack of] regeneration folklore.
In September 2017, Cheshire East Council revealed the latest partners tasked with delivering Royal Arcade, a mixed use development of shops, restaurants, a gym, multi-storey car park and bus station. No housing, and don’t start me on that one either. In March 2018, the Crewe Chronicle reported that everything was on track with quotes from a CEC spokesperson stating that there were a few “technical, legal and commercial matters” to consider. Hmm.
Cordwell Property Group (in association with Peveril Securities) will lead the charge. Great. Check out their website and it’s clear that they have been involved in numerous high-profile schemes.
Still, on a very simplistic level, it would be a good start if they got the name of the council right. I’m not sure where Chester East Council is, and maybe that’s why the job has stalled! I’m joking. A bit.
That’s all trivial, but is indicative of the amateurish veneer that masks the lack of concrete progress to date.
I want the Crewe town rebuild to work, and I have remained overly positive for several years despite hearing about a number of setbacks. Hopefully, the multi-storey car park element of the overall plan will progress this year. If nothing else, that will add parking capacity to the town centre and send signals to potential tenants that the whole scheme is not a work of fiction.
It must be incredibly frustrating for the councillors and portfolio holders on CEC, but they are all – ultimately – accountable to us. While there are doubts and empty shops I have no issue with people venting their frustrations.
The L-shaped Queensway block is a disgrace. Shops have closed in dribs and drabs as uncertainty and a general lack of information has eroded the confidence of local traders. Throw in big-name chains that have collapsed, closed selected stores or moved to retails parks and it’s a sorry sight.
Worse still is the communication. I have spoken to businesses that for months didn’t know when they had to get out. A member of staff in Santander (old Abbey National) told me the other week that they had no intention of moving for at least six months! Is this true?
Where are the diggers?
So what’s happening? Will the 1960s block be bulldozed this year? Have the developers/CEC secured any tenants yet?
There are potential reasons for the silence and, no doubt, jitters amongst senior council officers. Just look across Cheshire to Northwich where the Barons Quay development sits largely vacant.
Reported in September 2017 in the Northwich Guardian, the leisure/retail site that was funded by Cheshire West and Chester Council is losing money – nearly £250,000 in 2017 according to the report, due to insurance and interest payments. Total borrowings when the scheme is completed will top £70,000,000.
YES, that’s SEVENTY MILLION!
To put that into perspective, Crewe’s Royal Arcade currently has a proposed cost of £48.3m – although that will be part privately funded.
An article on the Place Northwest website in late April 2018 confirmed that the situation has not, yet, improved at Barons Quay. Ongoing economic challenges are making retailers cautious. Of the 31 units available, only three have been filled – an ASDA, a cinema and a restaurant called Wildwood. Good luck to them.
Perhaps the Northwich nightmare is a scenario that CEC is desperate to avoid. Good, but tell us. Agree a twelve or 24-month extension to the Queensway block and fill it (at minimal rents, if not free) with local businesses, start-ups, exhibition spaces, temporary bars etc. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
When the scheme is progressed, listen to advice from other councils and developers. Every week there seems to be a major retailer in financial trouble. We must shift to more leisure-based offerings and not commit large spaces to national chains on long-term leases. That still work in cities (just) but not in smaller town centres.
The Grand Junction Retail Park is a success, still. All units are full. They are building more. It’s privately funded and privately operated. Leave them and their big names to it. Just find a way to connect the plot to the rest of the town centre. After all, it’s hardly out of town – it’s only 500 yards away. It must be possible. Crewe Town Council’s efforts with signage and roadside planting should be applauded. But we need much more.
The Place Northwest article about Northwich goes further, suggesting (here) that Barons Quay “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” if it’s to survive.
For Crewe, that also makes sense. CEC intends to own and operate the new multi-storey car park and bus station when the development is completed. Fine, but why not retain, say, ten small units for local start-ups, craft stalls, a gallery, information office and other local initiatives.
Here’s the controversial bit. In my opinion, these tiny units would have to be offered at loss-leading rents (at least until the businesses achieve a certain turnover/stability). But if the council is serious about pumping life back into the town centre then these kind of bold decisions might have to be made. The days of investment banks and councils enjoying large rents is over.
Is Crewe worse than other towns?
One of my favourite topics. There’s an argument on Facebook almost daily about how bad the Crewe retail experience has become. I have to bite my tongue. It’s not true. Unfortunately, Crewe has shops and retail areas spread over a wide area. They are still not joined up.
