In late 2020 it was announced that Debenhams, the 242 year old department store chain would be leaving the high street for good with the closure of all of its stores, placing thousands of jobs at risk and posing challenging questions about the future of town centres. In the latest Civic University Network blog, Dr Matthew Andrews tells us more about the development plans of the University of Gloucestershire to transform the former Debenhams building into a new university campus, and support regeneration in the City.
It is a matter of debate whether the COVID-19 global pandemic has instigated lasting change in society or accelerated the pace of changes already in motion and inevitable. One area where there is a strong case for it to be the latter, is the high street. The decline of the retail sector in our urban centres pre-dates COVID-19, with familiar names as diverse as Woolworths, Jessops, and BHS going into administration in a little over the past decade (in 2008, 2013, and 2016 respectively). Even if some previous city centre stalwarts subsequently found new lives with much reduced chains or as brands within larger retailers, such as Habitat’s re-birth within Sainsbury’s, or on-line, where HMV still exists, it is clear our urban centres need to find new purpose. And with the closure of such familiar names as Thorntons, Top Shop, and Dorothy Perkins in the past few months, it is clear the average city centre will be left with some big holes when lockdown restrictions are finally lifted for good.
When the sad news broke that Debenhams would not be re-opening, concern in Gloucester immediately turned to the future of its branch of this iconic department store. The Gloucester Debenhams is a large employer and much-loved physical presence in the centre of the city, occupying a prime location between the world-famous cathedral (resting place for Edward II and film location for Harry Potter) and the newly regenerated bus and soon-to-be regenerated train stations. It was apparent to the University that this location, and the eminent flexibility of the largely 1930s building, meant it would prove ideal for adapting into a new campus to accommodate the University’s ambitions for growth over the next decade and therefore actively explored its purchase in late 2020.
Securing the building needed swift action and, following rapid negotiations with the owner Aviva, the building was secured early in 2021. A supportive University Council, willing and able to be agile, was critical in this process.
Alongside the University’s pragmatic need for additional expansion space, securing the building also enabled the University to fulfil its strategic ambitions as an anchor institution. ‘As an outward-looking, engaged University’, our Strategy commits us to building new, and strengthening existing, ‘relationships with local partners to promote the wellbeing of our community’. Building partnerships which create opportunity, innovation, and mutual benefit for the communities we serve is also one of our four goals in the Strategy.
As a committed civic partner, we want to increase footfall for the benefit of other city centre organisations, including retailers, and encourage the public into our new building for dual-use services. Our intention is to create attractive, modern spaces for teaching and learning for students and staff as well as facilities that add value to local people. The Debenhams building offers some 20,000 square meters of space on five floors. Although final decisions on the use of the space are some way off, it is likely that the second floor upwards will be employed for teaching and learning activities and student and staff social spaces, while the ground floor and basement will be used for public-facing services. Those services potentially include a jointly-run library, a wellbeing and therapy centre, and spaces to support enterprise and incubation initiatives. A public café facing the redeveloped King’s Square is also under consideration.
In this way, the civic role of the building will extend far beyond the much-needed regeneration itself. As the MP for Gloucester, Richard Graham, put it: ‘This great good news will result in large numbers of University of Gloucestershire students getting vital skills in public sector courses like nursing and allied health courses in our city centre. I hope agreements will also soon be reached on partnerships, for example in learning and wellbeing on the ground and basement floors, open to all.’
The plans also sync perfectly with the city council’s vision for the city centre. The building opens out onto King’s Square which, as already mentioned, is currently being refurbished as an events space, and neighbours The Forum, a private investment designed to attract specialised digital and technology companies and create a thousand new jobs through the creation of a technology quarter, workspaces, and hotel.
The response from local people to the news has been heart-warming. Speculation in the local media about the future of the building had been rife, with many concerned it might be converted wholesale into flats or perhaps even razed entirely to be replaced by a more generic building, devoid of local character and significance.
Having secure the building, and once our development plans are confirmed, we will move on to the regeneration process. In the regeneration process itself we also hope to engage local businesses. The University has a good track record of engaging local firms in this way. Barnwood, for example, are based in Gloucester and are currently working at our Francis Close Hall Campus to create new laboratory and practical facilities for our expanding provision in biomedical sciences and architecture. These works will reconfigure part of our nineteenth century campus for use well into the twenty-first century. Across in Gloucester, the same firm is working at our Oxstalls Campus to create new facilities to accommodate growth in our School of Health and Social Care. We also make extensive use of the Procure South West Framework, in part due to the local nature of the list.
We have literally bought a shop window, and this strategic move will enable us to open the life of the University to a broader public. We hope to bring new health and wellbeing facilities, linking with our considerable strengths in arts, media, and humanities, to provide a permeable building with facilities that bring benefit to the public, as well as our students and staff.
A recent UPP Foundation report suggested five priorities for universities in their contribution to the levelling up agenda, and we believe we can deliver on all five with our development of the Debenhams building: town centre regeneration, jobs and economic localism, boosting educational attainment, research and development of the local area, and support for the NHS. The excitement I and others at the University feel for this project is, therefore, not simply about the opportunities for the University, but the opportunities for the University to be a true local asset, an engaged civic partner, and an agent of regeneration for the centre of Gloucester.
Dr Matthew Andrews FAUA is University Secretary and Registrar at the University of Gloucestershire