SECRET meetings have been held to discuss plans to convert part of Festival Place into new homes, The Gazette can exclusively reveal. 

A closed group of councillors have been holding private talks with the shopping centre about its future, it has been confirmed. 

The unnamed councillors belong to Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council’s secretive town centre members advisory board. Both the list of members and details of meetings and minutes are not made publicly available. 

Council leader Cllr Ken Rhatigan confirmed that the authority is “working with town centre partners” to consider the long-term vision for Basingstoke. 

Basingstoke Gazette:

A Festival Place spokesperson declined to comment on the meetings. They said it has “no current plans” to sell off units for accommodation but did not rule out redevelopment in conjunction with the council or on its own.

Festival Place has been hit by a number of high-profile store closures in the past year, with its flagship Debenhams branch, which occupied three storeys, closing in May.

A spokesperson has declined to comment on several occasions when asked by The Gazette about plans to fill the Debenhams unit. 

The shopping centre has previously been identified as a site of interest for potential housing as part of the borough council’s 2019 promoted sites review.

It highlighted that it could be expanded upwards, with 300 homes built on top of the existing site.

Basingstoke Gazette: Festival Place director Neil ChurchillFestival Place director Neil Churchill

It is unclear whether this is the current focus of talks between Festival Place and the council though sources suggested one area of interest for development is between Marks and Spencer and the Leisure Centre. 

In a written statement, leader of the council Cllr Ken Rhatigan said: “As part of the development of a town centre strategy, we are working alongside HemingwayDesign, Allies and Morrison and our town centre partners to consider the long-term future of our town centre and how we can ensure it remains a top shopping and leisure destination that attracts people to the area.” 

He added: “The work includes the consideration of supporting a greater mix of uses into the area including homes and employment space.”

Some councillors have raised concerns that Festival Place is not a suitable location for new flats.

Basingstoke Gazette: Festival Place has been hit by a number of store closures in the last 12 months Festival Place has been hit by a number of store closures in the last 12 months

It comes as the council has announced it will begin to debate where new homes should go next week, as the first step in drawing up the blueprint for future development in the borough. 

A housing figure of around 900 new homes a year has been set for the borough by the government using a national formula based on population projections and affordability.

Councillors will consider a shortlist of potential sites for new housing in and around Basingstoke following an assessment of land put forward by landowners and developers.

Cabinet Member for communities, planning and infrastructure Cllr Simon Bound said: “Making decisions about where future development should go is never easy. We need to consider, in a balanced way, how to meet the growing demand for new homes for current and future generations, while protecting and enhancing our wonderful green borough.”

Cllr Bound added that “maximising brownfield development through regeneration” will be a priority, but that greenfield sites will also be required, while council leader Cllr Ken Rhatigan said that the council’s work on its town centre vision involves discussing with partners about “supporting a greater mix of uses into the area including homes and employment space.”

Concern has been raised from opposition councillors surrounding the plans to build homes in the town centre. 

Cllr Andy McCormick, leader of the opposition, said building flats there would be “disastrous” adding: “We have already had 2,000 flats built in the town centre in recent years. Have they really done much to drum up business in the town? Not really.”

“Festival Place itself is not the problem. It’s an indoor venue and footfall is not that bad.”

Meanwhile Cllr Paul Harvey, leader of Basingstoke Independents, added that focus must be on the economic recovery of the town centre above all else.

He said: “Festival Place is such an important partner. We need to be working with them, bringing them into the strategy with us. We know that the council in the local plan has identified the town centre for residential development, but the question is what that means. 

“If the council decides that it wants to cram the town centre with flats, then that would be such a wrong move.”

He continued:  “[Festival Place] may choose to do it themselves, or bring in a partner. It does not have to be ‘selling it off’.

“But we do not know and there shouldn’t be any knee-jerk reactions. It needs to be thought through. Simply saying we are cramming the town centre with flats is not good enough.”