The Town They Couldn't Redevelop - or Pedestrianise

It seems that most towns in Britain these days have some sort of modern shopping centre, often on two levels and protected from the elements by a glass roof. Many have also created pedestrian precincts by building town centre by-passes in order to remove traffic from the main shopping streets. In the late 1980s, there were proposals for both in Reigate - but neither ever came to fruition.

The historic nature of Reigate town centre, which for several decades been declared a conservation area, makes any prospect of major development extremely difficult and controversial. First of all, let's look at how plans for a relief road were proposed, approved but then never built, and then the long-running saga of the ill-fated plans for Reigate's shopping centre.

Relief roads and pedestrianisation

The main roads around the town centre, which include the east-west A25 and the north-south A217, form a one-way system, and one of the key bottlenecks is right in the centre where westbound traffic on the main A25 High Street is forced past the town's most prominent landmark, the Old Town Hall. Plans in earlier decades could have seen this historic 18th century building demolished to improve the traffic flow, however it has now been given Grade II listing status.

The one-way system was introduced in March 1970. The following year, a public exhibition was held in the Old Town Hall, proposing a three lane ring road around the town centre. Despite public opposition to the plan, the local authority decided to press ahead with the scheme, but no progress was ever made.

In November 1985, a further exhibition was held in Reigate library which detailed two proposals to rid the centre of its traffic congestion and allow freer movement of pedestrians. The first, and most controversial, proposal was to build a new relief road in the south west quadrant of the town centre. This would maintain the clockwise gyratory system, but would have had the positive effect of removing traffic from almost the entireity of the main shopping streets. But it was controversial because the new road would have skirted across the top of the historic Priory Park, thus destroying the peace and tranquility of the park. Cruicially, the single carriageway road would also pass right next to Reigate Priory itself, which was now in use as a middle school. The road would also necessitate the demolition of some old buildings at the western end of the High Street.

The alternative proposal was not to build any new roads at all, but instead widen the roads to the north of the town centre and convert them to two way working. This would allow the pedestrianisation only of the High Street - so not as extensive as the first option, but still worthwhile to allow pedestrian priority in the main shopping street. Even then it would not be full pedestrianisation - buses and delivery vehicles would still require access.

A third, 'do minimum' option was also presented. In reality, this was more of a 'do nothing at all' option, which would simply hope that the newly opened M25, which passes just north of the town, take the strain off the A25.

There was great amount of public opposition to the first proposal, and so it was no great surprise when, over four years later in 1990, the council eventually selected the second option. The scheme was reviewed in 1992, replacing the proposed roundabouts with traffic signals. However the scheme did not progress further, presumably due to lack of funding.

Further assessments took place in 2002/3, but the plan was shelved in 2004. To this day, the same one-way system remains in effect, and heavy traffic continues to thunder through the heart of the town. In 2012 the 'relief road' plan found itself back on a list of major road projects across Surrey, which appears to be based around the same plan that was approved in 1990. If funding is made available, construction could start after 2019 - but will it actually happen in my lifetime? I somehow doubt it!

There is one pedestrianised road in Reigate, however - Tunnel Road, which leads north directly from the town centre and, as the name suggests, passes in a tunnel underneath the Castle Grounds.

Shopping centres

Back to the mid-80s, and around this time the neighbouring town of Redhill was undergoing a major regeneration project, with much of the Victorian heart of the town having been demolished, and the new Warwick Quadrant development rising in its place, consisting of shops, theatre, library, offices, bus station and a Sainsbury's supermarket. New relief roads were also constructed to the east of the centre, allowing the full pedestrianisation of the main shopping streets.

But it looked like Reigate might not be left out. In 1986, the local magazine 'Reigate Life and Times' brought news of proposals for a major new development in the town centre. Research showed that local shoppers believed the town was losing its attraction, and the lack of variety was sending them away to the likes of Redhill, Crawley and Croydon. (Click here to see what shopping choice was available in Reigate's main streets around this time). Local shops were going out of business and being replaced by estate agents and building societies. It seemed that a new shopping centre was essential to boost the town's appeal and bring back those lost shoppers.

The development was a joint venture between London and Metropolitan Estates and Bellhouse and Joseph Investments. The proposals were for a covered shopping mall on two levels, with car parking above. There would be 50 standard shop units and four larger stores including a potential Waitrose supermarket, plus a restaurant promising a panoramic view of Priory Park. Construction would be in traditional materials, e.g. brick and wood. It was hoped that the new centre would be open for trading by Christmas 1989.

Reigate happened have the perfect location for the new development - semi-derelict land immediately to the south of the High Street. Part of the site was a car park, but on the remainder of the land stood a number of dilapidated and disused buildings, including the Old Brewery Tower which could be seen rising above the buildings around the town centre. Although a listed building, it was in poor condition and would need to be cleared away. The town's late Victorian post office would also be demolished, along with the Reigate Garage showrooms next door. Reigate Cage, on the other hand, was the one building on the site that would be retained and restored as part of the development. The Cage was built in 1811, and in the 19th century was used as a temporary lock-up for local felons.

In May 1987, a public exhibition was held in Reigate's former Woolworths building (which had been empty for several years and would be incorporated into the new scheme). The plans had already been revised, with a reduction in shop units from 50 to 36, and the addition of a small office building within the development.

The developers promised that the scheme would bring Reigate's shopping choice 'into the 21st century, without intruding on, or marring, this beautiful town'. The centre would marry 'perfectly with the historic charm of the town centre and the attractions of the park' - indeed, as seen in the image below, a walkway and steps would be provided between the shopping centre and Priory Park. It was at this point that the public was invited to put forward suggestions to name the centre - the winning name was 'Cherchefelle', which was the name of the earliest known settlement in the Reigate area.

