Anglia Square: City councillors get ready to make decision on £271m revamp
PUBLISHED: 06:56 06 December 2018 | UPDATED: 09:03 06 December 2018
Archant Norfolk 2018
A decision on whether to grant permission for one of the most contentious and biggest planning applications Norwich has seen for years will be made today.
Members of Norwich City Council’s planning committee will decide on the application at a special meeting in the council chamber at City Hall from 9.30am.
Norwich City Council officers, who are recommending that the 13-strong committee grants permission, say the proposal is “finely balanced”.
But they say the level of economic and social benefits, would “outweigh” the harm of the development on the setting of historic landmarks.
However, critics are calling for the city council to reject the proposals, saying it would damage the city’s skyline and set a dangerous precedent.
What is the application?
Working with the investment firm Columbia Threadneedle, Weston Homes is proposing to demolish the existing Anglia Square shopping centre, along with the neighbouring Sovereign House.
The buildings will be replaced with new blocks, including 1,234 new homes, a new leisure quarter, a 200-bed hotel, multi-storey car park and a new home for Surrey Chapel. There would also be a replacement cinema.
When the multi-million pound plans for the 120-acre site were initially lodged, in March, the proposals also included a 25-storey tower block.
Bob Weston, chairman of Essex-based Weston Homes, told Norwich city councillors earlier this year that his company has a “track record” of delivering large-scale developments.
He said in February: “We are two years in [with Anglia Square], and we have spent a considerable sum of money to get this far. We will commit hundreds of millions of pounds in the delivery of it. But we are focussed to do just that, deliver it.”
Mr Weston said, if permission is granted, it would take at least six years to complete, but added it was in the company’s interests to get it built “as quick as possible”. “The longer it takes, the more it costs,” he added.
Revised plans were lodged in September, which reduced the height of the tower to 20 storeys. The developers said of the changes to the tower: “This is to emphasise its slender proportions and reduce its visual impact on the historic buildings and character of Norwich, both from near the Anglia Square site, and in longer panoramic views.
“It is also less visible from around the city, for example no longer impacting the view from Cathedral Close.”
While permission is still sought for up to 1,250 homes, the plans now show a reduced number of homes - down from 1,234 to 1,209.
Weston Homes says 120 of the homes would be affordable, well below the 33pc which Norwich City Council’s policies seek.
And the developer is looking to be excused from paying £8.8m in community infrastructure levy, saying having to pay that would make the scheme unviable.
Who wants to see development happen?
There have been months of negotiations behind the scenes over the proposals.
The city council itself has made no secret of its desire to see Anglia Square redeveloped. More than a decade ago, the council drew up an action plan for the area, outlining ways it could be developed.
More recently, officers drew up a new planning policy and design framework specifically for Anglia Square, which paved the way for the latest application.
The council also successfully applied for £12m of government funding to help make the provision of homes at the site viable. although they are awaiting the outcome of the second stage of that process.
When the government announced that cash, Alan Waters, leader of Norwich City Council, said: ““We want to see that area regenerated. People must be fed up looking at what is, in parts, a derelict site.
“But to get it moving, the Homes Infrastructure Fund money is really important in terms of the scheme’s viability, but also in getting some council housing as part of the development.
“Given the scale of the site and the opportunities there, it would be transformational and help with the housing growth that we need.”
The money will help to cover the demolition of the existing buildings at Anglia Square and the redevelopment, which the city council hopes will make it more viable for the developers to provide affordable homes.
But that public subsidy for private development has attracted criticism, as has the city council’s recent move to allow sites to be exempt from Community Infrastructure Levy.
The developers of Anglia Square had specifically asked the council if their development could be excused from paying that sum, which is essentially a tax on new development.
The cabinet agreed to introduce exemptions, to the chagrin of Green city councillors and the leaders of South Norfolk and Broadland councils.
And planning officers are recommending approval of the plans. They say the proposals are “finely balanced” and approval or rejection could both be justified.
But they are saying councillors should approve the scheme, with the economic and social benefits outweighing the harm. They say more than 500 extra jobs could be created, while the residents of the flats could spend up to £40m a year, boosting the local economy.
The revamp plan has also been given support by the Magdalen Street Area and Anglia Square Traders Association (MATA).
