Why Sheffield’s 144,000 sq ft Fox Valley scheme is quietly transforming the Yorkshire retail landscape
Sheffield is a city close to my heart – it’s where I studied architecture and planning for six years, and had a student job as a tram conductor – so it’s always a pleasure to pay a return visit.
While my trips to Sheffield typically focus on the city centre and, inevitably, its ex-Woolworths (currently fashion store Select and the performance space Theatre Delicatessen, after stints as Peacocks and TJ Hughes), my most recent visit took me beyond the Middlewood tram terminus to Stocksbridge, a small town within the Sheffield city limits that is home to one of the UK’s most interesting town centre mixed-use developments – Fox Valley, a scheme featuring 140,000 sq ft of new-build retail and leisure space alongside offices and homes.
Chances are that few people outside of South Yorkshire have even heard of Stocksbridge. However, that seems likely to change once Fox Valley opens its doors on Thursday 16 June, occupying a 15-acre former industrial site freed up through Tata Steel relocating its steel stock storage to a new warehouse nearby.
Before that opening takes place, the company behind the scheme – retail development firm Dransfield Properties – kindly invited me to visit the site, take a look at the progress, and hear the latest on its plans and lettings.
Plugging a gap in Yorkshire’s retail market
Arriving on the bus in Stocksbridge town centre (after a somewhat hair-raising journey over the hills from Sheffield proper), it seems on the face of it an unlikely location for a major £50 million retail-led development.
A town of around 10,000 people, Stocksbridge may be part of the sprawling Sheffield City Council area, but it feels very much like its own place. Indeed, 11 miles or half an hour’s drive from the city centre, Stocksbridge is completely separate from the main built-up area of Sheffield, and is actually slightly closer to Barnsley.
For ease of recognition, though, you can see why Dransfield has chosen to brand its scheme as ‘Fox Valley, Sheffield’, albeit with plenty of supplementary references to Stockbridge and ‘north Sheffield’ in its promotional materials.
Whatever the political or geographical allegiances, one thing that’s clear is that Stocksbridge sits at the heart of an area that is currently poorly served in terms of a quality retail offer of its own – hence the opportunity, first spotted by Dransfield nearly a decade ago, to plug that gap.
Currently, Stocksbridge rather reminds me of a South Yorkshire version of Prudhoe (a small town up here in Northumberland, between Newcastle and Hexham) in terms of its location, retail mix, and the way that its shops are mostly strung out along a single street.
Stocksbridge’s high street – Manchester Road – has a decent range of stores and services that cater for local everyday needs, including The Co-operative Food, The Original Factory Shop and Lidl as anchors, but those big names aside it’s a town very much dominated by independents. Indeed, Stocksbridge was never deemed large or important enough to warrant a branch of Woolworths – always a handy measure of a town centre’s standing in the retail pecking order.
Against this backdrop, the arrival of Fox Valley – which is being framed as a ‘new town centre’, and deliberately incorporates a strong physical connection to the existing high street pitch – is clearly a game changer for Stocksbridge.
It gives local residents who currently travel elsewhere a good reason to start shopping locally (and stem the present leakage to other centres), hopefully with a positive impact on existing businesses. Just as crucially, the roster of occupants that Fox Valley has secured – more of which in a moment – will also make Stocksbridge a new destination for shoppers outside the town.
Dransfield’s record of quality retail schemes
If Dransfield is a familiar name to North East readers, it’s most likely because of the successful Sanderson Arcade scheme in Morpeth, which the company opened in 2009 and continues to own and manage.
Further afield, Marshall’s Yard in Gainsborough is also part of the Dransfield portfolio, a scheme that, like Sanderson Arcade and indeed Fox Valley, stands out for its quality new-build architecture and refreshing attention to detail.
Too many of the retail schemes I come across on my travels – even some of the new ones – suffer from lumpy architecture, blank walls or awkward connectivity with what’s around them, but Dransfield seems to have built its business on doing things differently, as demonstrated by my frequent tweets praising Sanderson Arcade’s Christmas decorations or floral displays.
Indeed, Dransfield is currently extending its Morpeth presence with a redevelopment of the old Morrisons site next to Sanderson Arcade, bringing in three welcome large-footprint stores – Home Bargains, Next and Pets at Home – to a town that has always had a distinct lack of larger units.
Fox Valley’s retail mix – from value to high-end
It’s no coincidence, I suspect, that Dransfield has also secured those same three big names for Fox Valley – along with a multitude of other occupants.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating and striking aspects of the Fox Valley scheme is the remarkable mix of retail and leisure businesses that Dransfield has been able to assemble – a blend of multiples and independents, and high-end and value names, that is quite unlike any tenant list I’ve seen elsewhere.
So, you’ve got a roster of successful value retailers signed up – Aldi, Card Factory, Home Bargains and Poundworld – plus expanding fashion chains M&Co and The Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and the ubiquitous Greggs and Costa.
They’re joined, as I mentioned, by Pets at Home, with Next all but confirmed – there is a sign on the unit that Next is set to occupy (added after my visit), though the letting is yet to be officially announced.
It’s with the independents and high-end names where Fox Valley gets really interesting, though.
