Quality of place so crucial if Norwich is to thrive

The plans for Anglia Square, which will now be subject to a planning inquiry. Photo: Weston Homes

The plans for Anglia Square, which will now be subject to a planning inquiry. Photo: Weston Homes - Credit: Weston Homes

What makes a city prosperous? The generally accepted factors include a culture of enterprise and innovation; private investment; an ethos of life-long learning; and an efficient and reliable transport system.

Paul Burall, chairman of the Norwich Society. Picture: Bob Hobbs

Paul Burall, chairman of the Norwich Society. Picture: Bob Hobbs - Credit: Archant

Rarely does quality of place - which covers everything from the buildings, streets and open spaces to cultural, retailing and sporting facilities - get a mention.

Yet there is ample evidence that the quality of a place has a direct impact on its economy and the prosperity of local people.

Primarily this is down to the ability to recruit and retain the skilled and professional staff who provide the basis on which almost every business depends.

This is a major issue for Norwich: two years ago, a survey carried out for the Norwich Society found that a fifth of all the companies that responded listed a skills shortage as one of the prime impediments to their growth, with three-quarters finding it difficult to recruit staff to come to Norwich to work and live.

Anglia Square. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Anglia Square. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Anecdotal evidence and the threat that Brexit poses to the recruitment of staff from Europe suggest that the skills shortage is worse now than it was two years ago.

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg summarised the importance of the ability to attract key staff when he wrote in the Financial Times that 'I have long believed that talent attracts capital far more effectively and consistently than capital attracts talent'.

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Bloomberg's view is supported by a study published in Urban Affairs Review that identified a range of international research that found that 'Ultimately, the quality of place is a useful and important element in attracting talent and building healthier, happier, and more prosperous communities'.

In similar vein, the Scottish Council for Development Industry noted in 2017 that 'As the knowledge economy takes hold, the cities that are able to adapt to the new economic requirements will also be able to capitalise on their local distinctiveness, as localisation (city distinctiveness, authenticity and identity) becomes as important as processes of globalisation.'

Michael Bloomberg. Pic: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Michael Bloomberg. Pic: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Earlier this year, Matthew Carmona, professor of planning and urban design at the Bartlett School of Planning UCL, published a report - The Ladder of Place Quality - examining 271 case studies from the UK, USA and various European countries.

It concluded that strong private and public economic benefits result from place quality - including increased retail viability, making investment more attractive, and even improving productivity -while poor quality damages not just health and quality of life but the economy as well.

Regionally, in 2011 the East of England Development Agency identified quality of place as being a major factor in the difficulties faced by businesses in Basildon.

As one Italian company - Finmeccanica (now Leonardo) that manufactured military radios in the town - pointed out, it was difficult to persuade its own engineers to move even just for a year to Basildon when the alternative was Bologna.

Of course, Norwich is nothing like Basildon. Almost all of the people who responded to the Norwich Society survey and who had moved to Norwich from elsewhere enjoyed living here, with a quarter commenting on the friendliness of the people and community atmosphere and an even greater number highlighting the city's beauty and heritage.

However, the plans for Anglia Square, if implemented, would damage the very quality and character that helps make Norwich successful and would undermine the prospects for the local economy.

The 'anywhere' architecture and poor quality of accommodation in 1250 almost unvaried single-bedroom flats has no place in a forward-looking city that needs to make the best of its wonderful built heritage.

As one small creative company explained, it moved to Norwich to get away from the kind of environment proposed for Anglia Square.

This is why the Norwich Society is pleased that the planning application is now to be subject to a public inquiry and why we are working with a variety of organisations to present the case for it to be refused.

The city council sees things differently, claiming that the economy will benefit by the creation of up to 681 new jobs and a gross spend of between £23.2-40.7 million each year by the new households.

Of course, most of these benefits would also be achieved by a better-designed less dense development.

And the disbenefits of a poorly designed scheme that is totally out of character with the surrounding area are likely to cause considerable damage to the overall economy of the city.

Some of the generic issues affecting the quality of place will be the subject of the Norwich Society's annual symposium which will be held at The Forum on June 24.

The speakers will be Spencer de Grey, head of design at Foster and Partners and lead author of the Cathedral Cities in Peril report, Dr Laura Alvarez, senior principal urban design and conservation officer at Nottingham City Council, who is developing a series of guides to tackle poor design, and Professor Gary Warnaby, senior director at the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The symposium is open to the public and tickets (which are free) can be obtained through the Society's website: https://www.thenorwichsociety.org.uk/events/lectures

- Paul Burall is the chairman of the Norwich Society.