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Cathedral Group chief executive Richard Upton talks of his dream to transform Sittingbourne town centre with £30m plan

By Andy Gray

Good times are set to roll.

Who says so? Richard Upton, the man behind Sittingbourne’s impending multimillion-pound regeneration.

Plans remain in the pipeline but he’s in no doubt about the project’s success when he says: “Sit back and wait for the excitement that’s coming.”

Cathedral Group chief executive Richard Upton

After a series of well-publicised setbacks and delays, work on the new-look Sittingbourne town centre could begin as early as March next year.

Richard is chief executive of independent mixed-use property developer Cathedral Group.

New homes form part of the £30m plan, but the highlight is the transformation of the Forum shopping centre car park into a “cultural quartet” comprising a cinema and restaurants.

According to Richard, the new plaza will attract 400,000 visitors a year which will help generate £200m over the course of a decade.

A bold declaration for sure, but his company has a well-worn track record when it comes to reinventing fading towns.

An artist's impression of the proposed multi-screen cinema and entertainment venue in Sittingbourne

Having started the group “with £2” in 1998, it now has a development portfolio of 7m sqft worth £2.5bn.

Innumerable success stories include key worker accommodation, lecture theatres, residential development, retail and leisure facilities.

“What really drives me is creating beautiful places, but they have to be profitable for us to pay wages and manage the risk,“ said Richard.

“We enjoy the challenge of making unlikely projects a success, which is probably why I’ve got considerable grey hair.”

The building work is set to get underway after Cathedral Group announced a partnership with Canterbury-based developer Quinn Estates last month.

The Kent firm is expected to carry out most of the building work on the project using Cathedral's plans to beautify Kent's Cinderella town.

“All I read in the newspapers is that high streets are dying, but that’s probably because they rely on retail,” said Richard.

“High streets are not about retail, they’re about where people bump into each other and enjoy coming to.

Signing of the Spirit of Sittingbourne agreement in 2012

“The renaissance of the high street is all about bringing in the right mix of civic uses – schools, council offices, police stations, doctors’ surgeries – with leisure and entertainment because all of these create footfall.

“The UK spends more on online retail than any other European country, so we can’t rely on retail in the high street because of that trend. High streets need to reinvent themselves to what they were when they were created a thousand years ago.”

Richard says it will take a “few light touches” worth about £5 million to improve the road system as part of an overall promise to tempt shoppers to Sittingbourne rather than Bluewater.

A £1m planning application, due to be submitted in September, will put detail to the dream.

The masterplan of the regeneration plans for Sittingbourne town centre

In the lead-up, he’s drawing up a “colourful and engaging” public consultation which will include installations in the High Street.

He declared: “If I was a betting man, and I am, I’d say the outlook for the town is extremely strong.

“If someone’s thinking about buying a small flat or setting up business in the town centre in the next couple of years, it’ll end up being the best investment they ever made.

“I’d advise people to get in quick before it becomes more valuable.”

“Standing outside Sittingbourne train station, I saw too many roads getting in the way of people enjoying themselves...” - Cathedral Group's Richard Upton

Richard, who is 46 but “feels more like 163”, was schooled at an “average Eltham comprehensive” before studying property development at Reading University.

He lives in Sussex with his wife and two children but said he has seen a lot of Kent and has got to the know county “very well”.

His first impression of Sittingbourne is one he hopes the redesign will eradicate forever come its estimated completion in 2017.

“Standing outside the train station, I saw too many roads getting in the way of people enjoying themselves,” he said.

“It feels ominous, there’s nothing on a human scale at all and there’s no sense of arrival.

“When you walk up Pall Mall, at the end is Buckingham Palace. When you get out at Sittingbourne station all you see is roundabouts, roads and cars.

“We we want to change all of that.”

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