From mines to malls: introducing the new North

The death of traditional industries has left the region in need of regeneration. Retail developers are moving in – but is the Government doing enough to help?

When Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire shuts its gates for the final time next year, more than 700 jobs will have been lost in an already struggling local economy.

But as King Coal goes, could the new royalty of retail be riding to the rescue? A developer is planning a new rugby stadium and shopping centre nearby in Castleford. It hopes to offer some of these miners work in construction. After that, there will be shop work in some of the new stores, including Next.

Although the scheme is located by a motorway and so goes against town centre first planning policy, the developer, Lateral Property Group, reckons its Five Towns Park is the type of project that the Government should be backing, particularly in hard-pressed areas like Castleford.

Lateral is building the retail centre and a 10,000-capacity stadium for Castleford Tigers and says the development will provide 2,000 permanent jobs plus 700 construction jobs in the coalfields area.

But is working the fitting room at Next really an alternative to the jobs lost at the colliery? (An average wage for a retail worker is just under £15,000 a year, compared with £26,000 at a colliery.) But it’s a question, some argue, that is loaded with snobbery about retail work – and that isn’t fair.

The British Council of Shopping Centres says the retail and retail property sectors together employ more than 7.6 million people in the UK, and that the industry offers more flexible working and better training than many other sectors.

Philip Lunn, the managing director of Lateral, said: “Our development will provide 2,000 much-needed new jobs and deliver economic, society and civic benefits. The Five Towns area has been deeply wounded by the contraction of its traditional industries. The impending closure of Kellingley Colliery, less than five miles from the site, is a reminder this is an ongoing issue.”

Not only will there be shop work but also jobs related to retail, such as logistics, delivery, security and other ancillary work that comes with a thriving shopping scheme.

When the recession hit, a swathe of property projects were put on ice. A shopping centre development in Bradford became a whole in the ground nicknamed “Wastefield” after Westfield scrapped plans, and schemes in Leeds, Sheffield, Wakefield and countless other towns were mothballed. Banks stopped lending to? property companies, land values plummeted and occupiers – the businesses that had wanted to lease the developments – changed their minds or went bust themselves.

Now it looks like there are tiny green shoots reappearing across the North of England.

In the run-up to the election, ministers will be donning hard hats and promoting projects around the UK. George Osborne is planning a tour of the country to announce infrastructure projects, and developers hoping to start schemes in the North hope the Government will help – particularly as figures from the property group Savills for retail infrastructure investment so far this year shows London and the South-east standing at £1.8bn, against just£354m for the North-west.

Mark Disney, at the property adviser CBRE, said: “Developers are responding to pent-up demand from retailers for high-quality shopping centres in strong markets. There is a strengthening pipeline of developments including shopping centres in Bradford, Leeds and Birmingham. Shoppers in these markets have high expectations… and will support quality new destinations.”

Westfield pushed the button on its stalled Bradford scheme in January this year. The developer has let more than 50 per cent of the shop space in the £260m, 570,000 sq ft centre to retailers including Marks & Spencer and Debenhams, with plans to open by Christmas 2015.

Retail therapy is also resurgent in Leeds. Land Securities opened its Trinity Leeds city centre scheme in March 2013, while Hammerson, which scaled down its original plans for a development in the city, started on site in April on the first phase of Victoria Gate. The shopping development, to include a John Lewis, will open in autumn 2016.

Hammerson’s director of retail development, Robin Dobson, said: “With 1,000 construction jobs on site, and up to 300 construction workers on site during peak times, this provides a welcome additional economic boost to local businesses.”

So the property industry is investing but what about the Government making regeneration easier?

Liz Peace, the chief executive of the British Property Federation (BPF), said: “Retail regeneration has a very important part to play in the North, having a direct impact on local jobs and wealth creation. However, in order to truly capitalise on its potential, we need ... proper intervention. The retail landscape has changed immeasurably over the past few years but recent policy has just papered over the cracks.”

The BPF has been campaigning for a change to business rates to help growth, but it emphasises that planning laws are also important. The debate about out-of-town developments killing the town centre is a long-running one  but most  councils would prefer a scheme – and the jobs and investment it brings  – to happen in their area instead of a rival borough.

Ms Peace added: “Planning laws need attention. Permitting development rights to turn retail units into residential properties might also be considered. Much as we want to encourage the growth of retail, we believe that changing the focus of the community hubs to create a more mixed-use environment could be what ultimately saves the high street.

“Housing is high on all political parties’ agenda at the moment, and even though this should not be overlooked, the benefits that retail development brings to both the wider and local economy should be taken very seriously.”

So as Castleford’s Five Town Park development awaits planning permission, opponents may worry what the new Next superstore will do to the local high street, or why the Government couldn’t have helped save its colliery. Others will just be praying the project is approved.

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