Conference Report: The role of retail development in economic regeneration and its impact on historic city centres - Cardiff 27 May 2010

Retail development has a significant impact on historic city centres and HTF has explored many case studies over the years in order to identify good practice and to support decision makers and practitioners. This event focused on the balance between economic regeneration and local distinctiveness, looking in detail at St David’s 2, Dewi Sant, as a case study.

View the Speakers’ presentations

The event was hosted by Land Securities plc at the SD2 management suite.

Brian Human, Vice Chair of HTF and co-author of “Focus on Retail” (EHTF 2008), introduced the topic and began by saying “We live in interesting times”, with significant changes to the planning system expected. He reiterated the principles put forward in the publication, which remained relevant, and in one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy, he said it is essential to respond to change. One of the most interesting challenges is freedom of access: privatisation of the public realm is an issue addressed by many commentators. Responding to local strengths and needs, as well as looking to long-term strategic development must be major considerations, creating a vibrant place which relates well to the town centre.

Judith Alfrey, Inspector of Historic Buildings and Landscapes at Cadw, explored urban character and positive regeneration in the context of retail development. A number of in depth studies have been carried out by Cadw, and understanding the historic character is key to regeneration.  Early history is demonstrated clearly through the spaces and spatial patterns, which are still relevant to more contemporary urban connections. New developments may sever important ancient routes which support a sense of continuity; although through sensitive planning they could maintain linkages. The architectural character of a place may also inform successful development and reinforce local distinctiveness – through visual variety.

Aberdare’s architectural character

Responding to a question, Judith agreed that plot size is frequently an issue in meeting modern retailers’ requirements, but careful attention to historic patterns could identify suitable plots or sites of minimum impact. Regarding the reinstatement of historic spatial patterns, and how far back to go, Judith said that careful analysis of each case should inform such decisions accepting that the place is dynamic.

Nigel Hanson (Development Control and Planning, Cardiff Council) explained the gradual change in the ‘centre of gravity’ of Cardiff and the historic sense of place which has informed the retail development in the City. He saw the City as multi-faceted, with a number of key drivers, which centred around the industry, the culture, the church, Government, commerce, trade, the University and sport. Cardiff is a capital City – and this status attracts 14.6 million tourists and the catchment area (2 hours drive) is 3m. 

It is a City of arcades, a point which would be made many times during the day, and was of particular relevance to the new retail development. It is essentially a ‘walkable’, compact City and the Saint David’s 2 is seen as an extension of these attributes. Nigel saw the role of the Council as providing the strategic vision, guiding the project through its 10+ years of development. Its responsibility to preserve and enhance and to invest – as guardians of the City, were paramount.

He considered that through the retail sector it was possible to create value, to develop partnerships and to enhance and preserve whilst enabling the City to move forward to meet the challenges of the 21stcentury.  These included reducing car domination, changing uses of buildings and spaces, establishing residential use in the heart of the centre and creating a sense of place. All of these involved very complex consideration and solutions, which were guided by clear objectives and principles at the outset. Improvements to the public realm – beyond the boundaries of the new development – were a key part of the enhancement programme for the whole City and represent a significant investment. Increasing ‘dwell time’ would be achieved by offering more than just shopping; permeability, connectivity, accessibility were all key to the masterplan. Using the City’s assets – which include its waterfront and iconic public buildings and spaces – helped to achieve the “maximum potential for mutual benefit”, Nigel concluded.

 Public Spaces
Bringing public spaces back into use
Following a break for coffee two representatives from Land Securities plc, the developers of SD2 presented the project from two points of view.  Judith Kelly (Retail Delivery Manager) described the key partnerships in the project and the role of architecture in defining a city and illustrated the context within which the development was conceived. Key to the connections to the City centre was the concept of the City of Arcades. Judith gave delegates the statistics which defined the project: 2500 parking spaces, £675m private investment, 1.4m sq ft retail and leisure, 3 major department stores, further stores, apartments, a new library, extensive landscaping, public art – all of which provided 4000 jobs and 20m visits in the first 6 months and 5m more visitors to the City. Judith’s slides illustrated the changes to the streets and buildings and the introduction of improved facilities for visitors and residents. Attention to detail – in particular to each shop front within the development – and the reflection of classical architecture and local features were an important part of the overall design strategy. She concluded that Cardiff had risen from 10thon the UK retail rankings to 6thin 2009 and, by all measures, had contributed to the economic generation of the City, but had also impacted on social regeneration through job creation, training and education programmes and arts initiatives.
 Cardiff library
Enhanced local facilities – Cardiff’s new library

Steven Madeley (Centre Director SD2) believed that strong branding and modernisation of SD1 were critical to the success of the Cardiff development and that his background in the retail sector gave him the understanding required. He presented the footfall and sales statistics which demonstrated this. Three key partnerships had been vital to bring the project together and these were between the City Centre Manger, the retail jobs and the transport elements, which included a green transport plan, a new Park & Ride, a free bus service, variable message systems (VMS) and road signage and a cooperative approach to ‘exit’ problems. The role of the City Centre Manager was to bring together the City’s retail offer, to ensure consistently high standards and coordination of events and activities. 3000 new jobs were created and, working with the Enterprise team and Job Centre Plus, training was provided for 1000 people.

