Wolverhampton Westside: How it will make our city the place to be
But opposition councillors voice concerns over funding.
Expansive vistas, high quality city living and enough restaurants, bars and leisure facilities to make Wolverhampton “the place to be”.
That’s the bold ambition of council bosses, who believe that a series of major redevelopment schemes can turn around the fortunes of a city that has played second fiddle for too long.
The latest – and largest – piece in the jigsaw is the delayed Westside development, which is finally set to get off the ground after hitting a funding brick wall last year.
The scheme is being developed by Urban & Civic and will have a multiplex cinema at its heart, with 10-pin bowling, a trampolining centre and adventure golf all expected to sign up in the coming weeks.
Once fully completed in 2021, the first stage of the scheme will also offer 600 parking spaces – a godsend in a city sorely lacking in car parks – and a number of restaurants aimed at family dining, with six already said to be signed up.
Leisure attractions key to prosperity
According to regeneration bosses, Westside is the key to opening up the city.
There is a move away from developments being strictly retail led.
Instead, more emphasis is being placed on tapping into a leisure market that is perceived to be more lucrative.
It means charting a path from the revamped railway station and the i9 development, through the city centre – which could feature newly pedestrianised walkways – down to the west of the city.
The area in question, between Penn Road Island and Salop Street, including Market Square, has long been cut off from the rest of the city.
Regeneration director Richard Lawrence, said developers had followed the model used around the country, including in towns like Telford and Stafford, which have both used a cinema to support a whole host of developments around it.
“It used to be retail driving town and city centres, but in the last 5-10 years it has been very much cinema-led,” he said.
“We are committed to integrating the Westside scheme into the city.
"This involves high quality public spaces, for example, we are looking at pedestrianisation.
“The key is that we don’t want our operators on the Westside scheme to be out on a limb.
- A city transformed: Vision for Wolverhampton revealed in public exhibitions
"It’s about using our quality of space to ensure ultimately that there’s a really clear and high quality route from the station right to the west of the city.
“We’re working closely with Urban & Civic and their designers to make sure the scheme is fully linked and there is a seamless flow into the new development.
“We are looking at how we can attract people into the city.”
New homes and hotel feature in vision
The plans also include up to 3,000 new homes, and bosses say stage two of the projects could involve a 100-bed hotel, something which has been put on the back burner as far as stage one is concerned.
Peter Taylor, the council’s regeneration manager, said: “There’s absolutely still the potential to build the hotel.
“What we’ve learned from speaking to other authorities across the country, is that bringing forward the hotel now quite often requires a more significant level of local authority intervention to bring it forward.
“There’s a scheme up in Warrington where they have delivered the leisure part of the scheme, and a hotel operator has come in later on the back of its success.
“It’s about leaving potential for the scheme to grow as it proves its spurs in the future.”
Preliminary work is due to start later this year on the site, which many had believed would remain undeveloped for years after Urban & Civic struggled to bring in businesses to take on plots.
It is being financed by an a £50m annuity pension fund, which has been procured by Urban & Civic and will be paid off over the next 25-30 years.
There is an understanding that the council will provide support to tenants over issues including rents.
The deal means the pension fund will effectively own the development, with the council having responsibility in maintaining the lettings.
Those putting the project together insist it is a good funding model.
“I must stress this is not borrowing, the pension fund will be funding it and owning it,” Philip Leech, a property director at Urban & Civic, explained.
“There are very few major towns and cities outside London that have managed to establish new leisure developments without some sort of public sector intervention,” he added.
Opposition councillors voice funding concerns
The city council’s opposition Tory group has already raised serious concerns about how the scheme has been funded, arguing that should Westside fail, taxpayers will end up footing the bill for what they call “a long-term lease”.
Councillor Wendy Thompson, said: “We are glad to finally see some progress on this important development in Wolverhampton.
“But there is a major risk with the financial commitment that the council is entering into – it’s essentially the council using taxpayers’ money to take out a lease with a pension fund.
