Lockdown & Regeneration - an update on Gloucester City Centre
A constituent wrote to me the other day that our City Centre felt like a ghost town. He was right in one way: all town and city centres are empty at the moment - how could they be otherwise in a Lockdown? London has never looked so empty in our lifetimes.
But he was also wrong in another way, because there’s a huge amount happening in our city centre right now - more than at any time in my decade as MP.
That's despite the changes at Blackfriars, Shire Hall & Project Pilgrim (Cathedral) which alone would surprise someone who’d been away for a few years. But it’s also true that there’s plenty still to do to make our City Centre more vibrant after Lockdown.
So let me take you on a written ‘update tour’ of what's happening with photos.
WARNING: THIS IS QUITE LONG (BUT I HOPE NOT BORING): HAVE A DRINK TO HAND...
Let’s start from Gloucester Rugby, walking up Kingsholm Rd. Cast a glance to your left as you pass St Marks church: down Alvin St is the county’s new Heritage Hub. It was Gloucestershire Archives but this wasn’t a simple rebranding exercise - a £2.7m Lottery expansion and improvement in and outside in 2019 - and open to all: do visit post Lockdown. You’ll be impressed, and drop in afterwards at neighbouring Roots Community Cafe - arguably the best coffee in Gloucester at a very reasonable price, and a big part of local community wellbeing too.
Passing Alvin St and under the railway bridge, look to the right of the Worcester St cross roads, where there was an ugly little tip, some wire fencing & the remains of a stone wall.
That’s now transformed: the new Gloucester City Homes Tanners Hall incorporates 13thC heritage in attractive modern housing, and together with Rooftop’s bright Walkinshaw Court (other side of Worcester St, curling round on Black Dog Way and named after the late benefactor of Gloucester Rugby), these new homes mean lots more city centre residents, and footfall for shops, cafes and bars.
New Tanners Hall and Walkinshaw Court
Then let’s walk on up Worcester, Northgate and St Aldgate’s streets into Kings Square. We pass what was Sainsbury’s on our right - a sad loss mitigated by the two smaller Tesco’s that have opened over the last few years - with the landlord currently planning how to replace the old supermarket.
The range of shops in St Aldgate’s has greatly improved since the whole street was sold not that long ago, and I look forward to seeing all re-opened soon. It’s a street of surprises.
Artist impression of King's Square with renovation work underway
In Kings Square itself the £5m City Council improvement scheme by local builder Carter’s is well underway. Inside Chambers (beside Wetherspoons on your left) the Music Works (fantastic music making especially for the young) is half way done, as is the neighbouring Jolt (part of the Gloucester Culture Trust, trying to jolt the City into new culture more aimed at the young), both charity led investments.
That's the ‘culture leads city renaissance’ argument which I buy into (otherwise I wouldn’t have created the Gloucester History Festival) and this is part of the goal, right beside our biggest outside space.
Renovation of The Music Works/The Jolt in Chambers
Beside you is the giant on the block: the Debenhams building - which the department store only occupied a quarter of. It’s been bought, it’s exciting and it’s not going to be flats. That’s about all I can say until the legal agreements are finished and an announcement made. But the new owner will bring life and people into the building (which needs plenty of work, not least getting the paint off the windows overlooking the square) and our City Centre. I believe everyone will be pleased, so more Coming Soon..
Walking on through Kings Sq takes us to the former bus station. Following the archaeological revelation of our missing priory (Whitefriars) hidden under the lift shaft of the old car park, the site has been cleared (and many of the materials recycled into Kings Sq).
This whole site will then be transformed by a £80 million investment from developer Reef plc to include a Digital Hub geared up for cyber and other tech businesses.
As part of that plan Tesco will relocate soon to Chambers (edge of Kings Sq), at which point the old and very tired Grosvenor House will be pulled down. Beside the new Digital Hub and some quality flats there will be a new (long needed) 4 star hotel hotel and other developments like a gym and bar. If the reality is three quarters as good as the images suggest we’ll all be delighted.
