The Regeneration of Royal William Yard and its Future

by Len Stephens
Published March 2012

As it is 14 years ago since the Old Plymouth Society published my “History of the Naval Victualling Departrinent and its association with Plymouth” it Is time to reflect on what has been achieved to regenerate Royal William Yard, and look to its future. The closing message in 1996 was a challenge to those instructed with the future of this historic complex to come up with some dynamic ideas to commemorate its past. So what has been achieved and what is currently planned?

The Plymouth Development Corporation ran out of money and ideas soon after 1996. After 5 years of confused planning and a failed remit to regenerate the Stonehouse Urban Development Area, the P.D.C. came to an end. The ownership of Royal William Yard was taken over by English Partnership in 1998 followed shortly by its transfer to the South West Regional Development Agency (RDA) in 1999. The site included Western King and Reservoir area which is maintained as public open space by Plymouth City Council.

Since being the owners of Royal William Yard, the RDA has spent in the region of £14 million on further repairs and renovation to the buildings. Nearly £7 million were invested in external repairs and renovation of Clarence and Brewhouse blocks. These buildings were handed over to the property developers Urban Splash for conversion to 133 apartments, a restaurant and cafe/bar with waterfront views and an art/exhibition gallery.

This was the first phase of an exciting £30 million development started by Urban Splash in 2003 and completed in 2006. So began the start of a long term strategy for the Royal William Yard regeneration and the first major step towards the RDA’s vision of a vibrant sustainable mixed use development

Work on the Mills and Bakery Block began in 2007, a difficult and complicated operation carried out under a “cocoon” enveloping the entire building with sheeting. The progress of the work was difficult to follow and in view of the economic climate, hard to imagine completed. The RDA’s vision for this block envisaged the following uses: – retail/restaurant/ cafe/ bar at ground level with offices and apartments on the upper floors. This has now been achieved and the vision will now see the completion of Royal William Yard redevelopment as well as planning the development of Western King and Devil’s Point area. The final “master plan” was unveiled in July 2008. Proposals by Urban Splash for the Melville Block feature a boutique hotel, cinema, amphi-theatre, art galleries, offices and accommodation for commercial uses, which could include business centres, workshops and exhibition galleries. A programme of work is scheduled to be completed by 2014. Alongside plans for the Yard, Urban Splash is also keen to give Western King and Devil’s Point a new lease of life. This will include a new footbridge around Devil’s Point to link the coastal path around the peninsula and a pier and ferry point at Firestone Bay. This ambitious plan was estimated to cost £68 million but its start has been delayed. An updated appraisal of Urban Splash’s future plans was elaborated in William Telford’s article in The Herald on the 18th March 2010 under the heading ‘Yard will become second Barbican’.

The Associate Director of Urban Splash said “we want to establish the Yard on the tourist map” and redevelopment proposals were outlined, similar to those in the 2008 plan, but now estimated to cost about £110 million. It was also stated that the M.O.D. has signed a contract to occupy 2750 sq.ft. on the ground floor of the newly furbished Mills /Bakery block. This is currently used as a Visitors Centre for the Royal Navy, and coach trips are being made to and from the Naval Base to the Centre. It is not intended as a museum, although it houses items previously kept in the Devonport Naval Base. There are photographs of the South Yard, models of warships and a few artifacts such as a Navy grog tub and the model of the Royal William Yard as originally designed by Sir John Rennie. The ferry service which runs from the Barbican to the R.W.Y. carries a brochure which states that the Yard is coming alive with “cafes/bars, restaurants, museums, offices and residential spaces”. Visitors coming on these ferries will find the Royal Navy Visitors Centre but no museum as such. I spoke to Urban Splash’s construction manager about the misconception that the Visitors Centre was the start of setting up a museum. The former Victualling Museum, four rooms on the first floor of Melville Block with 1000’s of items, was transferred to the Dockyard Museum in South Yard in 1992.

The construction manager stated that the refurbishment of the New Cooperage was the next priority. It is in the design stage, estimated work to be completed by late 2011. This is not such a large or costly project. Next would be the more ambitious development of the Melville Block with hotel, cinema etc. The progress of these plans depends on securing financial backing. There is no museum specifically planned for.

What I have to say next are my own reflections on the dawning of this new era for the Royal William Yard and its potential as a ‘Heritage site’ for tourism including the importance of realizing the opportunity of developing a museum there. When the coastal path link is completed, Royal William Yard with a museum, would greatly benefit the Waterfront project.

The achievements of the South West Regional Development Agency and Urban Splash are impressive. They have steered the Royal William Yard towards a dynamic future and there is now tangible evidence of the Yard’s regeneration. The partnership has led to a joint publication with the City Museum and Art Gallery, entitled “The Royal William Yard”. This is a beautifully illustrated history of naval victualling in Plymouth. I should acknowledge that I have drawn on this book and on a 2004 RDA Fact Sheet for information about regeneration plans. Given the success of the partnership, it is a great pity that the South West RDA is to be scrapped. The RDA office in the Royal William Yard has already closed. RDAs are to be replaced by Local Enterprise Partnerships in April 2012. It is too early to know how these will operate and if changes in the interim will affect Urban Splash’s development plans.

Other changes are happening in the historic South Dockyard, which is the home of the Dockyard Museum (incorporating the Victualling Museum). A private boatyard (Princess Yachts) is being developed in South Yard. This could have a bearing on the future prospects of the Dockyard and Victualling Museums. Their importance should not be overlooked and th Opportunity taken for at least the victualling museum to return to its rightful home in Royal William Yard. Within the context of the regeneration of the Royal William Yard, what are the prospects of the City Council taking the initiative to promote our naval and maritime history? Their track record in these matters is not good. If the City Council believes that tourism will play an important part in Plymouth’s future prosperity it needs to make it clear where it stands now on the importance of promoting heritage.

From the beginning it has been named as a key partner in the redevelopment plans to restore the Royal William Yard. Now, with the departure of the RDA, it is time for the Council to show leadership in ensuring that maritime heritage is not ignored in the coming stages of development. It would be a major achievement to establish a permanent site at the Royal William Yard telling the maritime story of Plymouth as the late Lt Cdr Ken Burns, once the Naval History Librarian and Lord Owen so passionately hoped for.

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