A syndicate of well-known local property professionals is pressing the city council to alter course over the future of the Central Winchester Regeneration, also known as Saxongate but best known as Silver Hill.

The group includes former city councillor Kim Gottlieb whose legal action against the first Silver Hill scheme derailed the project back in 2016 and owns St Clements Surgery in the heart of the area.

The group has recently met council officers to outline its alternative vision. It also includes Hugh Petter (ADAM Architecture), Andy Smith (Andrew Smith & Sons), Rob Carter (Millgate (Winchester) Ltd) and Chris Rees (Alfred Homes). Here Mr Gottlieb outlines their ideas.

Winchester city councillor Kim Gottlieb

Winchester city councillor Kim Gottlieb

THE outline proposal that I and a group of local property folk recently put to the city council represents, we believe, the only realistic way to bring forward a tangible and worthwhile regeneration of Silver Hill in the near future.

Over the years, progress has been stymied by Silver Hill being a complicated project. A retail-led scheme at a time when that market was declining, multiple ownerships, significant archaeology, historic water courses, a bus station in need of relocation and a city-wide Movement Strategy all yet to be settled. The ‘politics’ haven’t helped, nor has the structure of decision making.

Development craves simplicity and the search for a viable plan starts with a look at the component parts of the overall six-acre site. The Brooks Centre, arguably the biggest blot on the townscape, is going nowhere fast. The only chance it has of being redeveloped is if the council and Brooks’ owner Catalyst Capital can agree a merger of their freehold and long leasehold interests, and there is no sign of that occurring anytime soon. The same applies to the land owned by M&S, which includes Woolstaplers Hall and the car parks to its north. M&S needs the council’s help to resolve its storage and additional trading requirements, and years have passed by without any progress being made in that direction.

The deal on the new St Clements surgery is still not unconditional so, although it seems to be making progress, it will still be two or three years before the old surgery can be redeveloped. The council does have effective control over the Friarsgate Surgery, Coitbury House and the bus station (subject to the occupation by Stagecoach), but the whole of the area east of Tanner Street, sits atop what is potentially significant Roman archaeology. The council has a legal duty to ensure the preservation of the archaeology, and it can only fulfil its legal obligations if it knows what is down there and where. As yet, it doesn’t.

That leaves the Friarsgate carpark block, which comprises Iceland, the other shops beneath the now closed carpark levels, the old Post Office and Kings Walk. Currently the council plans to convert Kings Walk into a ‘creative quarter’, but as laudable as that ambition might seem, there are three inherent problems. First, it doesn’t make financial sense and, if you drill into the detail, the council cannot justify spending £5 million on a single project that is unlikely to produce any return. Second, Kings Walk is the ugliest part of the whole site and is in the most need of regeneration. Retaining something so prominent and so unattractive, however it might be ‘tarted up’, defies logic. Third, the position of Kings Walk is such that its retention will inhibit the development of the whole 1.8-acre block and, in effect, the whole regeneration area.

With this assessment in mind, the proposition put to the council by the group of locals, was for a two-stage development. Stage 1 to comprise only the Kings Walk/Friarsgate carpark block, and Stage 2 to comprise the remainder.

Stage 2 will require many more months – in truth, years – to resolve the bus station, the water courses, the archaeology, the inclusion of a museum, and the possible acquisition of land owned by others, particularly that of M&S. In addition to time, this will take vision, determination, money and know-how. The council believes that it will secure the money and know-how by selling the site to a single commercial developer. The critical flaw in this belief is that it won’t result in a regeneration effort the focus of which will be how best to create a civic centre and to revitalise the city. It will simply be driven by how to maximise the profit for the developer.

What the council did not grasp when dealing with Thornfield/Henderson, a mistake which it is on course to repeat, is that no developer will start expending time and real money to resolve multiple issues, until it is in a contractual position. At that point, the control of the council is substantially diminished, and it will shift to the back foot and yield on issues until, as in the Henderson scheme, all public benefits are removed.

The approach of the local group is profoundly different. Not only does it start from a position of knowing the issues, but its fundamental ambition is to regenerate the area in a civic-minded way that does benefit the social, cultural and economic offering of the whole city. The local group wants this to happen, and most of us have watched in frustration at it not happening for nearly twenty years.

The advantage of the Stage 1 approach is that, because the site is a discrete block and not materially affected by archaeology, water, land ownership and other issues, it can be progressed almost immediately on the basis of the Supplemental Planning Document (“SPD”) adopted by the council in June 2018. Locally based, but internationally renowned, ADAM Architecture, now led by Hugh Petter, has devised a masterplan which is inspired and sensitive and clearly in tune with the SPD. All the council has to do for the regeneration process to commence is to agree the plan and a price for the site.

For Stage 1 what the masterplan envisages is three new blocks, no more than three-four stories high, with generous public space opening up vistas of all sides of the Antique Market which should continue to be used for communal purposes. The upper parts of the new blocks would all be residential, and most of the ground floor would be small-scale commercial make and/or sale space for independent businesses. It is here that the council could, if it wanted, establish a ‘creative quarter’ by managing the occupancy profile and by keeping the rents affordable.

Stage 2 discussions can continue separately and by the time they are likely to reach any meaningful conclusion, the council will have the benefit of being able to see actual progress occurring on Stage 1, by a group of local developers and architects and other professionals, all of whom care deeply for the future and fabric of the city.

As has been said many times before, Silver Hill presents a once in a multi-generation opportunity for the city to achieve significant and worthwhile regeneration. It isn’t going to happen on the basis of external major developers being asked to include a retained Kings Walk within an overall scheme which they haven’t even begun to get under the skin of, let alone think about its archaeology.

The staged approach may not be the only game in town, but its simplicity is the key to making things, real things, worthwhile things, happen and unless we want another decade of empty promises and false hopes the council needs to be persuaded.

Got a view? Write to letters@hampshirechronicle.co.uk