Ex-Liverpool department store's fate highlights decline of high streets

The extent of the decline in the traditional UK retail sector can be seen from news of a former Liverpool department store on Thursday. The venerable GH Lee store close to Williamson Square is now up for sale and there are plans for it to become a combined four-star hotel, restaurant, casino, nightclub and events space.


The former GH Lee store in its heyday - John Lewis & Partners


But the freehold owner Legal and General (L&G) has put it up for sale on the open market, which could derail the plans. Whatever happens, retail is unlikely to continue at the site.

The building has been empty for two years after the previous retail tenant, Rapid Discount Outlet, went into administration. Earlier it had been a John Lewis department store (John Lewis has acquired the GH Lee company) but the retailer exited the location in 2008 when it moved to the giant Liverpool One mall.

It’s a classic story that’s being repeated all over the country as large anchor stores in traditional retail neighbourhoods see their tenants moving to the ‘supermalls’ into which big landlords are pouring resources.

This often leads to local discount-focused tenants driving down the neighbourhood’s appeal and ultimately, conversion to other uses. And the process could accelerate around the UK as other department stores such as Debenhams and House of Fraser close branches.

It’s hard to find new tenants for such properties given their large size, as has been seen from the large number of ex-BHS stores that remain empty three years after its failure. 

Niki Bolza of development company Niboco told TheBusinessDesk website: “Our view is that it’s entirely reasonable to convert that beautiful building into a hotel, which would become one of the best hotels in Liverpool. It’s a gorgeous building with massive potential. To use it as a hotel is ideal – it couldn’t be more suited to that. Retail, particularly on the upper floors of the building – is just not viable.”

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