Stoke on Trent City Council chiefs have ruled out buying up a failed city centre development site – but say taxpayers’ money could be invested in future schemes there.
The derelict East-West precinct in Hanley is facing an uncertain future after owner Realis Estates pulled the plug on the long-awaited Unity Walk retail development last week.
Realis also announced its intention to sell off the land, raising hopes that Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which already owns the former bus station next door, could gain control of the whole Unity Walk site.
But city director David Sidaway says the authority still wants the private sector to lead the redevelopment, with the council being more actively involved than it has been in the past.
The failure of Unity Walk contrasts starkly with the development of the nearby Smithfield site, where two office blocks are fully occupied with work on a hotel and apartments now underway – largely thanks to the council investing tens of millions of pounds of public money.
Mr Sidaway suggested that the development of the East-West/bus station site could involve a variety of uses, such as another hotel or a multi-storey car park, as well as some shops.
He said: “The difference between the two developments has been that the city council owns the whole Smithfield site, while Unity Walk has been private sector led – the majority of the land has been owned by Realis, we only own around a third.
“There has to be a balance between what the public sector and the private sector can do.
City director David Sidaway, Genr8 partner Richard Ingham Ð Genr8, Peter Davenport from the LEP and council leader Ann James at the site of the forthcoming Hilton Garden Inn.
“But as Smithfield demonstrates, this council has an appetite for investment. When I came to the council, I wanted us to be more active. The two big undeveloped sites were the old Victoria Ground, where houses are now being built, and Unity Walk.
“Investors like to move to areas where the council takes an active role. We want to work with the new landowner, whatever they want to do.
“I don’t think it will be ‘big box’ retail. There may be a bit of retail, but it won’t be retail-led. For example, there could be another hotel. What we would really like to see first is the demolition of the East Precinct.”
While some Sentinel readers have suggested an ice-rink or an indoor arena as possible uses for the site, Mr Sidaway does not believe either would be feasible, due to cost and space constraints.
The city council previously had a development agreement with Realis for the site, but that expired with the collapse of the company’s previous City Sentral scheme back in 2014. This agreement effectively tied the hands of the council for years, and meant it could not support the expansion of the intu Potteries shopping centre.
Mr Sidaway said the authority would not take this approach with the new landowner, and bemoaned the failure of previous plans.
He added: “The fact that a site like this has been left in that state for so many years is nothing short of a disgrace.”
Smithfield developer Genr8 announced on Friday that work had started on the 140-bedroom Hilton Garden Inn, with the hotel due to open by the end of next year. Further office buildings on the Smithfield site are also in the pipeline.
Genr8 partner Richard Ingham said the company was also keen to see the Unity Walk site succeed, as it would help boost the whole city centre.
He said: “We understand the challenges facing retail-led developments now, as we have been working on our own in Rochdale town centre. The retail world has changed beyond recognition, and it will continue to change.
“From our perspective, we don’t just look within a red line drawn around Smithfield – we look at the red line around the wider area. A successful city centre will mean a successful Smithfield.”