North East coffee house operator Central Bean, for example – which currently trades in Gallowgate in Newcastle and at Morpeth’s Sanderson Arcade – is making its first foray outside the region at Fox Valley. It will occupy a building with an umbrella-shaped roof that recalls the Paragon steel umbrella frame, developed by Samuel Fox – the industrialist who first started the steelworks in Stocksbridge in 1842, and after whom the scheme is named.
Clearly, Dransfield has used its existing relationship with Central Bean at Morpeth to bring the brand on board at Stocksbridge, immediately giving Fox Valley a retail attraction that isn’t just the same as you find everywhere else. The development’s leisure offer impresses further with the letting to Ponti’s Italian Kitchen, a family-run business that will be opening its first restaurant outside London – again, quite a coup for Stocksbridge.
That principle of bringing something different to Fox Valley continues with the recently announced letting to Cornish fashion brand Seasalt – opening its first standalone store anywhere in Yorkshire – and Full Gas Bikes, a brand-new independent concept bike store headed by world championship medallist Tony Gibb. The store will house a test track, coffee shop and full technical centre, and should cannily tap into the extensive cycling community – and network of routes – in the hills of north Sheffield and the nearby Peak District.
Elsewhere, Yorkshire-based footwear retailer Champleys Shoes will open in one of the small, street-facing units that have been built expressly to encourage independents to trade at Fox Valley, and that provide the pedestrian connection between the heart of the scheme and the existing high street.
Like the rest of the development, these units are all new build despite having a traditional architectural look – not too dissimilar to the aesthetic of Sanderson Arcade, but clearly also inspired by the buildings already in Stocksbridge.
Perhaps most interesting from my point of view, however – as someone who has regularly blogged about the ups and downs of independent department stores – is the inclusion of a 17,000 sq ft boutique department store at Fox Valley, occupying an elegant two-storey space awash with natural light.
Called Sandersons – taking its inspiration from the name of Dransfield’s Morpeth scheme – the store will open a little after the rest of Fox Valley, on 1 September, but has already secured an impressive list of concessions and brands across womenswear, menswear and homeware.
Even here, it’s good to see that familiar labels like Ted Baker, Joules, White Stuff and Phase Eight will sit alongside local brands such as The Sheffield Pewter Craft Company and British Silverware, as well as an instore nail technician, florist and Yorkshire Tearoom, helping to ensure that Sandersons offers a genuinely unique and exciting combination of experiences. Certainly, with long-established indie Rutherfords just across the road from Sanderson Arcade in Morpeth, and York institution Browns anchoring Gainsborough’s Marshall’s Yard, Sandersons has no shortage of Dransfield-connected exemplars from which to draw inspiration.
No doubt I’ll be back in Stocksbridge on or before 1 September to check out Sandersons in more detail.
Retail development in a post-Tesco landscape
Overall then, the tenant mix at Fox Valley is really quite exciting – and it has all happened despite the original anchor, Tesco, pulling out of the scheme last year at the point where it announced that a raft of planned UK developments would no longer proceed – and that 43 existing stores would close.
However, a trio of value names – Aldi, Home Bargains and Poundworld – swiftly signed up to occupy the 63,000 sq ft building at Fox Valley that had been intended for Tesco. If anything, indeed, the project feels better with Tesco not now being a part of it. Rather than being dominated by one store so much bigger than any of the others – a charge that could be levelled at the Tesco-led Trinity Square here in Gateshead – splitting that larger unit into three arguably makes Fox Valley feel more coherent and balanced as a town centre development.
Occupancy rates ahead of opening are looking healthy, too – 75% let and 10% in legals at the time of my visit a month ago, with more lettings confirmed since.
While there’s been plenty of media coverage locally, and an active Fox Valley presence on Twitter and the web, I get the impression that Fox Valley has been a little below the radar as far as the national, retail and property press is concerned – which is a pity, given just how interesting and bold a development it is. The project was mentioned in the FT a couple of weeks ago, though only then off the back of the threat hanging over the remaining Tata Steel operations in Stocksbridge, which still employ 700 people making speciality steel.
Undoubtedly, as an example of how a town built on steel – for over 170 years, and just about counting – can create new jobs and reinvent itself as a retail hotspot, Fox Valley is a fascinating case study.
Just as resonant, given the impending EU referendum, is the fact that Fox Valley has been able to happen partly thanks to over £8 million of investment from the Yorkshire and Humber European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) Programme 2007- 2013. In the event of a Brexit, it remains to be seen whether new funding channels would replace the ERDF money that would undoubtedly be lost to future UK regeneration projects like this.
Alongside these themes, Fox Valley is also fascinating as an example of how a planned development can not only survive Tesco’s withdrawal, in the midst of a turbulent retail landscape, but seemingly thrive – including bringing in a brand-new independent department store operator at a time when rivals continue to collapse (McEwens of Perth) or face challenges to survive (Beales).
Above all, though, Fox Valley is just inherently interesting – a really well-designed, exciting and distinctive retail-led development, and one that I’m very much looking forward to visiting again once it opens on 16 June.
My retail consultancy business, CannyInsights.com, provides bespoke place- and sector-specific market intelligence, including coverage of all retail sectors and areas of the UK. It also works with retailers nationwide to improve their stores and marketing. For more information, visit www.cannyinsights.com, drop me an email, or give me a call on (0191) 461 0361.