Will council's £51m Shrewsbury shopping centre purchase ever prove to be a good move?

They say a spending spree can relieve stress, but the £51 million purchase of Shrewsbury's shopping centres - now worth just £12.65 million - has Salopian taxpayers wondering if this was the retail therapy they really needed.

Riverside Shopping Centre
Riverside Shopping Centre

The newest valuation of the centres is the latest development in the long-running saga of their future, as Shropshire Council looks for a way to make them pay.

Ambitious plans have been mooted for the town centre in the Big Town Plan. Leaders say that the acquisition of the Darwin, Pride Hill and Riverside centres was more about bringing the land under ownership so there would be fewer planning obstacles stopping major developments coming to fruition, such as a new riverside destination at Smithfield Road.

The entrance to Pride Hill Shopping Centre

The Big Town Plan Partnership, which includes representatives from the council, Shrewsbury Town Council, Shrewsbury BID and more, is looking to demolish the Riverside centre to make way for the Smithfield development. Many traders have been moved out of Pride Hill and into the Darwin centre, with the long-term plan being to use the lower level for Shropshire Council's new HQ and more offices, and the upper area for a leisure facility, possibly a cinema.

The Darwin will be the main shopping precinct.

However that wasn't always the plan for the centres. Prior to council considering purchase, previous owners UKCPT had plans to create "new riverside".

The original £150 million scheme, which would have linked the Riverside with the Darwin and Pride Hill centres, was originally approved in 2012 but was put on hold a year later.

The Darwin Centre

The plan was for a redeveloped Riverside Centre to be linked with the town's other two shopping centres, with a large department store as an "anchor tenant".

When development plans stalled and the developers got cold feet about the project, Shropshire Council started discussions about stepping in around 2017.

The council agreed to purchase the centres the following year. The authority's leadership at the time argued that it was vital to allow them control over the redevelopment of the town, particularly Riverside, which had hit a brick wall with UKCPT.

The purchase though seems to have come at a terrible time, with the High Street downturn being accelerated by the growth in internet shopping, and the situation being exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

It also comes against the backdrop of continuing success for Telford’s shopping centres, which have successfully expanded and seem to buck the High Street trend.

Critics have questioned why the council is in the business of running shopping centres at all - but leaders say it allows control to develop the county town, which in turn will boost economy of Shropshire.

The two figures in charge of the council when the decision was taken to buy the centres, former chief executive Clive Wright and ex-leader Peter Nutting, have both now left. The shopping centres issue, as well as the North West Relief Road saga, are among the reasons believed to have contributed to Mr Nutting losing his seat at the recent local elections.

With the pandemic having hit the local authority hard in the pocket, and any major steps towards the town centre revamp taking time, it remains to be seen whether the shopping centres purchase will ever be viewed as a shrewd investment.

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