The battle for Anglia Square's future: White elephant or a huge boost for Norwich?
PUBLISHED: 07:05 28 January 2020 | UPDATED: 08:25 28 January 2020
The battle for Anglia Square's future enters a crucial phase this week, as those for and against a £271m revamp try to convince a planning inspector what should happen with the shopping centre.
Developers and Norwich City Council say the revamp of the square is essential to provide new homes, to help regenerate that part of the city and to create a better shopping complex.
But, with a 20-storey high tower a key part of the scheme, critics argue it would damage one of Europe's most historic cities, could rob Anglia Square of its community feeling and may end up as a costly white elephant.
The scheme was granted permission in December 2018, when members of the city council's planning committee voted in favour, by seven votes to five, after a fierce six-hour debate.
City Hall officers, in recommending permission be granted for owner Columbia Threadneedle and developer Weston Homes's proposals, had acknowledged it would cause harm to the city's heritage, but said a "compelling case" had been made, with "economic and social benefits" for the city.
But objectors, including national heritage watchdog Historic England, feared the impact of the development on the character of Norwich, including on Norwich Cathedral.
They asked the government to call in the city's decision to say yes, which is what has triggered the planning inquiry which starts on Tuesday.
It will now be up to the inspector to hear the cases of those for and against the development, which includes 1,234 new homes, a leisure quarter with a cinema, car parks, a 200-bed hotel, the tower block and a new home for Surrey Chapel.
The inspector will then make a recommendation to the secretary of state on whether the council was right to grant permission.
Local government secretary Robert Jenrick could go with that recommendation or could ignore it - but it will be months until he says yes or no.
What do people who live, work and shop in and around Anglia Square think?
There are few who would argue Anglia Square could do with a revamp. But speaking to those who work there, it is clear that people want the strong community spirit to be retained - whatever happens.
Shopkeepers are keen for assurances they would still have a future in the new look shopping centre.
And they do not want the area to lose the diversity which has made it such a distinctive part of what Norwich has to offer.
There is a certain degree of cynicism over whether anything will ever happen. Some shopkeepers have seen numerous developers put forward plans which have never come to fruition.
Sally Whyte, from Zippers in Magdalen Street, said: "I think I feel the same as a lot of us, that we want to see something done with Anglia Square, but at the moment, what they are proposing is too extreme.
"The square has changed hands five or six times since I've been here. There have been plans which haven't happened and I have a feeling it might just be the same again." Teyfik Goz, who runs Cafe Norwich in Magdalen Street, said: "We saw all the pictures they put out showing what it would look like and it does look like it could be nice. It could be good for us, but we just don't know what is happening. If there's more homes then that would mean more customers."
Ordon Kasera, who opened Fashion Talks in Magdalen Street in 2018, said: "We are hoping that, if it does happen, that we will be able to stay. When we came from Africa in 2010, this was the only place where we could find African food.
"There's lots of different cultures here and it's where we would come to meet up, which is why we opened a shop here. It's good for shopping and a busy place, it's a really good mix."
The sense of community was echoed by Gayle Cross, who has just sold her Marmalade's Children's Clothing shop in Anglia Square.
She said: "A lot of people diss the square, but everyone knows everyone and there is a real community here. Everyone looks out for each other. I've loved my time here.
"They do need to do something to improve it, but I don't think these plans will end up happening."
Simon Pittman, who runs ReGenerating Gaming in Anglia Square and has been in his current store for eight years, said: "We are hoping we will still be here. We look to serve the community here and if it goes ahead, then it goes ahead."
The Magdalen Street Area and Anglia Square Traders Association (MATA) is in favour of the scheme.
James Wade, vice-chair of MATA, said, in the organisation's submission to the inquiry: "The committee implores you and the minister to make a quick decision and one in favour of supporting the council before this community hub and local facility dies completely."
The group's submission stated: "We all know Anglia Square is falling apart, it is near 50 years old. It has always had empty shops and none of the previous owners have ever made enough money to maintain it properly or keep it going.
"Every year that passes it costs more and more to patch up, we know it cannot survive much longer."
