With a strong stores line-up and a popular retail scene, Nottingham has plenty going for it. But problems with the redevelopment of one of its ageing centres is casting doubt over its future, as Ben Cooper discovers

Nottingham is one of the UK’s top retail cities, but it has a big problem. With a dynamic, varied and rich shopping line-up, it consistently performs well in retail rankings and is firmly at the top of the East Midlands pile. But while it has grown and prospered for years, the question of what will happen to its second largest shopping centre still hasn’t been answered.

When developer Westfield bought 75 per cent of Nottingham’s Broadmarsh shopping centre in 2000 as part of its arrival in the UK, it promised big things. The much-needed redevelopment works would be delivered, it said, ensuring a state-of-the-art scheme and bringing new retailers to the city. Now, nearly a decade on, the original tired centre still stands and shoppers and retailers are beginning to get frustrated.

Putting to one side the ongoing question of what will happen to the Broadmarsh scheme, Nottingham is still going strong. Despite shiny new schemes in neighbouring Derby and Leicester, it retains its position as the dominant city in the East Midlands and the interest from retailers wanting to open up shop is anything but dwindling. But nobody is taking this for granted. If Nottingham is to hold onto its powerful position, it will not be helped by a clogged development pipeline.

“It’s important that Broadmarsh happens soon,” says David Hargreaves, director of Nottingham-based agency Fisher Hargreaves Proctor. “Nottingham’s got used to being top of the tree. Retail is Nottingham’s main industry.”

For anyone arriving in Nottingham by train or coach, Broadmarsh is the gateway to the city. The stretch between Nottingham station and Broadmarsh is run-down and becoming increasingly devoid of any kind of retail offer, and then you are greeted with the unimpressive exterior to Broadmarsh. Going inside the centre, the quality of both shops and shoppers is low-grade. Passing through the scheme, you arrive at the more inviting Lister Gate and the rest of the city.

On the other side of Nottingham, the superior Victoria Centre is in the comfortable position of being anchored at either end by John Lewis and House of Fraser, with a Tesco supermarket also under its roof. On top of this, the centre has one of the largest Boots stores in the country and big-name retailers including Next, River Island, Topshop and WHSmith.

Beyond its shopping centres, Nottingham has one of the strongest and most diverse retail offers in the country. With several distinct areas boasting some of the top multiple fashion names and independent boutiques, there is plenty to choose from. And for this reason shoppers from around the Midlands flock to the city at the weekend and new retailers are still joining the party.

fresh on the scene

In the past 12 months alone, Vivienne Westwood, American Apparel, Comptoirs des Cotonniers, L’Occitane, Dwell, Miller Harris and Paperchase have opened stores in the city, many of these on its retail catwalk Bridlesmith Gate. On the same street and in the nearby fashionable Hockley area you will find Jack & Jones, Flannels, Kurt Geiger, G-Star, French Connection, two Paul Smith stores – including the designer’s flagship – All Saints, Fred Perry, Jack Wills and more.

One of these retailers, American Apparel, has taken a 3,500 sq ft (325 sq m) double-level store in Bridlesmith Gate, which UK director Brent Chase sees as a perfect launch pad. “Nottingham’s a student town, there’s a great scene and there’s good shopping,” he says. “For us it’s about finding the perfect location. It’s an amazing space we’ve taken there.”

As a further vote of confidence, just before Christmas Waitrose chose Nottingham to open the first of its new-format convenience stores. The store is across the road from sister company John Lewis’s department store in the redeveloped Trinity Square scheme. Since opening, the store has been a success for Waitrose and Nottingham has ticked all the boxes.

Waitrose director of store development Diane Hunter says: “Not only are we part of an exciting development for the city, we also have the added benefit of our John Lewis department store in this location, making this an ideal trial site for a format we believe is well suited to both city centre and suburban sites. We’ve had an excellent start here and have received an incredibly warm welcome from Nottingham customers.”

While the Trinity Square site is strong, it has not been the success developer Aviva Investors would have hoped for in terms of getting retailers in and trading. Apart from Waitrose, only TK Maxx has opened its doors in the new space. The other two big names to have signed, Currys.digital and Borders, are paying rent but still not trading. “If you look at Trinity Square they’ve done well to get Waitrose but you could question the success of the development,” says John Emmerson, director of chartered surveyor HEB.

In comparison with much of the city, Broadmarsh seems a tired and run-down alternative. Once anchored by Allders, the scheme’s most notable tenants are Bhs, TK Maxx and H&M. The majority of Broadmarsh’s occupiers are distinctly value, with a high ratio of discount fashion stores and independents, a Wilkinson and an Argos. On the edges of the city centre and leading from the main shopping streets to the more run-down area around the train station, Broadmarsh caters for the more bargain basement end of Nottingham’s shopping needs.

For years it was obvious that someone had to do something about the centre, and when Westfield came along the Australian developer seemed like the company to do it. It has obliged with a plan to turn things around. “It’s very important for Nottingham,” says Hargreaves. “It’s a very strong retail city but it’s been slipping down the table because other cities have had the developments they need. What Broadmarsh will do is redress the balance.”

With M&S and Debenhams signed up to anchor the redeveloped scheme and talks with Harvey Nichols over the third big spot, things are moving in the right direction.

Not only does the arrival of three high-profile anchors such as these represent the best possible start, but the type of space Westfield is planning to bring is also exactly right. One of Nottingham’s flaws is that it doesn’t have enough shopping centre units of the size that retailers are asking for.

“Nottingham needs the scheme,” says Emmerson. “There are a lot of names that aren’t in Nottingham that will be able to come in when Broadmarsh happens. A lot of the retailers aren’t here mainly because the units aren’t available.”

pipeline or pipe dream?

Westfield promises to deliver just these. But promise alone is not enough. Nobody will argue that Westfield’s plans for Nottingham aren’t just what the city needs – all anyone wants now is for the developer to set about delivering. Westfield has not specified when it hopes to begin the redevelopment works, but has admitted that due to challenging conditions it is “unable to announce timescales”.

A Westfield spokeswoman said: “We are committed to progressing the redevelopment of Broadmarsh and have recently demonstrated our commitment to the centre with the successful refurbishment of Lister Gate, which created six new stores. Both Marks & Spencer and Debenhams have already indicated their support for the redevelopment and we continue to explore every opportunity to take the project forward.”

Of course, building a shopping centre isn’t exactly simple and all big projects take many years. But the anticipation of the new centre that was in the air when Westfield was granted planning permission seven years ago has turned into scepticism locally and even speculation nationally that the whole project might be on hold along with the many other UK schemes on the risk list.

“It’s a£400m project,” says Hargreaves. “The question mark is whether the economic climate is one where you want to spend that much money. In many ways, Broadmarsh has been about to happen for 20 years. But it’s closer now than it ever has been.”

While Westfield has not stated when the scheme is likely to get under way, let alone be completed, it is clear that things are progressing slower than many had hoped. Last month Harvey Nichols chief executive Joseph Wan confirmed he was looking at the centre as a serious possibility for a new store and that if the deal went through, he would hope to be trading in 2012/13.

With no sign from Westfield that work is imminent, three to four years seems optimistic in the current climate. However, with a phased opening planned, it is still possible as long as the developer gets things moving soon. If on the other hand Westfield stays on the fence and no ground is broken in 2009, it seems the people and retailers of Nottingham will have yet more waiting to do.

Nottingham is hardly in a weak position. With a solid top 10 ranking nationwide its retail is diverse and on the whole thriving. But the key to keeping a city lively is the new retail space it can offer. The responsibility for this now lies with Westfield to finally deliver.