Why is a 1980s shopping centre being marketed as a possible site for science labs?

Following up on the news that the Grafton Centre is up for sale

How much for a 1980s-era shopping centre that was extended in 1995, but is now up for sale?

I stumbled across this sales brochure for the last time the site was up for sale – and I noticed that the number of properties included was actually far more than the covered shopping centre itself. The guide price was £92million, and the sale price was £99million when Legal & General bought it in 2015. In 2017 the firm invested £28million to upgrade The Grafton Centre. This was followed by securing planning permission for a new 153-room hotel in January 2020. Then Covid struck. And with it a number of very prominent high street brands imploded.

“Couldn’t they somehow revive the retail bit?”

I think it was sad that the owners didn’t try and get a large bookseller to set up shop in the former Debenham’s concession – one of the anchor stores. The captive audience of Anglia Ruskin University across the road is an ideal target market. And large bookshops generally bring in other smaller independent shops that like to target the same customer base. I think L&G should have made the effort.

Why the Laboratories pitch?

When I first heard about it, I struggled to find anyone outside of the property industry who thought targeting the speculative laboratory market was a good idea for the site. Far away from similar scientific clusters, it felt like this was something put together by people who knew very little about Cambridge and the people who make up our city – let alone the history of The Kite as a neighbourhood.

The only reason I can think of is because the retail market is imploding, and the only market that L&G can possibly recoup some of the losses they’ve incurred with The Grafton Centre is to try and ‘big up’ options for what is a large city centre site, in what few markets are profitable in these dark and gloomy times.

With the current sales pitch, Savills “has declined to share the guide price” according to Business Weekly of 17th June. As well they might – because when you compare the sales pitch of the 2015 offer with what’s currently there now, the value of the site must have fallen significantly.

The retailers in 2015:

Above – there is no HMV – although Wilko seem to be making a fair go of the landmark Laurie & McConnall’s building – which is one of my favourite buildings in Cambridge. Both Debenhams and BHS have gone as anchor tenants and have not been replaced to anywhere near the same floorspace. Even before the pandemic had broken out, the state of the cinema and surrounding restaurants and fast food bars was soul-destroying compared to what I remember of it in the mid-late 1990s. Furthermore, the bus interchange is only in there by name. Decisions taken by Stagecoach over a number of years to cut the direct bus links from South Cambridge in particular choked off much of the demand from some of the more affluent parts of the city – in particular the teenagers in the families that would spend money there. None of the ‘Citi’ branded buses stop outside the entrances to the centre.

“What did they make of the people of Cambridge?”

This chart (again from 2015) had me in stitches because of some of the random labels that indicate nothing about the economic circumstances of the cohort they are describing. Such as ‘Asian Communities’. Yeah – spot the #DiversityFail in the organisation that put that together and signed it off.

Anyone who knows The Grafton Centre and has done for a very long time will tell you that it’s not the place where you ever saw wealthy executives doing their shopping. But if you didn’t know Cambridge as a city, and you saw the top two scoring cohorts as wealthy executives and secure families…exactly. So there’s a question about the quality of the information being used to inform acquisitions.

The data source is from one of several large databases [in this case ACORN by CACI] collected by private sector research organisations that then charge corporate and public sector organisations to make use of that data. Accurate data collection on this scale is neither cheap, nor easy. When done well, the information can be really useful for policy makers and decision-makers. The challenge for the advisers of people doing the buying is to try and cut through the sales pitches and find out what the real picture is on the ground.

Several years down the line and you can see CACI have refreshed and revised some of their work – Cambridgeshire Insight, the county council’s statistical research unit has a corporate subscription and has used the data sets to produce its own profiles for each district council area – including Cambridge City. See the guidance notes and the links at the end here – the data is from 2019.

Above – a snapshot of one of the profile pages.

“Yeah – who are the 1,755 people in town who are living lavish lifestyles and how can we relieve them of their wealth? Only our new large concert hall won’t pay for itself!!!”

I jest.

“So, what are the options?”

Or rather, issues with the laboratories pitch.

First of all, I think the talk of laboratories is a pitch to investment institutions willing and able to put up the money needed not only to buy the site but also to spend the huge amounts necessary to convert the site. The reason being is that there is no history of modern science laboratories in or around the neighbourhood. It was a notorious slum for the best part of a century. Eglantyne Jebb’s research from 1906 can tell us that.

