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Why Cambridge city centre needs a ‘radical rethink’ to help recovery

The city centre needs a “radical rethink” in the wake of the impact of the pandemic and the loss of overseas tourism, a meeting heard.

The future prospects for recovery in central Cambridge were discussed in a public webinar that explored how the city could rebuild, given the impacts of Covid-19.

Cambridge City Council leader Cllr Lewis Herbert. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge City Council leader Cllr Lewis Herbert. Picture: Keith Heppell

Speakers at the Cambridgeshire Development Forum talk considered the effect of working from home on the city’s office and retail sectors, the loss of international tourism and new ways to “build back better” after lockdown has ended.

And they explored whether some of Cambridge’s empty shops could be turned into housing or if retail businesses do not bounce back after the impact of Covid-19.

Last week, in an early indication of how this might work, The Grafton centre announced that it was planning to turn empty retail space and two former restaurants into flexible office accommodation.

Cllr Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council, told last week’s meeting that the authority was moving into new territory with its economic development role as previously Cambridge had always “looked after itself”.

But that had changed, he said.

“Retail is damaged, the visitor economy is damaged. Education, including a lot of overseas language education, is damaged. A lot of small businesses are in more difficulties than even some of the big businesses,” said Cllr Herbert.

“We want to focus the city’s efforts to be a contributor to helping that building back and recognise that in an otherwise affluent city that has sectors that have done really well in the last year, we have got damage to put right and we have a role in that.”

The Grafton centre will introduce some flexible office space
The Grafton centre will introduce some flexible office space

He added: “We do need to radically rethink that space in the city centre, as will the people who own those assets

“We do need to think about flexibility to enable different forms of business. I’m a total believer in independence and I do think there is an opportunity to make our city exciting. We just cannot be a clone city,”

As part of the radical rethinking of the city centre, it is possible commercial landlords may decide, under permitted development rules, to turn empty retail space into homes.

Anne Beamish, of Independent Cambridge, which represents independent businesses in the city, raised concerns about this happening without an overall plan for the city centre.

She said: “Changes to permitted development rights could see some city centre properties changed to residential. Is this a good or bad thing? We don't know yet, but what we do know is it really needs a plan, with all stakeholders involved and with residents and community at its core and not just left completely to market forces.”

She added that localism should be put at the heart of any recovery plan and said: “Flexibility and innovation are also key and some high street landlords are already talking about rent-linked turnover, rent-free periods, flexible contracts and flexible spaces to trade from.

Anne Beamish, of Independent Cambridge
Anne Beamish, of Independent Cambridge

“Let’s take this opportunity to create a multifaceted high street with more than just shops to create a destination where people can also access essential and non-essential services… This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect the people who live here with the city and build a more resilient Cambridge.”

One possibility that came up was allowing smaller traders to take up stalls within large empty units such as the closed down Debenhams store in The Grafton centre.

Another suggestion was to tempt technology and life sciences companies work in the city centre, rather than just on science and business parks, bringing with them the footfall to support shops and restaurants.

Werner Baumker, from the Howard Group, a property development company, said: “There is no reason it couldn’t work in the city centre. There are a number of properties that have lain empty for a long time.

“Their extra requirements are not always extremely onerous, so if we think a little differently and bring some of those uses into the city, that really could inject a bit of energy and that word magic is interesting.

“I do think there is plenty of scope to have that conversation to bring life sciences R&D closer to the city.”

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Herbert said: “There is enough demand for the city to bounce back initially just from people shopping locally, then we can focus in 2022 and 2023 on domestic and overseas travel.

“We need to focus on what will recover and when there is a need to focus on the city centre and retail as we go through 2021, but realistically we just need to manage the number of visitors in the city. We had problems around Christmas, not just around the city centre shopping, but evidence that people were travelling quite a long distance to come in for a bit of a trip.

Restrictions are in place to help Cambridge market remain a safe place to shop. Picture: Keith Heppell
Restrictions are in place to help Cambridge market remain a safe place to shop. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We want to be ready to make the most of focussing on the needs of Cambridge city residents and those within our shopping zone, which goes out about 20 or 30 miles, but we have to manage it carefully. Until it is safe, we don’t want to advertise ourselves as a big destination.

“We are looking forward to people effectively breaking out of jail at the end of lockdown, but even then we can’t handle a massive surge if there is some residual risk of the virus.”

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