‘Hands off our historic buildings’: Property boss warns too many sales could harm the high street

PUBLISHED: 06:00 21 August 2020

The Moss Bros building in White Lion Street is for sale. Pic: Submitted

The Moss Bros building in White Lion Street is for sale. Pic: Submitted


The sale of buildings for mixed use as homes and shops has come under fire for potentially damaging the high street.

Stefan Gurney, Norwich BID Pic: ArchantStefan Gurney, Norwich BID Pic: Archant

It comes as a growing trend is emerging of large properties in the city centre being offered for sale as mixed residential and commercial schemes to meet the shortage of housing in the city.

Shops with empty offices or storage rooms above – some which have lain empty for decades – are being sold off for conversion to apartments.

But the result is over the last five years 30pc of Norwich’s offices have been lost to residential conversions – changing the face of the city irreversibly.

Burlington Buildings, Orford Place. Pic; ArchantBurlington Buildings, Orford Place. Pic; Archant

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The latest to come on the market is a three storey, late 18th century building, 20, White Lion Street, next to Greggs bakery, for sale at auction next month for £950,000. It is currently leased to men’s outfitters Moss Bros for £80,000 a year.

The Moss Bros lease runs out in two years, however and auctioneers Cheffins state “the building may have longer term potential for alternative uses, subject to planning”.

Castle House, currently being converted into 23 apartments opposite the castle. Pic: ArchantCastle House, currently being converted into 23 apartments opposite the castle. Pic: Archant

Other similar properties offering a mixed use of retail with residential include historic Burlington Buildings, which went up for sale for £950,000 in Orford Place earlier this year. Most recently, work started at Castle House, Castle Street, an office block opposite the castle, which is being converted into 23 apartments with retail units at street level.

Guy Gowing, managing partner at Arnolds Keys, who heads up its commercial property department, said he was not in favour of “pepperpotting” whereby high streets had buildings offering a mix at street level of homes and also retail.

“Short-term it might kickstart the high street but long term, the retail picture can be weakened, it makes the high street shorter and doesn’t help the good of the city.

“If planners get it wrong this time around, trouble may be ahead.”

Sentinel House; former Aviva offices in Surrey Street which were converted to residential. Pic: ArchantSentinel House; former Aviva offices in Surrey Street which were converted to residential. Pic: Archant

He also criticised the changes in permitted development rights (PDR) recently which makes it a lot easier to change a building’s use from commercial to residential.

“When PDR was first introduced, it was a sensible vehicle to encourage bringing back into use often derelict, low-grade commercial buildings – generally offices – by simplifying the planning process involved in converting them to residential use.

“Trying to replicate this on the High Street is quite another matter.

“Retail areas only really work as a destination with an unbroken parade of shops, and random mixed use streets of homes and shops simply won’t cut it.”

Will Jones, Bidwells. Pic: BidwellsWill Jones, Bidwells. Pic: Bidwells

But Will Jones, partner and head of commercial at Bidwells in Norwich, disagreed. “If you look at what’s happened in Norwich over the past two-three years, there have been an awful lot of older office buildings used for residential and student accommodation. But the retail market has changed irreversibly. People are not going to shops as much and there is still a housing shortage.

“You can have a vacant shop and hold out until it’s re-let but that can take years, so surely it’s better to have these buildings occupied and some life in them?

“People need to be flexible and I’m all for buildings being occupied sooner.”

Stefan Gurney, executive director of Norwich BID, Business Improvement District, said: “We want to see the right mix in the city. A good amount of residential accommodation animates the city but we don’t want it to be at the expense of economic stock.

Guy Gowing, Arnolds Keys. Pic: Arnolds KeysGuy Gowing, Arnolds Keys. Pic: Arnolds Keys

“It’s a fine balance, but the city is going to change, a lot more people are going to be agile workers, more flexible, and I think a space which isn’t being utilised, a dead space, above a shop, should be brought into use.

“We need to grow our housing levels, but if the whole of the Moss Bros building was taken over for housing, that would be detrimental to the city.”

The building currently housing Moss Bross has its ground and first floor used as sales areas and a top floor with stockrooms, an office and kitchen. Auctioneers Cheffins describe it as: “A wonderful opportunity to purchase a prominent commercial building in the heart of the thriving city of Norwich.”

Meanwhile empty floors in the historic Chamberlin’s building, Dove Street, are earmarked for a hotel, again retaining retail units including Tesco and Strangers Coffee on the ground floor.

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In the past few years Aviva offices were sold off in Surrey Street for big housing schemes as well as the former industrial tribunal office in Ber Street.

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