The threat posed to Chester’s retail centre has been identified but plans to tackle the issue have met with mixed success.
Retailing in Chester faces its biggest challenge yet. With competition from out-of-town centres at Trafford Park and Cheshire Oaks taking its toll, and a further 27,900 sq m (300,000 sq ft) of retail warehousing planned for nearby Broughton, the city needs to get its act together.

However, plans for a 23,225 sq m (250,000 sq ft) extension to the Chester retail mix have hit the buffers, with agents saying they can’t predict when the development will take place.

The storm revolves around the city’s 7,400 sq m (80,000 sq ft) Forum shopping centre, anchored by Liverpool retailer TJ Hughes. After difficulties and delays, it was announced last October that Chester City Council had stepped in to take the lead on plans to redevelop the Forum centre. This marks the most recent stage in long-running attempts to improve one of the crowded city centre’s few developable sites.

Protecting Chester’s retail core

The council’s move follows landlord Scottish Widows’ decision to withdraw a planning application to extend the Forum centre. The application had suffered months of delay after the government decided to call it in for review.

Simple arithmetic explains the collapse of Scottish Widows’ plans. The company’s hopes for a 23,225 sq m (250,000 sq ft) extension to the Forum, including a department store, simply did not add up. No one element is to blame, say sources close to the landlord; it simply did not work, however often they tried to make the sums balance.

The collapse of extension plans, which would have used council-owned land behind the Forum – currently a bus station and market – along with additional Scottish Widows property, has been greeted with disappointment by local observers. They saw the Forum extension as an essential part of Chester’s fight against competing centres.

Simon Bolton, partner at Chester agent Bolton Birch, says: ‘It’s important to Chester that the Forum gets redeveloped, because there is a need to confirm the vitality of the city centre in the face of so many threats from outside.’ Donaldsons, which has been advising the council, agrees that the city faces threats from beyond its borders. In 1995, it published a report that demonstrated that the city needed to react to protect its retail core.

Paul Ellis, a partner at Donaldsons, says: ‘The council aims to create a more mixed-use scheme, which will not only reinforce the city’s retail offer but also broaden the range of users – particularly those aimed at the evening economy – and enhance the city’s overall vitality and viability.’ That is going to mean more residential, more leisure, and less retail – even if retail remains the scheme’s anchor. The council is already looking at creating a masterplan for the entire area and intends to launch a design competition.

A spokesperson for Scottish Widows says: ‘We hope we have the opportunity to work with the council in moving redevelopment of the area forward.’ According to Ellis, almost everything remains to be agreed. The new scheme will be more than 9,300 sq m (100,000 sq ft). How much more, no one can say. It will involve either the city council and Scottish Widows or another party or a joint venture partner. And it will start on site at some unknown date.

Additional unavoidable complications are provided by the site itself. Hedged by historic buildings and roads, it is neither as large nor as flexible as anyone would like.

The limbo does not leave locals feeling confident that Chester has its defences in place to fight out-of-town threats such as the Trafford Centre and Cheshire Oaks.

Local agent Simon Bolton says: ‘The plans now seem to be on hold and, in the meantime, market conditions are changing. I think the new scheme will happen but it may be a separate development and not an extension. That would be a shame because the city needs the extension to be integral to the Forum. I think everyone in the city thinks that.’ The coming months will either resolve or reaffirm local fears that the Forum saga is far from a solution.