Eight years on, shops saga looks for new chapter

Artist's impression of the original Sevenstone scheme
Artist's impression of the original Sevenstone scheme

It was a year ago that frustration over a lack of progress on translating the ambition of the Sevenstone retail quarter into reality began to surface publicly.

For the first time, the council made clear its patience with developer Hammerson was not limitless.

Twelve months later, and after many more meetings with the London-based property company, the authority is looking for a new partner for what has been described as a once-in-a-generation attempt to restore Sheffield’s reputation as a regional shopping centre, one that can compete with the likes of Leeds and Nottingham.

Unable to persuade Hammerson to press the button, despite the firm’s investment in terms of eight years of planning, negotiation, utility relocation and land assembly that has cost several millions of pounds, the council said it would look elsewhere.

Hammerson said it was unable to give a firm commitment at this stage because of other priorities across the UK and internationally. It is working on projects in Leeds, Brent Cross in London and Croydon that it believes will generate better returns.

Announcing its latest financial statement this week, the company reflected on an expensive scheme drawn up pre-recession and pointed to the dominance of Meadowhall.

Yet the council thought the tipping point had been reached to reshape the area between Barkers Pool, Pinstone Street and Moorhead thanks to an offer of up to £30m from the Government through a scheme taking into account future business rates from retailers.

Now the authority must hope that another developer takes up the offer.

“We are bound to be disappointed that a developer we have been working with for a long time cannot move at the speed we want to move at,” said council chief executive John Mothersole.

The outcome is another delay, of 12 to 18 months, to start a project that would have opened its doors by now if not for the recession.

Many people thought Sevenstone was dead anyway, given the lack of progress.

But Mr Mothersole said a retail quarter will, eventually, be built. “This is not a second division opportunity, it is a premier opportunity,” he said. “Investment in prime retail is very rare.”

Above all, the council points to commercial evidence that top retailers, especially in the fashion business, would come to Sheffield if the type of large modern units they require are available. That hasn’t changed, even though Hammerson are out of the equation.

Council cabinet member Leigh Bramall said: “We have got everything in place to make this a viable, attractive development scheme, and we can’t wait any longer to take this forward.”

Sevenstone was envisaged as a series of buildings and landscaped precincts of the standard of the Peace Gardens, never a big indoor shopping centre.

It was estimated initially to cost £600m, which was scaled back in size and to £400m as ambitions reflected economic circumstances.

Whatever emerges now is likely to include commercial and leisure and a multi-storey car park as well as retail in a 700,000 sq ft development.

The signs from John Lewis continue to be encouraging. Property director Jeremy Collins said the company had worked closely with the council and Hammerson. “We are naturally disappointed to receive this news, but we will continue to work tirelessly to provide the best possible shopping experience for our customers.”

Hammerson’s chief investment officer Peter Cole said: “We have worked very hard to achieve a retail scheme which creates a thriving city centre environment in Sheffield. Through this process we have looked at various options to redesign the original large scale scheme which was conceived pre-recession.

“We agree with the council’s ambition to regenerate the city centre. It is clearly a high priority. We believe that the city can build on our work to date and take forward the opportunity to create a deliverable regeneration proposal in the future.”

At least the council can reflect that a £40m redevelopment of The Moor is being rolled out and is gaining momentum.

Just up the road, though, shops will remain boarded up or continue to have short-term tenants. The retail quarter saga goes on.