Vacant high street space tripled over pandemic

Boarded up entrances to the former Debenhams store in Norwich.

Boarded up entrances to the former Debenhams store in Norwich. - Credit: Simon Parkin

Vacant city retail space has almost tripled during the pandemic but independents have held up well, councillors have heard.

The pandemic's hit to Norwich retail was laid bare at a meeting of the city council's sustainable development panel on Tuesday evening.

One of the most shocking figures to be presented to councillors was the increase in unused retail floor space, which hit 14.5pc this year versus October 2019's figure of 5.5pc.

The figure was a new high, with the previous top being 12.4pc in 2010, a report to the councillors said.

In terms of empty units, 14.1pc in the city were empty, up 4pc from 2019 but nationally the figure is 15.8pc.

Council officer Joy Brown said the last 18 months have been extremely challenging, with the pandemic accelerating existing issues.

"One of the most noticeable changes is that we have seen a large number of the chains lost from the city centre," she said.

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"However, on a more positive note, independents have fared much better and have appeared to be a lot more resilient."

In particular, the report to councillors highlighted the loss of Debenhams and Topshop which "occupied large and prominent locations".

Ms Brown stressed Norwich was not "out of the woods" in terms of the pandemic and impacts of lost government support for businesses remained to be seen but described the city as robust and still thriving.

Panel chairman, Mike Stonard, said he had been concerned ahead of the report but said: "It was nowhere near as bad as I feared it might be."

Mike Stonard, Norwich City Council's cabinet member for sustainable and inclusive growth. Picture:

Mike Stonard said the situation was not as bad as he feared - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

He added: "It seems the strategies have been successful and have protected the city from the situation many similar places have found themselves in.

"But, we should never be complacent and must work hard to protect the city centre."

Asked how they can keep people coming into the city, Ms Brown said they needed to offer a variety, pointing to how the Castle Quarter offers more leisure activities than previously.

"Then when here they might do a bit of shopping as well," she said.

"It's about creating an environment where people want to come into, and hang around a bit longer."

Councillors agreed that monitoring of the retail sector should be carried out more regularly so they can see the impact of Covid.

How has the picture changed? 

In July 2021, Norwich had 971 units - 834 trading, 130 vacant, and seven under construction or refurbishment   

In October 2019, there was also 971 units, 873 were trading, 88 were vacant and 10 were under construction or refurbishment  

The picture a decade ago was remarkably different, in January 2011 there were 1,067 units, 949 trading, 108 vacant and 10 under construction or refurbishment.  

Retail to home conversion concerns

One concern shared by councillors and Ms Brown was the ease of converting retail units into homes.

In her report, Ms Brown said the piecemeal loss of retail and office space to residential could negatively impact the high street by reducing footfall.

Norwich City Council has written to the secretary of state requesting that they be allowed to remove "'permitted development rights'"- automatic rights that allow offices to be converted into residential properties.

While they are awaiting a response the sustainable development panel voted to recommend the cabinet proceed with approving removing the right. 

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