Sheffield's 24-year wait for retail revamp: Can revised £469m plans finally allow city to compete with Leeds and Manchester?

For almost quarter of a century, a regenerated Sheffield city centre to challenge Leeds and Manchester has been promised. Can a new plan finally deliver? Chris Burn reports.

An artist's impression of how the regenerated Sheffield city centre could look.
An artist's impression of how the regenerated Sheffield city centre could look.

After decades of false dawns and frustrations, long-term residents in Sheffield may be forgiven some cynicism today as yet another plan promising to deliver a regenerated city centre filled with top shops, restaurants and hotels is made public. But council bosses believe they can finally deliver with a £469m scheme that will allow the city to at last be a true competitor to Leeds and Manchester.

The latest grand design for Sheffield, known as Heart of the City II, is already somewhat familiar – it is a revised version of a development scheme that was called Sheffield Retail Quarter.

The updated version of the scheme scraps the idea of essentially rebuilding the layout of the entire city centre that would have involved moving the city’s flagship John Lewis store to a new location and controversially demolishing a number of historic buildings to make way for new development.

The new plans represent a revised version of what was known as the Sheffield Retail Quarter scheme but have scrapped that development's intention to change the layout of city centre streets.

Instead, John Lewis will stay put while new development will be based around existing streets – and there will be a greater focus on providing extra office and residential space to better reflect the way society is changing and the increased use of internet shopping that is putting many retailers out of business.

However, the taxpayer-funded scheme still promises to deliver new facilities include restaurants, cafes and a food hall, as well as two new high-end hotels, while talks are already under way to attract more ‘premium’ retail brands to the city.

Construction is already well under way on what was supposed to be the first part of the Sheffield Retail Quarter scheme and now falls under the Heart of the City remit – a new £90m office for HSBC, one of the city’s biggest employers, which is due to open next year. That work will also include the creation of eight new retail units, with talks at an “advanced stage” to sign up the first major tenant.

Council bosses can also point to the successful regeneration of an area of the city called The Moor, where a new cinema and restaurants, along with a major Primark store, have recently opened following the move of the city’s indoor market to the area.

How Sheffield city centre currently looks.

But while there are undoubtedly reasons to be hopeful the wider scheme will come to fruition, a brief examination of the tortured history of efforts to revitalise the city centre raises concerns another disappointment may be on the cards.

Back in 1994, Sheffield Council commissioned a retail study by a firm called Hillier Parker, which highlighted “the inadequacy of Sheffield’s retail offer” and called for “significant new investment in a major new retail scheme”.

That study formed the basis of the city’s retail strategy in a council development plan that was adopted in 1998 and made the regeneration of the city centre a key council aim. In February 2000, the Government set up an urban regeneration company known as ‘Sheffield One’ to assist in the regeneration of Sheffield city centre.

A city-centre masterplan was published later that year – with its conclusions about the city centre’s problems still ringing true 18 years later. It said there was “a lack of quality shopping, particularly of high-price fashion and flagship stores”; that there was “a mismatch between the accommodation available to retailers and the size and configuration of accommodation that they require” and “continuing development in competing centres will make them more attractive than Sheffield city centre”.

The new plans represent a revised version of what was known as the Sheffield Retail Quarter scheme but have scrapped that development's intention to change the layout of city centre streets.

That latter warning has been borne out by reality, with an award-winning masterplan to redevelop Manchester city centre completed in 2002 following the IRA bombing in 1996.

Sheffield’s Yorkshire neighbour Leeds has also enjoyed substantial investment, with the opening of the £350m Trinity Leeds shopping centre and the £60m First Direct Arena in 2013.

Back in 2001, Sheffield Council appointed Hammerson UK Properties as its development partner – with £600m plans to revamp the city centre approved in 2006. But that scheme, which eventually became known as ‘Sevenstone’, was put on hold in 2009 following the global financial crisis – and in July 2013 it was announced that Hammerson was withdrawing

as the council’s development partner.

How Sheffield city centre currently looks.

As delays continued, city-centre retailers continued losing business to the huge Meadowhall shopping centre on the edge of the city. Gallingly for Sheffield, Hammerson then went on to become involved in the £165m building of the Victoria Gate scheme in Leeds, which was completed in 2016.

Outline planning permission was then sought in 2015 for the Sheffield Retail Quarter scheme, the replacement to Sevenstone. But in November last year, it was announced a fresh masterplan would be drawn up to better reflect modern shopping and working habits – leading to today’s announcement.

It is now known as ‘Heart of the City Phase 2’, linking it with a previous regeneration project that begun in 2004 and was completed in 2016 and brought the indoor Winter Garden, Millennium Gallery, Peace Gardens and the offices, restaurants and shops of St Paul’s Place.

While the years of delays have undoubtedly been frustrating, Sheffield Council bosses and their strategic development partner Queensbury believe they have had an unintended benefit; allowing the city to bring forward a scheme that is more suited to the modern world than the shopping centres that dominate other city centres.

Planning applications for the next phases of the project to follow the HSBC building are due to be submitted this summer and it is hoped construction can start next year.

Coun Mazher Iqbal, cabinet member for business and investment at Sheffield City Council, says: “We believe that these reshaped and exciting plans position Sheffield brilliantly to deliver an individual and unique scheme that reflects the different ways in which people shop, live and socialise.

“We are in exciting talks with major retailers but this is only part of the picture – delivering leisure, entertainment and tourism offers that complement them is what Heart of the City II is all about.

“The scheme has evolved to deliver not just a retail quarter but a new city-centre mixed-use, vibrant quarter right in the heart of our city. These plans will create thousands of jobs and place Sheffield firmly in the premier league of UK cities.”

Paul Sargent, chief executive of Queensberry, says: “We have been working closely with Sheffield City Council for nearly two years now to develop a masterplan that will create a renewed focus for the centre, that combines the best of the old with new buildings and enhanced public realm. This will place the city at the forefront of urban place making.”

Hope for creation of thousands of jobs

Up to 7,000 jobs should be supported by the creation of the retail scheme, Sheffield Council has suggested.

About 500 jobs will also be created during the construction phase.

Richard Wright, executive director of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, says: “We are pleased to see Sheffield City Council pushing forward with the next phases of this scheme.

“The revised plans really do target the high-end retail offer that the city badly needs whilst further developing the city centre as a destination for visitors.

“We are particularly excited by the design of some of the buildings which gives the flexibility to change layouts and meet changing future demands. This is a development for 10, 20 and 50 years ahead.”