Say Norwich to most people and the first image that springs to mind is Alan Partridge, closely followed by a tired and emotional Delia Smith, and a comment on how difficult it is to get there. That was certainly true of myself when I moved from London to Norwich a little over three years ago. I got off the train fully expecting to see Stephen Fry driving a tractor through a grass grown city centre; disappointingly I did not. The truth is Norwich is an exciting, dynamic city which is set to experience dramatic growth spurned by on-going improvements in transport infrastructure.
Firstly some facts and figures. Norwich has a population of 230,000. It’s around 100 miles north of London, and 30 miles from the North Norfolk Coast. With its longstanding connection to the insurance industry, Norwich has a large financial services sector. It also has the second highest graduate retention rate in the country with 40% of university leavers staying in the city. Norwich has the most complete medieval street pattern in the UK and the largest collection of medieval churches north of the Alps; sitting alongside the history it is also home to more Park and Ride sites than any British city. In addition to having a pub for every day of the year, and one of only two puppet theatres in the country, it also has 150 acres of green space spread over 23 parks. Beyond these characteristics, Norwich is also home to a world-class university, and, unsurprisingly, it is rapidly becoming a destination for start-ups and entrepreneurs.
The city was named by the Daily Telegraph as being one of four tech hubs outside of London along with Edinburgh, Bristol and Manchester. A thriving network of young professionals has enabled a vibrant ecosystem of businesses to develop. Success stories include Epos Now and RainBird, who have demonstrated that young ambitious companies can thrive in this ancient city. Low rents and access to talent from the UEA mean that it is the ideal place for the idea-rich and cash-poor start-up. And with a growing community of business and science parks on the edge of the city, businesses have room to grow.
One of the issues associated with Norwich is the ageing and inadequate transport links which connect the city to the rest of the country. It has been said that East Anglia is a region enclosed on three sides by the sea and on the fourth by the rail network; whilst true, this is changing. The high profile ‘Norwich in 90’ campaign has seen massive investment pledged to improve links between London and Norwich. Under the plans, travel times between Norwich and London could be slashed by nearly half an hour. According to a 2014 report, this could see £4.5 billion of economic benefits and could create up to 48,000 jobs. In addition to rail improvements, the completion of the Northern Distributor Road will make travelling to, from and around Norwich much easier and will enable commuting from outlying settlements such as Fakenham and Cromer much easier.
According to current projections, Norwich’s population looks set to grow by more than 30,000 with even more jobs than that being created. This growth has led to an expansion in building plans in the city. Building has already commenced in the so-called ‘growth triangle’ north-west of the city centered around Sprowston and Rackheath, with more plans submitted and waiting approval. Plans have also been approved to build a new community on the edge of the village of Trowse. An application currently being considered would transform the village of Thorpe Hamlet into a true suburb of Norwich. The skyline of the city is also changing. The process which started with the erection of Westlegate Tower looks set to continue should plans for the redevelopment of Anglia Square get approved. This scheme would demolish Norwich’s largest derelict building and replace it with a 1,000-home development complete with new retail and hospitality facilities. This would mark the culmination of a slow process of gentrification on Magdalen Street and the North City in general.
In the 11th century Norwich was the second largest city in England, in the 14th century it was the English spoke on a wheel of trade that united the Hanseatic cities of Germany, and in the late 20th and early 21st centuries it is best known as the home of a fictional radio host and football commentator. Such a dynamic city needs growth and intelligent thinking to ensure its survival. When Norwich cathedral was built over 900 years ago, the inhabitants rioted. Now it is an emblem of the city. That should be the lesson. Change can be frightening, but it can also enrich and transform our city; the home of the largest British ornamental teapot collection in the world!