OPINION: Revamp the Haymarket and refresh Norwich Market to attract more visitors to Norwich city centre

Norwich's Haymarket could be better used as a location for live music, says The Norwich Society's Pa

Norwich's Haymarket could be better used as a location for live music, says The Norwich Society's Paul Burall - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

Paul Burall, of The Norwich Society and the editor of Aspects of Norwich, has some suggestions for attracting visitors back to the city centre

Unexpected events can change people’s habits in unpredictable ways. Working in London in the early 1970s, it would have been unthinkable for men to go to the office without wearing a jacket and tie. But then came the 1976 heatwave and suddenly both the tie and the jacket were left at home and have since become optional for most office workers.

The current Covid pandemic may well provide the spur for a more significant permanent change in habits, in particular leading to many more people working from home either all or part of the time. One law firm – Linklaters – expects many of its 5,300 staff to choose to work at least half of their time at home in the future, while the Lloyds Banking Group is reviewing its office space needs having concluded that most of its 65,000 staff have worked effectively from home during the crisis. Other major companies – from NatWest, Fujitsu and Facebook to Twitter and HSBC – also plan to allow much more flexible working.

The head of the CBI Dame Carolyn Fairbairn has warned that this could lead to city centres becoming ‘ghost towns’ if the government does not do more to encourage workers to go back to the office. Dame Carolyn claims that UK’s offices are vital drivers of the economy, supporting thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. “The costs of office closure are becoming clearer by the day. Some of our busiest city centres resemble ghost towns, missing the usual bustle of passing trade,” said the CBI leader.

Such appeals seem unlikely to have much effect. Going into the office simply to keep city centre shops and restaurants profitable hardly seems likely to impress either businesses or staff who have seen the benefits of working from home, cutting the rent and utilities costs for businesses and offering employees a better work-life balance.

The vitality of city centres was already under threat before Covid struck, with online retail sales accounting for around a fifth of the total in 2019 and continuing to grow rapidly. The pandemic is likely to speed up the online switch as people seek to avoid the risk of infection by avoiding going out to shop in the traditional way. The scale of this change is becoming apparent: for example, since the Covid-19 crisis developed, John Lewis has seen a 84% growth in online sales, much of it at the expense of physical shopping.

While some of this online shopping may return to the high street once a Covid vaccine becomes readily available, it seems unlikely that the convenience of having goods delivered to the front door – increasingly on the same day that they are ordered – will be readily exchanged for a shopping trip into a town or city centre.

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Norwich has inevitably suffered from a drop in footfall, with around 204,000 people a week visiting in July, significantly lower than the average of around 340,000 in July 2019. However, very few shops have closed and some of those that have hope to reopen once the Covid crisis is over.

Nevertheless, in the long term it seems unlikely that traditional retailing alone can maintain the vitality of the city centre. So what can be done?

First, we must make even better use of what is already there. Norwich boasts the largest market in the country but it could do with a refresh, in particular the creation of more attractive spaces to eat and drink and better signing to help visitors find what they want. Second, the city also has some excellent buskers that are an attraction in themselves and providing a proper performance area for them would benefit everyone. Personally, I would like to see the Haymarket converted for this purpose, although this would mean finding another home for the somewhat enigmatic sculptures that currently occupy this space.

The Forum provides a valuable venue for occasional exhibitions that demonstrate the talent of local artists and craftsmen and suggests that a permanent space to showcase their work would be a useful addition to the city’s attractions. This is unlikely to be commercially viable in itself but the benefits of helping attract more visitors to the city centre should justify finding a way to subsidise it: at the very least, it would be a better use of an otherwise empty retail space.

Cities have always evolved to meet changing circumstances and it seems that now is the time for Norwich to reinforce the reasons for visitors to come into the city centre in addition to shopping. The river is at long last beginning to be better used and Tombland is having a makeover that will help to make it an attractive spot for tourists on their way between the castle and the cathedral. But other areas need attention too, one example being replacing the non-traditional cobbles in Elm Hill with something that makes walking more comfortable.

Of course, retailing remains an important reason for visitors to come in to Norwich but the city needs to make the best its other attractions to maintain the vitality of its centre.