1,645-signature protest petition over plan to demolish businesses and build homes in Stalham

From left Darren Woodcock, Luke Audus, North Norfolk District Council member Robert Stevens, Avril

From left Darren Woodcock, Luke Audus, North Norfolk District Council member Robert Stevens, Avril Smith and Louise Hall in front of the site with the protest petition. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Plans to demolish town-centre businesses in Stalham to make way for new homes have been met with a storm of protest.

More than 1,640 people have signed a petition objecting to Graham Matheson's application for land he owns on High Street.

Robert Stevens, North Norfolk District Council member for Stalham, tried to hand over the petition to his planning colleagues when they visited the site yesterday but was told to bring it with him instead to the council's development committee meeting on July 1 when the plan will be discussed.

Opponents, including Mr Stevens and Stalham Town Council, say if approved, 11 jobs would go and customers would take their business elsewhere, damaging other traders in a town still reeling from the closure of both its banks last year.

But Mr Matheson claims the redevelopment would only result in five full-time jobs and one part-time post being lost.

He says it would improve a prominent eyesore site in the Conservation Area where businesses are struggling and says there is alternative land in Yarmouth Road earmarked for industrial and commercial use.

Mr Matheson wants to build eight homes on the site which is currently occupied by five businesses - Stalham Car Sales, G and M Motors, Havers Tyres, a storage unit for Century Printing, and a hand car-wash.

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He has run the site since 1981, firstly as a commercial garage which he said had originally provided a reasonable living.

But, by the time he closed it in 2003, it was unable to cover its costs and he began renting out units instead.

'Unfortunately, with the rise of the internet and larger outlets, the smaller businesses are having an increasingly hard time,' he said. He had not increased rents for many years, to reflect the situation.

Two units were empty because there was not enough footfall for viable businesses there.

But Richard Ellis, who owns Havers Tyres, said he had unsuccessfully offered to buy the site from Mr Matheson in the past.

He claimed Mr Matheson had deliberately allowed the site to become run down and said a couple of years ago he had not let Havers install new roller shutters and cladding in a bid to smarten up th e business.

'We've been there 25 years and it's a good, profitable little depot - always busy. It's got a fantastic frontage for us - people drive past and see us straight away,' said Mr Ellis.

'If it closes it will be a huge blow, and three jobs will go.'

Robert Stevens, a district councillor for the town, plans to speak against the application when it is discussed by NNDC's development committee next month.

There were two existing town-centre sites - behind the former Baker's DIY store, and behind the old Maid's Head pub - which already had planning permission for homes but had not been developed for several years.

'We don't want the town to lose any vibrant businesses to make way for houses,' said Mr Stevens.

Mr Matheson claims his application was only submitted after prolonged discussions with NNDC officers who had supported the principle of the development.