Above – Gwen Raverat’s data map of rents in Cambridge for Eglantyne Jebb in Cambridge: A brief study of social questions (1906) Bowes. The thick black lines indicate the worst of the properties that rented for under £8 per year in 1906 prices. Which is about £1,000 per year in 2020 prices. In the crossed hatches rents were between £8-£15 per year. So up to £2,000 per year in today’s prices. Back in 2018, the Cambridge News reported average rents per month were £1,294 per month for a flat, and £1,619 per month for a house. So what the poorest of the poor paid in rent for an entire year would get the average tenant a month’s rent. But this was before the age of social housing.

The second issue is Cambridge City Council’s Supplementary Planning Document for the area. It was signed off in 2018 and you can read it here. There’s nothing in there that makes the case for laboratories. Does it need refreshing in the face of Brexit, the CV19 Pandemic and the Climate Emergency? Of course it does – but that does not make the case for what would inevitably be comprehensive redevelopment with its inevitably high carbon emissions. In fact the Climate Emergency alone makes the case for the gradual renovation of the site in the manner that the former community of the mid-1970s campaigned for unsuccessfully. You can read their wonderful proposals here. You can also read some of their community newsletters/zines from the late 1970s that I digitised here. The Grafton Centre was driven through by the then Conservative-led city council as both LostCambridge articles mention. The people of Cambridge responded by spending the next 20 years systematically destroying the once-mighty Cambridge Conservative Association, turfing the party out of the control of the city council, then out of the Parliamentary seat in 1992, and finally from the city council (And city seats on the county council) altogether by the early 2000s. There are still a lot of people in Cambridge who not only care about The Kite, but are also prepared to campaign for it against such comprehensive redevelopment. Local history and local contemporary politics tells us this.

The final issue is that the site is not in the Cambridge University sector of town, nor is it close to the science clusters – whether the science and tech parks on the northern edges of the city, or the biomedical campus on the southern edge. If diversity of industries and occupations is supposed to be one of the strengths that underpins cities, then talk of laboratories risks removing what is a key retail site from the patchwork of industries that sustain our city – the ones that are not manufacturing or selling to global markets but which are the ones that meet the needs of local residents. The Grafton Centre became well known over the decades as a place which had shops that served the majority of residents earning below the average salaries (which are only just over £30,000 a year anyway – important when you consider rents, house prices, and costs of living).

The problem is the economic system

The easiest thing now would be to say how ‘orrible the firms involved in the sale of the centre are. But the issue is much, much bigger than that sort of bun fight – which wouldn’t actually solve the problems anyway. Actually in the grand scheme of things I hoped that the £28million investment was going to succeed – because the building was looking tired and dated. Furthermore, hundreds of people have their jobs and livelihoods at stake. The sort of jobs a laboratory would create are not the ones easily accessible for people who do the day-to-day work of keeping the shopping centre running.

I’m also old enough to remember when *it was the place to be* in Cambridge, with a brand new multiplex cinema, fast food restaurants, clothes shops, record shops, and so on. It’s easier said than done, but previous owners since the mid-2000s failed to sustain it as ‘a place people wanted to be. Part of that failure was not tying down the bus companies – in particular Stagecoach from serving the shopping centre.

Yes, there has been a huge switch to internet-based shopping. There has been a significant and ongoing strategic failure of Government policy to level the playing field between high street firms and internet-and-warehouse-based firms. I still remember the early select committee hearings from the early 2010s with executives from the big department store brands pleading with MPs to force ministers to level the playing field. Ministers never did.

We are now in a situation where the present owner of the shopping centre is now looking to dispose of the asset, the acquisition and the further investment sadly coming at completely the wrong time. It’s history repeating itself – the same thing happened with the once-mighty Cambridge and District Co-operative Society, which at its peak had one in every five residents in Cambridge as a member.

L&G need to get as bigger price they can in order to recoup the amount they paid out. It won’t come from retail given how that market has collapsed. They can push for a change of use, but they will come up against incredible opposition in the process – and not just from the local community but also from ever tougher regulations in response to the Climate Emergency which could make such comprehensive redevelopment uneconomical and unprofitable. That said, given the sums involved I wouldn’t be surprised if a preferred bidder was selected with the means and determination to drive such a conversion through, retaining the most expensive consultants and legal property professionals money can buy. Again, it’s the system that has created these huge financial incentives, ones that local councils are powerless to do anything about. If it wasn’t L&G, it would be another firm. If it wasn’t one group of consultants and property professionals, it would be another. One of the things the Climate Emergency has taught us is that there’s only so far consumer choice can go.

On the Climate Emergency, the choice is political. It remains to be seen whether whoever completes the purchase of the site also has the greenest and most sustainable proposals that don’t involve comprehensive redevelopment, and creates a community that reduces the environmental footprint of the site compared to what is there now – i.e retail and the multi-storey car park.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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