Council approves offices and flats for New Walk centre

Widespread support for the scheme, but worrying lack of confidence in city’s business future

There’s a lot that’s positive about the city council’s backing for the replacement New Walk centre. With one abstention, planning committee members approved proposals for two buildings consisting of offices, two or three shops, restaurants or bars and 71 two bedroom flats. Alongside is a public space.

Some niggling concerns were aired—about the colour of the brickwork, the proximity to the Cotton Mill building in King Street and the design and positioning of the public space. But mostly it looks a bit like a triumph. The old New Walk Centre was a powerful headache. Its replacement is welcomed, enthusiastically, along a broad front. It is to be delivered by Leicester developer Ingleby, a company controlled equally by Leicester-based Sowden Group and the Loughborough construction firm William Davis. Most of the office space will be taken by local pension specialists Mattioli Woods. What’s not to like?

One worrying element comes from the discussion about the planned residential accommodation. Councillors Ross Willmott and Shofiqul Chowdhury both argued for rejecting the residential plans, on the grounds that there were already enough flats in the city.

Their concern echoes discussions earlier in the summer at the economic development, transport and tourism scrutiny commission. City mayor Peter Soulsby was answering questions on the plans. Some members there felt that there was currently a good supply of residential accommodation in the city, and a shortage of grade A office accommodation. However, as the minutes record, “other members felt that the reverse was true.”

For anyone of a nervous disposition, that is a cause for anxiety in itself. Running a city is a very complex business. It doesn’t bode well if councillors can’t agree on the fundamentals of what kind of accommodation is most needed in the city centre.

But there’s another warning bell ringing in the minutes of the economic development commission. The plans include residential accommodation, the commission says, “because there isn’t enough demand for office space”.

This sounds as if the developers, with the council’s approval, are building 71 two bedroom flats on a prime piece of city land, not because they’re needed but because they figure there’s no demand for offices. If that is true, it’s depressing and unimaginative. It’s also a telling insight into how confident those with skin in the game really are about the future economic growth of the city.

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