THE £300m grand plan to create a thriving shopping complex in Portsmouth is dead in the water, The News can reveal.
The Northern Quarter project has been more than 10 years in the making – but now developer Centros is not bringing it to life due to ‘changes in the retail market’ making it too much of a financial risk.
Portsmouth City Council has begun talks with the company to see if it can come up with alternative, smaller plans – which will be heavily watered down.
Council officials warn any future purpose for the land off Market Way, which has been used as a private car park since the demolition of the Tricorn, will now feature more homes and fewer shops.
The former Lib Dem council administration has largely been responsible for overseeing the Northern Quarter project, which first surfaced in 2003, as the Tories did not seize power until June.
Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, former Lib Dem council leader, said the news was a ‘body blow’ to the city.
‘It’s a very, very bad day for the city, he said.
‘It’s a body blow to the city.
‘If the whole thing is off, that’s 1,500 jobs that won’t be created. Businesses have been hanging on in Commercial Road for 10 years waiting for this to happen.
‘I will work with anyone and everybody to see if we can turn this around.’
The News understands Centros wants to get a partner on board to help cover the burden of costs.
But the council – which owns the land and leases it to Centros – is not willing to play a major role due to budget constraints. Hopes had remained high only recently about the scheme given Centros declared last month it was making progress on working up its proposals.
It was anticipated the 500,0000sq ft development would have been built by 2017, but now it is unknown how long it will be before anything happens.
The project had already been scaled down from how it looked before the recession in 2008.
Originally Centros hoped to create a 900,000 sq ft retail hub with a vast array of shops costing £500m.
Cllr Luke Stubbs, Tory cabinet member for planning, regeneration and economic development, realised the project ‘was in trouble’ when the Tories took over.
‘When we had a change in administration, it became pretty clear the Northern Quarter scheme was in some trouble,’ he said.
‘A developer is entitled to take this position – but from the point of view of the city we need to secure the development of that site.
‘It’s a disappointing position. We will try to resolve this problem as quickly as we can, but I can’t make promises about any particular timescale. I thought this was going to be built in 2011, so it’s obviously disappointing that nothing has happened on the ground.’
Cllr Stubbs criticised former planning boss Mike Hancock, also the MP for Portsmouth South, for failing to apply enough pressure on Centros.
But Mr Hancock said a number of legal battles over the Northern Quarter were to blame for nothing ever coming to light.
Protestor Mark Austin took the council to the High Court as he claimed it acted illegally in the way it bought up land for the project and the way it appointed developer Centros.
All of his court challenges were thrown out.
‘I put pressure on Centros on a month by month basis, and so did Kathy Wadsworth (the council’s strategic director for regeneration),’ Mr Hancock said. ‘If we had no hiccups over the public inquiries then it would be there by now.
‘Not having that development was a tragedy five years ago. It’s a blow for the city. But no blame will fall at my door.’ The fiasco means the council’s plans of creating a new road network around the city centre have been put on the backburner.
The £20m project is reliant on a significant contribution being made by the developer.
A factor in the development going sour was the failure to secure an anchor store that would have attracted other shops to locate there.
The News understands the council has yet to reclaim around £2m it has spent on legal experts and consultants for the project, and it’s unknown whether all of the money will be recouped.
The figure takes into account time spent by council officers.
A Centros spokesman said: ‘Retailers’ requirements are in flux while they try to determine their ‘bricks & mortar’ space needs for the future.
‘We are therefore reviewing all the options for the scheme, and looking at ways to bring forward a commercially deliverable development that will succeed in the long term.
‘The quantum of retail within the mix of uses in Northern Quarter is likely to change, and other uses such as residential could increase.
‘If, for example, residential use becomes a significantly greater part of the mix, then we may look for a specialist partner to join us in the development.’