Southsea Debenhams closure: Shop hoped to become Sherlock Holmes museum

THE 'sad' closure of a major Southsea store could pave the way for an 'exciting' cultural venture as council chiefs look to ways to revitalise the high street.

By Neil Fatkin, Fiona Callingham and Steve Deeks
Friday, 26th April 2019, 6:08 pm
Updated Friday, 26th April 2019, 6:13 pm
Debenhams in Palmerston Road, Southsea Picture: Chris Moorhouse (110419-60)

Following the announcement that Debenhams in Palmerston is set to close in 2020, Portsmouth City Council has revealed that the site could be earmarked for the long-awaited Sherlock Holmes Experience among other options.

While saddened by news of the shop's fate, council leader Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson said the council is already drawing up plans for the site.

'In anticipation of this announcement we have been speaking with the landlord about other possible uses for this venue,' he said. 

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'We have been looking at the option of a more cultural venture and using the building as the home for a Sherlock Holmes Experience. The last thing we want is for this building to be boarded up. We already have plans up and running in order to move forward as quickly as possible with any developments.'

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Southsea Debenhams set to close in 2020

He also revealed that another option being explored is to transform the venue into a multi-screen cinema.

The closure of the store was not a surprise to Cllr Vernon-Jackson who cited high rent costs and falling footfall as potential reasons.

He added: 'It is very sad but I'm not surprised - particularly following on from the closure of the nearby Knight and Lee store which was busy with shoppers but still not thriving. The rental costs for Debenhams were £1m per year and with fewer people shopping it was not sustainable.' 

Leader of the Portsmouth Conservatives, Cllr Donna Jones, agreed. She said: 'Whilst it is disappointing to hear about the closure of Debenhams it has been expected for over 12 months. The store is a poor performing store that hasn't been maintained well by Debenhams and as a consequence it doesn't help any of the other traders in Southsea. Therefore the announcement of its closure offers an exciting opportunity for Southsea.

'Former councillor Linda Symes started plans for a Sherlock Holmes museum two years ago. A space like this in a high footfall area could be an excellent site to commemorate the link that Portsmouth has with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.'

However, Councillor Luke Scott, deputy leader of the Conservative Party, rubbished any bid to transform the store.

He said: 'I'm very sceptical it will be turned into a Sherlock Holmes museum as stated by Gerald Vernon-Jackson. It's funny how such things are mentioned just days before the elections.

'It's very easy to promise things but it seems like this is nothing more than a political device ahead of the elections. There is no clear financial source to fund this museum.'

Tristan Samuels, Portsmouth City Council's director of regeneration said: ‘We're very disappointed to learn of Debenhams's plans to close their Southsea store in early 2020, which will have an impact on jobs and the retail offer in the south of the city.

‘We have had positive and productive initial conversations with the freehold owners to explore options for the future, and welcome detailed proposals from them over the coming months.

‘We know that our high streets are changing and are committed to securing a vibrant future for them by working with retailers across all of the city's shopping areas. We are currently working on bids for government funding through the Future High Streets Fund. We are also working closely with retailers in Southsea, as well as considering alternative solutions in both the community and cultural sectors to reinvigorate the area.

‘We want to work closely with all businesses in the city and anyone who has any concerns or ideas for improvements that could be made should email [email protected]

The Debenhams announcement yesterday saw 22 stores earmarked for closure, putting 1,200 jobs at risk across the chain.

The group has announced a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA), which will see the affected shops continue trading until early 2020.

Further closures could still be announced following discussions with landlords. Meanwhile rent reductions will be sought on many of the remaining branches.

Terry Duddy, executive chairman of Debenhams, said: ‘The issues facing the UK high street are very well known.

‘Debenhams has a clear strategy and a bright future, but in order for the business to prosper, we need to restructure the group's store portfolio and its balance sheet, which are not appropriate for today's much-changed retail environment.

‘Our priority is to save as many stores and as many jobs as we can, while making the business fit for the future.’

As well as Southsea, the stores expected to close in 2020 are: Altrincham, Ashford, Birmingham Fort, Canterbury, Chatham, Eastbourne, Folkestone, Great Yarmouth, Guildford, Kirkcaldy, Orpington, Slough, Southport, Staines, Stockton, Walton, Wandsworth, Welwyn Garden City, Wimbledon, Witney, and Wolverhampton.

Gary Carter, GMB national officer, said: ‘It's about time this government stopped bickering over Brexit and did something to stem retail job losses and reinvigorate Britain's high streets.’