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The Grafton: Shock and alarm bells as Cambridge shopping centre goes on sale



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Cambridge community leaders have responded to the shock news yesterday (June 17) that The Grafton shopping centre is for sale, with LibDem leader Cllr Tim Bick (Market ward) saying “what is important is that the city does not succumb to purely ad hoc fixes from property owners and developers” and Cllr Dave Baigent (Romsey) saying: “I’m really really concerned about all the people working there, all those people with jobs who got through Covid and now their jobs are at risk”.

The Grafton (48363824)
The Grafton (48363824)

The 12-acre shopping centre has been a centrepiece in the Cambridge retail experience since it was opened in the 1980s. Just 18 months ago it reopened following a £28.5m refurbishment.

Savills, acting for owners Legal & General, have suggested the area could be converted for use as commercial laboratories or other business assets.

Cllr Bick, the city council’s opposition leader, today renewed his call for the city council to take the lead in the way Cambridge city centre is re-shaped for the future.

He said: “The decision by Legal & General to sell the Grafton Centre is just one more illustration of investors in the city centre taking a fundamentally different view about the future. Not only has the pandemic starved them of turnover and rents, but it has also accelerated the long-term trend to online shopping. Other examples are the many bankruptcies of retailers we have seen over the past year.

“We all want the city centre to recover to the extent it can after all the lockdowns and the council is doing what it can to support this; but few people imagine we are going to be able simply to turn the clock back.

“What is important is that the city does not succumb to purely ad hoc fixes from property owners and developers, all acting in isolation from each other. The people of Cambridge deserve a say over what their city centre looks like in the future. They could do that through the council sketching out what is in the interests of local people and developing a consensus which can guide private and public decision-makers.

A Covid-19 vaccine centre in the Grafton Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell
A Covid-19 vaccine centre in the Grafton Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell

“Do we still want a place where paths cross for people from the wider area? If we don’t, we won’t get the scale of activities and services that cluster where lots of people converge. If the clustering isn’t driven so much by mainstream shopping, what should take its place: other forms of employment, leisure, culture – or perhaps more specialised shopping such unique independent businesses? And how could the city’s housing shortage play into the equation?

“Last February my call for the council to embrace this challenge was rejected by Labour councillors. But the need I had in mind then has not gone away and the prospective Grafton sale is another reminder that it won’t. The questions and the uncertainty only increase – and whatever the outcome local people deserve some coherence rather than half a dozen different answers none of which sufficiently recognises the issue.”

Debenhams close its Grafton site earlier this year. Picture: Keith Heppell
Debenhams close its Grafton site earlier this year. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cllr Baigent said the news is devastating and would take time to process.

“It’s all a bit sudden,” he said. “I’m really really concerned about all the people working there, all those people with jobs who got through Covid and now their jobs are at risk...

“The city council will clearly respond appropriately but at the moment we’re thinking about how to approach it. It’s not something we’ve done to cause this situation, and the effect of what happens next is vital.

“We’re all shaken and I’m still taking in what this may mean. I find it pretty astounding that a massive area like that has been put up for sale, with marketing for use as houses or laboratories or a research area.

“It seems Cllr Bick is to trying to use this to attack the Labour party, when our first concern is about jobs and we’ll see what we can do to help everybody out first.”

Legal & General acquired the site in 2015. The leisure and retail destination, which covers 500,000sq ft and is home to 80 retailers plus a 1,150-vehicle car park over two floors, has said it is “still very much open for business as usual”.



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