More retail and business space is being realised in Exeter. But does the capital of the south-west have the long-term requirements?
Faced with intensifying competition from new retail rivals, such as Bristol's Mall, Exeter has begun to fight back.

Land Securities' plans for a 37,160 sq m (400,000 sq ft) complex on a 3ha (8 acre) site in Exeter have been welcomed by agents and retailers alike.

However, the proposal has not been embraced by some local residents, who do not want to see their Town Centre ripped out again. But, in the light of PPG 6 and PPG 13, the local council will be under pressure to overrule such objections. Without the £80m venture between Princesshay and Bedford Street it could be difficult for the city to maintain its pretensions as a regional shopping centre.

'Exeter badly needs this scheme,' insists Chesterton surveyor Jonathon Burtt. 'Especially another department store.' Charles Russell-Smith, partner at Alder King, joint letting agent for the project along with Mansfield Elstob Main and CB Hillier Parker, says that the scheme is, 'desperately needed'. He adds that 'retailer interest is already lining up'.

One consequence of the centre's completion could be to shift the city's prime pitch for good, leaving the Guildhall and Harlequin out in the cold. That may lead to the introduction of more leisure businesses – something that Exeter lacks. A welter of themed pubs and nightclubs are reportedly waiting in the wings. Redevelopment could also bring a new multi-screen cinema. Within a few years we could see the planner's dream realised – retail and leisure all tucked into the city's heart.

Out-of-town options

On the outskirts of town, industrial space and many of Exeter's office occupiers are close to the M5 junctions.

'Out of town, office options are now extremely limited, with Abbey Court all but fully let and only 8,000 sq ft available at Peninsula Park,' says Knight Frank associate Hugo Tillotson.

'Matford Park and Interchange West are also filling up,' adds Chesterton associate Andrew Hoskins. 'There is a lot of demand. However, no one seems ready to undertake speculative development.'

Car Land is the latest name to line up for Matford Park, with a prospective 9,300 sq m (100,000 sq ft) scheme over 4ha (10 acres). And interest is said to be hotting up in the empty 6,320 sq m (68,000 sq ft) speculative Dart building at Interchange West, with two prospective tenants – no doubt spurred on by forthcoming enhancements to junction 29.

So where is Exeter to look for future space? Enter Sowton 30, an extraordinary venture by Laing Properties on 7ha (17 acres) close to junction 30.

The company's plan to develop 26,480 sq m (285,000 sq ft) will involve moving a 400,000 cubic metre hill to accommodate B1, B2 and B8 occupiers. It is a bold concept but it would give Exeter two years of much needed supply.

More space is also on the horizon at the Royal Navy depot at Topsham Road. The Ministry of Defence is disposing of 23ha (56 acres) through King Sturge. The land is neatly parcelled in two sections. One is earmarked for storage and warehouse space of 22,760 sq m (245,000 sq ft). The other 12ha (30 acres) has council approval for residential development.

The MoD is said to be keen to find a single purchaser. The asking price is £3m-£4m.

So, more retail and business space is becoming available, together with more residential. But does Exeter have the capacity that the market needs in the longer term? The impact of two recent mergers –between London & Manchester and Friends Provident, and between the Wesleyan and Medical & Sickness – have yet to be worked through but several agents point out that one location often wins out of a merger.

If newcomers are to have an effect on the local economy, it is likely to be centred 25 miles away. Torbay has just been dealt a body blow with the closure of Nortel's local site but even here the mood is up. One agent reports interest in the newly mothballed site. Sutton Seeds is also investing in the area with a 8,360 sq m (90,000 sq ft) development at the adjacent SWEB Torbay Business Park. Grant aid is paying for the rest of the 7.7ha (19 acre) site to be levelled.

In Exeter, however, local agents agree that the strength of the city lies in its indigenous employment base. Inward locaters are welcome but it is a long time since Exeter depended upon their largess. The city seems content to determine its own future and not rely on the fickle finger of investors.