Derby - celebrating 40 years as a city
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
In 1977 Derby was awarded city status as part of the celebrations of the Silver Jubilee of HM The Queen Elizabeth II. Ashley Franklin takes a look at recent changes in the city as it affirms its place on the national stage
On 7th June Derby will celebrate 40 years as a city. There is something more to celebrate this year: it’s the tenth anniversary of Derby’s renaissance as a city.
When I came to work in this city 40 years ago, after living in Nottingham it felt flat and humdrum. Today, however, I can broadcast my pride in the city. Derby may never attain the aesthetic appeal of the ‘Queen of the Midlands’ but it has become a King in commerce, culture, heritage, education and generally as a place to live. Yes, really… Here comes the first of many remarkable recent statistics about our city: the flight comparison website Skyscanner voted Derby the fifth best city in Britain to visit in 2016, placing it above Durham, Edinburgh, Stratford-upon-Avon and, yes, Nottingham.
This is perhaps not too surprising as Derby is perfectly placed as a gateway to the Peak District. This leads me to Roy Christian’s perceptive observation about Derby which, though written in 1978, still has a ring of truth today: ‘As the county town of a most exciting county, Derby is a surprisingly unexciting place.’ However, Roy added that ‘most of the excitement goes on out of sight’, citing Rolls-Royce, the railway works and Royal Crown Derby. Thus, Roy stated, Derby has ‘a combination of unseen brilliance and outward drabness.’
It’s high time that brilliance was brought into the open, especially as it now shines with even more lustre; and we can reveal how much of Derby’s drabness has been lifted. One largely unknown statistic, for instance, is that Derby is the best place in Britain to start up a business. This puts it ahead of 68 cities. So, what has brought about the bright, new, optimistic state of our city?
The quiet resurgence began in 2007 when Westfield (now Intu) arrived in Derby. I remember the fears about Westfield – that it was a retail behemoth which would suck the life out of the rest of the city. As shoppers thronged to the new indoor centre, city retailers strung out in the open soon expressed anxiety over footfall, with the emphasis on fall.
Ironically, Westfield was Derby’s saviour. It led to the creation and eventual galvanisation of the Derby Cathedral Quarter which was later followed by the St Peters Quarter. Furthermore, Westfield was a catalyst in a much wider sense, stimulating investment and development in an inert city.
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Ten years on, it has led to the kind of statistics that would have beggared belief ten years ago – and may perhaps even now. For example, in the last five years Derby has had the fastest growing city economy in the UK. It has the highest average workplace salary outside London – nearly £33,000 (with the national average being nearer £28,000). The University of Derby is recognised as a top ten university for teaching quality, borne out by the fact that it has one of the highest employability rates in the UK, with 97 per cent of graduates finding employment six months after graduation.
As I open a brochure ‘Derby – UK Capital for Innovation’, the Welcome page reminds us that Derby has been ‘a home to innovators and thought leaders’ for over 300 years. Naturally, there is mention of the Silk Mill – the world’s first factory – and its place as the hub of the Industrial Revolution.
It could be said that Derby is evolving a new revolution as – here comes another impressive statistic – nearly 12 per cent of Derby’s workforce is in hi-tech functions, four times the national average. Revolution or not, the brochure asserts that ‘Derby is the city of choice for companies wanting to thrive.’ Indeed, with a staggering £3bn already invested in the city, there is a further £1.8bn ‘in the immediate pipeline’.
So where has it all gone right for Derby? Who better to explain than John Forkin, Managing Director of Marketing Derby, which itself has been instrumental in Derby’s spiralling progress. The creation of Marketing Derby in 2006 now seems prescient. Set up as a public and private partnership with funding from both Derby City Council and bondholders in the business community (now numbering 320), Marketing Derby’s aim was to ‘raise Derby’s profile in order to attract investment.’ John can happily affirm that he and his team were ‘on the front foot’ right from the start; and it became a confident stride soon after Westfield arrived, as John recalls: ‘Marketing Derby came about because there was a hunger for change in Derby. The city had had a long, hard look in the mirror after seeing cities like Nottingham, Sheffield and Birmingham where things were happening. There wasn’t much pride in our city. There wasn’t much economic activity either, unless you looked outside of Derby city centre – at Rolls-Royce, the hospital and the University. Derby city centre was like the hole in the doughnut. We didn’t have one cinema screen; and not one hotel bed space or square foot of office space had been built in the city centre for 25 years.’
