Destination Derby – reimagining the city for the future

The future of Derby is being shaped – plans for major developments drawn up and ground broken on projects that will change the way in which people live, work, study and visit the city.

New life is being breathed into Derby, with key developments including a £200 million regeneration of the Becketwell area, transformation of Derby’s historic Market Hall, as well as the construction of major housing developments.

“It’s an exciting time,” says Paul Simpson, Chief Executive of Derby City Council. “The flagship regeneration project in the city centre is our Becketwell development and the first phase of that – building new residential – is now well underway.

“This site is key; it’s been a thorn in the city’s side for a long time. Numerous plans were put forward to redevelop the area, none of which actually came to fruition, so the city council played a critical role in purchasing the old Debenhams site and other parts of the land assembly.  

“There has been fantastic progress on the site so far, and it is a statement from the city that finally, after years, something positive is coming out the ground there, which is really important.”

Phase one of the Becketwell redevelopment is the construction of 259 build to rent apartments on the site of the former Debenhams store, which will be complemented by a new public square. Phase two will see a 3,500-capacity performance venue built to replace the former Assembly Rooms, which closed following a fire in its car park in 2014.

And that’s not all. A host of other impressive developments are taking place in the city and surrounding areas.

The Eastern Gateway project focuses on developing and improving the entrance to the Derbion shopping centre and Eagle Centre Market to create a modern entrance into the city. Close by, the Market Hall transformation aims to revamp the Grade-II listed building into “a vibrant retail and leisure destination.”

To help increase the density of city centre living, major housing developments are also being created – the Castleward Urban Village, which is well underway, will see more than 800 homes built over the next 15-20 years, and on the former Derbyshire Royal Infirmary Site – the Nightingale Quarter – almost 900 homes will have been built once the project is completed.

Meanwhile, a £42 million sports facility and water park, Moorways Sports Village, has opened, while a £300 million high-tech food manufacturing and distribution centre, SmartParc, has been developed on the former Celanese site in Spondon.

But for Managing Director of Marketing Derby, John Forkin MBE DL, it’s not just the buildings that are exciting.

“It’s the momentum and the fact that Derby is finally on the radar of developers who have choices of where to go, who we have previously struggled to get the attention of,” he explains.

“If you look at some of the key developments taking place in Derby; St James Securities, who are delivering the Becketwell development, are from Leeds. Wavensmere, who are leading on the Nightingale development, are from Birmingham, and Compendium, who are working on Castleward, are from Liverpool. We’re getting meaty regional developers seeing Derby as a place worth investing their time and effort to acquire land, come up with the vision, get planning permission and then actually develop the scheme.”

Artist's impression of new Becketwell Arena
Artist's impression of Becketwell Arena in Derby - Derby City Council

Reinventing the city

So, with many impressive projects taking place – and many in the pipeline – why is now such a crucial time for development?

“Pre-pandemic, Derby’s city centre, in particular, was struggling,” says Paul. “It was among the worst performing city centres in the country. We have an over expansion of retail space. We haven’t got a business quarter with high-end office space – we have Pride Park, but we need more city centre working, which will help increase footfall and support a vibrant day and night time economy that you see in other cities.

“A lot of the public realm is in poor condition and there’s not a lot of vibrancy in the city centre, so all of these things taken together, for me, necessitated intervention to begin to address the decades of decline.”

Post-pandemic, people’s habits have also changed which means cities need to work even harder to attract people, says Paul.

“The pandemic has exposed those fundamental weaknesses and taken them to another level, sadly. People have almost forgotten what it’s like to visit a city centre because they’ve not been able to over the past two years, so the pandemic has worsened the situation.

“City centres are no longer just places to go and shop. They are places for people to congregate, to visit and to see things they are interested in whether that be cultural or historical. Very encouragingly, in my opinion, people want more blue and green space in city centres, places where they can sit and relax.

“We saw how important that was during the pandemic; our parks were full because that’s all people were able to do, so bearing that all in mind, it’s time to rethink what a city centre is all about.

“All of those things taken together is why it’s really important now – city centres have got to reinvent themselves and Derby is no different.”

