'Clone city' or bringing Norwich into 21st Century? It's crunch time for Anglia Square
PUBLISHED: 09:44 23 November 2018 | UPDATED: 16:48 07 March 2019
It is one of the most contentious and biggest planning applications Norwich has seen for years - the revamp of Anglia Square - and a decision is just weeks away. How did we get to this point? And what is being planned? Dan Grimmer reports.
More than 1,200 new homes, a 200-bed hotel, a 600-space car park and a 20-storey tower block.
These are the figures Norwich City Council’s planning committee will weigh up on December 6 when they decide whether or not to give the go-ahead to transform Anglia Square.
What is planned?
Developer Weston Homes, with investment firm Columbia Threadneedle, hopes to demolish Anglia Square shopping centre, along with the neighbouring Sovereign House.
The buildings will be replaced with new blocks, including 1,234 new homes, a leisure quarter with a cinema, a 20-storey tower block and a new home for Surrey Chapel.
Weston Homes said it could take six years to complete and 120 of the homes would be affordable - well below the 33pc which Norwich City Council’s policies seek.
‘Fed up of looking at it’
While it has yet to be seen if officers at Norwich City Council will recommend approval, there have been months of negotiations behind the scenes.
The city council has made no secret of its desire to see Anglia Square redeveloped.
It has also successfully got £12 million of government cash to help provide new homes at the site.
When the government announced that cash a year ago, Alan Waters, leader of Norwich City Council, said: “People must be fed up looking at what is, in parts, a derelict site.”
The money will help cover the costs of the demolition.
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 something called a Community Infrastructure Levy - a charge which developers pay.
The developers of Anglia Square specifically asked the council if their development could be excused from paying the sum. The council agreed.
‘A clone high-rise city’
One of the most high-profile objectors to the plans is Historic England.
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”.
They said it would damage people’s appreciation of the Norman castle, the medieval cathedral, the Roman Catholic cathedral, City Hall and medieval churches.
John Neale, from Historic England, said the square should be developed in a different way. “Norwich deserves so much better,” he said.
Civic watchdog The Norwich Society has also objected to the proposals.
Vice-chairman Paul Burall said it risked 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 have also written to the council urging them to oppose the overhaul.
They agreed with the need to revamp the area – describing the original development as a “blot on the face of the city”.
But they added: “This new proposal would create a zone of bland, cloned buildings that speak of any place and no place, but certainly not of Norwich.” The Council for British Archaeology also objected to both the original and revised plans.
St Augustine’s Community Together Residents’ Association, meanwhile, said almost 500 people have signed a petition the group set up urging the city council to turn down the plans.
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 against the plans too, while Norfolk County Council public health bosses have also raised concerns over pollution levels in the area.
The public reaction
The city council has received 430 comments from the public on the original proposals and the revised plans. Of that number, 351 objected and 59 supported it.
The height of the tower has been a major sticking point, while some objectors simply do not believe the type of development proposed is appropriate.
Examples of objections include: “The proposals have no design quality nor are they a satisfactory design response to the historic surroundings of the Anglia Square site.”
Another wrote to City Hall to say: “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.”
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.”
Another objector wrote: “The development as currently projected is purely for profit.”
However, there are supporters. The revamp plan has got support of the Magdalen Street Area and Anglia Square Traders Association (MATA).
In May, MATA’s vice-chairman, James Wade, said it would be a “nail in the coffin” for the area as a whole if the development was turned down.
One who lodged their approval with the city council said: “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.”
Another wrote: “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 the developers say
Weston Homes has repeatedly said that the regeneration of Anglia Square will be good 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 views of the city’s historic sites, such as framed views towards St Augustine’s Church tower from Anglia Square along Botolph Street.
What happens next?
Ahead of the city council planning committee meeting on Thursday, December 6, a report is prepared by officers. That report will describe the proposal, summarise the comments received, specify planning policy issues.
And it will make a recommendation to the members of the planning committee on whether to approve the scheme, with or without conditions or whether to refuse it.
The planning committee is made up of 10 city councillors.
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 and make a decision.
In theory, if permission is granted, the developer would be able to get on and start work.
But the reality is likely to be different.
Historic England has signalled that if the committee gives approval, it would seek to get the decision “called in”.
That means the final decision would rest with the secretary of state for housing, currently James Brokenshire.
If permission is turned down by the committee, then the developers could choose to appeal.
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.
Back to 1970
“The most important event to happen in north Norwich (apart from the Blitz) since Kett’s Rebellion,” was how one EDP letter-writer 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 – Sovereign 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 a £20m revamp plan, but that was put on ice because of high interest rates.
A smaller £1m regeneration project that 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 middle of the new century’s first decade, 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 build new homes, a large supermarket and dozens of shops and cafes.
Norwich City Council granted permission, but the credit crunch scuppered 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 have taken us to up to the present day – with the future of Anglia Square to be determined within weeks.