MATA’s vice chair, James Wade, said it would be a “nail in the coffin” for the area as a whole if the development was turned down.
Mr Wade, who runs Secondhand Land, said those who want the square to remain as it is are “sadly misguided”.
He said: “If there is no redevelopment this time I fear Anglia Square in total will become a boarded-up shell.
“Without Anglia Square, Magdalen Street businesses will have no future and the same could be said if Magdalen Street dies. Anglia Square in its current form would not survive.
Who is against the proposals?
One of the most high-profile objectors to the plans is Historic England. The national heritage-championing body objected to the original proposal, with its 25-storey high tower.
And the organisation has also asked for the revised scheme to be turned down. Historic England warned redeveloping Anglia Square into three large blocks of up to 12 storeys and one 20 storey tower would have an “extensive and severe impact on the extraordinary historic character of Norwich and the significance of the city’s greatest historic buildings”.
They said it would damage people’s appreciation of the Norman castle, the medieval cathedral, the Roman Catholic cathedral, City Hall and numerous medieval churches.
They said the tower, despite the height reduction, would still “radically disrupt the character of the cityscape”.
John Neale, Historic England planning director in the East of England, who will speak at the planning meeting, said: “Norwich is one of the Europe’s great historic cities containing more medieval churches than any city north of the Alps and has large numbers of exceptional historic buildings, streets and spaces rich in character.
“While we recognise Anglia Square is in need of redevelopment, this 20 storey tower is certainly not the answer. Despite the reduction in height from 25 to 20 stories, it would still remain a prominent and alien feature.
“We believe plans for the square could be developed in a different way which would still unlock public benefits. Norwich deserves so much better.”
Civic watchdog The Norwich Society has also objected to both proposals. In the Norwich Society’s objection, vice-chairman Paul Burall, said: “While the 20 storey tower is an unnecessary and unwelcome intrusion on the city skyline, it is the sheer bulk and height of the other blocks that would cause the most damage to Norwich’s unique street scene.
“We again highlight the 12 storey block on the St Crispin’s roundabout frontage as an example of the harm that the development would cause in terms of being so out-of-scale with buildings in the rest of the city centre.
“The Anglia Square proposal risks turning Norwich into yet another clone high-rise city, damaging its attractiveness for those who live and work here, deterring visitors, and putting off specialist and skilled staff who are considering moving to the city: all things that affect long-term prosperity.”
The Dean of Norwich, the Very Reverend Jane Hedges, and the Chapter of Norwich Cathedral had also written to Norwich City Council urging them to oppose the Anglia Square overhaul.
In the Dean and Chapter’s objection, they agreed with the need to revamp the area - describing the original development as a ‘blot on the face of the city’.
“What attracts residents and visitors to Norwich is its human scale and living sense of continuity with its past,” they said in their objection submission.
“This new proposal would create a zone of bland, cloned buildings that speak of any place and no place, but certainly not of Norwich.”
They said the revised application had not eased their concerns. They said: “The scale and density of the proposal would still overwhelm the existing neighbourhood, provide a dangerous precedent for building in other parts of the city, and irreparably harm our precious historic skyline.”
The Council for British Archaeology objected to both the original and revised plans, saying: “Redevelopment of this site should be of more human scale and should deliver a more thoughtful enhancement that better reveals the heritage significance of the area rather than diminishing it.”
St Augustine’s Community Together Residents’ Association has also objected and almost 500 people have signed a petition the group set up urging the city council to turn down the plans.
Designer Wayne Hemingway has urged councillors to reject the proposals, saying: “It is time to call time on this faceless, universal form of development making clone cities for clone businesses, while ignoring the vitality and drive of individuals who want to make their mark and are the creative future of this country.”
In August, the Cathedral, Magdalen and St Augustine’s Forum lodged its own vision for what they would like to see happen in and around Anglia Square.
They outlined an alternative approach, which they said would better respond to community needs, including a healthcare facility, a cultural and learning facility and childcare provision.
Norwich Cycling Campaign is opposing the plans, while Norfolk County Council public health bosses had also raised concerns over pollution levels in the area.
While public health has not objected, they urge the developer to work with “experts in the field” to look at how best to design out exposure to pollution for residential and affected shop fronts.