Artists impression of The Forum on the old bus station site
Across the road work starts in March on a new exit from the Railway Station onto Metz Way and then improvements at the exit onto Bruton Way. This will reduce traffic getting out at peak times and shorten journeys (and taxi fares). There’ll be a bus stop too, finally.
Most popular will be improvements to the underpass, just past the Station Hotel and starting in the summer - making it easier and safer to cross from the city centre to Great Western Road. No more up and down steps for pushchairs, for example, or leaks from the roof when it rains - and better lighting and CCTV. Richard Cook, Leader of the City Council (which is now managing the project) is determined that these improvements will be finished as soon as possible.
City Council Leader Richard Cook at the Gloucester Station underpass
The station facade and the forecourt will also be improved, with green energy solar panels, more bike racks and a decent canopy to keep off the rain all included in the £7m plan. We won the last part of it (£1.3m from the Station Improvement Fund) the day before Gloucester Day 2020 - a moment of joy for GWR and I, with great help from DfT.
GWR staff highlighting changes to Gloucester Station
Back across the road now and past the award winning Bus Station up Clarence St, we head for the junction of Eastgate St and Brunswick Rd. Millions is being spent on the new Interchange building (ex Argos), with offices, accommodation and I hope a new food hub all in the mix.
The Interchange with new owner and developer Michael Chittenden
This building is, like Debenhams, a huge and sprawling building - having new investment in both large buildings is a strong mark of confidence in our city centre: for those working in architects and design businesses, construction, interior and fitting out sectors there is and will be plenty to do
Likewise up Eastgate St work on the big new Primark will be finished externally soon and then opened after an internal fit out in the Summer. We’ll all be pleased when all the hoarding is down outside it and the street back to its normal breadth.
Back over The Cross on Westgate, Heritage funded improvements are planned on a handful of old buildings, and most importantly plans for The Fleece have been approved and a new pop up shop in the black and white building at the entrance should be ready by Gloucester Day and the Gloucester History Festival in early September.
Entrance and part of Fleece Hotel complex, Westgate Street
Opposite, down Northgate Lane, flats in the old Citizen building (Northgate St) are close to being finished - and round the back of the Cathedral the spectacularly renovated Kings College new Sixth Form is now all ready for the return of pupils on March 8th. I hope a video of what’s been uncovered there will be part of the History Weekend being planned in mid April.
New King's School Sixth Form interior
Award winning new Shire Hall
Walk round the Cathedral down College St across Westgate to Berkeley St, and you get a good view of the award winning facades and eco renovation of Shire Hall to your right.
While behind Bearlands (and Emma Willis’s shirt making base) phase 2 of the student accommodation in Blackfriars is starting to get under way. It’s visible through gaps if you walk towards the Docks.
I came up with an outline idea for the regeneration of Blackfriars in 2013, part funded by the government Growth Fund via our LEP, who together with both Councils have taken the project forward. Having both UofG Business School and Hartpury University students also brings footfall and life to the city centre and Docks. And despite the challenges of the pandemic Phase 2 is on track.
Blackfriars accomodation with phase 2 now underway
Meanwhile walking on down under the Shire Hall ‘bridge’, takes you past the wooden clad Lottery funded Ed (Education) Shed (on your right) at the back of what will shortly be the Civic Trust’s HQ The Folk of Gloucester, and many know as the Folk (later Life) Museum.
Legal thing and froing on this great Tudor building and collection (fronted on and entered through Lower Westgate St) has been going on for almost as long as the Civil War, but the City Council has propped the building up and the Civic Trust will now take it forward as a centre of Heritage activity, complementing the Heritage Hub (mentioned at the beginning).
The Folk of Gloucester will also literally unlock opportunity at the sadly unused St Nicholas opposite, a Gloucester jewel bursting with history and dust that we (a great partnership of the willing) need to bring back to creative life.
St. Nicholas Church
However in this tour we are thinking of all that at the back of the Folk of Gloucester, and now turning the other way and towards the West we see a vast building with vaguely warehouse inspired roof tops.
