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Less browsing and more flats - how might the city centre’s future look?

PUBLISHED: 06:05 17 September 2020 | UPDATED: 06:05 17 September 2020

The way we shop has changed over the last few months. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The way we shop has changed over the last few months. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

City centre streets are once again beginning to buzz, as restaurants fill and offices welcome back workers.

Henry Layte of The Book Hive. Picture: Jamie HoneywoodHenry Layte of The Book Hive. Picture: Jamie Honeywood

But since the pandemic started, questions have been raised over the future of city centres, in part due to the success of home working and ongoing social distancing measures.

Norwich has enjoyed a strong start on its road to recovery, footfall has increased and, while there is some way to go, its prospects are positive.

Looking forward, though, there are likely to be changes - some say coronavirus will render office space unneeded, people may stay closer to home and the online retail boom may be accelerated.

So how might Norwich city centre change?

The way we shop may change in the light of the pandemic. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Armin StaudtThe way we shop may change in the light of the pandemic. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Armin Staudt

The rise of the suburbs

When the country was put into lockdown, local corner shops, butchers and greengrocers found themselves overwhelmed with demand.

Instead of nipping into the city centre on a lunch break, many home workers visited businesses closer to home.

Paul Oxborrow, Thorpe Plant Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYPaul Oxborrow, Thorpe Plant Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Andrew Ross, owner of Clova Greengrocers on Corbet Avenue, in Sprowston, last month said the business had been “rammed” at the start of lockdown, and even now that customer levels remained higher than before lockdown.

At Bramleys Café and Cakery, in Hellesdon Barns, Sarah Bruton said they had seen a particular increase in custom over the last few weeks.

And at Thorpe Plant Centre, on Plumstead Road East in Thorpe St Andrew, owner Paul Oxborrow said while many new customers had returned to their usual supermarkets and shops for food, they had converted some into permanent visitors.

Professor Joshua Bamfield, director of the Centre for Retail Research in Norwich’s Rose Lane, said for those who visited the city centre for a day out, to have coffee, browse the shops and enjoy a show, for example, even losing one element of that could knock the desire to go in at all.

Norwich City Centre in September heat Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMANNorwich City Centre in September heat Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Changing office patterns

While experts believe the pandemic is unlikely to spell the end of office working, it is likely to evolve.

Currently, workers are beginning to return to offices, though many are splitting their time between there and home.

Norwich City Centre in September heat Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMANNorwich City Centre in September heat Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

For businesses that rely on the lunch hour rush, it could cause problems. At Logan’s sandwich bar, on Swan Lane, they estimate they are down about 20pc.

While they benefit from tourist business in summer and students come autumn, a decent proportion of their business comes from nearby offices.

Owner Anthea McNamara said: “It is starting to pick up but it’s not as much as it was before. We are seeing people once a week or once a fortnight who we would have seen more.

“They are still coming out to eat, but they are only in the office once or twice or fortnight.”

Logan's Restaurant in Norwich. Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMANLogan's Restaurant in Norwich. Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

Though more workers could return when social distancing measures ease, there could be demand for shorter, more flexible office leases, or spaces which can be hired for meetings.

One national survey in August found 58pc of decision-makers from UK businesses believed home working would become the new norm, with 73pc saying they would downsize their office space.

Flats, flats and more flats

Norwich City Centre in the August heat. Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMANNorwich City Centre in the August heat. Pictures: BRITTANY WOODMAN

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With the potential of less office space being needed, concerns have been raised over what might happen to it.

Permitted developments rights, which allow offices to be converted into flats without triggering the need for a planning application, have already come under fire for allowing unsuitable developments to be created.

Figures from January, published by the Local Government Association, showed that in 2019 438 properties in Norwich were converted from office to residential use.

Andrew Ross, owner of Clova Greengrocers on Corbet Avenue, Sprowston. Picture: Sophie WyllieAndrew Ross, owner of Clova Greengrocers on Corbet Avenue, Sprowston. Picture: Sophie Wyllie

And a report drawn up for Norwich City Council by Fakenham-based consultants Ramidus in July said the officer market in Norwich was “small and vulnerable”.

“Since 2013, some 108,936 square metres of office space has secured consent for residential conversion, creating just under 1,700 flats in return for the loss of around 30pc of Norwich’s total stock of office space,” they said.

“The very survival of the city centre office market is at risk.”

But while the consultants said coronavirus could bring a “glut” of property owners seeking to turn offices into homes, they said people will still want to work in offices.

St Stephens Towers, Norwich. Picture: Jamie HoneywoodSt Stephens Towers, Norwich. Picture: Jamie Honeywood

Will we still browse?

The high street is back open, but it’s not quite the same. Masks, hand sanitiser, gloves, social distancing and queues have changed how we shop.

Online shopping boomed during the first phases of lockdown, and it may be a hard habit to break. Professor Bamfield said retailers without an online presence needed to create one as a priority.

And browsing, a key part of the traditional shopping experience, may become less common - going into a shop, picking up products
and returning them goes against what we are told in the new norm.

In the lead-up to Christmas, that could be a concern for retailers hoping to cash in on the festive boom, though Professor Bamfield said that could be replaced by markets or events where creators sell their wares.

But there are glimmers of hope - at the Book Hive, in Norwich’s London Street, owner Henry Layte initially relied on the shop’s windows to showcase as many books as possible, enabling customers to browse from outside.

He also created packages of books for customers based on their likes and dislikes, to recreate that experience.

Bur Mr Layte said the shop was now fully reopen, with customers allowed to come in and browse books and usual.

“Who knows what will happen in a month,” he said, “but for now we are back to normal. People are out and shopping.

“The hangover from our initial approach is we are still seeing more online orders too.”

Here are some other ways the city could change.

• Pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre:

Some streets – or parts of – have already been pedestrianised to allow businesses to more easily introduce social distancing. But more could come – and it’s likely more cafés and restaurants will hope to add outdoor seating

• A cyclist and pedestrian focus:

Though already a priority for Norwich City Council, reluctance for some to return to public transport could inspire more cyclists and pedestrians, creating demand for safe and quick routes.

• Less rough sleeping:

At the start of the pandemic, rough sleepers were given shelter under emergency powers which were hailed as a success. But that funding was stopped. The city council has listed finding a “sustainable” approach to tackling homelessness on its coronavirus recovery plan.


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