What has been the public reaction?
Norwich City Council has received 939 comments on the original proposals and the revised plans. That included 767 objections and 120 comments in support.
The height of the tower has been a major sticking point, as has the height of some of the other blocks within the square, while some objectors simply do not believe the type of development proposed is appropriate.
Examples of objections include: “Not the original, or the ‘amended’ proposals submitted for Anglia Square merit any form of planning consent and should be refused.
“The proposals have no design quality nor are they a satisfactory design response to the historic surroundings of the Anglia Square site, nor has any attempt been made to produce a proposal that is a good fit with the whole of historic Norwich.”
Another wrote to City Hall to say: “This building is far too tall for our still mercifully low- rise skyline where our iconic buildings such as the Cathedral and City Hall stand above proudly displaying this city’s distinctive identity.
“No significant amounts of much needed social housing would be provided from this plan to gentrify an area used currently by all sectors of society- not just the wealthy- and who depend on the shops the area provides at present.
“It would also destroy a burgeoning area for the arts community - and all this at the price of further polluting the city environment with traffic diminishing the air quality and compromising our historic buildings too.”
And another said: “It just looks stupid! We’re not New York, we are Norwich and there are enough, nay, too many tower blocks being blots on our skyline. It’s all about money - money, money, money.”
Another objector said: “I do not see the need for this total redevelopment of this area; with careful planning and imagination, I don’t see why the current buildings and area cannot be renovated for the benefit of the local community and Norwich.
“The development as currently projected is purely for profit. This is out of scale for this area; it will increase noise, pollution and traffic. Keep Norwich an attractive city. We do not need this so called ‘development.’”
However, there are supporters. One who lodged their approval with the city council said: “This development has to happen, we cannot lose another opportunity to bring this side of Norwich into the 21st century.
“This development would make Norwich even more of a destination than it already is and would reward the city and residents financially with extra tourist trade, property value and the huge commercial opportunities it would create.
“I understand that there are a lot of people who do not want this to change and their passion for its current state does not allow them to accept change.
“But it will have to change eventually to keep this city moving forward and now Is the time to make this change.”
Another wrote: “I fully support this development, I supported it before changes were made to the original proposal. Norwich will only benefit from this development.
“Major cities across the country/world have integrated modern urban spaces with historical landmarks.
“People won’t stop visiting our city to learn about its heritage because this development was given permission. In fact it will make Norwich a more desirable place to visit or live.”
What do the developers say in response to the criticism?
Weston Homes has repeatedly said that the regeneration of Anglia Square will be good for the people and economy of Norwich, and represents a major investment and employment, retail and housing boost for the city.
They say they have already spent some £3.5m on planning and consultation and that they made “substantial” changes to the proposals following the initial submission.
On Historic England’s objection, Chris Griffiths, of CgMs, on behalf of the applicant, said the watchdog had placed a “disproportionate emphasis” on the impact of the residential tower and that: “We do not accept that the proposals are nearly so negative in heritage terms as Heritage England conclude.”
They say there will be many “positive effects” on the townscape, views and settings of heritage assets, such as framed views towards St Augustine’s Church tower from Anglia Square along Botolph Steet and grealy improved public realm and open spaces.
And Mr Griffiths said: “The proposals for Anglia Square have been very carefully tailored to the unique circumstances of Norwich north of the river and particularly its outstanding historic environment.
“There is no sense in which these proposals, should they be approved, would set a precedent for development of a similar scale, style or character in any other location, whether it be in Norwich or another historic town or city.
“Norwich is a uniquely special place, and the proposals represent an entirely bespoke and positive response to this site, within the distinctive local context of the city.
“While it is acknowledged that Historic England’s statutory role includes championing historic places, it also includes supporting change.
“We consider that the development will allow many more people to use and enjoy this part of the city and that it will also reveal and reinforce the significance of Norwich as one of Europe’s great historic cities whilst safeguarding the setting of its several key historic landmarks in a wider landscape.”
Who will make a decision?
While council officers are recommending approval, the decision will be made by elected city councillors who are members of the planning committee.
