What next for Anglia Square?

Anglia Square. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Anglia Square. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Are there some faint glimmers of hope for the future of Anglia Square? The current massive and grossly over-dense and poorly-designed proposal from Weston Homes has been met with overwhelming opposition, with 298 of those formally commenting opposing it and just 55 in support.

Paul Burall. Picture: Bob Hobbs

Paul Burall. Picture: Bob Hobbs - Credit: Archant

Now, despite the developer having previously insisted that the financial viability of the redevelopment 'rests with the scheme in its entirety', it has emerged that negotiations are going on with the city council planners to see if the scheme can be amended to make it more acceptable.

This follows the announcement by Historic England that, if the city council is minded to approve the scheme, it will ask for the application to be referred to the Secretary of State for decision because of the harm that it would cause to the unique character of 'one of the great historic cities of England and Europe'.

Another potential new hurdle for the developers is that the government's current review of the national planning regulations suggests a significant amendment to the method for testing the viability of a development.

This would mean that the price paid for land will cease to be a relevant justification for failing to accord with the relevant national and local planning policies.

How Anglia Square could look once the redevelopment is complete. Photo: Weston Homes

How Anglia Square could look once the redevelopment is complete. Photo: Weston Homes - Credit: Archant

Historic England has highlighted many aspects of the proposal that meet neither the city council's planning guidance for Anglia Square, nor national planning guidance and it now seems that financial viability will not be able to be used to overcome these deficiencies.

With the reducing demand for retail space as shoppers switch from bricks-and-mortar stores to online, there must also be a question mark over whether the shopping element of the proposals remains a viable proposition.

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Of course, Anglia Square is in desperate need of redevelopment. It is a wasting asset for its owners and a missed opportunity to boost the city's economy, provide much-needed housing and improve the local environment. As Historic England has pointed out, it should be perfectly possible to redevelop Anglia Square 'in a different way which would still unlock public benefits. Norwich deserves better'.

Many of the objections focused on the proposed 25-storey tower but simply lopping a few floors off the top would do little to make the whole development more acceptable.

Artist's impression of Anglia Square plans. Picture: Weston Homes and Columbia Threadneedle.

Artist's impression of Anglia Square plans. Picture: Weston Homes and Columbia Threadneedle. - Credit: Weston Homes and Columbia Thread

As the Norwich Society, Historic England and many others have pointed out, the tower is far from being the only aspect of the scheme that is unacceptable.

The proposed development is made up of other tall buildings in large blocks that are alien to the Norwich cityscape, dominating the surrounding streets. The 12-storey block fronting St Crispin's roundabout typifies the damage that the scheme would cause.

The basic problem is that the developers have tried to squeeze far too much onto the site, creating a density that would hardly be acceptable in London and is double the permissible level for a similar site in Leeds.

This has led to the overbearing impact of the proposals and results in the 1250 apartments being small and almost entirely limited to just one or two bedrooms that are unsuitable for many families; worse, the plans totally fail to meet the local plan requirement for 30% of the housing to be affordable.

So where do we go from here?

If Weston Homes is unable to come up with a solution that meets the genuine needs of the City in terms of providing a variety of new housing and commercial accommodation – including space for the burgeoning creative and digital businesses that are likely to be the lifeblood of the city in the future – in a development designed to enhance the city's environment, then we must look for alternatives.

This means going back to square one, rapidly identifying the city's ambitions for the site, preferably involving Historic England, local businesses and business groups, the local community (who demonstrated their constructive approach at the Norwich Society public meeting at the end of April) and others with a direct interest.

Hopefully, this would be led by the owners of the site, Columbia Threadneedle, who acquired the site in 2014 for just £7m and must now be wondering how they can make the best of their investment.

There also needs to be a proper analysis of the demolition and other costs of preparing the site for redevelopment so that there is a realistic understanding of the starting cost of any new scheme. Interestingly, in 2016 the government put a figure of £1.5m per hectare on the average value of residential land in Norwich.

Anglia Square is probably more valuable as it is so central and capable of a more dense development than the average site, so its current ready-to-build value is likely to be close to the total paid by Columbia Threadneedle and the investment needed in site preparation.

And, of course, the government has offered £12m to support redevelopment.

Hopefully, this means that there would be a number of architects and potential developers who would be happy to come up with fresh ideas the site.

Norwich deserves better. And better seems entirely feasible.