Derby had a stroke of good fortune around 15 years ago. Prior to the financial crisis of 2008, work had commenced on some major projects, including the Derbion Shopping Centre, Derby Velodrome and other schemes. If they had been a year later, they may have been shown a red light rather than a green one.
Fast forward to today and Derby city centre like many others, has seen better times. A mixture of COVID-19 and other factors has seen the closure of offices and retail units throughout the city. A casual walk around in daytime or evening can be a little dispiriting.
The last couple of years has emphasised what Derby has been missing in the city centre for years: people.
A historic reluctance to go ahead with (or in some cases allow), multi-storey or even low rise modern office developments in the core means there has been little opportunity to have a workforce there in a nice modern environment. I should know – my business looked to try and find somewhere in the city that was suitable. There wasn’t anywhere. It has been a common topic of discussion amongst businesses looking to move and commercial property agents for years. As a result, businesses and people move out. So no great day-time economy to speak of.
An almost identical story exists with city centre living: there has just never been a lot there, certainly not of any great quality. So no night time economy to speak of.
So combined together the lack of people either working or living in Derby means the city centre economy had little to run on, and limited spending to support or stimulate it.
Add in on top of the longstanding opposition to development, the effects of COVID-19 and we get to where we are now. Businesses and people move out. It’s what is known as the ‘Donut effect’. The outer areas office parks and suburbs are where people go to, leaving a hole in the centre. To address this there needs to be substantial investment, repurposing and development of the core area.
I had a walk around the city centre, and it provides me with some scope for genuine optimism.
Phase 1 of the Becketwell development (pictured below) will deliver 259 city centre apartments in 2023. Phase 2 will deliver a new 3500 seater performance venue in 2024. Beyond that there are plans for Grade A offices on the scheme. All right in the middle of the city centre.
Add in Compendium Living having built over 200 homes in the Castleward Scheme just across from the Derbion over the last several years, and Wavensmere Homes building over 800 units on the former DRI site now known as the Nightingale Quarter.
On a smaller scale, I have seen the repurposing of older buildings throughout the city core. Many of these were/are retail. But the upper floors were often left vacant or used for storage. Any converted to flats were generally of poor quality. An afterthought, as the main use had been ground floor retail for so many years.
There has though recently been a distinct shift as many property owners are beginning to realise people will pay to live in high quality city centre apartments. And I’ve seen many of these being provided. It’s a complete about turn from the past, as many owners now see apartments as the future and the main source of income rather than the retail. Again, it means more people living in the city.
Additionally, the University of Derby has both directly and indirectly bought investment into the city centre. The Law School and ambitious plans for the Business School to be built in the city centre promise more occupiers ,and there has been a leap in the provision of student accommodation schemes particularly around Friar Gate and Agard Street areas.
So, over the medium term we should see within the next few years Derby getting what it really needs: People.
People who will work and live in the city centre in significantly larger volumes than they do now. People spend money. They will drive the need for both retail and leisure. An increased city centre working and living population is the missing ingredient Derby has needed for so long. And hopefully they will fill the hole in the donut and have a more vibrant city centre.
It won’t happen overnight and it won’t be without it’s challenges. But I do think it will happen.