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  • Writer's picturechris mcg

Objection to Planning application 21/2067N ROYAL ARCADE, Victoria Street, Queensway, Crewe.

Updated: May 7

Granting planning consent or building a shopping centre does not guarantee vibrancy or inclusivity in a town centre. We have learnt so much over the last two decades about the purpose of town centres and how they will be used for future generations. Most Local Authorities in the UK are looking at repurposing town centres, yet Cheshire East is looking at building an outdated one. You only have to look at the recently built schemes in Northwich or Rochdale to illustrate that this is not a measure of success for these town, as they need to repurpose already, there are simply no tenants. The test for success is inclusivity, vibrancy or how the democratic spaces will be used for generations to come, built on a truly sustainable model, not the passing whim of a leadership whose myopic actions will have serious complications in terms of a sustainable town centre in Crewe. There should be a trend for heterogeneity, rather than the homogenised carbon copy that is proposed.

This Panglossian dream of Cheshire East is not a reality. It is based on outdated retail reports from years ago and the retail or leisure-led development is not going to add anything to our town centre's environment or the community. Cheshire East is playing a subservient role to the developers when the priority should be with the community. The scheme is ill-conceived and has had no recent community engagement to establish what the community needs or requires, which should be at the forefront of this planning application. The last public consultation was about 5 years ago, certainly pre-pandemic and well before retail started to rapidly decline. Retail is now increasingly transacted online and the latest figures from the ONS (2021), indicate that 36% of all transaction are now conducted this way. The previous consultation was no more than illusory participation, and therefore quite frankly meaningless. Any outcome does not reflect the relevance to today’s economic, environmental and social circumstance that we find ourselves in. This scheme does not provide a sustainable town centre in Crewe, a town that is trying to be 'HS2 ready', it falls far short of the community’s needs and fails to take into account the paradigm shift of the needs of future towns centres. As Cheshire East is also the vendors of the site, as well as deciding authority on the planning application, there is a conflict of interest and lack of objectivity in determining the planning application. We need a strongly defined town centre that portrays a context or narrative of the community needs, one that reaches out to the community that will use it and not the subjective view of the developers of the vendors, Cheshire East.

I have spoken to the agents of the developers of the project, Knight Frank, on and off for the last 5 years, and they have confirmed on numerous occasions that there are no tenants for the scheme and if I spoke to them post-pandemic I sure they would confirm that non actually exist, so why would we grant planning for an uncertain future and an undeliverable scheme? Even two weeks ago Jez Goodman, Regeneration Manager at Cheshire East responsible for Crewe Town centre, confirmed that only “Heads of Terms’ were agreed for a cinema operator. This is a clear indication that the scheme is outdated and is only a reflection of a homogenising trend of an outdated commodification of retail and leisure. You only have to look at “The Hive” at the Potteries centre in Hanley, the new leisure area of the shopping centre, which have suffered numerous leisure causalities during the pandemic. We don’t need to make the same mistake here in Crewe. We can also draw some reflection from the ill-fated retail 225,000 sq. ft scheme in Northwich which has struggled to attract tenants since it was built in 2016 at a cost of £80 million. Cheshire West are now on their third set of consultants trying to make the scheme work. The centre largely remains unlet 5 years on. Additionally, Rochdale Riverside is an example of a failed shopping centre built in 2020, developed by a joint venture of Genr8 and Kajima in partnership with Rochdale Borough Council, it includes 200,000 square foot of retail, leisure accommodation and a 520-space car park right in the town centre. Other features are a six-screen cinema, which will sit above the retail units, but has failed to attract tenants.

So, the reality is, the only tenant that has ever been in the running after 5 year of promotion, is a cinema at heads of terms stage, and it will be on a conditional arrangement, dependant on the whole scheme being built, and we already have a cinema in Crewe, and our previous bowling alley disappeared due to lack of interest. Post-pandemic it is unlikely that they can reignite the interest of a bowling alley or any other leisure uses to the town. It is a difficult task to build an economic model around no tenants, so it will never get built.

