A fresh approach for Anglia Square?
PUBLISHED: 10:14 17 October 2018 | UPDATED: 10:47 17 October 2018
Archant Norfolk 2018
Ever since Anglia Square opened in 1970 we have been waiting for the development to be completed. The site is an eyesore on the main approach to the city centre and is a wasted asset at a time when we desperately need more housing.
So it is not surprising that some people have welcomed the current planning application on the basis that ‘anything is better than what is there now’.
But clutching at this particular straw would be a dangerous mistake. A decision to allow the over-development of this key site with 1200 or so poky flats in massive high-rise blocks that are completely out of character with the rest of the city is likely to be looked on by future generations with disbelief: how could anyone approve such a poor development with such appalling housing?
Worse, the development is likely to damage the overall city economy.
Studies from Europe and the USA recognise the importance of quality of place in business success, one of the most recent being that by American business location experts, Matthew Tarleton and Evan Robertson, pointing out that many workers - especially recent graduates and young professionals - are selecting a place where they would like to live before securing employment.
There is international competition for the skills and entrepreneurship that these people bring and that are essential to a thriving economy.
Norwich businesses already have a problem recruiting senior professional and specialist staff.
An independent study commissioned by the Norwich Society two years ago showed that the problem was partly one of perception: people who do not already know Norwich think of it as a sleepy backwater with nothing to do.
However, the same survey found that, once people moved here, more 90% were extremely happy with their move, a large number particularly citing the beauty and heritage of the city.
This has been supported by anecdotal evidence. We have heard from two people who brought their businesses to Norwich because they liked its unique environment.
One – a creative industries entrepreneur – commented that he had moved from London precisely to get away from the kind of urban environment that is being proposed for Anglia Square.
The Anglia Square proposal risks turning Norwich into yet another clone high-rise city, damaging its attractiveness for those who live and work here, deterring visitors, and putting off specialist and skilled staff considering moving here: all things that affect long-term prosperity.
So, if the current Anglia Square proposal is rejected, what can be done to initiate the rapid redevelopment of the site in a way that benefits the city?
One suggestion is that the city council itself could take the lead in putting together a local consortium to develop this crucial site for the overall benefit of the city.
As the EDP revealed earlier this year, the council has recently invested some £40m in property to secure income for the future and is planning further property investments.
The council leads the UK in building high-quality energy-efficient homes for rent and sale and, provided that the financial returns are sufficient, there seems little reason why it could not put some of its money into Anglia Square.
Working with local investors, the landowner, local architects and developers – preferably including a major social housing provider – this could be the route to achieving a far better development for Anglia Square.
Financially viable high quality housing on large brownfield sites is possible in Norwich. One example is the proposed large Barrack Street housing and commercial development, a well-designed, relatively low-rise, mixed-use development that fits appropriately into the character of Norwich.
And Orbit Homes is also showing that a viable large-scale brownfield site development is possible in the city centre with its St Anne’s Quarter, providing around 400 homes for rent and sale adjacent to the historic King Street area and the Wensum. Again, while unlikely to win any architectural awards, this development fits in relatively well with its surroundings.
We urge the city council – perhaps with some support from the New Anglia Enterprise Partnership – to consider the feasibility of such a consortium to develop Anglia Square in a more sensitive way while still providing the housing and financial returns that the council desires.
This could provide much-needed housing while supporting the needs of the people and businesses in the surrounding areas and, importantly, benefiting the wider Norwich economy. Such a development would be likely to retain the £12m government grant already on offer and be facilitated by the recent relaxation in the rules governing local authority borrowing for housing.
The current proposals from Weston Homes would probably be unacceptable in London and are certainly not suited to Norwich.
But the Anglia Square site clearly cannot be allowed to fester unused. A more proactive approach is necessary to achieve a development that meets the city’s aspirations.
• Paul Burall is the vice-chairman of the Norwich Society.