After taking note of comments from the public, London and Metropolitan and Bellhouse and Joseph announced another revised scheme - slightly smaller overall, with a wider range of smaller shop units to encourage local traders to take part, and the addition of 'peaceful and attractive cobbled courtyards' around the scheme, along with further restaurants and eating areas. The Stable, which stands adjacent to the Cage, would also now be retained and restored. The projected opening date was put back to 1991.

These plans were approved by the council in May 1988. Meanwhile, neighbouring Redhill was also set to gain a new indoor shopping centre. Initially announced as being called 'The Galleries', it was soon rechristened 'The Belfry', as it was to take the clock and bells that were formerly housed in the St Anne's Institution that had stood prominently on the Redhill landscape for decades but was demolished in 1987. (Incidentally, this building will be known by Doctor Who fans, as it was the filming location for the scenes representing the interior of the Tardis in the 1978 serial 'The Invasion of Time' - but I am really drifting off the point now!)

The Belfry development came about when two estate agents were glancing out of their window, and thought of the car park opposite - "what a marvellous site for a shopping complex!" They sold their idea to developers the Burton Property Trust and five years later, in 1989, construction work got under way.

Back in Reigate, and in August 1989, it was reported that work too was at last about to begin on its shopping centre, with the opening anticipated for mid-1992. However, as part of the new development was to be built on an existing car park, additional car parking would be required in the town to make up for spaces lost during construction. And so before building work could begin, a new multi-storey car park would be built on a surface car park on an entirely separate site in Bancroft Road. Work on the new car park should have begun in March 1989 - but due to 'contractual reasons' the site lay empty, closed and fenced off for months, leading to car parking chaos in the town. Construction finally began in autumn 1989, and it was planned that upon completion, building of the shopping centre would then commence.

By this time, the derelict buildings that stood on the location of the new development had been swept away, and in the summer of 1989, archaeologists arrived to excavate the site. Although no significant finds were made at this time, a number of small medieval and 18th century objects were discovered. Once the developers moved in, anything that remained would be destroyed forever.

The delayed multi-storey car park finally opened many months late in August 1990 - but construction of the shopping centre did not begin. The early 90s recession was beginning to bite, and the developers were running into financial difficulties. To keep the scheme viable, in spring 1990 they submitted a further redesign to the centre. The new plan contained a whopping five times the amount of office space, cut a third of the shopping space, and added a four star hotel. The council found these proposals unacceptable and rejected the plan.

Another redesign in September dropped the hotel, reduced the office space and increased the shopping space. Councillors still weren't impressed, accusing the developers of being 'selfish', and accusing them of turning the town centre into a 'wasteland'.

So London and Metropolitan and Bellhouse and Joseph tried yet again, reducing the office space to the minimum they believed was needed to make the scheme viable, but still making up 55 per cent of the development. The other 45 per cent would consist of shops, which were now based around an open cobbled courtyard - a far cry from the two level covered shopping mall of the earlier proposals. But once again it was the same story - the council were still unhappy with the amount of office space, and in December 1990 the plans were rejected for the third time that year.

In 1991 the developers had one final throw of the dice - they reduced the amount of office space once again, and once again found themselves having their plan thrown back at them. This was the final straw for London and Metropolitan and Bellhouse and Joseph, and they pulled out of the shopping centre scheme altogether. By the middle of 1991, there were reports that the council had been secretly discussing an entirely different proposal from an entirely different set of developers.

In October 1991 (the same month that Redhill's Belfry centre opened) their identity was revealed - they were the supermarket chain Safeway. They already had a store in Redhill, but the new Reigate store would be twice the size. It would include a cafe, a dry cleaners and a post office counter. As with the earlier schemes, the Cage and the Stable would be restored, and a new open courtyard area be formed around them, along with eight new shop units. London and Metropolitan, who still owned the site, would retain one corner for a small office development.

The Safeway scheme was well-received, however there were reservations over the design of the supermarket, with comments that it was a self-contained 'off the shelf' design that took no account of its position within the historic town centre. Although this was dispusted by Safeway, they quickly came up with a more sympathetic, barn-like design.

After a year of quibbling, the council finally gave the go-ahead for the plans in autumn 1992. Safeway had to agree to a package of conditions, including building a walkway between the High Street and Priory Park, making the car park available free of charge outside opening hours, and contributing to the cost of the 'northern relief road' - which, as discussed, has still yet to be built! (Incidentally, the construction of the supermarket effectively laid to rest any chance of the 'southern relief road' ever being built, since the building blocks the route it would have taken!)

Construction took about a year, and the supermarket, along with the open courtyard, opened in autumn 1993, thus finally bringing an end to this long-running saga. Now known as Morrisons, the development has remained at the heart of Reigate town centre ever since.

Meanwhile the Bancroft Road multi-storey car park (right) also stands to this day. Few, if any, of those who park their vehicles in it today, realise its significance of being the only vestige of a major shopping development that never got built, a reminder of what could have been!

The above information hads been gathered from cuttings from local newspapers 'Surrey Mirror', 'Mirror Extra' and the 'Reigate Independent', along with 'Reigate Life and Times' dated Autumn 1986, and 'What will the Centre of Reigate look like in the 1990s?', a leaflet issued on behalf of London and Metropolitan PLC and Bellhouse and Joseph Investments Ltd

Text copyright © Robert Williams