“If the commercial sector is not willing to take on the risk, then the question has to be asked ‘why?’
“There are a lot of uncertainties and huge questions that remain unanswered.”
Council bosses were unable to put a figure on taxpayers financial contribution to the scheme, saying there would be a “shared responsibility” over its performance between developers and the authority.
“There is work to be done on what the figures will be,” said Mr Lawrence.
“We’ve got an understanding of a structure, and the next stage will be looking at what the cost will be.”
Mr Leech added: “This doesn’t rely on banks at all. It has nothing to do with debt.”
He said there was every indication that the leisure industry would continue to grow, with pursuits like cinema and bowling ever popular among couples and families.
But he added: “Of course there is a risk if people suddenly stop going out on the back of a huge recession.
“That will clearly have an impact on what people will do, and what people will spend.”
The Conservatives have called for “clear incentives” to encourage people to use the facilities.
This includes free parking, which seems highly unlikely considering a major car park operator is expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
A lack of parking spaces has long been considered one of the major reasons for people not coming into Wolverhampton city centre.
“With the improved and more attractive access to the city, and with the Civic halls reopening, we are confident that a lot of people will use that car park,” Mr Leech said.
“It will create a huge amount of footfall, not just around this scheme but for the city as a whole.”
One clear stumbling block for the scheme has involved the food and beverage sector, with Mr Leech saying major players have been “reluctant to look at developments that are off plan, with no guarantee that they will happen”.
“There has been a number of reasons for that, including the way that a lot of them are financed by private equity groups, over expansion in some areas taking units at inflated rents at the wrong locations,” he said.
With Wolverhampton under-served by major name bars and restaurants, he remains confident that once the first stages of the development are on site, others will follow, especially with the presence of a major cinema and other leisure attractions.
However, city residents may remember hearing similarly bold statements from developers Benson Elliot regarding the revamp of the Mander Centre a couple of years ago.
The opening of the new Debenhams was supposed to trigger an influx of nationally renowned, big name stores, including high-end fashion brands.
It never materialised, and today the Mander Centre and its Wulfrun neighbour are dotted with empty plots.
For the sake of the city, the ‘build them and they will come’ mantra needs to work this time around.
Exciting project will build on our achievements
Finance boss Councillor John Reynolds heralds the Westside project
After months of delay, I am delighted the exciting £50 million Westside leisure scheme in the city centre will now press ahead.
It will bring thousands more visitors to the city centre, add an estimated £6.5m a year to the local economy, create 300 new jobs, and raise around £750,000 in business rates income on top of rental income to the council.
It will be a place we can all be proud of and breathe new life into our city centre, writes Councillor John Reynolds.
I for one am looking forward to heading into the heart of our city with my family to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the multi-screen cinema, trying my hand at ten-pin bowling, adventure golf and even trampolining, or simply enjoying a nice meal at one of the many new restaurants.
We have worked hard behind the scenes with Urban&Civic to get this development plan back on track.
Once the new funding strategy is approved by my cabinet colleagues on Wednesday, we will have a clear way forward.
It will finally see this fantastic city centre asset delivered and open to residents and visitors from mid-2021.
This comes at a time when our city is seeing unprecedented levels of regeneration and is enjoying a global profile.
It follows hot on the heels of a major commitment from the region’s only Premier League football club to develop Molineux into a 50,000-seater stadium.
We are also seeing the framework of the city’s new railway station coming out of the ground as part of a £150 million integrated transport hub.
This is a city with vision, ambition and traction. Westside is a critical part of how we are re-imagining and re-inventing our city centre, along with great connectivity, great public spaces, great city centre living, a great leisure and sporting offer, vibrant events, outstanding arts and culture, and a thriving, central commercial district.
Given the challenging retail climate, we have set up an independent city centre commission of key partners and experts to help us make the changes needed as we look to build on the £1 billion investment on site or planned in the city centre.
Westside will be a huge boost, bringing more people into our city centre and spending money at our shops, businesses and venues.
Our city is on the up and there are exciting times ahead for everyone.