The cinema use is hardly exciting vibrant or ground-breaking, and we already have one in the town, and quite frankly it is not representative of what the community or town wants. You cannot grant planning for a car park and a bus station without knowing how the rest of the project is likely to progress, that would be madness, surely planning needs to be achieved around a scheme that may actually get built and has the full support of the local community.

The community is already disillusioned and disenfranchised in Crewe, Cheshire East may hope for more chain stores to compete with nearby towns, but there is compelling evidence that we need less, and more independent shops where the shop owners are authentic and embedded in the local multicultural community. You only have to look at the findings of the commissioned Hemingway Study (December 2020), to see how disappointed the community are with Crewe and its town centre, and what they think of Cheshire East giving a clear mandate for change.

The current NPPF (February 2019), discusses town centres, ‘Ensuring the vitality of town centres: Sub - Section 85 comments ‘Planning policies and decisions should support the role that town centres play at the heart of local communities, by taking a positive approach to their growth, management and adaptation. Planning policies should: “define a network and hierarchy of town centres and promote their long-term vitality and viability – by allowing them to grow and diversify in a way that can respond to rapid changes in the retail and leisure industries, allows a suitable mix of uses (including housing) and reflects their distinctive characters”.

This highlights the importance of the town centre to local communities in a town’s future growth and their role within a town, this scheme actually turns its back on the community and alienates any vitality or vibrancy, and creates a homogenised real estate model, for the benefit of the developer only, it gives nothing back to the locality and will sterilise an important site within Crewe Town centre for years to come. Granting planning consent for this scheme is a retrograde step.

Chapter 9, Sub- Section 102, of the NPPF (2019), discuses “Promoting sustainable transport”, Transport issues should be considered from the earliest stages of plan-making and development proposals, so that:

a) the potential impacts of development on transport networks can be addressed.

b) opportunities from existing or proposed transport infrastructure, and changing transport technology and usage, are realised – for example in relation to the scale, location or density of development that can be accommodated.

c) opportunities to promote walking, cycling and public transport use are identified and pursued.

d) the environmental impacts of traffic and transport infrastructure can be identified, assessed and taken into account – including appropriate opportunities for avoiding and mitigating any adverse effects, and for net environmental gains; and

e) patterns of movement, streets, parking and other transport considerations are integral to the design of schemes and contribute to making high-quality places.

The NPPF deals with the promotion of sustainable transport. Paragraph 102 highlights that transport issues should be considered as part of development proposals. In particular, proposals should consider the impact on the transport network, promote sustainable modes of transport, mitigate environmental impacts where possible and ensure that the patterns of movement, streets and parking and other transport considerations are integral to the design. Paragraph 103 goes on to state that “development should be focused on locations which are or can be made sustainable, through limiting the need to travel and offering a genuine choice of transport modes”. Providing a 500-space car park is in contradiction to the NPPF.

It is clear that a multi-story car park is in direct conflict with the NPPF 2019 on sustainable transport, attracting more car drivers and not encouraging active travel. The bus station and the car park are being built in the wrong location and are only a desperate measure to get any redevelopment in the town going, irrespective of the outputs. There are other areas of Crewe town centre that these can be built in that would free up the Royal arcade site for a more inclusive community-focused space, not the occasional visitor coming by car. This scheme is not sustainable and does not meet the three pillars of sustainability. It is lazy and nepotistic and indicative of leadership that has no attachment to the location with Cheshire East officers and members of the newly formed Town board. They are simply engineering support for this outdated scheme when a more community-focused scheme is required.

The NPPF states in paragraph 6 that the purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.

There are three dimensions to sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. These dimensions give rise to the need for the planning system to perform a number of roles:

· an economic role – contributing to building a strong, responsive and competitive economy, by ensuring that sufficient land of the right type is available in the right places and at the right time to support growth and innovation; and by identifying and coordinating development requirements, including the provision of infrastructure.

· a social role – supporting strong, vibrant and healthy communities, by providing the supply of housing required to meet the needs of present and future generations; and by creating a high-quality built environment, with accessible local services that reflect the community’s needs and support its health, social and cultural well-being; and

· an environmental role - contributing to protecting and enhancing our natural, built and historic environment; and, as part of this, helping to improve biodiversity, use natural resources prudently, minimise waste and pollution, and mitigate and adapt to climate change including moving to a low carbon economy.

