Jim Parker says Debenhams site could be part of new future for Torbay

It is very difficult to plan for the future when that future is so uncertain.

One thing is for certain, normal will never be normal again - but we still have to plan for that future, hopefully a brighter future. That is just what Torbay Council is doing with the purchase of the Debenhams building on the Torquay harbourside.

Debenhams, who have gone into administration nationally, may very well live to fight another day and re-open in Torquay, but don’t put your house on it. If the worst comes to the worst, it’s the council as owners of the building who will have the final say over its future, assuring that we aren’t left with a derelict site at a prime location.

In fact, a new-use building could fit in well with the Town Hall’s overall regeneration plans for the harbour area.

Council leader Steve Darling says: “Our decision ensures that the site will be used in a positive manner. It will meet the objectives of the Town Centre Strategy in supporting regeneration and improving the economy.”

The purchase also shows the government that the local authority means business despite the current challenges and will do its bid for £25million in Town Deal funding for Torquay town centre no harm.

The same may apply over in Paignton where the council is actively trying to sort out the former Crossways shopping centre and where another £15 million is hopefully available in Future High Street government funding.

Deputy council leader Darren Cowell says: “This is a prime site. My understanding is that Debenhams is still trading. It may re-open but I think the likelihood of the Debenhams being around in the years to come are very slim.

“We need to be in a position that if Debenhams did close here there is the potential to regenerate that site as quickly as possible. We have bought a property. We have not bought a retail site.”

He added: “A new hotel is coming in Torwood Street and another one is coming at the Terrace car park. The big fear is that if a private developer or speculator got hold of the Debenhams site, potentially, they could land back it and it could be left for years.

“Now we are in sole control of its destiny. It shows we want to regenerate and invest in Torbay. It also sends out a strong message to the government that we are prepared to put our money where our mouth is. If sends a powerful signal to the government when it comes to awarding grants.”

Deals like this are also key to the Bay’s recovery. Darren says: “It is especially important now as we start planning the exit and hopefully stimulate that regeneration as our economy will be on its knees if we are not careful. The fear of losing 12,000 jobs has to be taken seriously.”

A lot of those jobs are in our tourism industry which is worth a massive £500million the local economy. Torbay still has the aspiration to be THE premier resort in the UK. It is likely that more and more people will be a little nervous of holidaying abroad and will opt for the English Riviera once we know what the new ‘normality’ is and how we can welcome them safely.

That’s where The Strand and Debenhams play an important part.

“The Strand is a six-lane highway with bus stops and two lanes, a central reservation and then two lanes with bus stops and a taxi rank,” says Darren. “Redesigning that is critical.”

He says it is too early to say what the Debenhams site could look like in the future. There is talk of a mixed use of restaurant/cafe and residential above.

It would give the harbour the Continental feel for which we have craved for many years. Perhaps some good may come from this torrid time after all.