OPINION: What could be the future of Norwich’s Anglia Square now?
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020
Paul Burall from the Norwich Society asks what can be done to the Norwich site
The government’s decision to reject Weston Homes’ overblown plans for Anglia Square is, of course, welcome. But it is far from the end of the story. The site remains a large and ugly scar at an important entrance to Norwich and, as the leader of the city council has pointed out, is in “a part of the city that offers so much potential”.
Throughout the Anglia Square saga, Weston Homes has claimed that its proposal is the only viable option (although it did back down from claiming that a 25-storey tower was essential to viability), describing the government’s decision as “commercially unjustified”.
The only viable option claim is clearly absurd: after all, it seems unlikely that another developer faced with the same site would come up with exactly the same proposals. And there are examples elsewhere in the city of sensitive development taking place on comparable brownfield sites, one being between Barrack Street and the river on which 220 houses and flats being built at a fairly high density that nevertheless respects the character of the area. Significantly, the design proposals for Barrack Street resulted from extensive consultations that included Historic England, the government agency that was one of the key objecters to the Anglia Square proposals.
During the Anglia Square public enquiry Historic England presented a possible alternative approach with a scheme from architects Ash Sakula Architects to demonstrate how something more sympathetic could be created, although, the agency did admit that this was not viable “in the current circumstances”. But it did succeed in demonstrating the basis for alternatives.
There must be doubts about whether Weston Homes has the vision to come up with anything substantially different to what it currently wants, although the company should be given a chance to do so if it willing to show flexibility.
If this fails to achieve a satisfactory outcome, one option could be for the city council to seek its own development partner and acquire the site. Earlier this year, the council spent £14.5m on three industrial units on the Stafford Park in Telford, so it does not seem unreasonable for the council to invest in its own city rather than in Shropshire.
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One advantage of this approach is that it would ensure that any development meets the real housing needs of local people instead of being geared primarily to maximising a developer’s profits: the Weston Homes plans offer very few family homes among the 1200 flats that the development would provide.
The reasons given by the Secretary of State for rejecting the Weston Homes proposals provide some guidance as to what would be an acceptable development and also demonstrate how comments from local organisations and individuals should be helpful in developing plans. For example, the Secretary of State has picked up on the Norwich Society’s criticisms of the excessive height of the buildings proposed along St Crispins Road and the sheer bulk of the development overall, describing the buildings as “monoliths that are out of scale with the fine grain of the surrounding historic urban fabric”.
Again, the Secretary of State is critical of the proposed 20-storey tower, describing it as being of an excessive size in relation to its context and not demonstrating the exceptional quality needed to justify it. The Secretary of State has also accepted another argument of the Norwich Society, that the Grade I Church of St Augustine and the Grade II Gildencroft almshouses would be overwhelmed by the height and bulk of the Anglia Square development, causing substantial harm.
So among the criteria for an acceptable development are:
A blend of housing types to encourage a genuine mixed community.
Respect for the character of the neighbouring areas.
An understanding of the needs of the surrounding community.
Recognition that, as one of the key gateways to Norwich, the development needs to be of an architectural quality that reflects the reputation of Norwich as one of the most attractive cities in Europe.
And it is worth remembering the importance of architectural quality to a local economy. Last year, Matthew Carmona, Professor of Planning and Urban Design at University College London, examined 271 case studies from the UK, USA and various European countries and concluded that strong private and public economic benefits result from place quality. Many of these benefits come because the increasingly mobile entrepreneurs, professionals and other people with specialist skills who are crucial to economic success choose to live in places that are attractive in terms not just of available jobs and homes but also that provide a high quality environment.
Norwich should be grateful to the government for having provided the opportunity to seek a quality development for Anglia Square rather than the mediocre proposal that the Secretary of State has now rejected.
Paul Burall is a member of the Norwich Society.