Published On: Sat, Mar 9th, 2024

The UK city ‘more in need of investment’ than any other – after £340m project flopped | UK | News

Tess Daly opens Westfield in Derby back in 2007

Tess Daly opens Westfield in Derby back in 2007 (Image: Derby Telegraph)

Wearing a shiny blue dress and an ear-to-ear grin television presenter Tess Daly cut the ribbon to open Westfield Derby in 2007.

The significance of the Strictly Come Dancing presenter being chosen was two-fold, not only was she one of the biggest stars in the country, Daly was also a local lass. A Derbyshire native returning to usher in an exciting new era for the East Midlands city.

That day hopes for what the centre of Derby could become were high. The Australian retail giant had sunk £340 million into revamping and extending the four-decade-old Eagle Centre, creating the type of “retail experience” shoppers in the mid-2000s were supposedly clamouring for.

“It’s impossible to put a figure on the amount of investment Westfield will bring,” gushed John Forkin, director of Marketing Derby the entity set up to attract inward investment to the city. “It’s incalculable. Last year, people made 16 million visits to the city to shop. Next year, because of Westfield, we expect people to make 22 million visits.”

But before Derby could burst those records, a global financial crisis triggered a worldwide recession that had devastating consequences for retail.

Europe's Retail Rout Deepens

Westfield Derby was eventually sold to rivals Intu in a massive package deal (Image: Getty)

The hope, as expressed by John Forkin, was that Westfield would establish Derby as a destination for visitors from far and wide.

But with UK consumers mired in debt and tightening their purse-strings the masses never arrived and the biggest impact was on the city itself.

“Westfield was created towards the south of the city centre and it had a negative impact to the north because there’s only so much money to go around,” explained Paul Swinney, independent think tank Centre for Cities’s Director of Policy and Research.

As big important tenants like Marks & Spencer and Debenhams closed existing branches in the city to move to the revamped centre, there was also an abundance of vacant space at a time when demand tumbled to record lows.

By 2013, Westfield had decided to abandon its first UK-branded centre entirely. Going all in on its London locations, the retail giant flogged the Derby site to rival Intu as part of a massive package deal including three other assets, a year later.

The mega-deal turned out to be one of the last of its kind, as the decade progressed the retail sector continued to decline so that, by the time the pandemic hit, Intu was swimming in debt. As high-street firms went to the wall in record numbers, as a result of Covid-19, Intu was plunged into administration.

Rebranded by new owners as Derbion in 2021 the giant retail space lives on, but it does so in a centre researchers found to be the most in need of public investment in the UK.

Offices exodus

Shopping Derby UK

Derby city centre pictured during more prosperous times (Image: Getty)

Derby’s problems aren’t just that it landed a brand new Westfield at the worst possible time, it’s that the city has been reshaped in a way that makes it harder for the centre to thrive or recover.

As Paul Swinney explained, for years there was a substantial reduction in the number of offices in central locations.

“What has happened in Derby, in recent decades, is that jobs have not been created in the city centre,” he said.

“There has been a lot around Pride Park, which is a big industrial estate not far outside the city centre, and at other locations. But the growth of its economy hasn’t been underpinned by the growth of jobs in the centre, so there aren’t as many people there from a work perspective.”

Having reasons for people to go into town has become even more important in a post-pandemic world, Mr Swinney explained. His research shows the city centres which have bounced back following Covid-19 tend to have an ample supply of commuters returning to businesses based centrally.

Derby’s local authority has recognised this problem and been running initiatives for years to encourage businesses back to the centre of town. Although, as the council’s own offices show, the post-Covid changes to working practices are not easily navigated.

‘Regeneration, but issues remain’

Aerial View Of City Center, Derby

Derby’s city centre has had big money spent on its regeneration (Image: Getty)

From expensive housing developments to improvements to univiting parts of town it’s not as if money hasn’t been spent or earmarked for regeneration projects in Derby.

The issue is that the projects have so far failed to arrest the “continued decline” described in a 2022 council motion. Local property experts claimed last year that as many as 124 vacant units remained in the city centre.

Last summer, residents of the brand new £100 million Castleward housing development, which sits between the ex-Westfield centre and train station, complained they “didn’t feel safe” because of rampant drug dealing and anti-social behaviour.

In Mr Swinney’s opinion, the relative abundance of retail space and comparative lack of footfall is still holding Derby back.

“[Derby] is a good example of where regeneration has happened, but actually because the fundamentals haven’t changed it’s just sort of shuffled the deck chairs around without drastically expanding the number of people who are coming into the centre,” he added.

Council response

Responding to the issues raised by Mr Swinney, Councillor Nadine Peatfield, Deputy Leader of the Council and Cabinet Member for City Centre, Regeneration, Culture and Tourism, said: “Partnership working is key to Derby’s regeneration, and we have been working hard with several partners to secure substantial investment from both Government and the private sector for a range of regeneration initiatives across the city centre.

“We have already secured £15m from the Government’s Future High Street Fund to deliver a new Eastern Gateway into the city, rejuvenate key streets and restore and reopen Derby’s historic Market Hall. As well as this, we have received £20m from the Levelling Up Fund to regenerate the Guildhall Theatre and work with the University of Derby to refurbish Derby Theatre.

“At Becketwell, a new 3,500-seat city centre performance venue is under construction, funded by £45m from the council as well as some private sector investment. The Becketwell project has already created more than 250 new homes and high quality open space and will provide over 200 new local jobs.

“More recently we have selected VINCI Developments UK and ION Developments as our preferred development partners to take forward proposals for the Assembly Rooms site and Northern Quarter of the City.

“These are just some examples of how we have been working in collaboration with the private sector to ensure successful regeneration, utilising their expertise and experience of what works to give our regeneration projects the best possible chance of success.

“We’re on a journey to transform Derby into a vibrant city centre with culture at its heart, creating a go-to destination which not only attracts visitors and offers an affordable place for our citizens to enjoy, but an ideal location for businesses.

“Derby has previously lacked central commercial space, so we plan to create some much needed Grade A and flexible commercial space to attract businesses and jobs back into the city centre.

“Our teams have successfully worked closely with the police to address anti-social behaviour around our newly regenerated city centre locations.”

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