Express & Star

Cabinet gives green light for council to buy empty former department store

Senior members of Stafford Borough Council have given the go-ahead to buy an iconic town centre shop unit for regeneration into living and market space.

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The interior of the former Co Op department store In Stafford town centre. Photo: Stafford Council

The Co-op Department Store closed a decade ago and is now one of several empty shops on Stafford town centre’s Gaolgate Street.

But it is set to be transformed as part of ambitious plans to bring more people back into the north end of the town centre, using money from the Government’s Future High Streets Fund.

On Thursday, October 5, Stafford Council’s cabinet agreed proposals to acquire the building and include the development scheme in its capital programme.

It was announced in December 2020 that the council, under its previous administration, had been awarded £14.3m from the Future High Streets Fund, but there have been challenges since then for the council in its bid to bring empty town centre shop buildings back into use.

A report to the cabinet said: “To complete an acquisition that represents value for money to the public purse when site owners are aware of the amount of money the council was awarded is extremely difficult.

"The funding is intended to support not only site acquisition but enabling the council to then bring forward the regeneration schemes designed to transform the town centre.

“Despite extensive negotiation with the relevant landowner it has not been possible to secure acquisition of the former Marks and Spencer’s unit in Gaolgate Street.

"As such all possible alternative options have been explored and have resulted in the council negotiating to acquire the former Co-op department store on Gaolgate Street for a sum that represents value for money.

“The Co-op site was not available for acquisition prior to October 2022 but when agents were instructed to market the site for sale in October contact was made, an initial site visit and valuation was undertaken and a dialogue opened with the site owners.

"The council’s offer has been accepted, subject to council approval and planning permission being granted.

“The original plan for the former M&S building was to create a mews-style walk from the bus station to Gaolgate Street, providing a new location for Stafford Indoor Market and a mixture of residential and commercial uses to encourage footfall within the northern part of the town centre.

"The Co-op site can replicate much of this transformation, retaining commercial uses including market provision and a food and beverage offer around the ground floor area with around 20 apartments above.”

Speaking at Thursday’s meeting deputy leader Rob Kenney, whose role includes overseeing town centre regeneration, said: “The Co-op has been an iconic building in the centre of Stafford for as long as I can remember.

"I have vivid memories of being dragged through the Co-op by my mother on many occasions as a child, although the highlight each year was a visit to Santa at Christmas.

Inside the former Co Op department store In Stafford town centre. Photo: Stafford Council

“Buying the former Co-op building will enable us to re-purpose it for both residential and retail use. I’m delighted we will be able to keep the familiar shop frontage on Gaolgate Street and reintroduce active retail into the ground floor, including a new indoor market and food court.

“This will be the catalyst to drive forward the plans we have for the exciting transformation of the town centre.

"The number one issue for residents in Stafford is Stafford town centre, which is why we have put it at the top of our priority list.

“The first phase of the transformation programme started on site in January, with the refurbishment of Market Square, and those works are due to be completed very soon.

"Phase two of the programme involves the refurbishment of the area outside Stafford Railway Station, improving the first impression we give to visitors that arrive by train and encouraging them to experience the award-winning Victoria Park on their way into the town centre.

“The north end of the town centre is in need of regeneration and we need to reinvent the town centre.

"The council secured £14m from Government, which we are now using to make a town residents are proud of, where visitors want to come, people want to socialise, shop, eat and drink and businesses want to invest.

“Our plans include providing new homes as part of the development, bringing people to live in the heart of the town centre, which will breathe new life into the area.

"This is an exciting start to our ambitious plans.”

Fellow cabinet members welcomed the proposals on Thursday.

Councillor Tony Pearce, cabinet member for climate change, said: “Footfall in particular is a very serious issue for us because there have been a number of factors affecting it.

There is the fact that many people now work from home and don’t come into town or the office, or if they do it’s only once or twice a week, and online shopping has affected town centres as we know.

"Bringing people to live in the town is absolutely crucial in terms of replacing that loss of footfall and I’m very pleased we’re looking at that as part of this plan.

“It also ticks the box as far as sustainability is concerned. If people are living, working and shopping in the town then that is far better than travelling in by car to do those things.”

Councillor Ralph Cooke, cabinet member for resources, said: “This is one part of the jigsaw and we should beware of seeing things too much in isolation.

"We’ve got lots of plans going on, such as Market Square, the Station Gateway project and other things going on in the town.

“All these things should be viewed as one item as they will all interact and are interdependent on each other.

"The whole town will benefit from that as the whole is going to be greater than the sum of the parts.”

Councillor Ant Reid, cabinet member for economic development and planning, said: “This is an issue that has not just come up in town, but in the countryside as well, that the High Street needed improvement.

"This is not just exciting but thrilling that it is getting the attention it deserves.

“One of the first things that people do when they move into an area is look down the High Street and see what it is like.

"The design and future we have got with this building is not an anchor store from the 30s, 40s or 50s, but a mixed-use 21st century development and it will really put Stafford on the map.”