Debenhams in Portsmouth closure - what should happen next in city centre?

CALLS are being made for a renewed focus on Portsmouth city centre following the departure of several major high street chains.

Thursday, 13th May 2021, 11:15 am
Debenhams in Commercial Road, Portsmouth Picture: Chris Moorhouse (161220-36)

There are fears that large empty units - such as the one where Debenhams currently is and is due to vacate next year - will affect the city’s economy and vibrancy.

The shops closing have not just left unsightly buildings, they have also led to the loss of jobs.

On January 25 it was announced that Boohoo would be purchasing Debenhams for £55 million but would be closing all of the stores – it had previously been announced that the store in Commercial Road was due to shut permenantly.

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Chief exectutive of Shaping Portsmouth, Stef Nienaltowski

Figures from JPI Media’s investigation team show that retail has been hit hard - with 63,000 fewer jobs in retail stores in the UK in 2019 compared to 2015 – a number that is set to grow as more businesses like Arcadia fold.

On the back of this, questions are being raised by business experts about what Portsmouth could do to stay attractive following one of the toughest trading years for the high street.

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Law firm Blake Morgan has been conducting studies on what the future of the high street looks like.

Cllr Steve Pitt Picture: Sarah Standing (090320-9853)

Daniel Curtis, partner at Blake Morgan said: ‘The closure of Debenhams is going to be felt very keenly in Portsmouth and is a real blow for the city centre after such a difficult year for retail.

‘Unfortunately however, with government support for businesses phasing out, it's unlikely to be the last big insolvency we'll see on high streets.

‘But it’s also important to recognise there could be opportunities here too. There’s still demand for public spaces and high streets, it’s just our needs are adapting. With the right approach, city centres can become more flexible, interesting, mixed-use environments where local businesses or start-ups can set up shop.

‘For example, here in Portsmouth, we have a long history of innovation and entrepreneurialism. Harnessing that would allow us to revitalise the local economy and breathe life back into our city centre.’

Commercial Road Picture: Chris Moorhouse (161220-49)

In January, then deputy leader of Portsmouth City Council Steve Pitt said they were working hard to make sure Portsmouth had an engaging centre.

He said: ‘We absolutely recognise the change in how people are using high streets, even before Covid-19 and the challenges it has presented to us.

‘People don't just want shops but things they can see and do and that's what we're working towards in our plans. We want to make better use of properties and public spaces to make them more innovative, vibrant and sustainable.

‘Our most recent projects have seen us complete a bid to the Future High Streets Fund and relocate our market space, so that we can reinvigorate the area.

A CGI of how the Knight & Lee building could look after it is developed by That Group. Picture: That Group

‘We want our high streets to be places that people want to visit, use and enjoy and not just visit when they need to. That is why we are striving to achieve an inclusive, accessible and engaging city centre.’

This view of turning the city centre into a space with more than just shops, is one that is echoed by other business experts.

Julie Palmer, regional managing partner, from Begbies Traynor, which is based in Portsmouth, said the shift towards online retail will continue, meaning planners need to focus on making centres like Portsmouth has a community feel.

She said: ‘Planners need to recognise that the shift towards online retail will only continue. As Dame Sharon White said the pandemic has accelerated five years of retail change into five months. Department stores in all but key locations face an uncertain future.

‘As more city centres move towards residential living, there may be potential for the return of traditional community stores such as bakers, butchers, Southsea has a great one already, which offer strong customer service and community ties.’

Stef Nienaltowski, chief executive officer at Shaping Portsmouth, said a project like the four it currently runs in Albert Road, North End, Fratton and Southsea could help the city centre. In the districts it has been working with traders associations to boost footfall, encourage businesses to open by urging landlords such as the Bridge Centre to offer short-term leases and promote themselves. He said that promoting diversity is key.

Garry Lee - Chair R3 Southern & Thames Valley Committee

He said: ‘Whilst this sector clearly is suffering hugely, there is a lot of confidence in the future. The diversity of our shops is a big selling point, the events that are and could be run to bring people in is another magnet we should use.

‘The shops do need to offer value to an ever-increasing online market and they do need to offer a blended service, where possible, and that must include a delivery offering to those that need it.

‘The storm that we have over us at present is clearly a very difficult one, but with initiatives that we have seen used in the city before, plus ones that other cities have used, combined with the strong and determined will these people have shown fills me with confidence that this vital city sector will survive.’

Andrew Philip, centre manager at Cascades, said he remained hopeful.

He said: ‘Personally I'm really hopeful for the future of Portsmouth. Although this has been an incredibly difficult year for everyone, particularly business and the retail sector, it has demonstrated the resilience of the people of Portsmouth.

‘Portsmouth has always been a thriving city. I hope the recent openings of the colossal Sports Direct store, which moved into the former BHS unit, as well independents like the Donut Sweet Baker, are the start of the city coming back to life.’