Crewe is a gritty northern town, a little grittier than most in leafy Cheshire, but it seems home to an abandoned community that holds so much potential. An optimist would wish that Cheshire East could gently guide it on the right path and engage with its multicultural population. Cheshire East’s solution to the problem of vacant shops was a simplistic one; knock them down. The town has a rich historic railway provenance, which could be championed, instead, the leadership have tried to create a manufactured brand that falls outside the town’s established heritage and quantifies success with crude economic inputs and fails to recognise the importance of social and environmental achievements, it is not good enough to proclaim that the town centre will be remarkable, it has to be remarkable.

The proposed scheme that forms the centrepiece of Cheshire East’s plans harks back to a different era and is unlikely to be delivered. Thus, will stagnate the town for a number of years while an authentic identity is found. There are simply no tenants for this outdated investment model, and as mentioned we can draw a comparison from nearby Northwich. There is an opportunity to create a legacy town in Crewe, but the workable urban fabric is now demolished and has now been turned to rubble. We need a rethink and explore other opportunities for a post-Covid town, whose emphasis and purpose have dramatically changed. It is time for reflection with the communities needs at the forefront of this thinking, and at the moment there is simply no forum for this engagement. The Crewe board is exclusive and not embedded in the community.

The proposed scheme is not a democratic space and it won’t provide a tactile experience required, but simply a vision of a homogenising trend of the only developer that wanted to get involved. Cheshire East have overthought a process when the communities’ guiding hand would have sufficed, keeping the iconic fabric intact and building on the very community that was going to use it in accordance with their diverse needs. Crewe’s community is multicultural, and the leadership needs to reflect on this with clear evidence of a holistic paradigm shift in a town centre’s purpose. It is no longer just a place to shop, shopping now only forms part of our everyday activities. It should seek a wider offering, one that stimulates different cultural needs, and this won’t be achieved by following a myopic blueprint that deals only with real estate. The town needed some encouragement from within to explore the social and environmental benefits, but instead, the leadership opted for a top-down approach which would be a homogenised carbon copy of the questionable scheme in Northwich and Rochdale.

I would therefore respectfully suggest the whole project is put on hold; you can’t grant planning consent for a car park in this location nor grant outline consent for a scheme that forms part of a larger plan that has no hope of ever being built. We may find ourselves with a car park in the wrong location surrounded by vacant space for a number of years while the economy recovers. During this time, there will be environmental pressure for more active travel and the car park is likely to become an irrelevance and we will concentrate on the local economy and social capital to bring forward a vibrant town centre. Has Cheshire East learned nothing from past mistakes or drawn any reflections from towns such as Northwich that would turn the clock back if it had the chance? Cheshire East and the leadership board need to be honest about their dishonesty moving forward.

The proposed space has not been produced as a result of collaborative leadership, but a homogenised imitation of every scheme that was built prior to the 2008 financial crisis, with the Town’s board conforming only to illusory participation. The leadership so far has failed to contemplate the democratic vision required and thus will create urban monotony, instead of achieving dialectical utopianism.

Granting this planning consent will only succeed in preventing any development on the site and will do no more than sterilise this important development site within Crewe Town centre. Granting consent will also go further than this and will possibly prevent further developments in the locality in the hope that this development will eventually get built, which is extremely unlikely. It is therefore important that further consideration is given to this planning application and the needs of the community are established with full meaningful consultation. Granting this consent means that the town centre will not be HS2 ready.

Chris McGarrigle BSc. (Hons), PGDip, MA,MRICS IRRV (Hons) MCI Arb MIPM

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08 nov. 2022

Look at Wrexham's Eagles' Meadow - a fabulous piece of architecture that has taken its north Wales location to its design heart. But the loss of anchor store Debenhams has torn a sizeable hole in its centre, followed by smaller retailers. Town centre planning needs a massive re-think. Don't look at surveys or reports from pre-pandemic, the scene has changed too much since then.

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