The future of Leighton Buzzard’s long-awaited Land South of High Street scheme looks to hinge on getting a cinema operator on board.
At last Thursday’s Leighton-Linslade Town Council Partnership committee meeting, the development was a prevailing issue on a number of discussions.
Central Beds Council has published its consultant GVA’s report on the scheme, which raises the prospect of a purpose-built cinema in Leighton Buzzard’s town centre for first time since The Oriel closed in 1972.
The GVA report states that there is now limited interest in a supermarket or fashion store anchoring the development.
It reads: “We have explored in detail the previous suggestion of a food store anchored scheme which was based upon significant and positive discussions with a major supermarket.
“We now know that the food store market is in a different and more subdued place and thus this is no longer an option.
“Furthermore, with detailed investigation into the surrounding area, it is apparent that Leighton Buzzard is well served for supermarket and convenience shopping.
“We have also explored major retail occupiers and the demand for bigger box fashion stores is also very limited and thus a scheme anchored by a ‘sub anchor’ or large store unit is also questionable. However, our market testing has identified initial interest from a boutique cinema operator of a smaller format 2 or 3 screen cinema and given the lack of catering offer in the town, some serious consideration should be given as to whether the scheme could be made financially viable to include a cinema operation.
“This would certainly provide the necessary draw and would inevitably attract the complimentary family friendly restaurant offers that are missing from Leighton Buzzard at present.”
The report goes on: “In order to fund the build cost and incentives required by even a smaller format cinema, it will need to form part of a larger development with the associated better restaurant rents, hotel and retail and residential helping to contribute to make a scheme profitable.
“The target operators would offer that boutique cinema offer in contrast to the drive-to multiplex offers available in MK and Luton.
“The more established operators in this sector would be Everyman, Curzon, Kino, Picturehouse and Reel. Such a development would be dependent on the developer signing an early pre-let with the cinema operator.”
The report goes on to say that a cinema could also be a big draw for other leisure coming to the town.
It states: “We need to provide them with a reason to come here.
“The restaurant market vastly prefers a cinema as an anchor as this attracts a wide demographic throughout the day and also provides the highest ratio of linked visits.”
But GVA warn: “However, if it is found that the cinema is non-viable as they are very difficult to make financially viable and are also very difficult to build around because of acoustic issues, then some alternative anchor must be found.”
GVA suggest hotels gyms, trampoline, climbing, Adventure Golf, Ping Pong and boutique bowling are options to explore.
The consultants suggest that the Post Office building is ideal for conversion to a food and drink business and the “more mundane industrial building to the rear could make way for some attractive mixed use activity”.
GVA say they believe the town is affluent and sought after enough for Land South of High Street to succeed, but the town centre needs to attract more of its catchment population, many of whom spend most of the working day outside of Leighton Buzzard.
Touching on the fact that Central Beds Council doesn’t own all the land that could be potentially developed, GVA add: “If the council bring the site forward in parcels separately then the likelihood is the developers acquiring them will be focusing on their own agenda rather than the wider interests of Leighton Buzzard.
“This still may be a way forward in that it will bring a new headquarters office building, and perhaps a new hotel offer and some additional smaller residential units. However, it is debatable whether this will provide a truly joined up and commercially successful circuit for the town.
“Either securing further privately owned sites via the council or engaging with a genuine mixed-use developer, is likely to be the best outcome for delivering a retail and leisure scheme that the constituents appear to desire.
“A single developer driving the scheme can look at the connectivity in much more detail and will have a vested interest in generating footfall throughout the scheme in order to ensure its success.
“For a mixed use scheme with a retail and restaurant element to be successful, a further acquisition must be made to create a proper link through to the High Street. We are concerned that the current alleyways whilst providing some permeability do not provide a significant, attractive, or safe enough route through to support a scheme.
“In today’s fast moving society Leighton Buzzard cannot afford to stand still. Competing settlements have been investing and the draw of major centres such as Milton Keynes continues to improve. Thus if there is no intervention and development, for a small settlement such as Leighton Buzzard, it will only take the departure of two or three key retailers to have a very negative effect on the town.
“With luck it might be that such voids are filled with better occupiers and the town maintains its ranking. However, it could very easily be the wrong tenants and slip further down the rankings. Accordingly, making the case for council and developer intervention is compelling.”
Gennaro Borrelli, chairman of independent retailers group, LB First, told the partnership meeting that there was a difference between the GVA report and the conclusions reached by CBC.
He said: “It seems to me there’s a slightly different slant as to what Jason Longhurst [CBC head of regeneration] put across at the last meeting. Whilst CBC were implying there were no retailers at all interested in coming to the South Side, reading the full report it’s not that they’re not interested – it’s that they’re not interested in the land available at the moment.”
Mr Borelli said it was imperative that CBC “acquire the full piece of land” for the South Side.
On March 1, CBC’s development management committee will consider a planning application for an out-of-town retail scheme at the Camden site off Grovebury Road.
Mr Borelli said: “If that proceeds, it shows they are not committed to [South Side] which sends a very mixed message to the market.
“What we need is clear vision and leadership, and stop flip-flopping from one meeting to the next.”
Campaigner Colin Ashby said after the meeting: “The South Side is a viable development if CBC had brought all the land it had in the original Development Brief.
“I understand they are looking at buying more land, though whether this is for the mixed development or to accommodate the hotel and its demands for parking - Premier Inn ask for 63 car parking spaces for their regular 60 room hotels is not clear.”
Councillors voted to defer discussions for the town to adopt a ‘purple flag’ retail accreditation scheme until further details were revealed about Land South of High Street scheme.