The future of Chesterfield town centre is a topic on many people’s minds. But what can be done? Our recent member newsletter looked at the issues at stake and proposed a perhaps radical rethink on its future. We thought we might share our ideas with you in this post.
Bad news – 1
There have been two pieces of bad news concerning the town centre in the last month. The first was the decision by Marks & Spencer to close their High Street store and move to the building on the Ravenside retail park briefly occupied by Debenhams. This has been spun by the company as an opportunity to have a larger branch in Chesterfield with a wider range of stock.
This may well be true, and it will be possible for customers to park closer to the store if it moves out of the town centre. The downside is that the town centre is losing one of the most iconic High Street names which has for decades been an important status symbol for a place the size of Chesterfield: if you’ve got an M&S you’re a proper town where people want to come and shop. Now it will have a prominent (and no doubt for a time empty) shop that will look unmistakeably like a former Marks & Spencer store. This is not just another empty shop — it’s an empty M&S shop. Hopefully, another retailer (or several, if it can be divided) will be persuaded to go into the store and so avoid a long-term void in a very prominent position. Hopefully also, M&S’s traditional neighbour, Boots, will not also decide to move out.
Bad news – 2
The second hammer-blow is also disappointing but probably less unexpected. The news that Eyre’s is finally giving up the unequal struggle to run an independent department store in a not particularly prosperous town of 70,000 will hardly come as a surprise to most people. It has for years been the sort of shop where people walk past and say ‘I never see anybody in there’. Few probably believed the story about selling off stock prior to a major refurbishment.
What retailerspends that sort of money immediately after an unprecedented drop in nonfood retail sales? Why did the company announce a refurbishment before they had the funding in place? How widely was it known that suppliers were dealing with the company on pro forma terms, implying that they had little or no cash? And why on earth did people give them large deposits for items of furniture, which they will now have lost, unless they can make a claim on their credit card?
It is almost inconceivable that another retailer will be found to go into a building the size and age of Eyre’s store, or that a non-retail use can be found for the building. There is a limit to how many former shops can be turned into flats, and a purpose-built department store like the Eyre’s building, with its huge windows, high ceilings and rambling internal layout, is almost certainly unsuitable for conversion.
The cinema debacle
There is a third element in this equation: the future of what of most Civic Society members probably still think of as the ABC cinema on Cavendish Street. This has had various occupiers since the cinema closed, none of them an ornament to the town, and the long, bleak street frontage remains an eyesore. A lease of the building was put up for auction on 28 April and appears not to have been sold. It is now on offer at £375,000. What should this building be used for, as and when the existing shop tenant leaves (their current lease expires in 2024)?
None of the answers likely to occur to the sort of speculators who tend to buy this type of property is attractive. Few would wish to see it turned into an arcade of cheap-jack shops, some of which disfigured the former Gaumont cinema (latterly the Victoria Centre) on Knifesmithgate for many years. The former ABC is obviously unsuitable for conversion into flats or a hotel; and attempts to run it as a night club have all failed.
A serious rethink needed
Arguably, it is time to think seriously about how parts of the town centre should be used, given what appears to be a secular (rather than cyclical) change in retailing which will mean that a town like Chesterfield will have fewer shops in the future. Although this shift in retailing is quite recent, Chesterfield has a specific problem which is deeply rooted in its history.
Ever since the market place was moved in the 1190s from its original position on the north side of the parish church to its present site Chesterfield has had an odd layout, compared with other towns of similar size. All but one of the main roads in and out of the town are focused on the old market place.
This means that traffic does not flow naturally into what should be its commercial heart around the market place. But there is no longer any reason to head for the area around the church, because the town’s main market has not been there since about 1200. That is ultimately why St Mary’s Gate, Holywell Street, Stephenson Place (historically part of Knifesmithgate) and Cavendish Street (inserted into the built-up area in the 1830s) are less busy than they would be if they led into a modern market place. Chesterfield has been a successful market town since the twelfth century, but it has never been big enough to support two shopping centres.
Around 1900 the streets near the church did see some new commercial building: as well as Eyre’s there was the Stephenson Arcade next door, another large block on the opposite side of Stephenson Place (itself created in 1905), and the imposing former Williams Deacon’s bank (latterly RBS) at the junction with Cavendish Street. Today this part of the town, although not particularly run-down, is something of a backwater and, on present evidence, retailing here is unlikely to revive. Is this the moment to think about bringing more people back to live in the town centre?
More people back in town?
Until the mid-nineteenth century much of the town centre was residential. The middle class then began to move out to the new suburbs, leaving only very poor slum housing in the centre, which was cleared away in the twentieth century. Is it possible to reverse that process and use land left vacant by the retreat of retailing for new housing which will attract people back into the centre? This does not necessarily just mean more blocks of flats but also family homes with gardens and car-parking space, of the sort that have never disappeared from most European towns.
A radical change
This would be a radical change in land-use in a town like Chesterfield, but is perhaps worth trying. It would surely be a better solution than leaving land vacant or using it for carparks (few would claim that the appearance of Holywell Street and Saltergate has been improved by the creation of the Donut car-park), and there is a limit to how many new blocks of flats or offices the town centre can support, much less new shops.
Chesterfield is not alone in trying to address the changing patterns of retail found across the country, but has the added disadvantage of historically having two centres of trade in the town – the old and new market areas. We welcome the borough council’s initiative in trying to revitalise our town centre and securing grants and investment into it. But perhaps now is the time for a more radical medium to longer-term rethink on its future.
The Derbyshire Times has briefly covered our thoughts on this important issue. You can read the article here.