Council buys Baytree Centre to kick start Brentwood town centre transformation

Brentwood Borough Council has pledged to begin transforming the town centre after purchasing the Baytree Centre – while looking to Chelmsford’s Bond Street for inspiration.

The Baytree Centre purchase for an undisclosed – albeit significant sum – is set to mark the beginning of the administration’s plans to make Brentwood a key leisure and retail destination within South Essex.

Although plans have yet to be drawn up, council leader Chris Hossack has promised the Baytree Centre “will look different “.

Initial plans indicate the potential for a mixed-use scheme incorporating improved retail, leisure and community space.

Cllr Hossack said: “At the end of the day, if we are serious about regeneration in the town centre and actually deliver what we talked about – things like cinemas, leisure space and making the place an exciting place for people to go for people to enjoy and have a bit of café culture – then that comes at a price.

“I am serious about regeneration. I said we would break eggs to get things done and this will make a really nice omelette. We need to do it.

“There is no way the town centre does not require investment for regeneration. It has to be done and this is a big step forward to do that.”

Cllr Hossack confirmed that remodelling and redevelopment of the town centre will be needed and has increased the money available to mitigate the loss of the Baytree Centre while works proceed.

The budget set in February allowed for reserves for in-borough regeneration mitigation to grow to £3 million by 23/24. Reserves to mitigate against financing volatility will grow to £2.9 million by 23/24.

He continued: “You don’t buy something to leave it as it is. That would be a failure. You buy something to rejuvenate, regenerate and reinvent.”

The success of Chelmsford’s Bond Street area is being seen as an inspiration for the vision for what eventually may be formally proposed.

That £120 million project was estimated – before the coronavirus crisis struck – to be adding £67 million each year to the local economy, helped thanks to a flagship John Lewis store, a cinema and 25 shops and four restaurants.

Cllr Hossack said: “I really like what they have done to Bond Street and what I’d like are some of the similar brands and offerings to what they have in Bond Street here in Brentwood.”

The council’s purchase comes two years after plans to boost the underperforming centre were revealed but never acted on.

In 2018, a report highlighted that the shopping centre suffers from a very high level of vacancies with 14 units currently empty – equivalent of 30 per cent of the floorspace.

According to planners behind the proposals for a single hybrid planning application that would have comprised improvements to the chapel ruins, Chapel High and the interior design, the Baytree Centre “does not currently cater for the full range of day-to-day retail needs”.

They went on to say that the centre lacks other uses that would be expected of a shopping centre in this location, especially a range of restaurants and leisure facilities. One of the main issues lies in the visibility of the centre.

The planner describes the visual relationship between the Baytree and the High Street as “poor” and with views of the entrance restricted to “glimpses”.

The purchase of the centre now gives the council full control to expedite an improvement strategy for the town – in conjunction with William Hunter Way, which has been talked about for a shopping and leisure destination since proposals were first drawn up in 2007.

These plans for a cinema and shopping hub were scrapped in 2014 after they were recognised as a bad deal for taxpayers.

Cllr Hossack said he was “looking at the town centre wholistically” adding: “I am serious about regeneration. There has been talk about it for too long. I am not in the business about talking. I am in the business of doing something.”

As part of the same deal, the council has also acquired Academy Place – a 1.54 acre site on Brook Street that is currently let out to a range of companies employing over 200 people.

The purchase is also a strategic move to ensure the protection of diminishing office space within the borough and to provide vital income to support the council’s ambitious regeneration plans in other parts of the borough.

Cllr Hossack said: “Our research shows that around 850,000 sq ft of office space has been lost in the borough through conversion from office to residential use.

“Using national permitted development rights developers have been able to undertake such developments with local authorities having no recourse.

“However, with Crossrail and more companies looking to move from London to towns such as Brentwood, we know that office space is vital for businesses to start and grow and for contributing more widely to the local economy.

“By purchasing Academy Place we are guaranteed income, but also securing long term office space for future generations too.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter