Plans announced for Welwyn Garden City regeneration in wake of Debenhams departure concerns

PUBLISHED: 07:00 30 July 2019

The Debenhams site in Welwyn Garden City was offered to more than 100 companies. Picture: Charlotte McLaughlin.

The Debenhams site in Welwyn Garden City was offered to more than 100 companies. Picture: Charlotte McLaughlin.

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The leader of Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council has outlined steps to support the regeneration of Welwyn Garden City's town centre - after concerns were raised about Debenhams' departure.

The council has acquired key parts of the town centre to help keep The council has acquired key parts of the town centre to help keep "our town centre thriving". Picture: DANNY LOO

Cllr Tony Kingsbury has proposed introducing a partnership and cross-party regeneration board - similar to Hatfield's.

Questions surrounding WGC's town centre were raised following the announcement of Debenhams closure back in April - for which no future tenant has been found.

Earlier this month it emerged that "a long list of stores" had been approached to take on the department store's Stonehill's site, when Debenhams closes in 2020.

But all of them, more than 100 - according to a report by chartered surveyors Brasier Freeth - have turned down the chance of a base in the town centre.

The Howard Centre would be a key stakeholder in the partnership board. Picture: DANNY LOOThe Howard Centre would be a key stakeholder in the partnership board. Picture: DANNY LOO

As a result, a 'mixed' application has been submitted for the site that will include 27 flats - with part of the building kept for retail.

The report by Brasier Freeth has been submitted as part of the application.

Highlighting the application at a meeting of Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council on Monday, July 22, Cllr Anthony Dennis asked if Welwyn Garden City now needed its own 'town centre tsar'.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Anthony Dennis pointed to the "striking lack of interest from retailers" in the site, suggesting this painted a "worrying picture" for the future of the town centre.

The Howard Centre would be a key stakeholder in the partnership board. Picture: DANNY LOOThe Howard Centre would be a key stakeholder in the partnership board. Picture: DANNY LOO

But Conservative council leader Cllr Kingsbury pointed to the action the council was taking - including steps towards a partnership board for the town and a regeneration board.

He said these bodies would fulfil the role of a "town centre tsar".

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In response to Cllr Dennis' question, he said: "Like you, we were all concerned when we heard the news concerning the Debenhams store in Welwyn Garden City and the impact this would have on the high street. I often use it and find it a useful local asset.

"We also recognise that the nature of town centres are changing - and it is important that they are thriving for our communities, and creating and maintaining jobs."

Cllr Kingsbury highlighted the £6.1 million of 'accelerated construction' funding from Homes England for the 'town centre north' project and the "key" parts of the town centre the council had acquired "to ensure that we can contribute to keeping our town centre thriving".

He outlined the plans to set up the two organisations, in order to support the regeneration of the town centre.

He said: "To assist with the delivery of this, I have recently discussed with the chief executive the need to set up a partnership board for the town as we are successfully doing in Hatfield.

"This partnership would include and engage with key stakeholders - including the Welwyn Garden City BID, the LEP, John Lewis, the Howard Centre and Oaklands College to name a few - to look at wider strategic issues including healthcare, skills, employment and transport infrastructure, associated with our regeneration plan.

"Building on the success of the cross-party Hatfield regeneration member board - I would also wish to set up a cross-party Welwyn Garden City town centre regeneration board to take forward all of our regeneration plans and the procurement of a developer and ensure our strategy and regeneration of the town is appropriate for everyone.

"So we do have a plan, we do have funding and we will now be taking steps to set up a partnership and cross-party board as soon as possible - these are effectively our town centre tsars."

The Brasier Freeth report - submitted as part of the planning application for the Debenhams site - shows that a number of companies have been approached about the site.

Those larger businesses who had no interest in the property or no requirement for a site in Welwyn Garden City included B&M and TJ Hughes, TK Maxx and Primark, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, Sports Direct and Greene King.

And neither, according to the report, was there any interest from a wide range of companies that were judged to be able to trade from part of the building.

Those businesses approached by Brasier Freeth include Adventure Golf, Deichmann Shoes, Costcutter, Dunelm, Edinburgh Woollen Moll, Laura Ashley, Magnet Kitchens and Tesco.

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