It is the stuff of dreams. It is also the stuff of nightmares. A radical redevelopment of Shrewsbury town centre between Pride Hill and the River Severn is expected to cost at least £77 million. Most of this money could come from loans expected to cost council taxpayers around £4m a year.
The scheme will involve the sale of Shirehall and a construction of a new civic centre on Raven Meadows in a building that will cost more than £37m.
Shropshire Council is being too ambitious. It has a poor track record having purchased three shopping centres which have since plummeted in value from £51m to £12m in just three years. It is now desperate to do something with the closed Pride Hill Centre, the failed Riverside Centre and the crumbling Raven Meadows car park.
There are less risky approaches to the one the council is taking. The council and key staff could relocate to the Guildhall. The University of Chester could relocate into an entertainment, leisure and education complex on Pride Hill and Riverside.
Next Wednesday, Shropshire Council’s cabinet is expected to approve plans for a £77 million scheme to rebuild a large area of Shrewsbury town centre between Pride Hill and Smithfield Road. The scheme is ambitious. The Pride Hill and Riverside shopping centres will be demolished, along with the bus station and the Raven Meadows car park.
A six storey multi-agency office will be among nine new buildings. The office will include a “democratic space”, part which will be a Civic Hall to replace the Council Chamber at Shirehall. The multi-agency office will be occupied in thirds:
- democratic space including the Civic Hall (34%; 3,788m2; cost £19,936)
- co-location of public sector partner(s): (34%; 3,768m2; cost £17,529)
- commercial (32%; 3,479m2; no separate cost stated).
The commercial space will be at ground floor level and will provide “opportunities such as a publicly accessible food and beverage outlet.”
In “a worst case scenario”, the council will need to borrow £37.465m, repaying £2.033m a year over 25 years. There would be 457 desks for unnamed public sector partners.
The letting of offices to public sector partners will raise around £0.924m a year. Again, in “a worst case scenario” the council will have to find another £2.344m a year to run the multi-agency office. The lettings for food and beverage outlets will provide some of that funding, as will the sale of Shirehall.
The Abbey Foregate Shirehall replaced the first Shirehall on the Market Square, which was described in the Architects’ Journal in March 1967 as inadequate owing to expansion of administrative departments which were partly dispersed in rented properties around the town, necessitating rebuilding to achieve centralisation.
The new Shirehall on Abbey Foregate, replete with illuminated fountains, was opened by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on 17 March 1967.
The building has faded over the years though lack of investment and modernisation. In 2018, Shropshire Council proposed to refurbish the building at a cost of £24.5m, almost as much as it cost to build in real terms. Already at that point, it was expected that many staff would be working from home. However, a previous leader, Peter Nutting, had his sights on Shrewsbury town centre.
He quickly moved to buy the three shopping centres. The council was rushed into a decision by the vendor who said that any deal would be off if it was not completed within three months. Councillors were told that the purchase would create an income stream to supplement rapidly diminishing central government funding. At the time, 14% of retails units in the West Midlands were vacant, many others were let on a peppercorn rent and shopping centres were closing. Having bought the shopping centres for £51m in 2018, their value collapsed to £12.350m in 2021.
The rhetoric over the shopping centres changed as the valuation plummeted. We were told they hadn’t been purchased to make money but to regenerate Shrewsbury town centre. As part of this, Shirehall would be abandoned and the council moved to the Pride Hill shopping centre, which subsequently proved to be unsuitable.
This will be an extraordinarily expensive venture:
- Phase 1. Multi-agency office with civic centre: £37.465m.
- Phase 2. Transport Hub and Pride Hill Leisure: £35.389m.
If the money was borrowed from the Public Loans Board over 25 years, the annual repayments would be £3.954m a year.
There are no costs yet for Phase 3 of the development, which include a new bus station on its existing site. It is quite clear that the bus station is a last minute addition to the plans. The previous transport portfolio holder had proposed getting rid of the bus station preferring people to wait in bus shelters instead. The early drafts of the plans for redevelopment of Smithfield made no mention of a bus station. That’s what you get when decision makers rarely use buses.
If we assume that the council’s investment in Phase 3 is broadly equivalent to that of Phase 1 and Phase 2, the annual repayments will be around £6m a year.
This is talk of financial budgets. What about carbon budgets? I can’t tell you, as the report presented to council in September is still confidential. It is vital that the council makes public the carbon costs and benefits of this scheme before any decisions are made.
We can’t support this level of financial risk and environmental to council taxpayers. The council doesn’t have the financial or personnel wherewithal to manage a scheme of this size. As I said in my previous article, it will suck the council’s limited resources into Shrewsbury at the expense of the rest of the county.
I think the council is going in the wrong direction It owns the Guildhall on the opposite banks of the Severn, currently leased to the University of Chester. The university’s lease expires in June 2022. In September 2021, Shropshire Council estimated the cost of conversion of the Guildhall for council use at around £6m.
I am sure that space could be found elsewhere in the town centre for the university with only modest costs. For example, the Pride Hill Centre and Riverside Centre might be refurbished to become a learning, arts and entertainment centre.
The council’s approach takes huge financial risks with taxpayers’ money in an uncertain environment. It should scale down its ambitions to something we can afford and redevelop Shrewsbury’s town centre incrementally, not with a big bang.