Why Norwich must stop Debenhams becoming city centre black hole

Shabby Debenhams with rubbish in the doorways. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Shabby Debenhams with rubbish in the doorways. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

It is one of the main thoroughfares through Norwich, connecting the dots between many of the city's main landmark destinations.

But the recent disappearance of high street giant Debenhams has highlighted the challenges facing the St Stephens Street area of Norwich city centre.

With the newfound absence of one of its mainstays already having left an impact on the high street, the area runs the risk of being faced with further decline - becoming a shadow of its former self.

Graffiti on an empty shop in Brigg Street. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Graffiti on an empty shop in Brigg Street. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

The May closure of Debenhams adds to a growing list of large, empty units within stone's throws of one another, with other noticeable vacancies including the former Top Shop on the Haymarket and further along St Stephens, the former BHS, which most recently served as a temporary home for Primark.

But what can be done to breathe new life back into this vital part of the city before it further degenerates? 

Professor Joshua Bamfield, director of the Centre of Retail Research, has called for city leaders to take ownership of the area and devise a clear and driven plan for the area.

Shabby Debenhams with graffiti on a wall. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Shabby Debenhams with graffiti on a wall. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

He said: "There are definitely no easy answers and these types of problems are being experienced up and down the country. I think it really needs somebody to take a lead and make real plans to take it forward and at the moment, only the BID appears to want to do that.

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"But the truth is in Norwich, as well as places like London, it will probably get worse before it gets better."

Prof Joshua Bamfield, director at the centre of retail research. Pic: Archant

Prof Joshua Bamfield, director at the centre of retail research. Pic: Archant - Credit: Archant

Prof Bamfield said it would likely take multiple tenants for Debenhams to be brought back into use, with changing trends for retailers meaning potential suitors for the entire building few and far between.

He added: "I don't think the high street is over, but I think it definitely needs to be different. The absolute worst thing that could happen is for this part of the city to turn into another Anglia Square, where nothing happens for years on end.

"There is no easy answer, but I would like to see it used in a way to benefit smaller, independent retailers and manufacturers - they are the ones that are living and working in Norfolk rather than a national who might think 'our Norwich branch is less profitable than our Manchester one, so we'll close that'."

Guy Gowing, a managing partner at Arnolds Keys, said the key to preventing the empty Debenhams from becoming a blot on the high street was dividing it into a number of other units.

Guy Gowing, Arnolds Keys. Pic: Arnolds Keys

Guy Gowing, Arnolds Keys. Pic: Arnolds Keys - Credit: Archant

He said: "In the past because this type of big unit has been short of supply, the demand for them has been there. Businesses have used these spaces very cleverly, but I think Covid has taken away some of the confidence they have to take them on.

"I think for the high street it will certainly be a case of short term pain for long term gain, as this confidence will take some time to be restored.

"To fill Debenhams it will have to be separated into individual, smaller units across the lower floors, with the upper floors perhaps used for either residential use or a hotel shorter term.

"I do know shops are still being filled though, just perhaps not at the rate at which they are closing."

'My trade is gone'

Brian Wells, owner of Carrello's coffee stall in Norwich

Brian Wells, owner of Carrello's coffee stall in Norwich - Credit: Archant

Carello's coffee stall has been a familiar sight at the junction of Rampant Horse Street and Gentleman's Walk for more than a decade.

Brian Wells has run the stand for 14 years and said this time he has seen much of his trade stripped away by the changing face of the city area - largely driven by the loss of office space above the various shops.

He said: "For me, over the years I have lost almost all my regular customers and my lunch trade is gone. I used to sell all kinds of sandwiches and paninis, but now there's little point so I just focus on coffee and the odd baked good."

He added that he had witnessed the decline of the high street firsthand - in shopping habits and in the movement of city visitors. 

He said: "In years gone by, you'd see people carrying all kinds of bags. Now all anybody has their hands full of is Primark bags - that speaks volumes

"If the area is to be improved it needs a really good clean up and a real focus on tourism. I would love to see a lot more greenery to make the area look more pleasant and homeless people given more help so we can get tents off the streets.

"I would like to see Debenhams turned into a hotel with perhaps some restaurants on the ground floors, something geared at getting more tourists into the city centre.

"I've also heard talks a supermarket could be looking at it - certainly it would need to be somebody huge to fill the whole place."

Views on the street

Jemma Jermy, 30, of Norwich

Jemma Jermy, 30, of Norwich - Credit: Archant

People visiting the city centre were largely resigned to the fact it will be difficult to find a single occupant for the space vacated by Debenhams, with a general preference for a mixed-used.

Norwich mum Jemma Jermy, 30, said: "I think it would make sense to put flats on the upper floors and shops at ground level.

"I think the high street definitely seems to be going downhill so a big shop probably won't happen, but perhaps smaller ones will be easier to fill."

Tim Roberts, a 57-year-old landlord from Drayton, was visiting the city centre for the first time "in a while" and said he was surprised to see so many empty units.

He said inspiration could be drawn from the Castle Quarter, which has responded to the changing retail industry by filling empty units with retail offerings.

He said: "Perhaps it [Debenhams] could be made into a meeting place with a few different places to eat."

Margaret Gant, 83, visiting the city from Rockland St Mary said: "I would like to see more shops - empty buildings are not nice."

Another city visitor, who did not wish to be named, added that she wanted to see "more diversity" brought into the city.

She said: "Some of the high street seems to be fine if you're young, skinny and with lots of money - I would like to see something similar to Debenhams with a bit more diversity."