Doncaster town centre is open for business. That’s the message Doncaster Council is getting across to the property industry!
The council is bringing forward a number of key sites in and around the town centre as part of ambitious plans to regenerate the town, which, like many other UK regional centres, has suffered over the past decade because of the ongoing fallout from the recession.
The council is adopting a unique approach to development to ensure that its plans for the town aren’t just a pipe dream. So, what do the plans entail and what opportunities lie in store for property developers and investors who are willing to take the plunge?
The council’s vision for Doncaster was unveiled in late 2016 in an urban centre masterplan. It focused on nine new development opportunities across the town centre, a number of which have already started to come to fruition.
One of the most important projects was a new station gateway, which is under way. According to Scott Cardwell, assistant director for development at Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, there are dozens of trains per day between Doncaster and London. The journey time now is around one hour 45 minutes, but that will be reduced to just 75 minutes later this year when new high-speed Azuma trains are introduced to the line.
As well as delivering a “sense of place and arrival”, the new gateway will make the station much more accessible to the town centre and potentially open up a series of development sites in the immediate vicinity, including St. Peter's House.
“We own some significant sites within a five to 10-minute walk of Doncaster’s urban centre, so this whole station gateway is more than just about creating public realm. There is a massive opportunity around [the delivery of] PRS development and office development in that locale,” says Cardwell.
Another project the council is making good progress on is the Wool Market – the town’s food market, which is housed in a listed building. As well as bringing in a new market operator, the council wants to regenerate the market hall itself and the surrounding area.
"It’s a key retail anchor in the town, so we are enhancing and driving up the quality of that offer,” says Cardwell.
“We are seeing a lot of private sector companies coming in and investing in the bars and restaurants around that area, but as part of our proposal we own quite a large estate there and we have plots that are available for property developers and investors to come forward and develop.
“We are helping to regenerate the offer and that in turn will create much better investable propositions for developers.”
Equally as important as enhancing the town’s food and beverage offer to improve dwell time and increase evening footfall, is the new civic and cultural quarter, where the council has already delivered new council offices, a new civic square and a theatre in the past five years. Next up, it intends to create a new library and museum, which will allow the redevelopment of the town’s current library to go ahead.
“This is something for which we would be interested in the property market coming forward and giving us some suggestions,” says Cardwell. “We have an existing [library] building, which in its current form is structurally OK to convert, but it does need some reworking. It could be that we would be looking to completely demolish and rebuild the site or refurbish. There is an opportunity to put a hotel, office or PRS development on there with some underpinning leisure, food and retail underneath.”
Construction of the new library will get under way later this year with a completion date around summer 2020.
The council is also hoping to make a series of announcements about a new leisure scheme in the town centre soon. According to Simon Maxton, interim development and investment officer at the council, it is going through the legal process with a cinema operator to anchor the development. One of the five restaurant units in the scheme also has a potential tenant at the legal stage and advanced talks have taken place with two other operators.
Maxton says the formula for the council’s approach to delivering developments in Doncaster town centre will be modelled on what’s being done at Lakeside Triangle – a leisure scheme on council-owned land on the edge of the town.
The land had previously been earmarked for disposal as a leisure-related development opportunity, but negotiations on the sale to a developer stalled, so the council decided to push ahead regardless and will make a start on-site this month delivering eight units, 75% of which are already pre-let.
“The powerful story behind that is not only do we get the new rent [from occupiers], but we also get the new business rates, plus nearly 200 new jobs,” says Maxton.
“If we hadn’t stepped in and done that, it would never have happened. That’s the model we are trying to replicate in the town centre with the cinema development. We did have a joint-venture partner, but in the end the commercial viability wasn’t there, so it was just sat there doing nothing. So we are taking it on board, we are going to develop it, we are going to be the landlord and we will keep it and benefit from the rates and the rental income.”
Although the council is keen to bring forward sites that it owns and provide funding to deliver other opportunities, Maxton says it won’t be following the flurry of other local authorities that have become significant investors in commercial property over the past few years thanks to record-low borrowing rates.
“A large number of councils have been spending a fortune on buying investments around the country, but we won’t do that,” he says. “What we will do is create our own investments using our own money and our own land.”
The more urgent focus at the moment is on Doncaster town centre, but that doesn’t mean the council is neglecting areas in the rest of the borough. Near the town’s airport, Peel has unveiled a masterplan for a 1,600-acre site which will be a hub for advanced manufacturing and feature logistics, office and some residential development.
To unlock land in areas like this, the council has invested heavily in upgrading road infrastructure and is working with central government to try and get a station stop at the airport that would effectively be a spur off the East Coast Mainline.
There are also plans afoot to boost the local tourist economy. The council recently approved an application to significantly expand Yorkshire Wildlife Park, which would double visitor numbers to the park, and an application has been submitted for the creation of a European Tour golf destination near the airport, which would include a golf course capable of hosting the Ryder Cup, plus 400 homes.
This latter point is important to Cardwell, as he says the local authority has “outstripped” its annual target for delivering new housing stock three years in a row.
Where possible, the council will also look to continue to support new industrial and logistics development, which has been a strong success story for the area in recent times.
“The Doncaster area has seen significant development in the industrial and logistics sector and the council has played an important role in the promotion of the area and specific sites in the town across all size ranges,” says Mike Baugh, senior director in CBRE’s industrial and logistics team in Leeds.
“The success of schemes such as iPort at junction 3 of the M18 and Parkside Industrial Estate on Wheatley Hall Road reinforces the suitability of the Doncaster area for industrial and logistics development. Given the growing strength of the town as a location for logistics and industrial business, I am confident that further occupiers will see the benefits of a location which offers great motorway connectivity, local cost-effective, skilled and plentiful labour supply and available land and buildings across all size ranges.”
The success of the local authorities’ open-minded approach to commercial development is reflected in the business-rate growth for Doncaster over the past five years, according to Cardwell.
“We grew at around 46.6%, which puts us second in the country only to Manchester. To put that into context, Sheffield, the nearest core city to us, grew at 16.6%, so the commercial side of our economy is growing very strongly.”
Building on success
The council wants to continue to build on this success by attracting further commercial development activity in the town on those sites already highlighted, plus opportunities at places like Marshgate, which sits adjacent to the station and has around eight acres of developable land; at a 15-acre waterfront site that is home to a college campus; and on council-owned land right next to the station and the station forecourt.
“The one thing that we don’t lack here is headroom in terms of investable propositions over the next 20 to 30 years,” says Cardwell.
“We go that extra mile to work with the private sector and help to underwrite some of the risks and uncertainty around developments”
-Scott Cardwell, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council
He concedes that delivering all of these sites will be a tall order, but Cardwell says that the council is a “proactive local authority and a good strategic partner” to work with.
“We go that extra mile to work with the private sector and help to underwrite some of the risks and uncertainty around developments, whether that’s just through our planning services, by creatively using our assets, or carrying out strategic acquisitions to get some developable sites under way,” says Cardwell.
“We have a very strong record of doing that, which has got us a strong reputation in the construction and property industry and is leading more and more people to come to Doncaster looking to invest.”
If the council’s proactive approach to driving investment and development pays off, Doncaster looks set to continue on its upwards trajectory.