A few weeks ago we were joined by Executive Director of Norwich Business Improvement District (BID), Stefan Gurney as part of the bi-monthly Avocado Club event to talk about the work that BID does around the city centre, what impact lockdowns have had on businesses and what opportunities there have been for businesses to recover.
I’m Stefan, the Executive Director of Norwich Business Improvement District. I also work on a couple of national forums so I’m the Vice Chair of the BID Foundation nationally and also Chair of the Association of Town and City Management. I am also a senior fellow of the Institute of Place Management. My role is working on behalf of 750 businesses which contribute into the BID to help Norwich thrive. BID is funded by the business community to do activities and projects that support and develop Norwich City Centre.
I think just using the last week as an example, so where we were two years ago, we were about 320,000 users on an average week. When we went into the full lockdown in Norwich the numbers dropped to about 50,000 a week, and now we are back open again it is close to about 270,000. So, we are trading roughly, as we see it, around between 80% and 85% of footfall from where we were before, which is pretty good. Against the national averages, we measure ourselves against, Norwich on year to date against last year is down 2.3%, but the UK is down 5.6% and if you look specifically at high streets the average high street is down 11.7%.
So, Norwich and the high street is starting to open up again. Some of the challenges that you have with that is the way people access the city now has probably changed, so you’re looking at the challenges of transport and accessibility being one of the key elements. A lot of the challenges around public transport and people not necessarily returning in the same way as they had before. We’re seeing transport and the use of cars etc are around the level pre-pandemic so we’ve got less footfall but more traffic which therefore creates an issue of how you access the city and that will take a time to work through as people start to feel more comfortable using different modes of transport back into the city.
Yes, I think you have to adapt don’t you. We’ve done a lot of work and we’ve just sent out our annual report. Almost 12 months ago we were just working in the city doing the love light festival in 2019 so that was just pre-pandemic and then obviously all that changed, and BID had to completely alter the way that it approached working with the business community. We had to first understand all the implications of Covid at the time. Every sector had a different challenge. Retail had a different challenge to bars and restaurants; you then had a difference for the commercial sector and all the office usage, but we were being obviously asked to offer support and guidance and get all the messages out from public health and central government to every single sector. So, while most people were trying to understand what the implication were just to their own business, BID was trying to understand the implications to an entire city and advise as best we could on those implications, as we very clearly pivoted. We created lots of assets for the city itself whether that was PPE and all the sanitization, through to the queuing outside stores and how that could be done safely, through to office advice on processes and making sure office spaces are meeting the guidance. So, you had to do the mixture of guidance and real-world interventions. As the city re-opened, we started then to re-engage with the business community and look at what recovery was required for each of those and what the next transition will look like. We are now starting to look at the strategic direction of the city. As we see some of the spaces change in the city, we need to look at what the vision and strategy for the city is, as we go into hybrid working. We need to look at the challenges for the retail sector or the challenge of online and then there’s also now that the very real challenges for the hospitality sector as we see the implications of Brexit and the lack of specific staffing. We have businesses are saying they have 10 to 20 hospitality vacancies that they just can’t fill because there aren’t the staff that were there before.
I’m not sure if everyone’s aware that we put in an application to central government “Towns Deal” to draw down £25 million pounds worth of funding to support the city and those are on eight different projects. BID is specifically delivering the commercial investment proposition for the city, so we’ve just done a whole load of work on the visitor and the tourism proposition and the brand of Norwich as a city of stories. We’re now looking at how we look at the inward investment and doing the brand work to try and recruit and retain the businesses and the best skilled staff across the city. Most events and outside activities have been fairly limited, but we’ve obviously got the lovely Dippy coming to the Cathedral, we’ve been working with Break to put on a dinosaur trail across the city so there will be 20 dinosaur statues around to animate the city during the summer. We’re again putting on our ‘head out not home’ music and entertainment and we’re moving from a Thursday evening and we’re moving our entertainment onto Sundays to hopefully create more footfall and a drive to use the city on a Sunday. We also have music Covent Garden style activities across the summer as well so we’re looking at lots of different ways of working. We’re obviously doing our campaigns to push the city as a visitor destination and that’s trying to do that in a safe way. Norwich was picked as one of the top 5 destinations for staycations this summer and everywhere else was a beach or the countryside, so Norwich was the only city that was highlighted because of the work that we’ve been doing with Visit England as a destination that was really positive for us to be able to push. We’re also doing lots of different pieces to help support the business community and make sure everyone has the feeling that the city is reopening safely and securely and making sure that perceptions of coming into the city are as positive as possible.
At the moment, we have drawn down the last of EU funding, while we are still in the EU and have some remaining funds to deliver. We’re looking at upcycling across the city, so we’re doing a project and if anyone would like to get involved then please let us know. So not just recycling but someone being able to make positive use out of someone’s waste, so we have examples of coffee grinds being used to create furniture or we work with the UEA, there’s one guy who’s changing old, discarded fishing nets into glasses. So it’s upcycling the things that you think might be a by-product of your work that therefore can be reused by another organization and therefore get a profit out of it, to make sure that we’re using as much of the products as we can.
With Net Zero, we’re specifically looking to work with the market to make the market the first Net Zero market in the Country and we’ve approached the schools on a project on Net Zero as we’d seen some work that one of our colleagues in the upcycling project did. You’re probably aware the schools have a lot on their plate, so it may be a difficult challenge to engage at present. We have just put some funding together working with the UEA to do some research on urban greening and looking at how we can use the city centre to create more public and green spaces and make the city a positive green space. Our involvement with the transforming cities funding to do the works that the county council are doing on St Stephens Street on the new bus stops, we’ve got them to include seedum roofing on the top of each of the bus stops so that helps to reduce the carbon emissions as part of that area. As there are now multi-million-pound central Government pots, so it’s about looking at what is it that Norwich wants to do and what we want to achieve that can help towards that and also create a positive working and trading environment um which is greener and cleaner.
The biggest challenge for us, and we’ve gone to the houses of parliament to present on this as part of my national forums of the BID Foundation and the ATCM, is around permitted development rights. There is a whole load of reclassification in planning, from what was the old classes of ABC which is like retail office space, restaurants, cafes. All those things came under different class systems they’ve now lumped them all together in class E and sneakily they’ve decided to try and put through legislation that allows class E to be changed into residential without any planning oversight. Which pretty much means that anything in the city centre, if it becomes vacant for more than three months could be turned into residential. So, you could have TopShop, Debenhams suddenly turned into residential and there’s a huge concern that there isn’t the infrastructure and all the support pieces needed to put large amounts of residential into a city centre, not just the economic impact of it from a city’s perspective. Our aspiration is that it’s a curated piece and that planning has oversight because what we wouldn’t want to do is to allow really poor quality residential to be developed in the city. There’s a real possibility that we just throw up loads of really cheap residential, because landlords have lost a lot of revenue. There’s been no support for the landlords who have lost their rent over this period, so there will be a real challenge for them not to just flip the properties into a quick return into residential. So, for us, we want to look at a longer term, mixed use approach.
There needs to be more residential in the city centre, but it has to be the right sites and the right sort of development. We think there’ll be much more mixed-use spaces and smaller spaces, and also that there will be a good mix of office space and higher quality for those using the hybrid spaces, more localized and engaged retail space rather than just generic multinationals and the opportunity also to put in different uses in in the city centres. We are working to put in an application to the community renewal fund for central government to draw down some funding with the city council to look at a spatial strategy for the city centre on how the future direction of travel should be and what sort of mixture of uses we would like in the city centre. That will involve engaging with the business community on our side and engaging with the general public from the local authority side as well, so we make sure that the city centre is developed for all the users as we start to move out of this pandemic.