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Petition launched after Tory council refuses to rule out bulldozing Debenhams

February 8, 2021 8:30 AM

Councillors Ashley Bowkett and Jeremy Hilton outside Debenhams in Kings SquareThere are fears the iconic Debenhams building in Gloucester could be demolished after senior Conservative councillors twice refused to rule it out.

The department store in Kings Square is facing closure after Debenhams went into administration and the brand was bought by online fashion retailer Boohoo Group.

All 124 stores across the country will close with the loss of 12,000 jobs as Boohoo relaunches Debenhams as an online-only retailer later this year.

The building, which has been trading as Debenhams since 1973, is adjacent to the £110 million King's Quarter regeneration scheme and could be a key part of that project.

It is the largest store in the city and is owned by Aviva, with recent reports suggesting it is up for sale.

The site is also listed as a 'positive building' - meaning it cannot be demolished without permission from Gloucester City Council.

Both city council leader Richard Cook and cabinet member Dawn Melvin have been asked in council meetings to oppose its destruction and commit to saving it.

Councillor Cook said the council "need to consider all options" and "we're not ruling anything out, not ruling anything in".

Meanwhile, Councillor Melvin, the cabinet member for economic recovery and growth, refused to answer the question.

Councillor Jeremy Hilton, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the city council, said: "I asked Councillor Cook at a cabinet meeting in December to rule out the demolition of the Debenhams building.

"He danced around the subject and said all options remained on the table.

"At January's city council meeting I asked the same question of Councillor Melvin and she answered a different question to the one I asked.

"The Debenham's building dates back nearly 100 years when it was trading as Bon Marche and has some fascinating Art Deco features from the inter-war period.

"The building must be preserved and not turned into a large pile of rubble and it is deeply disappointing the city council has not committed to saving the building.

"This is why we have launched a petition, so that we can show the council the strength of public feeling in Gloucester."

Councillor Ashley Bowkett, Liberal Democrat economic growth spokesman, added: "It is important the Debenham's site maintains a strong retail presence and acts as an anchor for the rest of Kings Square.

"We would like to see the building refurbished and transformed into a mix of retail, leisure, commercial offices or residential apartments and become a key part of the transformation of Kings Square and the development of the Kings Quarter."

The petition can be signed online at: https://SignMe.org.uk/1781

*Here are the transcripts and links to video clips of the two meetings in which you can see the questions put and the answers given by Councillors Cook and Melvin.

Transcript from cabinet meeting, Wednesday December 9 2020

http://democracy.gloucester.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=129&MId=6793&Ver=4 (relevant bit starts at 2m 17s)

Jeremy Hilton (JH): On December 1 Debenhams announced following the collapse of takeover talks that it was going to go into liquidation. The Debenhams store in Gloucester now has posters in the window announcing a closing down sale. On December 7 it was confirmed that the Fraser group was still in takeover talks with the administrator. With the refurbishment of Kings Square just started, do you agree with me the city council must do all it can to ensure that we keep a strong retail presence in this department store building.

Richard Cook (RC): To be honest Jeremy I don't necessarily agree with that statement. I think it would be relevant to have a retail presence there. However, I think it's also important that we consider all uses and we can consider complete revamping of that building, put in some retail, put in some mixed use, put in some residential. But to keep it entirely as a retail environment, I don't think that would be in the interest of the council or in the interest of the retail offering in the city. We already recognise, as I'm sure you recall from your place on the City Centre Commission, that we have far too much retail space in the city centre. I'm open for any sort of reuse for that building. I definitely want to keep it in occupation, but I do not agree necessarily that it should be exclusively for retail.

JH: Thank you. I actually said a strong retail presence. I also agree with you that there's possibly other uses that can be put into the building as well. While we cannot get involved in saving Debenhams as a company, do you agree with me that we can have talks with the Aviva, the building's owners, to ensure its future as a main anchor to King Square, that it's secure that we actually have a future for the building.

RC: I believe that offices have had talks with Aviva. I believe that they are encouraging developers who are showing an interest in that building to contact Aviva but I don't think we need necessarily to have a direct role in terms of expecting Aviva to do anything. It is their building, they have the approaches for many developers who've got different offerings that they want to use that building for. I think let's let that continue to take its own direction with the hope that that building will continue in some kind of occupation in use for the foreseeable future.

JH: The Debenhams building is located in the city centre conservation area. It is listed as a positive building and cannot be demolished without the council's approval. Despite the St Aldate Street frontage and a building's rundown appearance, all the other frontages onto The Oxbode, Northgate Street and Kings Square could continue to provide a positive part of Gloucester's built environment. Do you agree with me that the council should oppose any suggestion of the building's demolition and a new build instead the council should support restoration, regeneration and repurposing of the building if Debenhams should vacate.

RC: Again Jeremy I'm not sure I entirely agree with that because we need to consider all options. We need to look at whatever plans come forward and look at them sympathetically to ensure that we get the most value out of what occurs there. The preferences is for reuse, we're not ruling anything out, not ruling anything in. Let's just take our time and see what the market delivers for us.

JH: The city council owns King Square, much of the King's Quarter and has recently purchased St Oswald's retail Park and the Eastgate shopping centre. Do you have any plans for the City Council to purchase the Debenhams building from Aviva? I hear it is up for sale.

RC: I believe it is up for sale. At the moment I do not believe the city council has made any plans to buy that building.

Transcript from city council meeting, Thursday January 28, 2021

http://democracy.gloucester.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=141&MId=6758&Ver=4 (relevant bit starts at 3h 12m)

Jeremy Hilton (JH): I think we're all concerned about the future of Debenhams having learned the company has been bought out, but we don't know exactly what's going to happen to the lease and everything else that belongs to Debenhams because the receiver might well sell it to Mike Ashley and we might see something going in there, we don't know. But we know Aviva are trying to sell it, and there's been quite a number of companies interested in purchasing it. But the future of the building is still unsure. I think it's too early to be overconfident. I mean I think some things in the Press said by Richard Graham were a bit too over overconfident and I think we just need to be cautious because we need to save this building. It is in the conservation area, three sides of the building are very attractive. There's been suggestions of a couple of options. One was the refit and refurbishment of the current building. There's also hints by others that the building should be demolished and a new build should be put in its place. Can I ask Councillor Melvin what's her preferred option. Refurbishment of the existing building and regeneration of the existing building or its demolition and rebuild?

Dawn Melvin (DM): Well last time I checked, what I would like to see and what the people of this city would like to see or is financially viable for that area was two completely different things. So much as I'm honoured by the fact that Councillor Hilton would clearly values my opinion, I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment on what the residents of this city, or indeed developers working with this city will be doing there. Will I be keeping a close eye on it? Like a hawk, absolutely.

JH: Thanks for the non-answer.