Garry Lee, chairman of insolvency and restructuring trade body R3’s Southern and Thames Valley region, said: ‘The retail sector in Portsmouth and other cities across the UK was already undergoing considerable upheaval prior to Covid-19.

‘The pandemic has accelerated the pace of change with Debenhams and the Arcadia Group among the latest high-profile casualties on the high street.

‘Inevitably, we will see more businesses struggle or reach crisis point in 2021, especially with the expected phasing out of Government support in the first quarter of the year.

‘Oversupply of floorspace in city centres, high rents and business rates will remain key issues whilst online sales will continue to account for a rising share of retail spend.

‘Cities such as Portsmouth and others nationwide will need to innovate, adapt to the new market conditions and recognise changing consumer preferences.

‘Alongside more experiential city centres with specialist stores and services there is also an opportunity for more creative thinking to breathe new life into empty units, encourage more investment and boost footfall.

‘This could include collaboration between landlords, local authorities, businesses and stakeholders on schemes such as co-working and co-living spaces, innovation hubs and leisure uses as well as residential developments.

‘Larger units which have been vacated by single retailers may be particularly suitable for mixed-use projects incorporating some of these residential, retail and leisure elements.’

Research into city centres

RESIDENTS and businesses across Portsmouth said they would like to have a greater influence in the future of their city centres, according to new research.

Blake Morgan and the Southern Policy Centre studied how residents in Portsmouth, Southampton, Bournemouth and Winchester use their city centres.

As well as finding residents would like a bigger say, their report Re-imagining Tomorrow’s City Centre highlighted the importance of variety and diversity in modern city centres, ensuring they are carefully planned and managed to offer more than rows of identical shops.

Dr Simon Eden, director at Southern Policy Centre said: ‘Reimagining our city centres is no easy task.

‘But the results of this report are clear that the demand is there from local residents – with a clear wish to live in greener, cleaner, better connected communities.

‘We should regard principles such as character, sustainability and community as the cornerstones of the post-Covid recovery and drivers of future development in cities across southern England.’

Residents said they would like city centres to be ‘seen as part of the unique character of a city’ and that they wanted to see a wider diversity of uses, from retail to work and leisure, with housing.

Participants spoke of the need for an array of facilities to be available in city centres – so they can be a place to live, work and socialise.

Daniel Curtis, partner at Blake Morgan, said: ‘At a time when many fear for the future of their high streets and city centres, this report demonstrates a strong resolve from the residents of southern England to build back better – to use these turbulent times as an opportunity to redefine their cities.

‘This can only be achieved with a focus on each city’s culture and heritage and enacted by power devolved to local authorities.

‘Cities throughout Britain face a host of challenges, and it is only by understanding these challenges that we can effectively plan for a better future.’

The report also found that for many, sustainability and the environment were key issues with 78 per cent of respondents wanting to see more vegetation and greenery, and 52 per cent said they wished it were easier to get to by public transport, with streets improved for pedestrians.

What’s happened in Southsea

DEBENHAMS in Commercial Road is not the first city department store to announce its closure in recent times.

Even before the effects of the coronavirus pandemic were felt by the British high street, two giants of Southsea were forced to shut due to declining sales.

In January 2019, John Lewis revealed it would be closing its beloved store in the Knight & Lee building on the corner of Palmerston Road and Osborne Road.

The 35,000 sq ft site was built in 1865 and was acquired by John Lewis in 1933. During the Second World War the building was destroyed by a bomb. The store was re-built and opened in 1959.

But it became the retail chain's first casualty since 2006 when it closed for good in July 2019.

It didn't take long for developers to show an interest in the building and in the spring it was announced a company called That Group were set to regenerate the site.

In May more detailed plans for the space including a cinema, rooftop bar, office complex and hotel were made public.

And in December 2019 members of Portsmouth's planning committee unanimously approved the proposals in the hope it would become a 'cultural and creative anchor for Southsea.'

Work to re-develop the store was put on hold due to the pandemic.

Just a few months after the Knight & Lee announcement it was revealed the department store on the opposite side of the street would suffer the same fate.

Staff working at the Debenhams in Palmerston Road were told in April 2019 that the shop would be closing.

It shut its doors to shoppers in January 2020.

Similar to Knight & Lee there was no shortage in developers interested in the site. National Regional Property Group held consultations with the public in the January and by March plans for around 160 flats on the site, as well as retail and leisure space on the ground floor, were shared.

These have since been refined with a latest planning application - that has yet to be brought to the planning committee - consisting of 132 homes and a GP practice, pharmacy and dental surgery, as well as retail space.

The site was left unused until October when the first monthly We Create Market was held on its ground floor as a temporary event.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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