What Does The Future Hold For Mid-Sized Towns?

Yesterday’s announcement by Ask Developments that they are withdrawing from their proposed leisure scheme in Macclesfield will come as an immense disappointment to the local residents – especially as it was supposed to be a more sensible and measured development project following the agonising death of Wilson Bowden’s grand scheme.  However, more worryingly, it must throw into doubt the vaunted belief that growth in the leisure sector will be the saviour for many mid-sized towns.

The worry must be that if an experienced development company like Ask are unable to deliver the scheme, and in the absence of some kind of public funding, then what is the hope for anyone else?  We worked with Ask on the development of Eden Square in Urmston.  It coincided with a very turbulent time for both property development and the company. However, Ask knuckled down and focused on the project and against our expectations, they went on to deliver a very successful scheme and for which they deserve utmost respect. Therefore, if Macclesfield could be delivered, then I am certain Ask would deliver.

Unfortunately, the development has coincided with tumultuous change in the leisure sector.  A number of high profile operators have either failed (it was the turn of Gaucho/Cau yesterday) or are looking very sickly (Carluccio’s/Jamie's/Byron etc, etc, etc).  Whilst this is undoubtedly a concern to funders, I doubt they even got as far as funding the project. The leisure market is very crowded and consumer expenditure is under pressure – again, it’s those forces of supply and demand working their influence.

Going forward, this must surely challenge the current widely held belief that the introduction of leisure will arrest the decline of failing town centres, ie Stockport.  Unless there is a vibrant and compelling retail offer to sit alongside the leisure, customers will simply choose to shop elsewhere and the decline will continue, ie Northwich.  The two offers are mutually dependent but both still rely on a sustainable trading environment.

Rob Millington

July 2018