This begs the question: why, then, did Westfield, at the time the world’s number one property retail company, decide to open a £340 million shopping centre in Derby, also its first investment in Europe?
‘They saw a wealth-creating, big business city,’ replies John. ‘Derby was making money all right; the problem was, it was spending it elsewhere. The city had little to offer. Visits to Derby had declined to 16 million per year. Westfield turned it into 25 million.’
John points to the opening of the media and arts centre QUAD in 2008 to show how developments like this invigorated the city: ‘QUAD has 300,000 annual visitors, but where did those people go before? They either went elsewhere or didn’t go at all.’
John believes that if Westfield had built elsewhere Derby would have been ‘on its knees’, especially as 2008 saw the recession. In that same year, Derby had a vital boost in fortunes when Westfield had a higher profile opening – in London.
‘That’s when the wider business community started to ask the question “Why did they invest in Derby?”’ recalls John, ‘and that enabled us at Marketing Derby to wave a flag for Derby with even more vigour and get through to investors who could benefit Derby.’
Meanwhile, in 2007 Derby’s traditional beating heart – the historic ‘old town’ encompassing Iron Gate, Sadler Gate, Friar Gate, Queen Street, The Wardwick and The Strand – began its revitalisation as Derby’s Cathedral Quarter (CQ), again as a response to Westfield. Fortuitously, this area was able to take advantage of new government legislation enabling the creation of a Business Improvement District (BID). The beauty of BIDs is that they are driven by the very businesses operating within the BID area. Funded through a levy based on business rate payments, the businesses themselves decide how to use their pot of money to improve and transform their area.
It’s unquestionably improved the Cathedral Quarter. Ian Ferguson, Director of Partnerships for Better Business (pfbb UK) – the contract managers for the Cathedral Quarter Company – believes that had the area now known as the Cathedral Quarter not embraced the BID, ‘it could easily have become a place where tumbleweed rolled down Sadler Gate with windows boarded up and no-one around.’
Ten years ago, a walk up Sadler Gate would have revealed at least ten empty units. Today, there is full occupancy, with virtual full occupancy on The Strand and in the Strand Arcade. Instead of tumbleweed, there are hanging baskets and flower planters. As well as new shops and regenerated shops enhancing the area’s independent vibe, there is a thriving restaurant scene and café culture, restored street furniture, newly branded car parks and CQ Rangers to guide and assist the increasing number of visitors.
The Cathedral Quarter bears the smart slogan: ‘Individual. Diverse. Inspiring.’ The area has itself inspired commercial businesses to locate here. Along with the visible bricks-and-mortar additions like QUAD, Friar Gate Studios and the hotels – Cathedral Quarter, Jury’s Inn and Premier Inn – there has been an influx of new businesses either occupying previously empty offices or the several new developments, with some of them serving global clients such as Microsoft, Sony, Audi, Nissan and Wilkinson Sword. There are now over 500 commercial/retail businesses in the CQ, with professional services accounting for 37 per cent.
Herein lies a graphic example of Derby’s ‘unseen brilliance’: numerous fledgling businesses have flocked to four recently introduced office spaces under the umbrella of Connect Derby. There are established businesses here, too, including Marketing Derby who moved from their Pride Park base to Riverside Chambers, the former Magistrates’ Court. As John Forkin states: ‘We are a classic example of a business re-locating to the city centre owing to the increasing availability of office spaces. Look at the Council House opposite us – it used to hold 400; now it’s 3,000.’
Here is a ringing endorsement from David Brown, Director of David Brown Commercial: ‘This historic part of the city has a character that cannot be replicated in modern out-of-town business parks. Also, rental rates are a fraction of those charged in out-of-town locations.’
Retail businesses, too, have been drawn to the Cathedral Quarter, inspired by statistics that show a 50 per cent increase in unique visitors to the DCQ per month, year on year.
