Workers haven't returned - so should city offices be converted to flats?

Shoppers out in force wearing masks in Norwich city centre on the first day it became mandatory for

Shoppers out in force wearing masks in Norwich city centre on the first day it became mandatory for shoppers to wear face coverings in shops. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

Just over a third of Norwich's office workers have returned to their desks in the city - and the drop-off in footfall is still "decimating" businesses, owners have warned.

Only 35pc of office workers have returned when compared to pre-pandemic levels, Centre for Cities data for May shows.

But there could be light at the end of the tunnel, with the housing secretary suggesting that unoccupied office space could be used to help solve the housing crisis. 

Robert Jenrick said this week it was "unlikely" that office working would return to pre-pandemic levels, adding: “It will help us to do office-to-residential conversion, and meet our housing objectives on brownfield sites.

“It will also help us with levelling up, because people being able to work remotely will make it more viable for people to live in more rural communities in smaller towns and commute less regularly than they used to do.”

Shoppers out in force wearing masks in Norwich city centre on the first day it became mandatory for

What will happen to offices in the city? - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

Business leaders were bemused by the statement, with Mr Jenrick also saying: "Businesses have the support of a strong government message now if they want to encourage their staff to return to the office.”

Government messaging aside - experts agree the workplace won't return to what it was. 

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Paul Swinney, Centre for Cities’ director of policy and research, said: "While I’m expecting office footfall to increase in the weeks and months ahead as people return to normality, it’s very possible that many businesses will adopt more hybrid forms of working.

“There will be both short and long-term consequences of hybrid office working. In the short term it will create more problems for central Norwich’s cafes, restaurants, pubs and shops that used to rely on custom from office workers.” 

Norwich Market campaign. Stall of the week feature on The Little Red Roaster.
Little Red Roaster ow

Little Red Roaster owner, Darren Groom - Credit: Nick Butcher

Darren Groom is the co-owner of the Little Red Roaster coffee shop, on St Andrew's Hill, and said: "The lack of office workers has decimated us - we've had to shorten opening hours and be as lean as possible. We're down by over half of our usual footfall - though the day trippers are boosting us.

"It'd be great to have people back in the city centre - though of course I don't know the working conditions which people would be coming back to. I appreciate on a personal level that going from restrictions to nothing could make a lot of people worried.

"So the idea of turning offices into residential space is an interesting one. I don't really know what the impact on our business would be, but my hesitation would be that this is done too quickly as a policy instead of organically, so we can ensure people are moving into the city with enough amenities to also work, socialise, and have meetings." 

Charlotte Sims has been named beautician of the year. Photo: Archant

Charlotte Sims has been named beautician of the year. Photo: Archant - Credit: Archant

Charlotte Sims, the owner of Charisma Hair and Beauty in Golden Ball Street, said: "We have seen a significant drop in the customers who would usually come in on their lunch break. 

"The result has been longer appointment blocks being booked in because people are coming into the city specifically, and they're spending more per visit because they have multiple treatments. They're also coming in at 5pm after work, instead of on a lunch break between noon and 3pm.

"A couple of people just haven't come back - when we speak to them it's because it's just not so convenient for them. 

"We've started marketing ourselves more to people who live in the city centre as a result - their habits are slightly different but it doesn't matter to me whether people live close by or work close by. 

"I would say purely from the conversations I have with customers that it will be good to have offices reopened properly. People chat to us while they're getting treatments, and we have some people saying they love WFH but some hate it. 

"So not only is it having an impact on their mental health, they're also not getting a proper break they would when they work in the city. Instead of getting their nails done for an hour and switching off work, they're putting a load of laundry in and going back to their desks." 

And Jan Hÿtch, residential and operations partner at estate agents Arnolds Keys, said there was plenty of potential in Norwich: “In many ways Norwich is well suited to converting commercial buildings into residential use, because unlike more industrially-based cities, Norwich has a vibrant city centre which is a nice place to live as well as work.

Jan Hytch, Arnolds Keys, Norfolk

Jan Hytch - Credit: Archant

“In addition, some of the city’s office buildings were built as large Victorian or Edwardian houses, so were originally conceived for residential use, even if in their conversion back to residential, they are usually split into a number of houses or flats. 

"Amenity space, gyms and especially parking are attractive additions, especially when people have a lot of choice as to where to buy or rent."