Why we should welcome more students to Norwich city centre

A sketch of what the development at the Barn Road car park could look like. Pic: Alumno Group.

A sketch of what the development at the Barn Road car park could look like. Pic: Alumno Group. - Credit: Alumno Group

Cities are continually evolving and, of course, Norwich is no exception. Currently, one of the most significant changes is the growth of student accommodation in the city centre.

St Crispins House. Picture: Mike Page

St Crispins House. Picture: Mike Page - Credit: Archant

Some of the new accommodation has been relatively uncontroversial, such as the coming conversion of St Crispins House in Duke Street – formerly the offices of HMSO – to accommodate more than 600 Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) students and the new Winnalls Yard development adjacent to the bus station that won a Norwich Society Design Award last year.

Other proposals have raised considerable opposition, including one to house 152 students in a nine storey development on Premier Travel Inn's car park on Duke Street and another for more than 250 students on the former Aviva car park in Surrey Street, both of which have been rejected by the planners.

And now a multi-storey development of some 300 student flats could be built on Norwich City Council's own car park in Barn Road, at the bottom of Grapes Hill.

It is not just the physical impact of the new buildings on surroundings that is proving controversial but some have questioned whether students should be housed in the city centre at all.

The famous Ziggurat buildings at the UEA. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

The famous Ziggurat buildings at the UEA. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY - Credit: Archant Norfolk

For example, one resident told the Evening News that 'All we will be able to see when we look out is beer bottles in windows. I also do not see how filling the city centre with students will help reduce the problem of drug taking in the city'.

However, this belies the evidence: a study carried out by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the University of Buckingham, showed that the great majority of students have not taken illicit drugs and that almost 90pc recognise that drug use can cause mental health problems.

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So what is the current situation? Some 11,000 of UEA's 17,000 students already live off-campus, with the university housing the rest in around 4500 rooms on its site. From September, the only agreement that UEA will have for city centre accommodation for its students will be 244 rooms in the new purpose-built Pablo Fanque House in All Saints Green; this will be run by the national managing company Derwent Students.

Although UEA expects its student numbers to grow to almost 18,000 in the next decade, it has no current plans to arrange for any more to be housed in the city centre.

Paul Burall. Picture: Bob Hobbs

Paul Burall. Picture: Bob Hobbs - Credit: Archant

NUA – which is, of course, based in the city centre – is taking a different approach, aiming to house half of its students in managed flats.

NUA point out that this has a number of benefits, including releasing terraced accommodation in and around the city centre for family use and ensuring that students have more opportunities to interact with each other and that they are properly looked after.

At the moment, NUA now has around 2,200 students and does not expect this to increase to more than 3000 in the next decade. The university currently has 460 managed flats available for its students.

The quality of life in Norwich and the facilities that the city centre offers helps to make its two universities attractive to students, bringing huge benefits to be area, not least in providing direct employment for around 5,000 people.

There are also tangible benefits for the economy: students spend money shopping, eating and using cultural and entertainment facilities; and a significant number stay on in the city after graduating, providing the skills needed for local businesses and, possibly even more important in the long run, setting up their own companies here.

This last is crucial to the long-term future of our prosperity, as many of these companies are in the burgeoning digital and creative industries for which Norwich is rapidly becoming a national and international hub.

Housing students in managed accommodation is not just best for those students moving out of the protection of the family home for the first time but also in providing the infrastructure to ensure that they are more likely to respect their neighbours and to resolve the inevitable issues that can arise from the exuberance of youth.

Of course, new developments of student flats still have to be well-designed and meet all the usual planning criteria: the Norwich Society has objected to some proposals for new student flats on the grounds of poor design, especially where their excessive height would dominate neighbouring properties.

Another issue that needs considering is transport. Wherever students live, they need good public transport links to their university and to be city centre as very few either have, or even want, their own car. Fortunately, the bus link between UEA and the centre and rail station is currently excellent, not least because – unlike most other bus services in the city – it runs relatively frequently until quite late in the evening; it is essential that this is maintained. Similarly, cycling needs encouraging, including the provision of secure parking facilities.

Students help to bring vitality to our city with consequential benefits for the local economy, and, when they graduate and move to jobs elsewhere in the UK or abroad, spreading the word about what a wonderful place Norwich is to live, work or visit.

• Paul Burral is vice-chair of the Norwich Society