The University of Derby’s DUST project does just that – it visualises a future Derby.

DUST – Derby’s Urban Sustainable Transition – made possible by a £640,000 donation by the family of the late Professor Osborne, aims to reimagine Derby for a sustainable future, creating an augmented reality representation of the city, capitalising on its blueways and greenways to increase its vibrancy and prosperity.  

By creating visualisations and fly-throughs of key routes and areas of Derby city, including the city’s hidden waterways, the project shows what could be possible if an area is reimagined to place sustainability and active transport central to city developments.

“The decisions we make now are going to have a generational impact on the people who live, study, work and visit the city in decades to come, so the key question we need to be asking is what do we want our city to look like long-term?” says Professor Chris Bussell, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Science and Engineering at the University, and DUST project lead.

“If we look generations ahead, we will see a more socially conscious population coming forward who want liveable cities. We need to be looking at how we interface commercial, retail and leisure activity into a common space that has purpose and function.

“The other big piece of work is ensuring the city centre is reflective of and appeals to its diverse communities, particularly as we know some of Derby’s residents never even come into the city centre. We’ve got ourselves in a catch 22 situation – if there’s nothing for people to come into the city for, we can’t attract key businesses or retail outlets, which means people won’t come into the city and so on.

“In my view, the way of breaking that circular conversation is by doing something bold, radical, and innovative, something very different for Derby. We need to be asking ourselves, what would the city be like if we opened up Markeaton Brook? What if we turned the River Derwent into a key focal point of the city? The DUST project is a co-creation project working across the city that will use digital virtual representations to move assets and put them elsewhere in the city and explore other options, and that’s exciting.”

Professor Chris Bussell smiling

The decisions we make now are going to have a generational impact on the people who live, study, work and visit the city in decades to come, so the key question we need to be asking is what do we want our city to look like long-term?

Professor Chris Bussell
Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Science and Engineering

Plans for the future

Derby City Council recently announced it has created a “new ambition document”, outlining ideas for a “bold, transformational vision” for the city centre. A 12-week consultation is planned to encourage residents, stakeholders and businesses to share their own thoughts and ideas.

While, earlier this year, the University revealed its “city masterplan”, setting out its vision for how it intends to develop its city centre footprint and improve connectivity between its sites.

The overall ambition is to create two distinct but linked areas in the city: an Enterprise Zone, which will include additional learning and residential space, and an Academic Zone, featuring Derby Business School, the building of which is proposed to open in 2024, and would be the first part to kickstart the masterplan.

“A city-centre based Derby Business School is at the heart of the University’s masterplan and will play a pivotal role in the regeneration of Derby,” says Professor Kamil Omoteso, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences at the University of Derby.

“The target is for the business school to be the base for 6,000 students by 2030, attracting people from the UK and internationally, which will contribute to the vibrancy of the city.

“As the only university in Derby and Derbyshire, we are already a key player in the city and county, and this new development will further contribute to the social and economic development of the region. As well as providing academic excellence, Derby Business School will provide a skills pipeline and employability for the city.”  

Manjit Paget, Programme Manager for Derby Business School, adds: “We expect this development to be a welcoming and interactive space – a building where students will learn, but also where businesses can come in for advice, work with our student community, researchers and business support units. The idea is that it will host specialist spaces for collaboration and idea generation and will enable us to further enhance our research with partners across the D2N2 corridor.”

Woman looking seriously

We expect this development to be a welcoming and interactive space – a building where students will learn, but also where businesses can come in for advice, work with our student community, researchers and business support units.

Manjit Paget
Programme Manager for Derby Business School

Challenges for the city

With so many exciting opportunities, plans and visions for the city, there are bound to be challenges, as Paul explains: “We need more public investment, such as more Levelling Up funding. How do we secure the next level of investment to support the big projects planned for the city?

“Derby was identified as one of the top cities to benefit from Levelling Up funding because of the disparity between those earning good money and some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country in some of our inner city wards. There are some big issues to resolve around health, social and economic inequalities and all of this is part of the jigsaw; giving people hope, aspiration, opportunities and jobs for the future. Our role is to keep the foot pressed firmly on the accelerator to drive investment, economic recovery and city centre footfall.”

