Does economic benefit of student digs outweigh mass development fears?

City councillor Martin Schmierer, pictured inset, has criticised an influx of purpose-built accommodation in Norwich

City councillor Martin Schmierer, pictured inset, has criticised an influx of purpose-built accommodation in Norwich which now includes the former Debenhams site - Credit: Archant

Students with cash to splash could prove essential new occupants of the city centre for generations to come, experts have said. 

However purpose-built digs are also drawing criticism amid warnings that the Fine City could turn into a "conveyor belt" of expensive accommodation.

It comes as the former Debenhams department store in Orford Place and Red Lion Street was confirmed to have been taken on by a "student focussed developer" after a conditional sale went through.

It follows work starting on a £42m 684-bed student block at St Crispin’s House in Duke Street. 

An artist's impression of how the new student accommodation will look at St Crispin's House

An artist's impression of how the new student accommodation will look at St Crispin's House - Credit: Contributed

Elsewhere a complex of 141 studio bedrooms at the former Richard Nash showroom and garage in Normans Buildings, off Rouen Road, has also been approved by planning authorities. 

There are even further plans afoot for around 700 flats at the former Eastern Electricity Board site at Duke's Wharf. 

Critics are raising concerns it is all too much, too soon, given the fact that Norwich is relatively inexpensive for developers who do not have to pay council tax for the buildings.

Green Party city councillor Martin Schmierer and his colleague Jamie Osborn have been working for years to oppose student accommodation developments they deem inappropriate. 

Martin Schmierer, leader of the Green group on Norwich City Council. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

City councillor Martin Schmierer - Credit: SIMON FINLAY

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Mr Schmierer said: "I hate to see buildings sit empty but the steady conveyor belt of expensive purpose-built student accommodation is a concern.

"Such schemes are very profitable for developers because student accommodation doesn't need to meet minimum size regulations.

"We were pleased when after several years of lobbying, the council presented its purpose-built student accommodation strategy.

"But I remain unconvinced about the formula used to determine if a city like Norwich needs so much of this type of accommodation." 

However Jan Hytch, residential and operations partner at estate agents Arnolds Keys, believes a choice of accommodation is important to continue to attract a range of students to study in Norwich.

Jan Hÿtch, residential partner at Arnolds Keys

Jan Hÿtch, residential partner at Arnolds Keys - Credit: Arnold Keys

She said: "Norwich itself is a vibrant, international city with lots of arts going on as well as really good restaurants. If you are a city-based person a site like Debenhams will appeal to you.

"That will then have a positive impact if they are spending in the area.

Debenhams in Orford Place, Norwich closed on May 15 2020 after more than 50 years in business

Debenhams in Orford Place, Norwich closed on May 15, 2020, after more than 50 years in business - Credit: Maya Derrick

"You can see the number of people on the high street. Empty units being taken up and repurposed is a good thing. Debenhams' demise does not mean people are not shopping.

"But it is important to have a mix because if you are from the countryside you may prefer living further out where there are green spaces like Earlham Park." 

The city council assessed there was a need for 1,800 purpose-built student accommodation during a pre-pandemic study.

Chartered architect Spiros Defteraios, director of Coventry-based SD Studio which has worked on projects in Norwich, believes demand for student accommodation has been accelerating since the credit crunch in 2008.

He added there is a need to spend money on high-quality accommodation to meet the demands of all the students - including those travelling from abroad - studying in the city.

Louisa Parish, 22, recently graduated from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and has now moved from the outskirts in West Earlham to the city centre. 

Louisa Parish who recently graduated from UEA

Louisa Parish who recently graduated from UEA - Credit: Louisa Parish

She said: "I like living in the city centre as it’s so close to the shops, bars and restaurants.

"It’s really convenient and means spending less money on travel into the city.

"I’ve found that living in the city is around £10-20 cheaper per month in rent in comparison to when I lived in West Earlham. My flat in the city centre is a lot more modern than my previous student lets close to the UEA."

But an alternative opinion comes from UEA journalism student Fin Brown, 18, who is going into his second year. 

University of East Anglia student Fin Brown 

University of East Anglia student Fin Brown - Credit: Fin Brown

He has opted for digs in Bowthorpe and is happy to bike into the city centre when he needs to for his course.

Mr Brown added: "Some students now opt for accommodation this side rather than the city centre due to being closer to campus, especially if you are in a group of people and do not know each others' finances." 

The UEA declined to comment.