The MATA submission questioned why those who protested so much against the 20-storey tower had not objected to extra height being added to the converted Westlegate House close to Norwich Castle in the city centre.
And they said: "Should this application fail, MATA is concerned not only will this developer walk away but, given the track record of the previous applications, the interest of any other owner/developer would be non-existent."
But Anglia Square is also home to a community of artists, with the OUPOST gallery providing residencies for artists in the former offices of Gildengate House.
Stephanie Douet, one of the artists who uses it, recently wrote to this paper in praise of the "real community" of Anglia Square - not represented in the artist impressions of the new development.
She said: "Rather than destroying this lively area with its diversity of people and lives, Norwich city councillors should take a serious look at who and what is actually there, what the community actually needs, before going on an irreparable spree of destruction."
People who live in the area Stuart McLaren, secretary of the St Augustine's Community Together Resident's Association, said more than 1,000 people had signed a petition against the proposals.
He said: "What we hope will come of the inquiry is that the current plans are rejected for a long list of reasons, including being unsustainable and the way it's proposed to be built over many phases over many years, with the affordable homes in the very last phase - which means that might never happen. "We think the price of some of the single bedroom flats will be north of £250,000 and we don't know where they are going to find the people to live in those, so it could end up being a white elephant.
"I've not met anyone who doesn't want something to happen there. Everyone agrees it is well past its use by date, but it still provides a shopping hub, has good value shops and has quite a good footfall.
"But I think this scheme is a missed opportunity to come up with something good and I'm disappointed Norwich City Council, which recently won the Stirling prize for its Goldsmith Street development, is wanting to allow a dormitory in the sky."
Paul Scruton, from the Norwich Over The Water Society, in his submission to the inquiry, says he is not against the tower, but suggests it could have a restaurant on top.
He also calls for the pagoda at the heart of the square to be retained, for an underground art gallery and for the plans for a cinema to be dropped and replaced with an opera house.
He said: "If we are not to have a cinema, as there appears to be no commercial reason for it, then an opera house would take up the same space in the development. This redevelopment would be an excellent opportunity to build a new state-of-the-art facility unique to the East Anglian region."
Some shoppers were keen to see Anglia Square improved, although others were wary of it losing its community feel.
Ray Richardson, 76, from Spixworth, said: "I've seen the plans and I don't have a problem with what they're planning to do, because it does need improving. There's parts of it which are in a bit of a state."
Patricia Rogers, 74, from Norwich, said: "I come here for my lunch and I love the place. I meet people and everyone here is friendly. I don't know what they're planning to do to it, but I'm quite happy with it the way it is."
Jamie Britton, 20, from King's Lynn, said: "I don't come here often, but it would be good if it was a bit cleaner, maybe with a few more bins. I think that would help to bring more people in.
"Maybe they could have some sort of community centre here, to be a bit of a focus."
Megan Skipper, 18, from Norwich, said: "It could do with being a bit tidier, but the shops which are here are all right."
This is what those for and against the scheme will say at the inquiry:
Weston Homes/Columbia Threadneedle
The owners and would-be developers of Anglia Square intend to argue that the proposal does not "cause harm" to heritage assets in the southern part of the city.
Chartered town planner Dr Chris Miele, the applicant's expert on heritage, townscape and design, will argue that, far from detracting from the city's heritage, the "attractive new feature" of the tower will enhance it and serve as a landmark people will use to find their way.
He says: "The contribution the tower makes to the scene is a benefit in townscape terms, both for its intrinsic architectural qualities and its wayfinding function."
The applicants will argue that the new homes "will make a have a significant impact in meeting the need for the provision of one and two bed flatted housing in Greater Norwich, in a location entirely suited to flats."
And, on the issue of air pollution, while conceding the area does suffer from poor air quality, they say that will improve in future years and some of the ground floor flats will be fitted with mechanical ventilation or filters to prevent exposure to pollution.
A spokesman said: "Weston Homes and Columbia Threadneedle will be putting their case for the Anglia Square scheme at the inquiry, with the hope that this major regeneration of the northern city centre area, which is fully supported by the city council, can be implemented and act as a catalyst for the surrounding area."
John Neale, Historic England's planning director in the East of England, said: "We believe that the proposals for Anglia Square would severely harm the character which makes Norwich such a special place. We hope that the inspector will conclude that they would be wrong for the city and recommend that planning permission is refused." Historic England intends to show, at the inquiry, the harm the development, particularly the massing and height of the buildings, would cause key heritage buildings.
They intend to argue that the "heritage balance" is against granting permission and have even commissioned architects Ash Sakula to come up with an alternative scheme.
That alternative scheme includes 595 homes, some above cafes and shops.
The architects say: "Homes are a range of typologies. All are dual aspect, and every home has either a small garden or a large roof terrace. There are occasional five storey tower houses but the predominant urban form is made up of three storey townhouses and four storey stacked duplexes, creating streetscapes in scale with Norwich's traditional architecture."
Their proposals, which still include a cinema and hotel, would also feature a rooftop sky garden with views across the city.
Norwich City Council
The city council is seeking to justify the decision by City Hall officers to recommend approval of what they describe as "the most significant development opportunity in the northern part of the city centre".
David Parkin, the council's area development manager, says the development will bring derelict land and buildings back into use, create a vibrant mixed use neighbourhood with a strong and distinct sense of place and provide a "substantial number of new mixed tenure homes, new jobs, enhanced public space, along with an improved shopping centre.
He says it would "have a significant and permanent regenerative effect on the northern city", serving as a catalyst for further redevelopment in the area.
He says Norwich has a "remarkable historic centre" and that the development will result in "less than substantial harm to a large number of heritage assets".
But he says the public benefits outweigh that harm and that the council was "correct in deciding to support this scheme".
The Norwich Society
The civic watchdog was scathing about the scheme during the planning stages and organised a recent public meeting where opponents of the scheme came together.
Paul Burall, the society's chairman, said many of the benefits being extolled by the council and developers could be achieved through a better designed, less dense development.
And he said: "More crucially, the disbenefits of a poorly designed scheme that is totally out of character with the surrounding area are likely to cause considerable damage to the overall economy of the Norwich and, in particular, will damage the vitality of the city centre by making Norwich a less attractive place to visit."
The society agrees with Historic England that the tower would have an "extensive and severe impact on the city's character", with trustee John Boon adding: "The idea that people need a residential tower to orient themselves is absurd. Local people will know where they are anyway and visitors will have no idea of the relationship of the tower to where they wish to go."
SAVE Britain's Heritage
Henrietta Billings, from national campaign group SAVE Britain's Heritage, said she was looking forward to presenting their case to the inquiry.
She said: "We are not against the redevelopment of Anglia Square, but this city deserves better. We believe it could be redeveloped in a different way, with lower rise streets and squares that are characteristic of creative quarters that are emerging in cities across the UK.
"Norwich City Council has proved their credentials as an enlightened client for award winning architecture with neighbouring Goldsmith Street. Why can't the council apply the same visionary leadership at Anglia Square - and achieve the right type of development in this sensitive location? A drastic re-think is needed."
Norwich Cycling Campaign
Air pollution is a big concern for the campaign group, along with the order in which demolition of buildings such as Sovereign House is due to take place.
And they also have concerns about the rights of ways across the site, which they fear could be changed at the whims of the developers.
Tony Clarke, from Norwich Cycling Campaign, said: "We look forward to the battle and think we are going to get a fair hearing."
Cathedral Magdalen and St Augustine's Forum
Like Historic England, the forum put together its own alternative to the applicant's plans, which included lower level housing, a gallery, a market and a health centre.
Hugh McGlynn, acting joint chair of the forum said of the current plans: "This is the wrong development for the site.
"We have listened to local aspirations and fears about the impact built environment has on everyday life. It is important that a residential development does not cram too many units into too small a space.
"The Weston proposal is too dense - it crams too many flats into units which are not designed as well as they could be."
- Visit www.edp24.co.uk and www.eveningnews24.co.uk for coverage of the planning inquiry.