Auction hope for key building in North Walsham’s blighted shopping precinct

The fortunes of North Walsham's blighted shopping precinct may hang on the result of an auction in London next week.

Semi-derelict St Nicholas Court's large central unit, once the Divine restaurant, goes under the hammer on October 10 with a knock-down guide price of �50,000- �70,000.

And frustrated precinct campaigner Rob McEvoy is urging North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) to make swift contact with its new owner to try and make sure the key building reopens as soon as possible.

Bike shop owner Mr McEvoy, chairman of the precinct traders' association, said it was six months since he made an urgent plea for action to save the precinct, where numerous units have been empty for more than a year.

But so far his calls had only been answered with an ongoing survey, and the prospect of one small sign fixed to Stead and Simpson's shoe shop, pointing the way to the precinct from Market Place.

Mr McEvoy said a whole summer of opportunity had been wasted and he partly blamed a 'nothing-to-do-with-us' attitude by all layers of local government.

But NNDC cabinet member Trevor Ivory defended the district council whose hands were tied, he said, because they didn't own the precinct.

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Investigations had revealed that it involved 18 different landlords and 11 leaseholders.

'Ultimately they hold the key,' said Mr Ivory. He hoped that through the Leadership of Place project - a cross-community action plan aimed at improving North Walsham - all parties could be brought together to discuss 'commercially viable and realistic' options.

As part of the Leadership of Place scheme, NNDC had ploughed �5,000 into a feasibility study of the site by chartered surveyor Nigel Morgan who would present a draft report early next month.

Mr McEvoy said he welcomed the survey but it was not enough. 'I understand the limitations but one little sign at this stage, after all this time, isn't going to make much of a difference,' he said.

He pointed to the large unit at 1A St Nicholas Court, on a long lease to Norfolk County Council which moved its Connexions service out a year ago this month.

Apart from its brief use by North Walsham Town Council to display children's royal wedding artwork, it had remained empty.

'For 12 months they could have been using that for displays or art to make it brighter and give people a reason to come down here,' said Mr McEvoy.

'Instead, all they've had to look at is a pile of tables.'

Colin Page, chairman of North Walsham Chamber of Trade, said he feared it would now be very difficult to 'pull back' the precinct.

'They should have taken a stand 10 years ago and stopped allowing change of use from retail to offices, dance schools and drop-in centres,' said Mr Page.

He believes vendors should have to prove that they have spent at least six months trying to market retail units as shops before 'downgrading' to other uses.

There are currently three precinct planning applications lodged with NNDC. One seeks change of use from a careers to a general office for Norfolk County Council which wants to bring its staff from other parts of the town into the old Connexions building. Two other applications, by Len Bullimore and Sons, seek change of use at number five, the former Roger Hilton hairdresser's, from a shop to a personal training and fitness studio, and at number six, the one-time Aroma hot and cold drink bar, change of use of the first and second floors to create two flats.

* The auction, by Allsop, of 4 St Nicholas Court, formerly Divine and then the CST's Bar and Grill, will take place on October 10 at The Park Lane Hotel, Piccadilly, from 2pm. The lot includes peppercorn rents from six flats which were let on 125-year leases in 2007.