Not The Northern Quarter

I have been moaning for a long time about Portsmouth’s doomed “Northern Quarter” project, partly because I have worked in retail and store development for a long time. I have 20 years experience mostly concerned with growing businesses, driving profitability, and thinking about how the retail environment changes. I have spent more than half that time watching comparable cities to ours get gleaming new city-centre redevelopments.

The immediate cause for this latest bit of blog is the sudden outrageous claim to retail expertise of Portsmouth’s ever-fantasist Lib Dem council group, who want to know why PCC isn’t building a giant Waitrose in the city. This is a bit rich from a group who pledged to bring a billion Pounds of investment to the City, and ended up with small change and landed taxpayers legal bills because they were a hopeless adminstration. Meanwhile, Ikea went to Southampton instead and West Quay got built.

There is a very nice, large, inviting site in Pompey at what is still referred to by ancient historians as “Northern Quarter”. This, you will recall, was going to be Comrade Hancock’s crowning achievement in his city, after which no doubt he expected to head off to a dacha with a peerage. But like the Berlin Wall, it all collapsed and there is still a Tricorn-shaped hole at the heart of our city. The development of plenty of acres besides has been stalled while weeds push up through the concrete and asphalt.

This is not the place for a full inquest on that. But a word of advice to the City Council: drop the “Northern Quarter” label. It is a by-word in the retail and development trade for Lib Dem incompetence, and an embarrassment to the city if you want to market it as a forward-looking place. We already know that the original million-square-feet-plus development that bore the name is dead, so why perpetuate it? What we need on that site looks more like Exeter’s excellent medium-sized Princesshay development than a gigantic Westfield. It would be nice to have something that big, but the development partner you are saddled with has got no track record in anything on that scale. That was why it was madness of the Lib Dems to get into bed with them all those years ago.

The real purpose of this blog is to suggest some alternatives to “Northern Quarter”, which anyway already exists in Manchester.

“Dickens’ Place” – ultra-safe, just move the statue up from Guildhall Square, where I still think it looks odd.

“Brunel Grove” – you put some trees in an atrium somewhere to validate the “grove” bit.

“Callaghan Gardens” – I was never a big fan of “Sunny Jim”, but he’s a big name.

“Hitchens’ Cross” – I hope the old atheist would laugh at that. It’s about time he was celebrated in Pompey.

The possibilities are almost endless. Or you could tell Delancey (the developer who has inherited the poisoned Centros Miller chalice) to come up with something startlingly neo-Brutalist and call it “The Tricorn”……

There is a serious point to this: the Lib Dems talk about a “lack of investment” in the city by this Council administration. But it was they who gave away the opportunity to control much of the space in our city centre. We are left with a huge gap where something could be which brings footfall to Pompey, creates jobs, drives hundreds millions of Pounds a year into the local economy, builds homes, and crucially in a time of tight civic finances, millions again in business rates into the City Council’s funds. Portsmouth is some way below the level of commercial floor-space you would expect for a city of its population. That has a big effect on the local economy and on the Council’s tax base.

Fixing the problem at the heart of the city is not an easy challenge, nor given the problems Cllr Jones and her team inherited is it one I expect to be solved quickly. But the first step in rehabilitating the plans for the city centre is a fairly easy one to take – ditch the discredited Northern Quarter branding, and come up with something else.




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