The battle to reverse Chester’s decline as a top retail centre began last night (Tuesday) with the go ahead for the £300million Northgate Scheme.

A special meeting of Cheshire West and Chester Council unanimously backed the authority’s plans for the redevelopment of an iconic retail and leisure development in the historic city centre.

Members agreed to approve the procurement of a development and design team and the finance to get concept plans to the planning application stage by spring 2015.

They had considered a report from CACI – the London-based specialist consumer and retail research company – warning that in terms of cash spend per head of the population, the city had dropped from 27th out of 4,000 retail centres in 2006 to 59th in 2012.

With an expected 7.3% share of a £4,113m expenditure market, it falls into third place behind Liverpool City Centre (11.5%) and Cheshire Oaks (8%), in a catchment area of two million people.

And said Councillor Les Ford, Executive Member for Resources: “The evidence is clear – ‘develop or decline’. We have no alternative.”

The Northgate Development Concept scheme includes:
• A vibrant new leisure square adjacent to the new theatre and library complex, a replacement market and a 8-screen cinema, complementing the 120-seat cinema.

• 375,240 sq.ft of retail floor space – including an anchor department store – 51 standard unit stores; 2 kiosks and 5 Major Store Units; a small food store of 6,555 sq.ft and 79,233 sq.ft of food and beverage units.

• Parking is proposed both underground and in a multi storey car park. The total number of spaces is 954, which include replacement, new and upgraded parking spaces.

• A new bus facility is proposed at Gorse Stacks within the transport strategy – subject to public consultation – and direct public transport access into the site with three bus lay-bys for dropping off/picking up adjacent to a new market hall.

The original Northgate Development scheme dates back to 2000 when the former Chester City Council formed a partnership with ING Real Estate Developers.

But in February last year CWAC decided to terminate that long-standing agreement concluding there was little likelihood of progress.

Chester Councillor Samantha Dixon, a member of the all-party Northgate Working Group, said: “Chester is the retail engine that needs to carry the rest of the Borough. It should be performing strongly, bringing jobs and money into the Borough and contributing to increase revenue.

“If it doesn’t if this decline continues, then the consequences affect the whole of the Borough. We need to invest in Chester to help keep the Borough going.

“I believe we should be using public sector funding to enable development on this scale. We should do this because it will create jobs, thousands of them for the teenagers currently sitting in our local schools. It will bring revenue to the Council in business rates and vitality back for our local retailer.

Councillor Eveleigh Moore Dutton stressed that Northgate was an opportunity for the entire Borough.

“I would estimate there would be hundreds of millions of pounds of inward investment that would provide opportunities for employment, for enterprise for every part of Cheshire West and Chester.

Some members cautioned Northgate would have to be accompanied by the appropriate transport facilities and safeguards that the development would not adversely affect other parts of the city centre.

Council Leader Mike Jones agreed that the possible effects of Northgate on other parts of the city was a critical issue and needed ‘very careful management’.

“It is about what markets we currently serve well in the retail sector and which markets we currently serve poorly; how we can improve on those that are poorly performing” he said.

Councillor Andrew Dawson stressed the need to need to ensure that people can get in and out of Chester freely.

“I hope we’re going to work very hard on the transport links because without good transport links, Northgate will not reach the full potential that all of us wish it to have” he said.

Opposition leader Councillor Justin Madders highlighted his concerns about public transport penetration and felt it right that the emerging Chester transport strategy fed into the process and contributed to an informed decision about what is best for this scheme.

“I think we also need to consider in far more detail what kind of market we want to see in the new scheme. There is no doubt at the moment that the market is struggling at the time of great difficulty for retail generally.

“I think that we need to encourage dialogue with the market traders now in order to support them and get through to 2019.”