Gareth Barton (Senior Planner at Turley Associates) discussed the design aspects of the development, having stated that there is no single definition of good design but that it is more than ‘just’ aesthetics and makes a significant contribution to the social, environmental and economic aspects of development. In order to achieve good design, Gareth considered that several key factors needed to be taken into account:

  •  The local context, which includes the urban grain, the historic environment and the wider context
  • A variety of planning mechanisms, including policy, outline applications, section 106 agreements, reserved matters applications and consultation.
  • It is more than just landmark buildings – the public realm and local character are key considerations.
  • A flexible approach – within the agreed principles of the masterplan; the long time frame and the need for compromise in order to achieve creative, innovative solutions. 

He demonstrated each of these points in relation to the SD2 development, adding that a very useful tool in achieving many of these goals was the full size ‘mock up’ to test materials and designs which in fact made long term savings. He concluded that development should be Masterplan-led and a strong sense of ownership was essential.

The use of a ‘mock up’ was invaluable

Questions from the delegates were answered by the panel of speakers. These included:

  •  The wider impact on surrounding towns, which could be positive if it raised standards overall, and ‘niches’ may develop to serve varied demands.  
  • Control of the public realm, which remains with Land Securities, together with responsibilities for maintenance etc; adjoining streets are jointly managed with the Council.
  • The move away from ‘monolithic’ design was welcomed but there remained the tendency to build ‘landmark buildings’ as part of the schemes.
  • Transport links and facilities for cyclists were discussed and whilst there had been some improvements (to the bus services) there remained some to tackle – eg Queen Street Station.
  • How successful had the residential sector been? One third was sold as the recession had hit the market, but it was a significant part of the economic viability of the scheme. Apartments were fully managed and access and parking were an integral part of the scheme.

After lunch delegates were lead by the speakers, and Andrew Maryniak of Benoy, architects of the scheme, on walking tours to explore various aspects of the City and SD2 in more detail.

The Hayes
The Hayes – public realm improvements

Delegates returned to continue their discussions in workshops after which each group was able to give a brief summary of their discussions; these focused on:

The public realm:

  • details of service covers seemed inconsistent
  • choice of materials - no local provenance 
  • inconsistency in cleaning regime - is this due to the burger restaurant or the age of this part or a different maintenance regime?

Local distinctiveness:

  • the arcades, the canal and small details were elements which offered connectivity
  •  iconic buildings – should they tie in with the context or be overtly contemporary?
  • there is a lot of variety in the public realm but it does connect different areas – especially the public art.

 Economic development:

  • the development was clearly reinforcing the success of city centre retailing
  • the high rents achieved in the A3 area are noteworthy
  • public art needs interpretation


  • focused on the architectural details and how the conditions were applied and how the partnerships worked.
  • The apartments and courtyard gardens were visited which helped to illustrate the context of the whole scheme and how the design evolved.
Delegates participating in a group discussion

Brian drew the event to a close by highlighting some key issues which he had observed: 

  • The empty units (inevitable in the current financial climate) were very well managed
  • The impact on Wyndham arcade – a good return on a small investment
  • As someone had commented, during a development like this – you get blamed for everything! Therefore a good PR strategy is essential.
  • Training of 1000 people had to be commended
  • The ‘mock up’ tool was a good way to inform the planning committee 

He also drew out some important points which might contribute to the success of this – and other – schemes:

  1. Meeting the challenge of fitting a large footprint into an historic environment – look at space, context and dynamics in order to reconcile
  2. How the development fits the strategic vision – it should have capital city status
  3. The very positive partnership / relationship working – the commitment and passion of the people involved – at the strategic and design level
  4. Flexibility – the ability to respond to changing circumstances
  5. The relationship of the development to the public realm around it – it is working well

He added that it was reassuring that this reflects the views of HTF put forward in “Focus on Retail”.

He concluded by thanking Land Securities for hosting and supporting the events and all of the speakers for their contributions.

Chris Winter, Director, HTF