VICTORIAN building in Winchester once threatened with demolition could become a new business centre.

The disused Register Office on Station Hill is set to open as a new “flexible workspace” in the new year, councillors heard.

It is part of the city council’s drive to boost business in the Covid-hit city centre.

The former Registry Office, formerly the South Western pub, was set for demolition as part of plans to develop the Station Approach area, currently on hold.

Andrew Gostelow, service lead economy and tourism, said talks were taking place with an unnamed “third party” and the M3 LEP.

Chas Bradfield, strategic director - space, added: “It is very early days and we are aware the Covid situation has changed the way people look at workspace. We are trying to be innovative, looking at what spaces there are in the city and how they might be used.

“We are in dialogue with LEP who are interested in investing and are already with the Vaultex car park at Bar End. It is too early days to say much more.”

Mr Gostelow gave details of how the city has been hit by coronavirus this year. There was bad news last week with Debenhams announcing its collapse.

He said footfall is down 40 per cent on 2019 but Winchester does remain “competitive to other destinations and other places”.

There had been some recovery in the summer with a 17 per cent rise in August with BID counters recording 21,455 people a week, up in September by 12 per cent to 24,006, although it faltered in October dropping 3 per cent to 23,186.

Car parking revenue was up 25 per cent from the end of September to the end of October before the second lockdown.

The building and housing policy committee heard last Tuesday that people out of work was around 2,700 or 3.6 per cent, the highest since the early 1990s.

The vacancy rate of shops in the city centre is currently 8.8 per cent below the national average of 11.3 per cent.

New employment space is being sought outside the city. IncuHive is refurbishing offices at the IBM headquarters at Hursley and say half the space has been let.

The new business park at the Bishop’s Waltham Depot site, being developed by the city council, will be ready for occupation early in the New Year.

Cllr Paula Ferguson, Cabinet member for local economy, said: “Obviously the closure of Debenhams is a blow to the High Street. Over 100 people work there, many part-time and students. It is a large unit, 50,000 square metres and council officers are talking to the landlords about their plans for the building.”

Surrey County Council owns the building having paid £15.8m for it in 2017.

Conservative group leader Caroline Horrill said: “It is a very substantial spot and owned by another local authority. Do we have knowledge of its long-term use? They won’t want to be losing revenue from such an important asset they acquired."

Mr Bradfield told the committee that Cabinet members and officers met Mark Robinson, chairman of the national High Streets Task Force, to discuss the Central Winchester Regeneration area. Mr Bradfield said: “Our ideas for the area were from his point of view ‘spot on’ and the right direction to be going in.”

Mr Robinson said: “No-one underestimates the challenges to our town and city centres, but having met with senior figures at Winchester City Council, it’s clear that Winchester is on the right tracks to transforming for future demand.”