OPINION: Realism must be at centre of Anglia Square's future development
- Credit: Weston Homes
Paul Burall, former chairman of the Norwich Society, says the area needs houses and green space, not a cinema - or a flyover
The news that Weston Homes and Columbia Threadneedle have abandoned their proposals for Anglia Square is welcome.
Still better is their offer to collaborate with anyone interested – including those who objected to the original scheme – in coming up with a new plan.
If such collaboration is going to be fruitful, then everyone will have to be realistic.
In particular, any plan will have to be viable if it is to be implemented. A perfectionist plan that no one can afford to build will simply leave the site vacant for more decades, an outcome that nobody wants.
There is probably general agreement that any development needs to provide for a range of business and cultural uses and a mix of home types, from those for working people who want to be close to the city centre to pensioners who would like to be near to city centre facilities.
Hopefully, there will be room for some family houses as well as the apartments that will almost inevitably dominate a near-city centre site; there certainly needs to be a good proportion of social housing.
For a development for which housing demand may well exceed supply, there is always a risk that corners will be cut and that the housing is designed to minimal standards in order to maximise profits.
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This is not only short-sighted in terms of the quality of life of the people who live in the development but also in terms of the overall Norwich economy: the entrepreneurs and skilled people crucial to the businesses that we need can find jobs anywhere in the United Kingdom or abroad and look for a high quality of life when choosing somewhere to live.
Maximising energy efficiency should be a priority both to minimise the energy costs for residents and support the city council’s aim to become carbon neutral.
Driven partly by the success of the Norwich University of the Arts, the city is developing some thriving creative businesses.
Catering for a few of these with some larger live-work apartments would encourage more of the university’s graduates to set up their businesses here rather follow the usual route of moving to London or one of the other big cities.
Norwich is already seen by many as an excellent place to live but, without satisfactory accommodation, this is not enough to keep ambitious people here.
There is a mass of evidence that access to greenery is essential for mental and physical well-being so the provision of a reasonable amount of green space (not necessarily at ground level) is also a requirement for Anglia Square.
Shopping for local people is important, although this may be relatively minimal in view of the number of local shops already in the area and the general decline of high street retailing.
The case for a replacement cinema seems weak: for many people, Netflix and the iPlayer offer a cheaper and more accessible alternative.
And, once we are post-Covid, people will revert to wanting to socialise in person, so restaurants and cafes with some outside seating would also be desirable.
Anglia Square is, of course, the point at which a large number of bus routes converge.
This has the benefit of bringing in customers for local businesses and providing access for residents to other parts of Norwich and its environs.
But it also has the disadvantage of making the area (and, indeed, the whole of Magdalen Street) heavily polluted.
There is nothing that a new development can do about this apart from continually pressing the bus operators to switch to cleaner – preferably electric – vehicles.
Similarly, the Magdalen Street flyover divides the local community and blights the area and will have a negative impact on the level of rents that can be achieved by any new development.
Is it really unrealistic to hope that this will be demolished alongside the development of Anglia Square?
Leicester demolished a flyover in very similar circumstances in 2014, the city’s Mayor Peter Soulsby commenting that “There were some concerns locally about the impact on traffic of removing the flyover, but the major congestion feared has not happened, and it’s very encouraging to see so many pedestrians and cyclists are now using this safer, more open route.
The removal has stimulated development in the area.”
This important site does, course, demand well-designed buildings. Norwich has many examples of good modern architecture, ranging from the award-winning Goldsmith Street housing to the Pablo Fanque student accommodation opposite John Lewis.
Well-designed buildings should cost no more to build than poor development – indeed, the evidence is that quality development is often less expensive as it is better thought through from the beginning.
Compared with the now-abandoned scheme, any new development will have to be less dense than its predecessor: it was the attempt to try to cram in far too many flats that inevitably resulted in a proposal that has now proved to be unacceptable.