I’ve lived in about twenty towns and cities over the years and Crewe really is no different from anywhere else. Really, it’s not. Even London, a mish-mash of fifty-plus towns bolted together to form a metropolis has many issues across its many boroughs. That all gets glossed over because of the many international attractions and slick transport system that keeps it moving and earning.
Back to Crewe. I decided to gather some data. Yes, I’m that sad. So last week I trekked around the central streets and mapped out the number of potential shops/businesses against the current empty units.
Here’s what I found:
First, I am including everything from the chippy and what was Gaffers Row pub ( top of Victoria Street), down to the Market Centre retail shops (including Argos, Iceland, Wilkos etc), the Victoria Centre units by ASDA, Earle Street to the old Market Hall (also due for refurbishment, but who knows when?), Market Square, Market Street up and over Chester Bridge to the traffic lights, and also down High Street. Quite a footprint.
Believe it or not, that area contains 221 shop units of varying sizes, a few on upper levels. Of those, there are 49 empty plots. That’s 22%.
That figure probably sends a shudder through most readers. Yes, it’s high. The national average vacancy rate is around 14%, although recent BBC features on towns similar to Crewe (like Doncaster, here) also show void rates of around 20%.
The Retail Gazette carried an interesting feature in April 2018, showing how chain store closures are continuing across the country while independents are enjoying a resurgence. However, uncertainty in Crewe because of the stalled Royal Arcade development has, in my opinion, denied an influx of small independents. The same applies to the Market Hall, as that is also earmarked for upgrade. There are only a certain number of smaller shops available at affordable rents.
Indeed, there is a considerable caveat to the Crewe statistic. As detailed earlier, the Queensway L-shaped block has been a disaster for nearly three or four years. Shops have opened/closed, worried about their leases, moved away to find a more stable base etc. Most believe that the site will be demolished soon, so why would they stay?
Throw in the Victoria Centre units that face the Queensway block along Victoria Street and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to discount some of these from the overall figure due to ongoing uncertainty.
Also, I massaged the figures on High Street. That’s been largely derelict for a few years, but there are green shoots of life. I discounted five units that currently have work ongoing. I included them in the “empty” units, although they will soon be trading. Beer Dock is one, two others are under consideration for redevelopment to flats, what was Riley’s Pool Hall is being converted and two units look as though they will become restaurants/food outlets.
So, with my rose-tinted spectacles on, I’d happily knock off about 20 empty units from my original figure. I believe, if conditions were better and there was less uncertainty because of the Royal Arcade scheme, the numbers would be about 30/221 = 14%.
But enough of my nonsense. We need tangible results, open businesses, attractive venues and a reason to come into Crewe town centre.
So take heed of the successes and failures of other schemes, build less retail units and focus more on city-style housing and leisure.
The Queensway block currently has nearly thirty units. Whatever is created in its place, PLEASE only build fifteen, have more public open space, more restaurants and bars. Let’s make Crewe a place people want to enjoy. But don’t price potential tenants out of the market.
A plan, for Crewe?
There’s continued chatter about the Crewe Master Plan, but many observers remain baffled about this mystical beast. There have been news releases, artists impressions and public consultations of sorts. But what’s the end product? What is the plan, and where is it?
I’m delighted that Cheshire East Council has faith in Crewe (and they do genuinely appear to want to invest and make it prosper), but are the right people tasked with delivering the best solutions?
This so-called Master Plan is great if it connects the dots. Link roads to the M6, upgraded roundabouts and widened railway bridges are essential if Crewe is to prosper and grow.
HS2 will bring economic benefits. No doubt about that, and there is work out there suggesting that plans to integrate investment from the railway hub with wider Crewe plans. Check out this inspirational piece on the ARUP website, complete with out-of-this-world images. You can make your own minds up about how much of that will materialise.
But what about Nantwich Road around Crewe station, and what about the Mill Street corridor? The latter has been a bombsite for five years. Plans have been raised, shelved and declined. It should be a priority. It connects the railway to the town centre.
There’s a real opportunity to elevate Crewe to new levels, driven by the prestige of being part of the national high-speed railway investment and the fact that we have several key plots that can become spectacular attractions.
Opinion varies, but I think that the Lifestyle Centre, Crewe UTC, South Cheshire College (as was), plus the ongoing Crewe Green roundabout upgrade are positive steps forward. Hopefully, there’s much more to come in the next two or three years.
The people of Crewe just need information.
So, Cheshire East Council, let’s cut the smoke and mirrors. If there are issues about Royal Arcade please tell us. Manage expectations. Be transparent. Break the mould and be up front and honest.
Is that too much to ask?