Exeter business owners 'need clarity' over Royal Clarence rebuild

The site of the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter more than seven years after it was destroyed by a fire -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive
The site of the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter more than seven years after it was destroyed by a fire -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive

The owner of a business on Exeter's Cathedral Green say traders need "clarity" on the delayed redevelopment of the Royal Clarence Hotel. It has now been more than seven years since the historic building was ravaged by fire in October 2016.

In September 2023, it was announced that the complex planning matters that had delayed the Royal Clarence project had finally been settled. Southwest Lifestyle Brands Ltd, owned by Plymouth businessman James Brent, had been given planning permission to build a £17million block of luxury flats, a restaurant and a bar on the site back in October 2022 but were unable to make a start until they agreed a Section 106 agreement with Exeter City Council.

More than six months after the authority and the developer came to an agreement, work still hasn't started. The former hotel has been surrounded by hoardings for the last seven years. According to the decision notice on Exeter City Council's website, work must start no later than three years after the Section 106 was agreed in August 2023.

Last month, Natatomisam Ltd, which is a parent company of Southwest Lifestyle Brands Ltd, told DevonLive that there was currently no timetable for the redevelopment. It added that its other projects in the South West, including the construction of homes in Barnstaple, were "progressing well".

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The dormant building site has been a source of frustration for locals and businesses alike over the last seven years, with some describing it as an "eyesore". The owner of one nearby business says himself and other business owners feel they have been left in the dark.

Ben Mangan, owner of Eat on the Green, or Tea on the Green at the time, has vivid memories of the fateful day in 2016. The business had to close for around two weeks until it was deemed safe to return. Ben says the speed with which the site of the fire was cleared had left him hopeful that a rebuild would be around the corner.

He said: "I was actually opening that particular morning so I remember vividly about 6:45am walking to the Cathedral Green from Southernhay and seeing lots of bright lights. I did actually go in my building because the fire brigade wanted to go onto the roof to check that the buildings on that row weren't getting dangerous cinders on the roofs. I spent most of that day watching the fire from my own property.

"It was all guesswork at the time. The owner was talking about restoring it to its glory but as it transpired, the plan turned into holding onto it for three years and then selling what was left of it. We were expecting something to take place pretty soon.

"They got on with the demolition pretty quickly but after that, everything just stopped. Since then there's been no activity other than the scaffolding worker turning up once a month."

Martin's Lane, where scaffolding and hoarding can be seen on the site of the Royal Clarence fire -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive
Martin's Lane, where scaffolding and hoarding can be seen on the site of the Royal Clarence fire -Credit:Mary Stenson/DevonLive

He says the large area of hoarding has meant fewer customers over the years as it has taken away some of the area's alfresco atmosphere. He said: "When you have an alfresco area with other cafes, bars and restaurants adjacent to you, then you become an area where people will naturally go to enjoy a cup of tea or a pint of beer or some food on a sunny day like this. But it no longer is an area where people naturally gravitate to because we're the only outside seating area on our particular close. We're all divided up by the hoarding at the front of the hotel.

"There's no feeling of sitting and people-watching and it being a lovely area like it should be for people to come and enjoy sunshine, food and drink. And obviously there used to be a magnificent building there and now there's just hoarding, sometimes with graffiti on."

Ben explained that he's excited about the new development but says it's frustrating to still have no timeline. He has called for more clarity so that business owners can plan ahead.

He said: "It is [frustrating] because we don't understand why nothing is being done if they really are intending to go ahead with their plan. Not only is there no timeline but there's no reason that's been made clear to the public and business owners.

"We like the plans that we've seen, we think it's going to be magnificent with the apartments there and the bar and a restaurant downstairs. I'm fully supportive of that. We just hope that the owners will be able to get on and start the work or at least give us some sort of timeline.

"I understand that it's a business thing and the economy is not what it was when the current owners took it over. But just some sort of clarity would help me and the adjacent businesses."