Every once in a while Cheltenham reaches an inflection point, a moment when decisions have to be made which are destined have a significant and lasting impact on our future. The discovery of the Hospital Trust’s secret plans a few years ago to close A&E was one. The decision whether to submit a bid for funding of the Air Balloon infrastructure scheme was another. On both occasions we responded as a community with the right judgement calls to safeguard Cheltenham’s future.
And now the closure of Cavendish House is a further such moment. Get the response right, and the town centre will prosper. Get it wrong, and Cheltenham’s competitors will steal a march.
The end of this 200-year era is a poignant time. Many of us have grown up with Cavendish House as the town’s leading department store. And although not unexpected, I know we all feel particularly for the staff who have given such devoted service. They should be offered every support in the coming weeks.
Looking forward, we need an ambitious vision which secures the future of the town centre. That means a mixed-use development with a blend of retail, recreation and affordable accommodation.
That accommodation element is particularly critical. I have written for years that Cheltenham has far more retail space than we need, and this can and must be used to deliver more homes for our young people. As well as meeting that need, it will also help relieve pressure on our precious green spaces.
But reimagining this iconic Cav House site must not be the end of the town’s ambition, but the beginning. I strongly urge the Council to seize this opportunity to catalyse a wider plan for Cheltenham, with major strategic rebalancing of retail and residential space across the length of the High Street. Far more must be done to shape where empty shops, particularly beyond the bowling green out towards Gloucester Road, can better be reconfigured as homes.
This is increasingly urgent. As I’ve written in the Echo before, Cheltenham is sleep-walking into the ‘doughnut effect’, where the town centre risks being hollowed out just as development accelerates on the periphery. It’s a phenomenon well understood in the USA, where cities like Detroit have seen vibrancy concentrated in the suburbs, while decay stalks the centre.
Cheltenham needs a new energetic approach to breathe life back into our town centre. Let this be the moment when this generation makes the right choices.
[Column published in the Glos Echo and Cheltenham Post]