Bircherley Green Redevelopment
The Bircherley Green Shopping Centre was built in the early 1980s, on land that had previously been a large bus station and car park, together with a shopping arcade, disused grain store and maltings.
Until July 2019, the estate was owned by the Diagio Pension Trust Ltd. It is now owned by Chase New Homes Ltd, based in Welwyn Garden City.
The Estate covers the pedestrian precinct, shops fronting Railway Street and the bus station.
For most of it's 30 years the retail units have been fully occupied, with Waitrose as the anchor tenant.
Until recently the car park and bus station were leased to East Herts District Council, but this lease was given up to allow the centre to be redeveloped into a modern shopping environment.
Plans for the redevelopment of Bircherley Green first surfaced in 2014.
The support of Waitrose or other anchor tenant was vital for any redevelopment and the John Lewis owned supermarket made it clear that the plans for the precinct should offer an attractive site. They also made it clear that they were looking at the potentially occupying an out-of-town store at Little Amwell.
In August 2014 a public exhibition was held to display some of the options for the centre and get feedback from the public, before the submission of a planning application.
The 2014 scheme retained a food store, with a larger retail floor area and surface parking fronting the river. This was in response to Waitrose's desire for a much larger store and substantial surface level car parking. The scheme also removed the bus station from the site, with potential relocation to Fore Street suggested as an alternative.
However, public reaction to the plans included concerns about poor usage of the river frontage and access to public transport.
The lukewarm public response and Waitrose's desire for an out of town store at Little Amwell led to a re-evaluation of the plans.
Waitrose Relocation to Great Amwell
Plans for a new Waitrose store at Little Amwell were controversially approved by the District Council in 2015. However, following the threat of a judicial review by Asda (who had recently opened a new store in Ware) and subsequent legal advice sought by the District Council, the plans were sent back to the Develoment Management Committee. On the day before the committee were due to meet to discuss the plans, Waitrose and Van Hage (the site owners) withdrew the plans. Despite claiming that they were going to review and resubmit the plans, no further planning application was submitted.
The Waitrose store at Bircherley Green closed in September 2017.
In October and November 2016, new plans for Bircherley Green were shown to local councillors and the public at meetings and exhibitions in the town.
The plans featured a 3 phase redevelopment featuring an 85 bed Premier Inn hotel, 70 homes , retail units and an improved bus station and river frontage.
2017 Planning Application
A planning application for the redevelopment of Bircherley Green was submitted to East Herts District Council in February 2017.
The plans were for a partial refurbishment and mixed-use redevelopment of the existing shopping centre, with the existing Multi storey carpark retained, together with the existing bus station and facility on Bircherley Street. The proposals incorporated demolition and redevelopment of the remaining buildings within Bircherley Green shopping centre, including the buildings to the internal mall, together with the partial development of Centurion House on Railway Street.
The plans included around 48,000sq.ft of retail space in 13 units, an 86-bed hotel, 70 residential flats, alterations to the existing car park, enhancement of bus station facilities and landscaping to riverside. The proposed retail floorspace was roughly the same as the current buildings.
At a meeting of the District Council's Development Control Committee on 11th October 2017, members voted to grant planning permissionm for the redevelopment, with the formal notice being issued on 5th January 2018.
Following the granting of planning permission, the first phase of redevelopment started in August 2018, with the demolition of the buildings on the corner of Railway Street and Bircherley Street that were home to Lloyds Bank, Halfords and the Isobel Hospice, all of which have relocated within the town.
The further three phases were scheduled to start in 2019.
The Design and Access Statement provided as part of the planning process describes four phases of development.
In the first phase of building, Centurion House (on the corner of Railway Street and Bircherley Street) will be redeveloped to form a new 86 bed hotel.
The second phase would see the remodelling of the former Waitrose store and development of the first phase of buildings facing the river front. This would include refurbishment of the existing ground floor space beneath the Multi-storey carpark, together with works to the carpark to riverside walk and providing the new car park pedestrian access to the river. It is anticipated that this phase may allow certain tenants to be retained.
The third phase may allow creation the a new Bircherley Square with the redevelopment of the existing buildings to the western edge of the site. The impact on the existing retained centre and tenants would be minimised to allow trading and access throughout, including the main anchor tenant Boots.
The fourth and final phase would include the redevelopment of the existing Boots store, with relocation of the existing tenant as an option into earlier phase to allow for the uninterrupted trading throughout the refurbishment. It would be likely that this phase would include the redevelopment of the bus station and enhancement of the existing facilities, however this is ultimately flexible to allow delivery throughout any of the proposed phases.
Delays & Design Changes
Following demolition of buildings in Railway Street and Bircherley Street, work came to a halt and contractors left the site. This caused some public concern and rumours started to circulate about the future of the project.
In late 2018 developer Wrenbridge submitted amended plans for the hotel and shopping centre. The residential component of the shopping centre was reduced to accommodate more office space, whilst updates to the hotel would see a change in brickwork and other changes in outward appearance.
Planning permission for the hotel changes were refused on a technicality, following which the developer submitted further changes.
In June 2019, Wrenbridge and Diageo cancelled plans to redevelop the shopping centre. Some two weeks later, Wrenbridge withdrew from the project, saying "Pressures on the retail and construction markets, combined with local planning conditions, have made the Bircherley Green regeneration the most challenging project we have been involved with ... We have recommended to the Fund [Diageo] that they explore new options for Phase 2 without us. We believe a fresh start and a new team will give the best chance of delivering a sustainable long term future for the site."
In July 2019, Diageo Pension Trust Ltd announced that they had sold the Bircherley Green Estate to Chase New Homes Ltd.
Following the purchase of the Bircherley Green estate, a statement was issued by new owners based in Welwyn Garden City: "Chase New Homes Ltd, a leading independent property development company, has acquired Bircherley Green Shopping Centre from corporate Pension Fund clients of Savills Investment Management. The acquisition will pave the way for Chase New Homes Ltd to bring forward redevelopment plans to secure the future of this Hertford town centre site."
Following a public exhibition by Chase New Homes in November 2019, a completely new planning application for Bircherley Greeen was submitted in February 2020.
The new plans involve partial demolition of the existing buildings and replacement with upto 3479 sqm of commercial floorspace, an 86-bed hotelad 98 residential apartments. There is also potential for a medical centre and recording studio or other community use.
The design of the new development is inspired by a modern day wharf style that sits comfortable by the river and fits with the historic fabric of the building.
It is hoped that a decision on Chase's new plans will be made at the council's Development Control conmmittee meeeting in June.
There has been some criticism of the amount of housing and lack of parking in designs submitted by both Wrenbridge and Chase. Planning policy identifies the site for mixed-use development, but makes no mention of the relationship between the different uses. For any scheme to be viable, the developer needs to make a return on their investment and this is a primary driver in determining the amount of housing on the site. For this reason, it is unlikely that any of the housing would be affordable, despite the council's requirement of 40% for a development of this size.
The council has also come in for criticism over their role in the decline of the town centre as a result of the redevelopment. However, the council's powers are limited to overall planning policy and as such have limited power over privately owned land. Having granted planning permission, the council does not have the power to force the owner to build what has been approved. Nevertheless, most planning approvals include a condition stating that work must begin within three years, otherwise the plans have to be resubmitted for approval.
This article was last updated on 18th May 2020.