It is as though someone lit the blue touch paper of shopping centre development in East Anglia. After years of seemingly slow progress, the start button has finally been pushed on a number of desperately-needed modern retail schemes.
New shopping centre construction has been significantly delayed by the region's historic nature, forcing developers to adopt complex solutions to the problem of developing highly-sensitive urban locations. Progress has been slow, faced with a built environment liberally dotted with historic colleges, castles, Norman churches, corn exchanges and Hansiatic warehouses, which date back to early Mediaeval times.
Legal challenges thrown down by established retail interests, dreading the explosion in competition from new retail floorspace, have taken time to work their way through the courts.
And, councils have needed time to unravel the complexities of what can be built to meet the often conflicting demands of local residents for improved shopping facilities in keeping with the locality, and the practical requirements of retailers for efficient, modern trading space.
In recent months, such obstacles have been removed, heralding a new wave of retail development. Work is underway on major schemes in Cambridge and Norwich. King's Lynn has been given the green light. Smaller shopping centre schemes, including those in Derham and Bury St Edmunds, are also taking shape.
In Cambridge, Grosvenor's involvement has been crucial to work starting on Grand Arcade, which aims to satisfy frustrated local demand for large space units and provide a much sought-after new store for John Lewis's Robert Sayle.
The developer was invited to take a fresh look at Cambridge. After mulling over the issues for two years, Grosvenor ended up taking a formal stake in Grand Arcade late last year, joining up with Cambridge City Council, USS and development consultants, Shearer Property Group, which originally dreamed up the highly-original solution to Cambridge's retail needs.
What Grosvenor brought was a solution to the logistical nightmare of providing continuity of trading for Robert Sayle while Grand Arcade was built. Originally, the store was to be housed in temporary units around the site. However, Grosvenor, the original developer of the nearby Grafton Centre, had at its disposal a highly-useful local site with retail planning consent.
Work on what was the site of Cambridge's old Co-op in Burleigh Street, opposite the Grafton Centre, is now firmly underway. It will construct a temporary store for Robert Sayle, from which it can trade until the new John Lewis store in Grand Arcade is ready. This has enabled two years to be shaved off the construction of Grand Arcade.
Robert Sayle's relocation is part of a more complex strategy, covering changes to parking, public transport, relocation of services, street improvements, directional information and lorry movements - put together to minimise disruption in what is a sensitive urban location of international importance.
Work will now start on the main body of the scheme in May next year, with Grand Arcade opening in October 2007.
Sixty miles northeast, demolition of the former Nestle factory is well advanced. Chaplefield, a 50,000 sq m scheme anchored by House of Fraser, will be built on the site. What had held up Chaplefield was rival Friends Provident, owner of Norwich's Castle Mall shopping centre, forcing a Judicial Review under the Human Rights Act of the decision not to call in the scheme.
Friends Provident's argument, that it had lost out on a 'fair and reasonable hearing', was thrown out, clearing the hurdle to Chaplefield's progress.
Improving the offer
There has been a public outcry about Chaplefield. But, says Lend Lease development director John Peacock: 'If Norwich doesn't do anything, the centres the city competes against will improve their offer and Norwich will go backwards.'
Lend Lease is clear Norwich offers an unparalleled opportunity - a large economically-strong catchment alongside a desperate lack of suitable stores to house retailers keen to locate in the city. Lend Lease leasing director Keith Stone says: 'The rationale is to provide what isn't there at the moment.' It is a strong enough message that, last May, CSC opted to buy the complete scheme for what may prove close to£300 million when Chaplefield finally opens its doors to the public.
King's Lynn, famous as the stopover for King John before he lost his treasure, has not lost the opportunity of replacing the dire 1960s Vancouver Centre with modern retailing - but, it was close. Schemes were worked up and given planning permission, but failed to stack up, forcing Eagle Star to sell the Vancouver Centre last spring as a redevelopment opportunity for about£14 million.
Development manager Ashcroft Estates, working for new owners Alfred McAlpine, has secured consent for the Vancouver Centre's redevelopment, but the public outcry could have been heard across The Wash in Lincolnshire. King's Lynn is a Medieval town of which its residents are justifiably proud.
What they argued for was a shopping scheme in keeping with a location whose Town Hall, largely unaltered, dates from 1421.
Retailing today demands large efficient units and developers seek to provide them. That is what King's Lynn is getting. 'When you need big buildings, you can dress them up as small units,' says Ashcroft's Graham Cole. Two-level trading, large LSU's and big unit shops should see retailers of the calibre of mid-level variety stores, such as Bhs, and popular fashion outfits, such as H&M, move to the area. Parts of the scheme should begin trading in autumn next year, with the remainder opening in spring 2005.
The scheme will be looking for Zone A's of£65 to£70, safely undercutting High Street, King's Lynn's top retail pitch, and allowing the development to be marketed as 'cost-effective space'.
Ashcroft's scheme is 'entirely contemporary', with a mix of facades to add architectural interest. Critics suggest, however, the new Vancouver Centre has as much chance of surviving the test of time as the old.