Retailers include quality national names like White Stuff, Dr Martens and Joules that one might have expected to see at Intu. Their investment in the Cathedral Quarter is one of many reasons why Martin Langsdale of Raybould & Sons is such a proud Chair of the CQ BID: ‘Who would have thought that ten years ago we would have our local and regional businesses trading as equals alongside these quality national names? But then look at the facts – we continue to buck the national trend with footfall and vacancy levels better than the national average.’
Recent restaurant and bar additions include a reborn Old Bell Hotel, The Palfrey in Old Blacksmith’s Yard, Orange Tree Bar on George Street, Gaslights and Suds’n’Soda on Friar Gate, Cantina Bodega on Sadler Gate with its South American cuisine, and the Cosy Club which moved into the grand chandeliered ballroom of the city’s Grade II listed former Royal Hotel on Victoria Street, spending nearly £1 million on refurbishing the building.
‘We wanted to create a nostalgic, elegant and decadent atmosphere,’ says Glenda Harding of Cosy Clubs – ‘think mansion splendour meets village hall eccentricity’ with a menu that ‘majors on luxury comfort food with lots of punchy flavours.’
The Cathedral Quarter is now an award winner – twice over: in 2016 it was awarded National BID of the Year; and Best City Location in the Great British High Street Awards. Pertinently, a new modern barbers Everyman has come to Sadler Gate directly as a result of the latter award. As Managing Director Noel Gilronan stated: ‘The award was the perfect indicator of the area’s potential and made opening up here much more attractive.’
Noel adds that ‘Derby was crying out for a modern barbers that offers men more than just a haircut.’ That modernity includes free beer, gaming stations, rolling live sports, free Wi-Fi and, impressively, the ‘Everycam,’ a live camera feed which allows customers to check how busy the store is.
Everyman will be a part of what CQ Chair Martin Langsdale refers to as a ‘real community spirit’ amongst Cathedral Quarter businesses. ‘That’s one of the reasons we won the British High Street award,’ believes Martin. ‘The businesses spoke so positively to the judges, showing great solidarity and support. There’s definitely a sense of “we’re in it together.”’
That includes Derby City Council, Martin affirms: ‘We have an exemplary working relationship with the Council and we’ve pooled resources to ensure that a variety of activities which would otherwise have been axed as part of the Council’s austerity measures, have been delivered. Without that collaboration, there would have been no ice rink or Christmas lights in the Cathedral Quarter.’
There have also been improvements in the St Peters Quarter – new paving adding to the café promenade feel of Costa, more flower planters, a steam-cleaned St Peter’s Church, increased signage and Rangers – which would not have been possible without their own BID status, so it’s welcome news that local businesses recently voted to re-establish the area as a Business Improvement District.
‘I am relieved and delighted,’ says St Peters Quarter Board Chair Helen Wathall, who is Managing Director of the family-owned funeral directors G Wathall & Son. Helen acknowledges that this area between Intu and the Cathedral Quarter – the city’s traditional ‘High Street’ – has ‘some deep-rooted challenges which were never going to be solved overnight’ but believes that in its first incarnation as a BID, the area had made ‘considerable inroads’ and that now the St Peters Quarter can ‘reach its full potential and become a thriving area again.’
John Forkin says there is a firm resolve to regenerate this area: ‘The St Peters Quarter is Derby’s edition of the broken British High Street. Most of it is owned by absentee landlords who built British High Streets in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and have never adjusted their business models, so we are trying to bring in private equity companies to buy their buildings, as happened at the Riverlights. That was originally bought by Lone Star who just sat on it. Eventually, the building was in distress, so we helped to bring in the Morefield Group. Now, there are signs of investment.’
‘Look at Albion Street,’ adds John, ‘it should be buzzing. As it happens, we are now getting investors in who wouldn’t have looked at this city five years ago.’
Pertinently, it’s just been announced that Derby City Council has pledged £1.9m to reinvigorate St Peters Quarter, and that TK Maxx is returning to Albion Street. This will greatly please BID Chair Helen Wathall: ‘St Peters Quarter is the heart of Derby city centre and an area close to my own heart. This is where I was born and bred and where my family’s funeral business has been based for three centuries, so I feel I have a duty to do what I can to invest in the city. I hope that all the businesses here will do likewise and work together to improve this area and secure its future.’
