Crystal ball time: What’s going to happen in Derby in 2019?

Of course, the big story that has been rumbling along nationally and indeed globally over the last twelve months is Britain’s decision to leave the EU, the date for which draws ever nearer and is now less than three months away. My thoughts a year ago were that “the chances of a deal being done are increasingly strong with each new round of negotiations, and there remains wishful thinking for, but diminishing chances of a second referendum.”

I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot still hanging in the balance, and it would be a brave person to second guess how this is going to go. Both from a political and economic perspective the implications are huge, and the uncertainty around what is going to happen both in terms of the final deal (or no deal) and its aftermath are bound to have an effect on the economy.

I also said last year that “ the level of uncertainty has certainly held back the decisions of developers to build on a purely speculative basis without an end occupier already signed up, so the potential downside of Brexit has already put the brakes on in some respects.”

This one to be fair I admit to being wrong on, at least in terms of larger schemes. As I said in my ‘Talking Business’ column for the Derby Telegraph in November we have seen a considerable amount of speculative built industrial and distribution schemes across the region, irrespective of Brexit. Speculative schemes carry an element of risk for the developer, as without an end occupier they are committed to the planning process and construction costs, as well as rates, insurance and loss of rent if no occupier is found. There has to be some economic performance confidence therefore underpinning the decisions of developers to press on with such schemes as Nickel 28 at South Normanton (a 260,000 sq ft industrial shed); Denby Hall Business Park (business units from 2000-4500 sq ft), and not least Segro Logistics Park at East Midlands Gateway, a 700 acre site close to East Midlands Airport where 6 million sq ft of industrial and distribution space is being built. Of course some of this is as a result of geographical good fortune as Derby is located at the centre of the UK, and with excellent transport links via road, air and rail this makes it the ideal location for distribution centres.

Looking more locally I also observed “the provision of new student space, and conversion of old redundant offices to residential use, is I think one of the main success stories in waiting of Derby. More people living in the city centre will create a greater demand for services, and because Derby is so compact it will be able to provide a core of businesses which will specifically serve the city centre resident economy both in the daytime and the evening, creating a more vibrant environment. Watch this space.”

I freely admit to having some concerns on this point, not in terms of the potential of Derby, more in terms of its delivery.  I make no apologies in returning again to the theme of the redevelopment of Derby City Centre. The lack of a cohesive development policy means that planning decisions on key schemes are made very much on an individual basis, and for developers it really does seem like the likelihood of getting a scheme approved rests on the roll of a dice. As a City, I fear we appear to be downright hostile to new development. There is a very well organised and vocal group who object to many schemes and are bolstered by further organised objections from groups such as the Victorian Society (London based) and Heritage England. The usual lines of objection are that the scale height and mass of a scheme are inappropriate and damage the ‘heritage’ of Derby. Unfortunately, the downside of these groups being successful in their objections is manifold: a lack of development in the city leads to less foot fall, limited economic spend and further closures on the high street.

There is a however a valid planning argument that economic and regenerative benefits of proposed schemes should be weighed against  heritage objections and I strongly believe Derby City Council Planning Committee should consider these  matters very carefully before making rash decisions that have long term negative effects. To be clear, making a planning decision based on visual or heritage issues because of a desire to shape Derby City to a personal vision, and divorcing the consequences of that decision from its economic implications for the people of Derby is in my opinion unethical.

There are however reasons to remain positive. Whilst Derby seems to be in a ‘holding pattern’ in terms of city centre development, there are several schemes that have been given the green light and we are just waiting for them to commence. The Nightingale Quarter residential development on the old DRI site has been previously delayed, but now looks to be moving ahead along with further residential development over at nearby Castleward. It would be good to see some movement on the Middleton House conversion scheme in the Cathedral Quarter, and in particular I look forward to something finally happening with the Assembly Rooms.

Putting aside my personal opinion on whether it should be refurbished or rebuilt, it will be good just to see it opening in some capacity, as it is imperative to get footfall up to the Market Place and the Cathedral Quarter, which is something that a revitalized performance venue will clearly bring. We have been without the Assembly Rooms now for five years, whilst politicians have spent much of that time using it as a political football.

All of these schemes could potentially start to move ahead in 2019, and could act as a springboard to help bolster the economy of the city. Others, such as Duckworth Square will continue to move forwards I hope, though I don’t see anything happening quickly.

Undoubtedly we have challenges, but if some of the above schemes finally ‘break ground’  in 2019, and we as a city can additionally move forward with a more progressive planning outlook which will encourage new development, we will I think be very well placed to see the year in much the same light as I predicted a year ago:

“There also remain reasons to be positive. On a local level, I believe Derby remains better placed than most cities to both take advantage of global opportunities, and weather any economic downside of Brexit. On this last point at least, I remain confident I will not need to reassess my  prediction in a year’s time!”