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Could shops end up inside Cambridge's Guildhall?

The Guildhall in the centre of Cambridge could become home to new shops, under plans being considered by the city council.

It follows an exodus of staff from the council building during the pandemic and the growing adoption of home and flexible working.

Retail units or private offices could be introduced on the ground floor under the emerging proposals.

But Ian Sandison, chief executive officer of Cambridge BID, believes the council could be more “bold” – and suggested it could install an attraction such as Madame Tussauds waxworks, an escape room franchise or even a Harry Potter exhibition.

The Guildhall in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (56537395)
The Guildhall in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (56537395)

Council officers are working out how much office space the local authority will need in future and will present their findings to councillors in July.

Meanwhile, the council is trying to attract “exciting” new tenants into the former visitor centre space along the side of the Guildhall, which it believes will help draw footfall to

the building.

Cllr Mike Davey (Lab, Petersfield), executive councillor for finance and resources, told the Cambridge Independent that rumours circulating on social media that the Guildhall and Corn Exchange may be sold off by the council were unfounded.

He said: “This has been raised twice with us and we have said on both occasions that there are no plans to sell the buildings.

Cllr Mike Davey (56537530)
Cllr Mike Davey (56537530)

“In fact, we’re looking at ways we can open up the ground floor of the Guildhall at the moment as the world opens up post-Covid.

“We’ve got a project called Our Cambridge, which is a transformation programme for the city council. We’re just looking at what our needs are in terms of all our property portfolio that we have staff coming out of – both the Guildhall and Mandela House. We have been talking to partners and looking at which other organisations might be interested.

“For a while we thought we might put the Greater Cambridge Partnership into the Guildhall, but it’s more sensible for them to be at Mandela House and it has moved in there. And we’ve had discussions with a range of people from the voluntary sector and the statutory sector.”

A really bold idea would be to bring in an exciting attraction to the centre of the city, like Madame Tussauds

A report could go before councillors “in the late summer”, and alternative uses suggested for the ground floor could include shops.

Cllr Davey said: “That’s the discussion we are having. The starting point, obviously, has to be the shops and the old visitor information centre. It’s crazy that they’re empty and we think there’s an obvious potential for the use of those spaces.

“Clearer ideas will probably come forward towards the end of the summer. And, hopefully, discussions with those who might use a space in the Guildhall on the ground floor.

The Guildhall in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (56537405)
The Guildhall in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (56537405)

“We’ve got a range of the private sector, public sector and community organisations [in talks] because we think there’s real potential for using it. It’s about how we might use those spaces – where the cafe used to be and the Harry Potter shop – again.

“That would therefore bring footfall back through into the Guildhall.”

The council owns all the units around the outside of the Guildhall building, including the Giggling Squid and the former Jamie’s restaurants, added Cllr Davey.

“Given the work we did with the existing tenants during lockdown we now want to see that come to some fruition because we gave a range of relief to try and ensure that those retail options will be maintained,” he said. “So we’re keen to see them flourish. And therefore, if one side of the building has not been used at all we want to bring people in there as soon as possible.”

As for the potential use of space on the ground floor inside the building, he noted: “That’s the bit that we’ve got to look at in advance of July… I want to see what my experts say rather than what I think.

Ian Sandison of Cambridge BID
Ian Sandison of Cambridge BID

“Part of the problem with this could be people will come up with all sorts of ideas. And everyone will have a view on that but I want to hear that the proper assessments have been done, starting off with what do our staff need – and we are not clear about that at the moment.”

At this stage there are no plans to redeploy council meeting rooms upstairs, he said. And there had been no discussions about bringing any of the market stalls inside.

Mr Sandison noted: “The Guildhall is a significant building in the middle of Cambridge. It would be great to see it, or part of it, repurposed for the city. Retail could work but there would be some physical access challenges in terms of the building.

“It could, of course, be used as offices for private companies, which would be a good way to bring more workers back into the city who would shop on the market and go out to eat and drink, but a really bold idea would be to bring in an exciting attraction to the centre of the city, like Madame Tussauds, or a themed escape room like the Sherlock one in London, or a Harry Potter attraction.

“The building has a certain appeal and you could use it in a really nice way. It could be quite exciting. It would also complement the food and drink businesses in the city centre, rather than competing with them.”

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