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Huge investment in Swansea city centre given strong endorsement by cabinet member

New offices being built by Swansea Council on The Kingsway, Swansea (Pic: Richard Youle)

A CABINET member has given a robust endorsement of Swansea Council’s huge investment in the city centre and its effect on the private sector.

Cllr Robert Francis-Davies said developers were upgrading buildings on The Kingsway, Oxford Street, Orchard Street and Princess Way following council projects that were completed or in the pipeline.

Cllr Francis-Davies was speaking at a council scrutiny meeting where officers gave an update on one of these council-led projects – a new office block called 71/72 Kingway at the site of the former Oceana nightclub.

Some concerns were expressed about a wider decline in demand for office space, but Cllr Francis-Davies, cabinet member for investment, regeneration, events and tourism, said not everybody wanted to work from home.

He added:  “What we have shown is that we are now actually building buildings – that Swansea is a city that if they say they are going to do something, they do it.”

Construction work on 71/72 Kingsway began in November 2021 with a budget of up to £41.6 million, including a £13.7 million contribution from the UK and Welsh governments via the City Deal for the Swansea Bay City Region.

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The building is due to be completed at the end of this month, although the scrutiny panel heard it was likely to overrun by a couple of weeks. The interior, which includes some retail, event and communal space, will then be fitted out ready for tenants this summer.

The scrutiny panel report said there had been some “further associated costs”, although no figures were given, and added that a separate budget had been identified to help with the running of the building in the early years of operation. It said the council was in the process of agreeing a lease with a tenant for the first floor and part of the ground and basement levels, and that discussions continued with potential occupiers of upper floors.

Cllr Peter Black asked when the building would be fully let, to which the council’s planning and city regeneration team leader, Katy Evans, replied: “Within a reasonable timescale.”

Cllr Black said the report implied that the £41.6 million budget ceiling was being exceeded. He was advised that discussions around costs would be dealt with when the scrutiny meeting went into private session at the end of the meeting.

A new public area behind 71/72 Kingsway linking to Oxford Street, and potentially into Picton Arcade, will also be created. Work is due to start in the summer.

Close to the office block will be a larger private sector-led residential, office and retail building with a landscaped courtyard and a greenhouse for growing vegetables and plants. Peaking at 13 storeys and featuring around 50 housing association flats, the complex is well under way and will occupy the former Woolworths store on Oxford Street and part of Picton Lane at the rear. The scrutiny report said it was due for completion this year.

Meanwhile, more office space is being created by the council at the revamped Palace Theatre and by a private developer at the former Mamma Mia restaurant building on Princess Way.

With more hybrid and home-working among employees since the Covid pandemic, Cllr Chris Holley wondered if Swansea could suffer from “empty office syndrome”, like that experienced by larger cities. Paul Relf, the council’s economic development and external funding manager, conceded that the market was changing but that Swansea was “starting from virtually zero” in terms of high quality office space, and that smaller businesses applying to the council for UK Shared Prosperity Fund grants were looking for offices to rent.

Mr Relf said the council used to tell companies interested in office space that it would be available in two or three years’ time, whereas now it was there to see in the flesh.

Cllr Francis-Davies said tech companies in particular were keen to have a base for employees. He added: “Not everyone wants to sit at home and work on their own.”

Earlier in the meeting the scrutiny panel was given updates about other council-led projects, including a revamp of Castle Square into a greener space with two new cafe-restaurant pavilions. Work on the new-look Castle Square Gardens is expected to start later this year and last 12 months.

Meanwhile, proposals for a new hotel between Swansea Arena and the LC have been re-marketed. A preferred operator been chosen by the council in 2020.

Cllr Dai Jenkins asked when the unfinished multi-storey car park opposite the arena and at the rear the Tesco superstore might be completed – before Christmas, for example. Mark Wade, the council’s director of place, said surveys of the car park were being carried out and that the council hoped to confirm a timetable of work as soon as possible. These regeneration projects have required considerable borrowing by the council, although it was done when interest rates were low.

Councillors were also told that the council, along with the Welsh Government, was trying its best to secure tenants for the former Debenhams store at the Quadrant Shopping Centre. Cllr Holley said the building’s future was of huge interest to the public and city centre traders, and that in his view Swansea also needed more sites for industry and manufacturing. Cllr Francis-Davies said every town and city with a former Debenhams was worried about their building. “We want a retail offer that everybody can be proud of,” he said.