This is not (as one constituent complained) ‘another municipal car park’ but the about to be finished Quayside Health Centre.
It’s a huge building by local developer Kier for a combination of GP surgeries and NHS Gloucestershire, replacing the spectacularly ugly Quayside House, once winner of my Ugliest Local Government Building in Gloucester award (though not without competitors, and none as bad as the BT horror on Longsmith St).
This new giant stretches from Quayside Road beside the River Severn to Shire Hall and will both employ and care for a lot of people. It replaces three small surgeries and in the way of today’s Health Centres looks more like a mini Hospital (think Aspen or Kingsway Health Centres but bigger) with new services from physio to mental health. It should open in the early Summer.
This development in turn frees up sites like the former surgery off St Michael’s Sq which will become GCH housing.
Our walk continues along Quayside towards the Docks around the high modern wall of the old prison. This is a continuing challenge because most of the site is Heritage and some open space can’t be built on above the remains of the old castle.
The City Council is working with the owner (City&Country) on a cunning plan, although I don’t think we’re there yet and it has, as they say, been a while. I have hoped for the old gatehouse one day as a great cafe for Health Centre employees, residents and tourists alike.
New Quayside Health Centre shaping up with Council Leader Richard Cook and Cllr Paul Toleman (Westgate)
Up the steep hill and to the left of the CD Rack, where once stood the old gatehouse to Southgate St (the still solid gate itself is in the Folk of Gloucester), and this tour ends with deserved food and drink at the cafes, restaurants and pubs to your left in Southgate St - when they’re open again.
This would refuel you for a visit to the beautifully restored St Mary de Crypt and re-opened Crypt schoolrooms (now re-closed in Lockdown). There is more to be done nearby, but more of that another day and meanwhile admire the great improvements at St Mary de Crypt.
For now, I hope you’ve read enough to convince you that in our Lockdown Ghost Town there is masses happening that is going to change and improve our City Centre - being impatient (like many) I just would love it to be finished tomorrow.
There are three things worth remembering in all this activity. One is that the City Council is a large investor with taxpayer provided loans in our own Regeneration. This is only possible because then Chancellor George Osborne approved my case for writing off £50 million of housing debt - without which the Council could not have borrowed a penny more.
The second is that the City Council, though tempted, did not follow the drove of other councils into borrowing from the government to invest in commercial property funds all over the country. The pitch was to use the increased yield of the investment over the borrowing rate to subsidise council costs. But I (and others) argued strongly that the only certainty was the fund management fee: both yield and capital return were otherwise speculative - and outside Gloucester. The remit of the Council is to make our city better, not to speculate elsewhere.
To their great credit the Council gritted their teeth, held back and as this saga unfolds horribly elsewhere we can all thank our lucky stars and be reminded of the merits of caution.
Lastly, all of what’s been done and being done is the result of public, private and charitable commitment and investment, with great support from Heritage organisations, especially the Lottery Fund, and implemented by local businesses. Above all there has been a spirit - which we’ve also seen in dealing with the pandemic and vaccinations in Gloucestershire - of real partnership in our city. This sounds like common sense until you see what happens elsewhere and I specially thank the leadership and all involved at the City Council for their role and more other groups than there is space to mention.
This is all very close to home for me. My office is in College St and I’m the first MP to live with my family in our city centre for a very long time. When we moved here in 2007, thanks to great craftsmen, the regeneration of our home won a small regeneration award and was the first listed building in Gloucester to have solar panels installed. So helping, nudging and supporting others achieve great steps forward - from the great work at St Michael’s Tower onwards - has been huge fun, a great cause, and literally on our back door step.
I hope this walking tour gives you a strong sense of a city that has lots for us all to be proud of - and much more to be confident of soon.
Another day I’ll write about the human changes too, from the re-housing of our homeless and the help to rough sleepers, which are equally important to the regeneration of Gloucester- and where huge progress has also been made.
Let me know what you think of this tour, and what more could be done on email@example.com