A number of schemes are being announced about the future use of the substantial Debenhams department stores in 100 plus towns around the country, following the collapse of the business at the beginning of December, although the prospects for many are unclear. One of the biggest commercial property operators in the country has indicated that it is to build 338 apartments to rent on the site of the vacated Debenhams store in Leicester, and other schemes have been proposed for residential conversions in towns including Chelmsford.

As well as the loss of the retail activity, future use of the significant buildings now closed or closing pose significant challenges to both the owners and local authorities and town centre managers. Many are impressive period designs from the 1930's and 1950's, and often represent the last of the major era of department store retailing for the towns concerned.

Debenhams operates around 130 stores in the UK and Denmark which together provide over 10 million square feet of trading space. Many are in traditional high street locations in towns from Aberdeen to Wrexham, and have been the lynchpins of traditional retail in places like Carlisle, Exeter, Hastings, Northampton, Sunderland and Warrington. The business was established over 200 years ago, and has been in decline in recent years, finally collapsing this month.

Hammerson is already owner and manager of the Highcross city centre shopping complex in Leicester, has announced plans to create 199 one-bedroomed, 118 two-bedroomed and 21 three-bedroomed apartments on the site - some in what was the store, and some on nearby land. They are likely to be Build To Rent units managed by BTR operator Packaged Living.

Hammerson is also planning to turn the remainder of the former Debenhams into ‘flexible’ retail units, smaller in size and suitable for a range of retail and semi-retail purposes.

“The vision for the site is to bring forward a high-quality residential-led development which will add to the vibrancy of the local area and complement the retail offer” claims the company.

East Bond Street will have widened footpaths and new tree planting with views into the private, communal courtyard at the centre of the development.

“This new space will respond to the changing needs of retailers and ensure Highcross remains an engaging and exciting destination for visitors,” said a company spokesperson.

In 2019 a major reconfiguration of the former House of Fraser outlet unit at Highcross was designed to bring new retail brands into the empty property.

“We are still at an early stage with the plans and look forward to speaking with the local community and business owners throughout the virtual consultation process, before submitting an application next year.”

The upper levels of an Essex Debenhams store could meanwhile be turned into flats, a council leader has suggested, to help boost high street activity.

The department store in Chelmsford has been an anchor feature of the town for more than 200 years. Its closure would leave a sizable vacancy in the high street.

Cllr Stephen Robinson, Lib Dem leader of the authority, said that landlords needed to be more flexible in the rents and that a part conversion to flats could help new tenants.

"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 welcome.

"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 month for the retail sector. Both Leicester and Chelmsford, as in other towns, had a number of shops owned by the umbrella company Arcadia that also fell into administration including Topshop, Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Outfit and Miss Selfridge.

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

Earlier this year, planners gave the go-ahead for the £25 million redevelopment of the doomed Debenhams store in Canterbury.

There was overwhelming support for the scheme during public consultation and by the Council that will see the huge site in the High Street and Guildhall Street redeveloped with 12 new retail/cafe units with 74 flats above.

The site is now owned by Chaucer Property Investment Ltd and the project is being led by 90 North, which commissioned Canterbury-based architects Clague to draw up the designs for the complex 93,000 sq ft site - some of which dates back to 12th century.

It is proposed to subdivide the existing department store on the High Street, Guildhall Street, the Buttermarket and Mercery Lane into separate retail units - ranging from 1,885ft to 10,550ft - to accommodate the needs of today’s retail, food service and hospitality businesses.

Cllr Nick Eden-Green called it a 'text book case' of how such a scheme should be done with everyone given a chance to have their say, and Cllr Neil Baker added: "It's an absolutely great example of what can be done within the constraints of an historic setting."

  • Sale reveals financial equation of Hastings Landmark Debenhams store
    An indication of the commercial equation underpinning the Debenhams stores and their owners was given earlier this year when the 96,089 square foot 5-floor Hastings Debenhams store property was put on the market for 'offers in excess of £2,750,000'. The rental being paid by the retailer for the 0.53 acre freehold landmark building was quoted as being £415,000 per annum, a reduction on the previous level of £720,000, after a deal between the landlord and the struggling company, who had 14.5 years on the lease still to run. 'This equates to an attractive net initial yield of 14.16% and a low capital value of £28 psf,' said the agents Allsopps. But now, that rental stream has effectively disappeared on the double frontage building, much of which overlooks Hastings seafront. Promoting the sale, the agents suggested there were 'numerous asset management opportunities including renegotiating the tenancy with Debenhams or repositioning the asset through change of use.'