Debenhams flat conversion mooted by Chelmsford City Council leader

Applications to convert part of the Debenhams site in Chelmsford High Street into residential flats could be viewed sympathetically, the leader of the city council has indicated.

Stephen Robinson, leader of Chelmsford City Council, has said that given Debenhams is set to close after last-ditch efforts failed to rescue the ailing store chain, it may be appropriate for its upper tier floors to be turned into flats.

The company has confirmed it has started the liquidation process and if completed, would see the end of the 242-year-old business and 12,000 jobs lost. Administrators are still looking for offers on all or part of the business.

In a statement, the company said: “On conclusion of this process, if no alternative offers have been received, the UK operations will close.”

Its closure would leave a sizable vacancy in the high street.

Cllr Robinson said that landlords needed to be more flexible in the rents and that a part conversion to flats could help new tenants.

He said: “The key thing going forward is that landlords need to be much more flexible in their expectation and if we want to have a thriving business area […] landlords need to be flexible in their exceptions going forward because rents won’t be able to be as high if this is a permanent shift to online shopping.

“We will welcome appropriate conversion to residential in town centres. We are concerned about the government’s relaxation on permitted development rights because that will lead to poor quality housing.

“But if landlords want to talk to the planning department about conversion to residential that has appropriate standards then that is appropriate.

“Some landlords have been approaching their councils before Covid and looking at whether you can put a number of residential on top of commercial properties.

“This is a general principle but it may be appropriate for upper levels of a retail premises to be converted to residential,which would generate a solid rental income going forward, enabling landlords to reduce the rent on the ground floor retail which would enable a business to take up somewhere that otherwise they would not be able to afford.”

It has been a bleak week for the retail community – Chelmsford had a number of shops owned by the umbrella company Arcadia that fell into administration on Monday, November 30 – including Topshop, Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Outfit and Miss Selfridge.

With the end of Debenhams and Arcadia, councils like Chelmsford will be feeling more acutely than ever the pressures to help support its business community.

Cllr Robinson added: “It is disappointing that a long established store in Chelmsford is now likely to close.

“Prior to lockdown Chelmsford high street was the strongest high street in Essex and we hope that will continue and the city council will work with  the local business community as we always do to see how we can ensure the centre continues to thrive.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter