Rethinking Chesterfield town centre

On 27th February 2023 we held a well-attended meeting to look at present and future options for rethinking Chesterfield town centre. The meeting attracted a wide cross-section of local people. It included a series of presentations from Chesterfield Borough Council officers, on the various town centre initiatives being pursued, followed by a question and answer session.

In the run-up to this meeting we published a short series of posts which looked at the issues facing town and city centre shopping throughout the country – for in many respects the decline of retail in Chesterfield is not unique. We also suggested some issues that might want addressing.

We have brought together these articles on this part of our website as we feel they still have relevance to the future of Chesterfield town centre. Some of the points raised in them also represent unfinished and unresolved issues facing the town centre.

The society continues to think about these issues and ways to address them.

Rethinking – 1

Town centres the world over are having to change. Online shopping, out-of-town shopping centres and supermarkets have meant that for everyone shopping habits have changed dramatically; add in Covid, the demise of chain stores (BHS, Arcadia, Debenhams) and the cost of energy – it’s a wonder we still have a town centre.

Like every story there’s two sides to it. The public complain because the town isn’t what it was, yet our actions – shopping online, out of town, etc – have created the decline. Not a criticism – just things change and town centres need to change and evolve into a space that is much more than retail.

Town centres are the hub of the community but they need to become more relevant. It’s great that the Pomegranate and the museum are being re-vamped. But are these plans for the town centre based on old thinking?

Is our town centre just simply too large? Historically it’s spread out, as in the 12th century a decision was made to provide a new market at its present location. The old market area was to the north of the parish church. Is this area – parts of Stephenson Place, Holywell Street, Saltergate and Cavendish Street – still able to support retail on the scale of yesteryear? 

Something, for example, needs to be done with the former Regal Cinema and Eyres. Is retail or leisure use here still sustainable? If not what might happen? 

This mixed housing appears to have been reasonably successful on the periphery of Hucknall town centre. Is there a model here that can be used on the periphery of Chesterfield town centre, perhaps using a mix of old and new buildings? (Google Earth).

Should we, perhaps look radically at this area? Could there be more housing here? And what should this look like – apartments in existing buildings, knocking down and replacing some of the less visually attractive buildings or combining new with old?  

There are the usual issues about ownership (most of the area is in private hands), but there’s been similar schemes elsewhere of regeneration using residential building. Take, for example, the picture above of mixed housing at Hucknall on the periphery of the town centre.

Rethinking – 2

We need to give people a reason to visit our town centre.

Play areas for children (indoor and outdoor) might be one attraction. Imagine kids playing in water fountains in the summer – and asking their parents to visit the town. 

This play area is a fairly recent addition to Cheshire Oaks. It features in-ground trampolines, slides and climbing towers, designed and installed by Carve. Would something like this help make our town centre more of a destination? (Cheshire Oaks)

Is there a role for more leisure? Maybe a boutique cinema that offers food and drink, a greater range of food on offer. And what input can successful private sector operators have?

Nowadays many towns have adult play areas such as indoor crazy golf, bowling and interactive darts. Add in fun trails for all ages that take visitors on a tour around areas of interest and we’ve relatively easily kept a family busy for a couple of hours.

In the past did the prevalence of retail in the town centre keep out leisure activities such as this? Now there’s plenty of vacant shops!

Does there need to be a greater emphasis on encouraging festivals  and a rolling series of events? These might include film, literature, art and music. And how could the council work with potential organisers?  

The town centre artesian market appears to be a success. But are these, coupled with the antique and flea market, enough? And what sort of events should happen on our town centre? What happens when it’s wet?

Shopping centres such as our photos here of Cheshire Oaks, though retail and not leisure based, have created space for families. You can actually walk inside their massive Christmas tree. Are we missing a trick here?

The massive walk-in Christmas Tree at Cheshire Oaks. The tree is of sectionalised tubular construction, so is presumably reused every year.
We’re walking inside and looking up into the massive Christmas Tree at Cheshire Oaks.

Rethinking – 3

During the last 20 – 30 years traditional creators of footfall in the town centre have disappeared. 

Chesterfield Royal and Scarsdale Hospitals have moved. Robinsons, Markham’s, the tube works and Donkins are all now gone and aren’t coming back!

Perhaps there needs to be work done to encourage major bodies such as educational institutions  and health care facilities to locate premises in the town centre to help build footfall.

The civic society thinks that more work needs to be done to grow the accommodation offer in the town centre; abroad people live above shops – here the space is empty; let’s change that.  And accommodation must be more mixed and offer high quality and be affordable – not low rent = low quality. 

And how safe do you feel in the town centre? As safe as you might do in Meadowhall? How can the street-scene be maintained, litter and graffiti controlled (especially where the latter is on privately owned buildings)?

These are perhaps more questions that need to be addressed. 

(Since we wrote this more apartments have been created in the town centre – notably at Burlington House and in New Square. We think that some appraisal needs to be carried out on the success of otherwise of these developments).

Rethinking – 4

As an example of perhaps radical thinking elsewhere, we take a look at what’s happening at Nottingham’s  Broad Marsh Shopping Centre in this section.

Perhaps we should actually say a little bit about the former Broad Marsh shopping centre;  as this mid-1970s shopping beacon has, in reality, had a mixed reception ever since it was opened. Now it lies mostly demolished. The old bus station has gone, as has the rather dank walkway through from the railway station. And you’ll not now find any shops at all in Broad Marsh – they’re all demolished. 

The finger post to the right points to the now former city centre entrance to the mostly demolished Broad Marsh Shopping Centre. Like some other towns and cities; rethinking their centres has involved factoring in a reduction in the retail offering.

A series of refurbishment plans for the centre floundered. It ended up partially demolished – definitely a blot on the landscape. 

After much discussion and intervention by Nottingham City Council there’s now a rather inventive plan to level most of the remaining derelict structure, replacing it with an urban park, housing, some retail and offices. Some of the remaining building’s framework will remain as a sort of reference point in the new landscape proposal. There’s no guarantee that this plan will actually happen, but it’s one example of thinking ‘out of the box’, in the current climate. And one where it’s accepted that retail provision in town and city centres is in decline.

This, perhaps, raises a few talking points for us in Chesterfield. Is there, perhaps, an opportunity for more well-designed public open-space in or near to the town centre? One example might be the site of the old Chesterfield Hotel, whose demolition has opened up a new vista to the parish church. 

We’re not suggesting wholesale demolition here, by the way. 

The former Broad Marsh centre is now largely demolished, but the area is set for a new future with less retail and includes an urban park.

And what other radical solutions might we adopt to secure a new future for empty retail space, other than demolition?

For more information about the Broad Marsh Centre you might want to visit here as a starter. (As a postscript we ought to point out that the Broadmarsh development proposals have not been without its critics in the city).

Rethinking – 5

Times are tough and we need to make it easier for businesses to start up by offering smaller units and tailoring the size to be just below the threshold for business rates. This would encourage new independents to try their luck alongside the existing independent offering.

The free off-peak parking for residents has been a hit with locals. But what can be done about parking? (Since we originally wrote this residents no longer get free off-peak parking – this is now at a reduced rate). Our shopping centre and out-of-town competitors usually have free parking. Should new ways of growing the off-peak offer on selected days and times to encourage more visits be examined? Is public transport accessible – certainly a start has been made with bus arrival and departure displays at bus stops. But what about the area you get on and off the buses – is it clean and safe?

Rethinking – 6

Chesterfield is a small town and we need to be realistic about the degree of change that is possible. For example, the council is not in control of most of the property in the town. It doesn’t set the rents of properties that it doesn’t own or the level of business rates (the latter is set nationally). Public finances are also under great pressure.

There’s surely a need for continued and effective work with landlords. This can be difficult with out of town companies who might just be content to sit on an ‘asset’. Affordable rents are required here, rather than properties sitting empty. Take the former Co-op. The ground floor has been empty for four years. And what have the owners of the former M&S store got planned? 

Rethinking – 7

How can we embrace culture in any new town centre vision?

There’s already good news on this with investment in the Pomegranate theatre and the museum, with a good range of events at the Winding Wheel. And they are all near the town centre.

To build on this could we, for example, identify three or four locations suitable for murals, or encourage galleries (perhaps even pop-up ones). Maybe we need an arts officer? All agencies should be working with art community. This approach has been successful in Wirksworth, Belper and Buxton.

It would also be good to see artisan craft makers making a home in the town centre. How can this be further encouraged and what sort of premises do they require? They could produce and sell their goods on site and create an attraction too.

And what role can tourism play? We haven’t really mentioned the existing spiritual, cultural and tourist attraction of the parish church. And we also have many quirky and attractive (though sometimes unfortunately neglected) buildings and existing open-spaces in the town centre. What do tourists need and expect in Chesterfield to enable them to visit or encourage them to stay longer?

(Since we wrote this original post a decision was made to close the existing Visitor Information Centre and perhaps develop this as part of a ‘Crooked Spire Experience’. The civic society was not in favour of the closure, but looks forward to learning more about the proposed ‘experience’).

Rethinking – 8

Improvement is possible and it’s not always about spending £millions … it’s about understanding what people want.

Currently two thirds of people visit town centres for reasons other than retail. The town needs to ensure we offer what the modern visitor is looking for.

Chesterfield is not unique in the challenges it faces. Other towns have been reasonably successful in creating a new vision for their towns. But we think the key is actually starting that work or revising that started before, say, Covid.

In our last few sections we’ve asked a number of questions and perhaps posed a few solutions. We hope we’ve demonstrated that there are challenges but also opportunities for a rethink of our town centre. We hope you’ll join us in starting the conversation.

We think there’s a real opportunity for a re-think of the town centre, building on the extensive public / private links and partnerships built-up over the years.

A busy Low Pavement in 1974. Nostalgia for the past is not going to forge a future for todays’ town centre. There was once no out-of-town or internet shopping and large numbers of employees could be expected to visit the town centre from nearby workplaces. (Philip Cousins).

Further information

You can find out more about the various Chesterfield town centre projects that are currently being pursed by Chesterfield Borough Council by following the website links below.

  • Pomegranate and museum development – click here to open.
  • Revitalising the Heart of Chesterfield – click here to open.
  • There is a general site with further links to other regeneration and investment sites in the borough – click here to open.

There is also an important initiative for Staveley, including town centre improvements. Click here to open.

Chesterfield and District Civic Society are not responsible for the content of any of the websites listed above. Nor does it necessarily agree with or endorse the any schemes, projects or views promoted in or on such websites or social media pages.

Page last updated 21 March 2024.