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Removing 'dirty, smelly' city centre traffic helped buck empty shops trend, says councillor

PUBLISHED: 14:19 15 January 2020 | UPDATED: 15:00 15 January 2020

Philippa Nibbs, director of sales for UK, south and east outside the new Primark store in Norwich. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

Philippa Nibbs, director of sales for UK, south and east outside the new Primark store in Norwich. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

Amid fears online shopping is killing off the high street, council leaders have hailed new figures as evidence Norwich is bucking the trend.

Norwich city councillor Mike Stonard. Pic: Archant.Norwich city councillor Mike Stonard. Pic: Archant.

Norwich City Council's annual report into vacancy rates and changes of shop types in the city centre showed that the percentage of vacant units fell from 10.8pc in 2018 to 10.1pc in 2019, compared to Britain's average annual rate of 13pc.

And the amount of vacant available floorspace in the city centre as whole has gone to 5.5pc from the 2018 figure of 7.3pc, which City Hall officers said is "significantly better" than when it was as high as 12.4pc in 2010.

MORE: Reader letter: Primark is the only shop in Norwich people are prepared to make a special trip for

Officers said: "Over the past few years, the city has seen a trend of rising vacancies and nationally there has also been an increase in vacancy rates, so a reduction in vacancy rates has bucked the trend."

Mike Stonard, Norwich City Council cabinet member for sustainable and inclusive growth, said the city centre was vibrant.

Castle Quarter, where former shops are being used for leisure purposes. Pic: ArchantCastle Quarter, where former shops are being used for leisure purposes. Pic: Archant

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He said: "We are seeing footfall rising and we've seen Primark has made a major investment in the city centre, while we're seeing retail vacancies drop, which is great.

"We must be doing something right. What we are doing right is taking out the dirty, polluting, smelly traffic, making the city centre a much more pleasant place to be."

However, the city centre is changing. Officers said the past 12 months had seen a "significant reduction" in the amount of retail space, down by 2.8pc (6,231 square metres). That is a greater drop than the past decade combined.

City Hall senior planner Joy Brown said that was largely attributed to the diversification at the recently rebranded Castle Quarter (previously Castle Mall), where some units which used to be shops are now used for leisure purposes.

Officers said such changes were counter to the council's own policies, but did stop units sitting empty and future policies may need to change to reflect the diversification of city centres.

And Green councillor Denise Carlo warned the future of the retail sector remained uncertain.

She said: "For example, if Debenhams and House Of Fraser were to close and Marks and Spencer were to slim down, we would be looking at some really big holes in Norwich, so we should not sit on our laurels."

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