High-profile plans to demolish and rebuild a huge city centre building have hit another stumbling block.

Developers hoping to redevelop the disused former Debenhams department store in Orford Place have faced criticism from a national organisation. 

Historic England has raised concerns with Norwich City Council about the proposals to demolish the 1950s building and build 405 student flats and several retail units.

Plans for the Red Lion Street facade of the proposed buildingPlans for the Red Lion Street facade of the proposed building (Image: Benchmark Architects via Norwich City Council)

The group fear the height and scale of the student accommodation block plans "would cause harm to the character of the Norwich City Centre Conservation Area and to the setting of a number of listed buildings, including Norwich Castle".

The letter continues: "It would block a key long view of Norwich Cathedral’s spire. We consider that the height should be reduced and design improved to reduce the level of harm that would be caused to designated heritage assets."

The plans would see the current building developed to a height three storeys taller than it currently stands.

Historic England is against both the plans to demolish the site and the proposed new build, saying it would be "overtly dominant".

The Debenhams has stood empty since 2021The Debenhams has stood empty since 2021 (Image: Sonya Duncan)

Planning firm Lanpro, spearheading the Debenhams rebuild on behalf of Orford House Developments Limited, has published a series of alternatives to the plans to demolish the site.

The document outlines why retaining part of the building would be an "unviable" option, as the developer would make a loss of millions of pounds on the project.

The first option, keeping the building and developing the flats into what already exists, they estimate would bring a loss of around £10m.

The Rampant Horse Street side of the proposed buildingThe Rampant Horse Street side of the proposed building (Image: Benchmark Architects via Norwich City Council)

A second option proposes the demolition of around 17pc of the central part of the building, creating an internal courtyard, but this would see a projected loss of around £17m.

The third option suggests that a partial demolition and the building of two further floors would cause a deficit of around £22m.

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Option four would see the historic facade saved and the rest of the building demolished and rebuilt, but discussions with the city council’s conservation and design team showed that they would oppose these plans.

Ultimately, the document concludes that the only "feasible and financially viable option" for the former Debenhams - which has stood empty for three years - is a full redevelopment.

The site is falling into a state of disrepairThe site is falling into a state of disrepair (Image: Sonya Duncan)

The developers have used a recent court judgement to support their case, in which fashion and food brand Marks and Spencer was granted permission to demolish and rebuild its historic art-deco building in Oxford Street in London after it was deemed "unfit for purpose".

On the third anniversary of the closure of Debenhams earlier this year, people in Norwich were opposed to the plans, saying that it would be a "shame" to lose the historic architecture.

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Lanpro states: "The building continues to remain vacant and is highly unlikely to be occupied in its current form. It is also visibly deteriorating.

"The site presents a unique opportunity to deliver sustainable development in a highly sustainable, brownfield site in the city centre; the consequences of not granting planning permission in these circumstances are profound.

PLans will see the building demolished and completely rebuiltPlans will see the building demolished and completely rebuilt (Image: Sonya Duncan)

"The proposed development demonstrates a viable scheme that will continue to contribute to the commercial retail offering at the ground floor level and meets the functional need to regenerate and transform this part of the city centre.

"In this regard, the loss of a non-designated Heritage Asset, which is not of sufficient interest to be listed, is acceptable when balanced against the extensive and comprehensive package of deliverable public benefits."

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If the proposals are approved by Norwich City Council, the developers hope to start work in 2025.

The city council declined to comment on Historic England's objection.

Other issues raised since the plans were lodged in January, following a public consultation last year, have included Norfolk County Council's historic environment department calling for an archaeological investigation at the site.

The heritage charity Twentieth Century Society has also called for the "irreplaceable resource" to be protected. 

An artist's impression of how the redeveloped Debenhams building in Norwich could lookAn artist's impression of how the redeveloped Debenhams building in Norwich could look (Image: Lanpro)

Plans to demolish the 70-year-old building have proven controversialPlans to demolish the 70-year-old building have proven controversial (Image: Sonya Duncan)

Marks and Spencer Oxford Street

In June 2022, government minister Michael Gove ordered a public inquiry into the plans to demolish and rebuild the Marks and Spencer site in Oxford Street, London, despite the planning inspector ruling that the build should go ahead.

The historic high-street retailer lodged plans for a completed rebuild of the site near Marble Arch after stating that the "current store is no longer fit for purpose" and is home to a "confusing layout, misaligned floors and a poor 'backstage' area for staff".

M&S mounted a legal challenge against Gove's decision and was successful, with the judge taking the food and fashion brand's side and ruling the government minister's actions "unlawful" in March 2024.