The Herald has been pestering Brightwells Yard developer Crest Nicholson for a site visit ever since its last one in summer 2021, so far without success... So between Christmas and new year, with construction works on pause over the festive period, we took ourselves for a little stroll into the bits of the development open for residents.

Crest are, as ever, reluctant to talk too openly about a development two decades in the making – and a spokesman this week said they could not talk opening dates “yet”. But they quickly dismissed rumours that Reel Cinema are pulling out as “not true”, saying Reel are on track to begin fitting out the cinema from the end of February or early March.

The Herald understands Reel hopes to open its six-screen multiplex in September.

The Crest spokesman added they also hope to hand over Brightwell House in mid-March for Coppa Club’s fit out – with Coppa Club believed to be targeting a June or July opening. However, this could be delayed after fresh concerns over Crest Nicholson’s conversion of the Grade II-listed building were discussed by Waverley Borough Council this week.

Marks & Spencer announced plans to open eight “full-line” stores across the country as well as 12 food halls last week – with hope locally the retail giant may reverse its decision to pull out of Brightwells Yard. But the Crest spokesman poured cold water on the suggestion, saying they were “not aware of any talks reopening with M&S”.

A flurry of planning applications and activity on the commercial property market last year also hinted at the imminent arrivals of Charters Estate Agents, Joules, a Sit & Sip tasting bar, Bright Young Things tuition centre and a nail salon at Brightwells – with Heaven’s Kitchen and Whistles also rumoured to be taking units.

But these are still yet to be confirmed – and Joules is in the process of closing stores, not opening new ones, after entering administration in December. It is noticeable that Reel is now the only confirmed ‘retailer’ listed on Crest’s dedicated Brightwells Yard website, suggesting that Cornish fashion brand Seasalt has also joined M&S in pulling out of the development.

Indeed, Crest currently has an application pending with Waverley Borough Council to change the legal use of 24 of Brightwells’ 25 retail units to the more flexible ‘Class E’ – which can include anything from shops to offices, cafes, restaurants, GPs, ‘light industrial’, crèches, gyms and more – to improve the scheme’s viability.

Its application papers (WA/2022/02116) provide the most honest assessment yet why Crest has struggled to sign up retailers. They state: “Over 13 years have passed since the permission was originally granted. Over these 13 years there has been a huge decline in the health of the retail industry as well as a shift in the way people like to shop.

“The combination of the rising cost of living and the rise in online shopping has resulted in an increase in the number of vacant retail units across the UK as retail businesses now no longer need physical units to sell their products.

“The Covid-19 pandemic further grew this online shopping market and exacerbated the decline that UK high streets have been suffering. Furthermore, the high street itself has dramatically changed since 2009, with businesses evolving into more multi-function, multi-use spaces not conforming with a pure traditional A1 (general retail) use. For example, there has been a rise in co-working spaces that also provide additional uses such as community hubs, coffee shops, art galleries, creches, wellness centres, etc.

“Crest Nicholson therefore needs to ensure Brightwells Yard is a viable and sustainable development that is able to continually keep up with how the market evolves.

“Widening the consented A1 retail units to allow for Class E (a,b,c,d,e) uses ensures the development has as much flexibility as possible and is an effective way to avoid long-term empty units, whilst still restricting the development to only town centre uses.”

In more positive news, the Herald understands sales and lettings of Brightwells’ 239 flats have been very buoyant – with “huge demand” for its smaller one-, two- and three-bed town-centre homes, priced from £254,950. Around half of these homes are reportedly already occupied.