It’s a future that needs to be carefully considered. As John Forkin points out, cities are now redefining themselves, though Derby, he affirms, is happily in tune with the times: ‘For decades, cities and towns had distinct, separate retail, leisure, business and residential areas. Today’s citizen wants it all mixing. Look at Intu: they are re-purposing the centre so there’s more leisure on offer. They know that when people go to town, they don’t solely go to shop; they go to the cinema, café or hair salon… then they might buy some clothes.’
John points out that increasing numbers of people are not only working in Derby city but also living there – around 6,000 when the various developments are completed, such as the Nightingale Quarter. On the site of the former Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, it will provide 500 new houses and flats. On the other side of the city, there are new or soon-to-be-completed town houses and apartments to cater for students.
This is where we come to another vital catalyst in Derby’s renaissance: the University. Having lingered long as a minor college in a single campus, there will soon be a University Quarter in Derby. Currently housing 29,000 students, the University was ranked sixth in the UK for student number growth between 2015-16 after increasing student numbers by 11 per cent. The University has physically expanded, too, investing £150 million in new facilities in the past decade. Last year, for example, the striking copper building opposite Friar Gate Studios became the University’s Law School; and the Markeaton Street site – home to arts, design, engineering and technology courses – is continuing to grow, with a £12.5m Science Park due to open later this year.
‘A centre of excellence,’ enthuses Professor Kathryn Mitchell, University Vice-Chancellor, ‘which clearly demonstrates that Derby remains at the forefront of thinking and making.’
Significantly, the phenomenal growth of the University has resulted in more than 5,000 jobs being supported by the £270m worth of spending it generates each year. Also, as Derby has expanded commercially, so has the number of students finding employment in the city.
As Prof. Mitchell declares: ‘I don’t just want to attract students to the University. I want them to stay here after they graduate, which is why we have established great links with local businesses. In fact, over 80 per cent of locally-recruited students now find work locally.’
It would seem that the University looks set to grow even further. ‘Derby is a wonderful, thriving city with a strong cultural heritage,’ continues Prof. Mitchell. ‘However, we are still a very well-kept secret outside the county, so I’m working to continue raising our profile.’
Derby’s profile has arguably never been so impressive. To all of the above, one can add: Derby’s Photography, Book, Film, Folk and Comedy festivals; Derby Festé; regional dance house Déda; Derby Theatre; Derby Museum & Art Gallery which includes the impressive Joseph Wright gallery; Derby Guildhall; Derby Arena/Velodrome; and the Eagle Centre Market’s new future as part of Intu. Then there is a newly proposed ice rink in the former Duckworth Square, the projected 100-acre manufacturing site Infinity Park, the Silk Mill Museum of Making due to open in 2020, and Derby Cathedral’s recently unveiled plans for a £2.5 million five-year regeneration project to help establish the venue as an entertainment and heritage centre, plus several industrial, office, retail and housing developments. More immediately, over 250,000 visitors are due to view Paul Cummins’ Weeping Window of ceramic poppies at the Silk Mill in June/July; and also in June, Derby begins to hosts eight fixtures in the Women’s Cricket World Cup.
Marketing Derby has never been more exhilarating, says John Forkin: ‘Derby’s renaissance continues, though I have to be honest, my fear back in 2012 was that people might have been thinking that the job was done. We had the new hotels, cinemas, a refurbished railway station and brand new bus station. But what I’ve learnt is that the more you give, the more the community wants. There is heightened hunger and, if anything, people have become more impatient. They ask: “What’s happening with Debenhams? Duckworth Square? The Assembly Rooms?” which is great.
‘However, a city cannot be sorted out overnight and regeneration takes a vast amount of money, all of which needs to be won, whether public or private. We have in Derby a cocktail of a robust economy and community aspiration which are genuine drivers for change. Investors can sense it, too – they know if a city is on the up or down, or if it is just treading water. Derby was treading water for over 25 years whilst our competition improved. We were creating wealth but then leaking it. Now, we have all this investment and we are excitingly shifting towards a more diverse, multi-functional city centre, attractive for living, working and playing. What’s more, I can see what’s in the pipeline and you ain’t seen nothing yet. If you think Derby has changed a lot in the last ten years, just watch this space.’
With many thanks to John Forkin of Marketing Derby for his invaluable help and assistance.