For John, retaining the wealth that is generated in the city is important.  

“If you look at Derby just on economic factors, in terms of the employers that we host, the types of jobs we have and salaries that we pay, we’re top of the tree – but the way the city centre looks and feels currently doesn’t reflect this. The reason why we are top of the tree is because the types of businesses I’m talking about tend to be in the advanced manufacturing and technology sectors, based outside of the city. A lot of our economic activity is suburban.

“We are good at creating wealth, but we need to do better at retaining it. That’s the core of our strategy as a place, but to retain more of that wealth we have to make the city centre a more attractive proposition. Every city centre in the country, probably the world, is going through the same thinking in terms of re-purposing, following the pandemic. What does a post-Covid city centre look and feel like and how can it attract its hinterland to come in?

“For Derby, the answer is striking more of a balance between people living in, working in and visiting the city centre.”

Another crucial part is creating a positive experience for people in Derby, says John: “I think the biggest challenge for us is the experience. Whenever you go somewhere you have to imagine what is the arrival like if I come in by train, bus or car? Is it pleasant? Is it easy? Do I feel safe?

“Whereas previously the competition for Derby might have been Nottingham, Sheffield, Birmingham or Leicester, it's now much closer to home; it’s nice places to go to kill a few hours such as Mercia Marina, Duffield, or Belper.

“You can go to those places and park for free, have a wander around, there are eating – and a few purchasing – opportunities; overall they are really nice places to be. In Derby, you’re not quite sure what experience you’re going to have.

“It’s non-negotiable – we have to sort out the streets and spaces in between.”

And Chris agrees.

“We have to think differently about the way that we have done things to date,” he says. “Post-pandemic we need to have a real look at how people are going to be working, living, playing and engaging in their cities. This isn’t just about urban planning, this is a fundamental, conceptual, cultural shift about how our citizens engage with our city.

“We can have long discussions about whether we keep the skyline of Derby low or make it high, what building schemes go on which part of the city plan, what happens to different streets, but I think it’s more fundamental than that.

“The question we need to be asking our citizens is: what feel do you want for the city for the future? When you go to different towns and cities you get a feel for a place, so what’s the feel for Derby?

“I think the answer for Derby is around innovation, creativity, ambition, the future views of the world, that’s what the companies of the city have built on for years, and we need that feel in the city. The question for me is how do we generate that through our reimagining of the urban spaces of the city? That’s key.” 

Artist's impression of Derby Business School for illustration purposes only - Stride Treglown
Artist's impression of Derby Business School for illustration purposes only - Stride Treglown

Looking ahead

“My vision has always been the same; to make Derby a more attractive place for its own people, so it’s about choice not convenience,” says John.

“Derby is an underdog city that just needs to get a bit more confident about itself on the basis that it has 300 years’ worth of evidence in world-changing innovations, but it really needs to be a place where social mobility is unlocked; that for me would be a big change – a city of opportunity.”

This is echoed by Paul: “I want Derby to become a destination. It’s a city with amazing assets; we have the world’s largest collection of Joseph Wright paintings, it’s home to the UK’s first public park, the world’s first factory, and a host of major companies, and a gateway to the Peak District.

“We have a fantastic university here in Derby and we have got a growing student population that is the lifeblood of our city. We want students to study here and then stay here, put down roots here, start families here, work here and so on. That’s what we want Derby to be – a place where people choose to come.”

For Chris, it’s the “totality of ambition” that is crucial.

“Derby really does have massive potential,” he says. “In essence, we just want Derby to be a cool place to be. There are massive investments happening and huge prospects that need to be fulfilled.

“To fully capitalise on this, we need to be presenting the totality of the ambition, not just a scheme for a street or a plan for an area, it’s the whole vision for a reimagined city for generations to come that matters; how we connect the city together, how we create the city for our communities so people can see themselves here and feel welcomed and want to be part of that city. That’s got to be the goal.”

Written by Kelly Tyler