The planning committee is made up of 13 city councillors:
David Bradford, Labour (Crome)
Sally Button, Labour (Bowthorpe)
Keith Driver, Labour (Lakenham) committee chair
Jo Henderson, Green (Thorpe Hamlet)
Hugo Malik, Labour (Nelson)
Marion Maxwell, Labour (Crome) committee vice chair
Martin Peek, Labour (Wensum)
David Raby, Green (Town Close)
Roger Ryan, Labour (University)
Mike Sands, Labour (Bowthorpe)
Ian Stutely, Labour (Town Close)
Rachel Trevor, Labour (Lakenham)
James Wright, Liberal Democrat (Eaton)
People will be able to speak in support and against the application. The committee members will then ask questions of the officers about the application, comment on the application and will then make a decision.
We will be broadcasting the meeting live on this newspaper’s Facebook page. You can also visit this website for the decision and reaction on the day.
After the committee makes a decision, what will happen?
In theory, if permission is granted, then the developer would be able to get on and start work, which they say would take eight years to complete. But the reality is likely to be different.
National heritage body Historic England has requested that, if the committee is minded to grant approval, then the decision should be called in by the government. If that were to happen, then the final decision would rest with the secretary of state, currently James Brokenshire.
That was what happened in 2012 when Norfolk County Council voted to grant planning permission for an incinerator at King’s Lynn, although ultimately the controversial plant was scrapped with the secretary of state yet to make a decision.
If permission is rejected by the committee, then the developers could chose to appeal against that decision. That would lead to a planning inspector looking at the application and the process by which the committee reached that decision. The inspector could decide that refusal was the correct decision, or they could say permission should be granted.
What is the history of Anglia Square?
“The most important event to happen in north Norwich (apart from the Blitz) since Kett’s Rebellion.” That was how one EDP letter writer to the EDP summed up the construction of Anglia Square.
The striking architecture of the Stationery Office and what was known then as the Botolph Street development was something of a shock in an area neighboured by Victorian and Georgian buildings.
Designed by Norwich architect Alan Cooke, a 1969 article in this newspaper stated: “This particular development provides the city with adventurous architecture, but we must not allow too many ‘prima donnas’ for fear that Norwich may follow the fate of far to many other overcrowded cities, thus bringing about its own architectural destruction.”
It rose from a decaying network of back streets and Victorian housing, described at the time as “one of the boldest ventures the city has seen in modern times”.
When it opened in 1970 (Soverign House had opened two years earlier) the newly-christened Anglia Square was described as “a town within a town”.
The shops, offices, banks and car parks were joined by the new Odeon cinema, replacing one in Botolph Street, the following year.
However, plans for a “major and architecturally exciting restaurant”, with the main dining area overlooking Anglia Square did not come to fruition.
With supermarkets such as Fine Fare and Sainsbury’s in place, along with Boots and Barclays Bank, the square was (and, despite major changes over the years, for many, still is) an important destination for people living in the north of the city.
But some of the big names moved out and some labelled it as a “white elephant”.
Fine Fare closed in 1984 and Sainsbury’s left in the late 1980s as superstores started to switch to out-of-town locations.
As time went by, various ideas to breathe new life into Anglia Square were mooted. In the late 1980s there was an ambitious £20m revamp plan, but that was put on ice because of high interest rates.
A smaller £1m regeneration project, which saw the glass canopy installed in the centre of the square was completed in 1991, but the bigger refurbishment never materialised.
A further blow came when Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, which had been based in Sovereign House since 1968 was privatised in 1996. By the mid 2000s, the building had been closed.
The square changed hands a number of times in the 2000s, with Quintain Estates and Development unveiling revamp plans which never happened.
Lagmar Properties managed to make a £12m profit in just nine months, buying the square in 2005 for £24m and selling it for £36m in 2006.
In 2008, Centenary Ashcroft unveiled mutli-million pound plans for the centre, wanting to rename it as Calvert Square and to build new homes, a large supermarket and dozens of shops and cafes.
Norwich City Council granted permission, but the credit crunch scuppers the £100m regeneration scheme.
Revised plans, with Tesco in negotiations to move in to Anglia Square, followed in 2011, but the Irish banking crisis ended hopes of that revamp.
Last year, Weston Homes and Columbia Threadneedle revealed their proposals for the site, which has taken us to up to the present day - with the future of Anglia Square to be determined today.