by Yali Banton-Heath

For the past 8 years the future of Anglia Square – a 1960’s-built shopping complex in Norwich’s north city – has been a contentious local concern. In 2018 Norwich City Council approved a £250 million development planning application submitted by asset management group Columbia Threadneedle, who bought the site in 2012, and property developers Weston Homes. The proposal included plans for a new shopping centre, hotel, cinema, and 20-storey apartment block. After receiving over 700 objections, which collectively led to a government inquiry, earlier this month Secretary of State Robert Jenrick officially rejected the plans, on the basis that they “did not protect and enhance the heritage assets of the city”

The decision has been cause for celebration for local campaigners, and has presented a fresh opportunity to put forward alternative proposals. The narrative of opposition for many campaign groups, however, has mostly been one of preserving Norwich’s heritage and skyline. Groups including Historic England, The Norwich Society, SAVE Britain’s Heritage, and the Cathedral, Magdalen and St Augustine’s Neighbourhood Forum have been pushing for a more aesthetically pleasing and historically sensitive redevelopment of the site, with Heritage England commissioning architect group Ash Sakula to design an alternative proposal, which includes 600 homes and a skygarden. But are concerns over heritage and skyline really the most pressing issues at stake?

‘Angrier Square!’ is a campaign group which focusses on placing the needs of the community at the heart of opposition to current redevelopment plans, and speaking to its two founders, Laney and Naomi, it becomes clear that their priorities extend beyond aesthetics and heritage. “Don’t get us wrong, we love the beauty of our city, but our concerns have always been more street-level, rather than focused on the skyline.” they explain, “Our love for where we live is about our community.”

Shoppers in Anglia Square (Image credit: Patrick Matthews)

“Affordable homes for all, not buy-to-let bollocks!”

For them, gentrification is a grave concern, “Our biggest worry is that the development of Anglia Square would see the people who live, and work here, priced out and pushed out” Naomi and Laney tell me. Although the original proposal included provisions for 1,250 new homes, there were concerns that they fell short in terms of affordability and suitability. “The houses are not designed for living, for families, for communities, they are clearly designed for property investor’s portfolios” they explain, “We say affordable homes for all, not buy-to-let bollocks!”

As well as affordable homes, Angrier Square! are demanding more green spaces, spaces for play and recreation, and spaces for creativity and industriousness. “If it was up to us, we would have full utopia housing cooperatives, community centres, and businesses that truly serve the needs of the people.” says Naomi.

On a personal level, they describe how they’d like to see a development “that makes good with what is already there, the square just needs a bit of TLC, surely the most environmentally sustainable thing to do is work with what you have already got, make-do and mend, give it a little upcycle.” 

Anglia Square at night (Image credit: Patrick Matthews)

People over profit

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the type of commercialised urban regeneration pursued by local councils and developers all over the country – tearing down the old and replacing it with new shiny buildings, shops, restaurants and leisure facilities – is all too often born from a desire to accumulate capital, and rarely spawns from a desire to meet the real needs of local people. As Laney and Naomi point out: “The unfolding inquiry into the Grenfell fire tragedy really does show us that developers, property investors, and the building industry don’t give two hoots about the people who end up living and working in the spaces they create.” A disregard for the future wellbeing of the local community has left Naomi and Laney feeling unrepresented and disappointed: “The actions of the City Council appear to represent the needs of big business instead of representing the needs of local people, and that’s just not good enough”, Naomi says.

This is why the campaign group has brought together local residents to demand better. “Basically big business does not care about us. Politicians do not care about us.” says Naomi, “And without much better long term plans and dramatic reform of planning laws, we, the people, will have to continue to organise and agitate the processes of big business and try and get a better deal for our communities.”

Lower Green art space, Anglia Square (Image credit: Patrick Matthews)

Right to the city

Henri Lefebvre first came up with the notion that people have a ‘right to the city’, and by this he meant working class people having the collective power to shape processes of urbanization. This translates directly as community decision-making power over how a city transforms and grows. In the case of Anglia Square, it means that it’s the local community who should decide how this redevelopment can benefit them collectively, rather than asset management groups and property developers dictating the process.

As anti-capitalist geographer David Harvey once wrote in an essay on ‘the right to the city’: “quality of urban life has become a commodity, as has the city itself”. Urban centres are traditionally spaces that accommodate surplus value, and are designed in a way which serves to line the pockets of big business. In the same essay, Harvey adds that “violence is required to build the new urban world in the wreckage of the old”; a process which inevitably has a class element at its core – as it is often the poorest who suffer the most from these urban ‘regenerations’; their homes torn down, community spaces shrunk, and needs disregarded. Framing the development of Anglia Square in such a way is important to Laney and Naomi: “this is an issue of class politics for us, we see this as working class resistance to big business plundering.” 

“We want the city council to take back the land and do something decent there, but before that happens we need an inquiry into how they agreed to the decision and exempted the developer from Community Infrastructure Levy.” they add. Despite this temporary victory and rejection of the developers’ proposal, the future of Anglia Square remains very much in the balance. It’s important to take inspiration from campaigns like Angrier Square!, and resurrect a conversation about what we expect from our cities, how we wish them to look, and how we want them to provide for us. We have the right to shape our urban environments, and to demand that their spaces serve the interests of people, not profit. 

Featured image credit: Patrick Matthews, @willinglynotshowing

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