Yesterday, I walked down Copeman Road in Little Plumstead. It is a pleasant road with trees and a row of nicely spaced houses. ‘A very desirable place to live’, you might think, until you realise that seven houses are empty of inhabitants and have been left to fall into decay and ruin.
I was told that they have been like that for about eight years.
This is at a time when we are being told by Norfolk County Council (NCC) and Broadland District Council (BDC) that the need for houses is currently so great and so urgent that we must cover the North East Triangle of Norwich in 10,000 or more new homes. It is then hard to see why the houses in Copeman Road are being left wantonly to decay.
These houses were well-built council houses, whose infrastructure is still sound and which could be repaired and brought up to current standards for much less than the cost of building new houses.
However, a developer might not see it like that: there’s not enough profit to be made in refurbishing houses that are well spaced and have good-sized rear gardens. The real money lies in demolishing them and building as many houses per hectare as possible.
The empty houses in Copeman Road are just begging to welcome families again. And they are not the only empty buildings in the Norwich region. In Norwich city itself office blocks stand empty and deteriorating. The Norwich Evening News ran a feature on 24 December, saying that the “empty sites are ghosts of our city’s past” – in which, apart from one or two houses of historic interest like Howard House in Kings Street, the recommendation was that the houses and office blocks should be demolished to make way for new development. It is rarely argued that some buildings could be converted into flats for human habitation. One of the sites mentioned was Sovereign House, which overlooks (one might say ‘overhangs’) Anglia Square. I worked in Sovereign House for years when it was Her Majesty’s Stationery Office and employed about 800 people there. Would it not be possible to convert this building into flats? The infrastructure of roads, transport, energy and water are already laid on. Another huge, almost empty office block in the same area– Gildengate House – has also received permission from Norwich City Council to be demolished. These are just a few of the empty buildings in Norwich. It surely makes more sense to make use of existing empty buildings in the city, where transport and jobs are accessible, than to encourage people to settle in new houses on the fringes of the city where they will have to travel into Norwich for jobs - even though there is no satisfactory public transport system to support them? It will encourage the further use of the private car in an era of climate change and diminishing oil reserves.
Yet there is a marked reluctance amongst developers to take on an empty building and refurbish it as a dwelling. They prefer to work with ‘greenfield sites’ such as the Thorpe Woodlands in the developer’s ‘triangle’ to the north–east of Norwich. There are plans to build between 600 and 800 houses over the woodlands of Belmore, Racecourse and Brown plantations near the garden village of Thorpe End. This is yet another case of a developer wishing to clear perfectly healthy and environmentally valuable woodland in order to build houses – and this is at a time when we are being urged to plant more trees for the future. The respected naturalist and author, Richard Mabey, said of this proposed development: ‘the loss of such a large area of semi-mature woodland would significantly damage our attempts to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. The government has stressed the importance of trees in sequestering carbon, and is committed to increasing our forest cover, not encouraging its depletion for development. When the woodland in question is also valuable as a biodiversity reservoir the threat is doubly worrying’. The Friends of Thorpe Woodlands has been formed to fight the threat and they have the support of local councillors, local people and conservation bodies. These three woods are contiguous and although they have been called ‘plantations’ they are far from being full of conifers as the title suggests. In fact they are largely made up of semi-natural broadleaved species with an impressive array of ecological diversity. This fact has been recognised by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust who have had all three woodlands designated as ‘County Wildlife Sites’. Together they form the largest area of woodland within several miles of Norwich and boast a large selection of animal and plant life, including red deer, sparrow hawks, nightingales, and the white admiral butterfly. Many of the oaks, beeches, and sweet chestnuts found in the woods are between 100 and 150 years old.
So what is going on? The answer was plain to see in the three weeks plus of the Examination-in-Public (EiP) into the Joint Core Strategy (JCS) of the Greater Norwich Development Partnership (GNDP) last month. The debate was not whether material growth and development should happen – merely where and how it would happen.
As long as material growth remains a given by our overgrown human species on an already over-exploited planet, our future as a species (and that of many other species too) remains very doubtful.