Meadowhall: What focus on leisure activities could mean for future of iconic Yorkshire shopping centre

A new leisure hall complex is due to be built next to Meadowhall shopping centre after Sheffield councillors gave the plans the go-ahead - despite disquiet about what the move will mean for the city centre and other retail centres.

Earlier this week, Sheffield City Council’s planning committee gave the plans the green light by a majority vote of six to three. They were in favour of what is the third version of the proposals to be submitted in the past four years.

Initial plans were revised after the council said they would negatively affect the city centre - which is in the midst of its own multi-million pound redevelopment called Heart of the City which are themselves designed to pivot away from reliance on shops to focus more on bars, restaurants and housing.

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The success of the leisure-focus redevelopment is particularly vital for the city centre following the closures of the John Lewis and Debenhams department stores.

Meadowhall shopping centreMeadowhall shopping centre
Meadowhall shopping centre

But the newly-approved plans for Meadowhall - which has long been accused of taking shoppers away from the city centre - involve new cafes, restaurants and bars based in a leisure hall that will be integrated into the southern side of the shopping centre.

It is also intended that the existing Vue cinema will be expanded and modernised, while there are longer-term plans for outdoor adventure activities.

The proposal, which has been scaled down twice, includes an agreement to delay building the leisure hall until 2029 and other conditions.

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This is to minimise the effect on both Sheffield and Rotherham, which also has plans to mix shopping and leisure. Rotherham Council was among the objectors to the Meadowhall scheme because of fears that investors may be drawn away from the Forge Island plans taking shape to build a hotel, cinema, restaurants and bars, set in riverside gardens.

How the new Meadowhall leisure centre could lookHow the new Meadowhall leisure centre could look
How the new Meadowhall leisure centre could look

During the planning hearing this week, Jamie Whitfield, a director of retail investment firm NewRiver, which co-owns The Moor in Sheffield city centre, described Meadowhall as “dominant in the region”, saying that shops that operate in the city centre and Meadowhall have sales volumes that are five times higher in the centre. In Manchester, city centre sales volumes are on a par with the Trafford Centre, he said.

He added: “This application seeks to greatly extend the customer experience and extend the dwell time which will further compound this dominance over Sheffield city centre.”

But David Bloy from Meadowhall’s owner British Land said: “Nationally, Meadowhall is renowned as a long-established regional shopping centre and it is an important part of Sheffield’s economy and attraction.”

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He said it employs more than 8,000 people, more than 94 per cent living in the Sheffield City Region, and accounts for almost 20 per cent of the city’s business rates.

“However, Meadowhall is over 30 years old and is dominated by retail units. The centre needs investment, it needs to evolve and it needs to attract more leisure and food and beverage operators in order to widen the offer available and bring the centre up to modern standards.”

He said that restrictions on the plans would mean that Meadowhall would complement rather than compete with the city centre and other centres. As well as the seven-year delay, the council has imposed a ‘no poaching’ agreement, meaning firms cannot shut their operations in other local centres to move in. There are restrictions on the type of goods that can be sold in the new shops.

Meadowhall is itself a regeneration success story. Sheffield Council’s own website highlights how the site, previously the home to the East Hecla Works of Hadfields Ltd, was chosen “to help regenerate Sheffield’s industrial east end following the major changes in the steel and manufacturing industries in the late 1970s and early 1980s which saw many firms close, unemployment rise and land left unused and derelict”.

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But the debate between councillors on the planning committee highlighted the mixed feelings that exist about the shopping centre’s local dominance.

Coun Roger Davison said he thought there had been “a bit of Mystic Meg” meddling with figures quoted in support of the scheme, including what extra value it would add to the city and how many jobs would be created. He added: “I like to see that nobody benefits at the expense of anybody else. I am quite definite that some people are going to lose out massively.”

Coun Brian Holmshaw, who voted against the proposals, said there were too many uncertainties in the report about the potential effect on other centres. He also questioned whether British Land could achieve its aim of completing the scheme with net zero carbon emissions.

He asked: “Why do we want to damage Sheffield’s economy at this time or in the future? Rotherham is objecting to this, and if Rotherham can stand up for its town centre, why can’t Sheffield, too?”

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Coun Tom Hunt was worried that Meadowhall’s impact on leisure plans in nearby shopping centres could be higher than stated, as there is nothing to stop existing stores becoming leisure facilities. He mentioned the Ronnie O’Sullivan snooker store becoming Clubhouse, the first late-night licensed venue on Park Lane, featuring bowling, mini-golf, virtual reality darts and arcade games.

Coun Barbara Masters said she believes that both centres could benefit each other because of easy access between the city centre and Meadowhall.

But long-serving councillor Peter Price said the proposals harked back to the original concept for Meadowhall.

“I’m the only person here who was at the original presentation with Eddie Healey and Paul Sykes, where they came to Labour group and promised a major retail and leisure centre that would replace the derelict Hadfield works, and they made this promise that not only would it be retail but it would be leisure,” he said.

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“They said a sports hall and a leisure pool and a theatre. They never fulfilled that but we got the cinema as part of the thing, so it was always part of the original plan, and we welcomed it because it were some leisure facilities down in the East End, which was virtually devoid of any sort of leisure at all, so that’s why I do welcome this.

“I am saddened with some of these negative responses because Meadowhall is not just in competition with the city centre, it’s in competition with Manchester Trafford Centre and Leeds Arndale Centre, who have all got much better leisure facilities in there, so that families can go for a day shopping and take their kids and leave them, and that’s what Meadowhall lacks in my view and always has lacked, that leisure bit.”

He added: “The city centre is changing, just like Meadowhall is changing. Unless we keep up with this we’re going to lose out.”