Reaction as Guildford Debenhams building sold for £20 million as department store set to shut

The iconic Debenhams building in Guildford town centre has been sold for a whopping £20 million.

The large premises had been listed for sale with developers touting the department store for flats, entertainment and offices.

London property developer Native Land announced on Wednesday (December 9) that it will pay M&G Real Estate £20 million for the 1960s building after exchanged contracts on the c.230,000-sq-ft town centre building.

Guildford Borough Council (GBC) said it will work closely with the new owners, to enhance the town centre and rejuvenate the riverside.

Councillor John Redpath, who represents the Holy Trinity ward, said: “One can never say that the loss of such an important retail outlet is good news for a town. Debenhams has been an important anchor for Guildford ’s retail economy for many years.

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“However, it’s important that we see the closure of Debenhams and it sale not as a death knell for our town centre but as an opportunity to take advantage of as the evolution of this great Surrey town continues in the digital age.

“The council will be working closely with the new owners in order to make sure that the best use is made of this important site.”

Native Land says they will explore a range of options for the future of the site that includes homes for sale and rent, together with mixed retail and commercial to unlock and enliven the river frontage.

Cllr Redpath added: “The building is in the flood plain so it’s unlikely the lower floors can be used for residential purposes which gives an opportunity for the site to have creative mixed uses on the ground floor that can only help to benefit the town centre.

“One thing we will encourage is the swift development of the site so that we can avoid having the building standing derelict, unused and uncared for into the future.”

Cllr John Rigg, lead councillor for major projects at GBC, hopes something “very special” can be built on the large site.

He said: “The Debenhams site is one of the most important and iconic in the borough. We want any redevelopment to be of the highest possible architectural merit and include improvements to the public realm with greater riverside access.

“We want to further enhance our historic town centre and rejuvenate the riverside. We look forward to working with the developer, who we hope will produce something very special.”

‘Understandably devastated’

Amanda Masters from Experience Guildford Business Improvement District (BID) shared her disappointment at the closure. However, she hopes the new development can be completed quickly.

Ms Masters said: “We are understandably devastated to see such a key, anchor store depart from the town, but are hopeful that the new development of the site will be completed quickly. We’re also hopeful that the riverside units will have space for retail and hospitality.”

When will Guildford Debenhams close?

Debenhams reopened to the public on December 2
(Image: Grahame Larter/Surrey Live)

Debenhams confirmed plans to start winding down its UK operations on December 1 after rescue talks collapsed. The former retail giant said it will continue to trade through its 124 stores and online to clear its current and contracted stocks.

The Guildford department store in Millbrook reopened on December 2, as Surrey entered new Tier 2 restrictions.

When contacted by SurreyLive, Debenhams was unable to provide an exact date for when the Guildford store would close.

It was previously announced the flagship store will remain open in Guildford until early 2021 following discussions with the landlord after the store was initially earmarked for closure in 2020.

What are the future plans for the site?

The acquisition is part of Native Land’s strategy to identify redevelopment opportunities in strong UK towns and cities and to reposition retail assets at a time when urban centres are rethinking the future of their high streets, a spokesperson explained.

Alasdair Nicholls, chief executive of Native Land, said: “The Debenhams department store in Guildford is a perfect opportunity to unlock the potential of land and buildings, to revitalise urban neighbourhoods.

“This is especially relevant to town centre locations, where repurposing bricks-and-mortar will ensure sustainable futures.

“Guildford is an affluent town which is also benefitting from the growing trend in living outside London and working from home.”

The purchase represents a move from an original business model of prime central London residential development, to pursue mixed-use commercial regeneration projects.

John Duxbury, head of retail and leisure at M&G Real Estate, added: “The disposal of the Debenhams unit in Guildford town centre is part of M&G’s longer-term active management to repurpose the site.

“The role of town centres is changing, and the Debenhams unit is the perfect redevelopment opportunity to convert this retail asset for uses which cater for the needs of the local community.”

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