Boom town: Watford's £1.5bn revamp plans
PUBLISHED: 10:00 05 March 2016
watford for you
A one-time centre of industry, Watford is reinventing itself as a major UK business hub with major infrastructure plans in place that will transform it. Julie Lucas reports
Things are happening in Watford. From suffering something of an image problem, the town is rebuilding itself as a centre of finance, business, shopping, leisure and culture, with investment running to £1.5bn over the next 20 years.
Major projects, either begun, approved or in the planning stages, include a Tube line extension with new stations and a remodelling of Watford Junction; the redevelopment of Charter Place and the intu shopping centre with a new square, expanded shopping centre, restaurant hub and leisure complex; the redevelopment of Watford Business Park and Ascot Road business areas (both linked by the new rail network), and a new 29-hectare ‘health campus’.
Its location close to the M1, M25 and London has made Watford an attractive choice for businesses. It currently has around 3,900 companies, ranging from corner shops to international businesses, and has drawn in big names including Camelot, JD Weatherspoon and Ralph Lauren, while Warner Bros and TK Maxx have both announced plans to expand. And Watford isn’t just looking after the multinationals but encouraging start-ups too, with the innovative New Watford Market (housed in interconnected shipping containers) and business mentoring by organisations such as Wenta.
Proving a welcome boon to the town is the situation over at Vicarage Road, where the success of Watford Football Club in the Premiership has created big benefits, with increased footfall and a noticeable buzz on match days.
The Watford for You initiative has brought together both the private and public sectors with the aim of promoting the town’s benefits and improving the lives of all those who live or work here. Partners include John Lewis, Watford Borough Council and Watford FC.
A Business Improvement District (BID), which will give businesses the power to raise and spend funds to improve the area, was voted for overwhelmingly in October. The Town Centre Partnership said it was delighted with the outcome and is aiming to hit the ground running in April with plans to improve things visually with its Wow Watford campaign. Chairman Jonathan Field says, ‘I’ve worked in other towns where BIDs were in place and have seen first-hand the positive difference they can make. The investment will enable Watford town centre to build on its recent achievements and deliver what we, the local businesses, have recommended. This is the beginning of a new and very exciting time.’
Borough council economic development manager Andrew Gibson agrees. ‘If we want to compete we have to invest,’ he says. One major investment project is the redevelopment of Charter Place. The £180m scheme due for completion in 2018 will see the dated complex integrated with a refurbished intu shopping centre (formerly the Harlequin), transforming it into a single 1.4m sq ft retail and leisure destination. Big names on board include Debenhams, Kurt Geiger, Thomas Sabo and Cath Kidston. Large modern retail units will be complemented by a restaurant hub and nine-screen IMAX cinema. A new public square is also planned with the aim to host a varied arts events programme including street theatre and music.
When complete, the enlarged intu Watford will bring the town into the independent CACI UK retail rankings’ top 20, confirming it as a premier shopping destination. Not a bad achievement for a shopping centre ranked 47 just five years ago.
‘The redevelopment of Charter Place, the introduction of free wi-fi across the town centre, the refurbishment of our car parks and of course the Metropolitan Line extension all signal that Watford is a town worth investing in,’ says Field.
‘Watford’s reputation is growing nationally, with economic forecasters predicting our local economy will grow at a much faster rate than the UK average, with Watford being ranked as the third-hottest town in England.’
As infrastructure improves and property in the nearby capital has become prohibitively expensive, Watford is becoming attractive not only to businesses but to homeowners and renters wishing to relocate from London.
The extension of the London Underground Metropolitan line, the Croxley Rail Link project, will improve Watford’s links to London even more, making travel to and from the capital quicker. The new £284.4m link will reroute to create two new stations and bring Underground services to the High Street and Watford Junction. Work is due to start this year and when completed will bring 16 trains an hour from the capital, a fact that will also help to ease Watford’s already-stretched road network. As another plus, it will also provide a link to Watford Health Campus, an ambitious £280m project to provide hundreds of new homes, business units and community space.
Gibson says he believes the rail link is worth billions to south west Hertfordshire’s economy. ‘We’re not just improving transport connectivity in Watford, we are harnessing the investment potential it creates,’ he points out.
‘We are confident that the town’s locational advantage, coupled with our 21st-century regeneration agenda, will ensure Watford continues to be an ideal location for those who are seeking all the advantages of London, but with a fraction of the costs.
‘It has been an incredible journey for Watford but the success we have had in the last couple of years has been truly phenomenal.’
Watford is well and truly open for business.