Opinion: Give Norwich’s past a future

PUBLISHED: 11:02 26 November 2017 | UPDATED: 11:02 26 November 2017

Britons Arms on Elm Hill, Norwich.

Britons Arms on Elm Hill, Norwich.


Norwich, as we know, is a Fine City. But that description is only a partial quote from the famous 19th century local writer George Borrow. In fact, he described Norwich as a ‘Fine Old City’.

Alec Hartley. Photo: Alec HartleyAlec Hartley. Photo: Alec Hartley

I sometimes wonder whether the adjective ‘Old’ was deliberately dropped as slightly shaming when back in the day Norwich Union offered to sponsor the welcome signs on the city outskirts.

If so, it was a mistake. Our great city doesn’t thrive because it is perfectly governed. How could it be? Nearly the size of Nottingham, Greater Norwich (that’s the city and its suburbs), is run by three district councils as well as Norfolk County Council. But that’s an argument for another time. Norwich thrives in spite of its fragmented governance. It survives and grows because of its immense attractiveness, because of the quality of life we have that attracts new citizens and investors to come and live in our Fine Old City.

And that word ‘Old’ is the clue. Norwich’s rich streetscape, the hundreds of historic buildings that we walk, cycle and drive by every day, is an overwhelming factor in that quality of life, anchoring us in our city’s amazing and fascinating heritage. Preserving that past is therefore an economic necessity, a driver to a more prosperous future for all of us. Which is where the Norwich Preservation Trust (NPT) comes in.

It was formed 50 years ago when the steady loss of the city’s built heritage through dereliction and demolition by greedy developers led the Norwich Society to propose to the city council the foundation of a voluntary body ‘whose main objects would be to acquire, renovate where necessary and maintain, buildings of historic or architectural interest’.

The Britons Arms, Elm Hill, Norwich.The Britons Arms, Elm Hill, Norwich.

Since then the trust has spent nearly £6,000,000 to save eighteen Grade II and Grade II* listed buildings and one Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The 14th century Britons Arms in Elm Hill is the most recent of these. Others include Augustine Steward’s House on Tombland (also Grade II*) and the 16th Century Scheduled Ancient Monument Gybson’s Conduit in Westwick Street.

These are magnificent and important structures. But the Preservation Trust’s main purpose has been to save the historic homes and business places of the working citizens and ordinary merchants that line so many of our mediaeval streets and make sure they are fit for purpose as homes and business places in coming centuries.

Check them out: go and look, for instance, at 98-108 Oak Street; 1-9, Muspole Street or 2-4 St Andrew’s Hill. Then think what the street would look like if they were replaced by a modern office block or shop front.

Augustine Steward's house, Tombland Alley, the Erpingham Gate and the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in the Cathedral Quarter of Norwich.  Photo: Bill SmithAugustine Steward's house, Tombland Alley, the Erpingham Gate and the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in the Cathedral Quarter of Norwich. Photo: Bill Smith

The Preservation Trust works in partnership with Norwich City Council to do things the council can’t. As a non-profit making charitable body it is able to operate outside what are called ‘Treasury Rules’, which forbid local authorities to raise money from bodies like the Architectural Heritage Fund, Heritage England or the Heritage Lottery Fund.

This is vitally important at a time like the present, when the city council’s income is subject to savage cuts from Westminster. It means we can take on any of the hundreds of historic buildings the council owns, restore them to their proper use and utilise grants and rental income to fund future work.

In fact, the trust pioneered the idea of a revolving fund, whereby it often sells completed projects – usually on a long lease to safeguard the building’s future care - and uses the capital receipts to fund new projects. That idea has since been copied by other trusts up and down the country.

The NPT was a founder member of the UK Association of Preservation Trusts, with Malcolm Crowder our long-standing secretary and surveyor becoming its first chairman. In other cases – for instance the Britons Arms – we lease a property from the council, restore and then return it in good working order as a municipal money-maker to swell the city’s coffers. We carry on to other projects, the building benefits and so does Norwich City Council. It’s a win-win-win situation.

Malcolm Crowder from the Norwich Preservation Trust. 
PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAYMalcolm Crowder from the Norwich Preservation Trust. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

The partnership principle is also enshrined in our constitution. With a maximum of eleven (unpaid) directors, the trust board has four members nominated by the city council and three by the Norwich Society.

Our chairman Stephen Earl is an independent member, brought on board for his enormous experience in both preservation and fund-raising in his working life as Conservation and Heritage Manager for Great Yarmouth Borough Council. So, in conclusion: we need the city and the city needs us. That’s what partnership means. As the years roll on and local government belts tighten the trust will have more and more work to do. We stand ready to help give Norwich’s Fine Old Past a decent – and useful – future.

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