The £600m question

View B: Looking down the covered street in the heart of Sevenstone to the new John Lewis building. Block 6 (to the right) is designed by BDP; block 5 (to the left) is designed by Foreign Office Architects and block 7 (the John Lewis building) is designed by O'Donnell + Tuomey. Gillespies is responsible for all public realm design.
View B: Looking down the covered street in the heart of Sevenstone to the new John Lewis building. Block 6 (to the right) is designed by BDP; block 5 (to the left) is designed by Foreign Office Architects and block 7 (the John Lewis building) is designed by O'Donnell + Tuomey. Gillespies is responsible for all public realm design.

It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten what Sevenstone is.

A £600m development between Barkers Pool, Pinstone Street and Moorhead. It is designed primarily to offer a wide range of new shops, but the development will also include some apartments and leisure attractions. There’s a multi-storey car park off Rockingham Street and there could be a hotel to replace the old Grosvenor House.

Cambridsge St shops

Cambridsge St shops

Hasn’t the city centre got enough shops?

According to retail analysts, Sheffield city centre has not got as many shops of the appropriate quality or size compared with other cities and places. In the early 70s, Sheffield was ranked eighth in the UK in terms of the quantity and quality of its shops and the turnover. Now it has dropped to 38th.

The opening of Meadowhall and a drop in spending – linked to the collapse of heavy industry – took their toll. Large, modern, efficient units are needed to encourage retailers to invest in Sheffield.

Why Sevenstone?

To reflect that Sheffield is built on seven hills. London-based developers Hammerson won a European-wide competition in 2001 to design and implement the project (British Land, who co-own Meadowhall, were also on the shortlist). Hammerson came up with the name.

Aren’t shopping centres past their sell-by date?

It wouldn’t be a single covered shopping complex, similar to those that were fashionable in the Seventies, but a series of buildings with precincts and landscaping in between. The development agreement says the public spaces have to be of a similar standard to the Peace Gardens, Barkers Pool and Sheaf Square in front of the railway station.

So which shops would move into the retail quarter?

It’s far too early for contracts to be signed, but it would be no surprise if the likes of Mango, Zara, DKNY and Reiss were to come to Sheffield, along with the possible relocation of other stores.

However, it was always intended that the anchor store would be John Lewis.

What is John Lewis doing?

Its original plan was to build a new store on the site of the former Wellington Street fire station, but the company is now keeping open the option of redeveloping the current store, which would be cheaper. No final decision has been taken.

Retail quarter plans date from the late 1990s. It should have been opened by now.

Everything was going well. Much of the preliminary work, such as relocating utilities such as power cables, gas mains, water pipes along with the fire station to pave the way for construction, was completed. The planning and land acquisition process were progressing well – and then came the recession.

As land values plummeted and the economic outlook became more uncertain, retailers became nervous. In addition, a change of Government meant that possible Treasury funding through the regeneration agency Yorkshire Forward was put on hold.

It sounds bleak.

It was. But the Government was persuaded to maintain its support. After all, through its Homes and Communities Agency it had already spent £9m on the utility diversions and £15m on relocating the Wellington Street fire station and headquarters to Eyre Street – money it was due to get back from Hammerson once construction of the retail quarter started.

Weren’t Hammerson tempted to pull out?

No. Not only had they spent £65m, but saw Sheffield as a viable long-term retail centre and did not want to hand over the project to a competing rival.

The £65m spent on land, utility diversions, the Compulsory Purchase Order public inquiry, fire station relocation and planning fees, along with a lot of time and effort, meant they had made quite a commitment over the decade.

So the CPO programme was able to continue?

Yes, despite the economic downturn it has just recently been wrapped up, within the three-year deadline, otherwise the whole land acquisition strategy would have unravelled.

Not everybody was happy. Coffee specialists Pollards, who have been in the city since 1879, complained that they were having to sell up in Charles Street because they were surrounded by empty shops and numbers of passers-by had plummeted, although the council hadn’t CPOd any properties at that time.

But all the potential Sevenstone land is now under the council’s ownership or control with that of its stakeholder partners, with the council committing up to £10m to help.

How can the council afford £10m during such tough times?

It believes the retail quarter is so crucial to the future of the city centre that it cannot be allowed to fail. It has also secured a deal that will see the money repaid once construction starts.

When is that likely to be?

If all goes smoothly from now, and that’s a big if, at least two years. Crucially, John Lewis has still to give its final approval, and that will determine the final shape of the scheme.

Fresh plans will be submitted by Hammerson to reflect the latest state of the market, although the concept will remain the same. It was always envisaged that the scheme would evolve over time. Initially, a lot more apartments were planned, but now the housing market is at a low ebb.

What happens if the economic climate doesn’t improve?

The worst-case scenario is that the UK economy tips back into recession with little sign of an upturn.

Unemployment continues to rise, which depresses consumer spending, internet sales bite harder into the high street and land values remain depressed. Then there is little prospect of the retail quarter in its existing form being built.

Under these circumstances Sheffield would be in the same boat as, but no worse than, the rest of the country.

And then?

Whatever the situation, Sheffield will continue to be the fourth largest city in the UK, still requiring bigger and better shops in the city centre.

After all this time, at least the council would own all the land (although it would have to buy some of the land owned by Hammerson), which would mean it was in a strong position to do a deal with another developer. But the game plan would have changed. Something very different would have to emerge that reflected the new commercial reality. Sevenstone would be back to square one.

Would that be a bad thing?

There were always some critics who did not believe that a retail quarter was the answer for the city centre – that the arrival of more big retail names would see Sheffield losing more of its identity.

Supporters say there would still be plenty of scope for the smaller independent stores to locate on to Division Street and surrounding areas.

Won’t a large chunk of the city centre be blighted in the meantime?

There have been empty shops for a few years. To avoid an overwhelming sense of blight and dereliction, the council started the Showcase initiative, letting units on short term leases.

Some small businesses, such as for food and drink, have moved in. Other shop windows have been dressed up to create a better environment and to encourage the talents of young people with retail apprenticeships through The Source at Meadowhall.

So I won’t be shopping at Sevenstone for a while?

Even if Hammerson finally pressed the button, after the further preparatory work, it would still take two-and-a-half to three years to build.