First step for Stalham-area bold community vision

Recession-defying plans to provide a wealth of community facilities for nearly 20,000 people in a 'neglected' area of north Norfolk have taken a cautious first step forward this week.

Stalham with Happing Partnership has been given six months to try and buy land at Stalham's old station yard which has remained derelict and an eyesore for over a decade.

The regeneration group, a volunteer-based charity, believes it is in a good position to apply for grants to develop the gateway site.

Its ambitious plans would include building a Happing Hub, providing an 'iconic' venue for everything from a cinema, theatre, dances, meetings and a creche, to a new base for Stalham Town Council and the outdated library, plus a Citizens Advice Bureau, tourist information centre, and 'virtual' offices - via computer links - for council-run services.

Other parts of the site, at the west end of Stalham High Street, would be developed with 13 units of warden-controlled housing to be run through a subsidiary company called Happing Cares, a larger surfaced car park and better provision for an outdoor market.

The vision, backed by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, would serve residents in Stalham and the surrounding parishes of Ashmanhaugh, Barton Turf and Irstead, Brumstead, Catfield, East Ruston, Happisburgh, Hickling, Horning, Horsey, Hoveton, Ingham, Lessingham, Ludham, Neatishead, Potter Heigham, Sea Palling, Smallburgh, Sutton, Tunstead and Walcott.

Most of the land belongs to Norfolk County Council, with a 17-space car park owned by North Norfolk District Council. Partnership chairman Richard Price said: 'Cromer's got its Merchants' Place, North Walsham's had �5.3m for its Phoenix Centre but Stalham is the poor relation.

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'Nothing has happened on this site for years and, after the Spending Review, there's no way the councils will be able to do anything for some time to come.

'Funding is still out there - there are very short windows for applying for it and it's for very precise classes of social needs which are very much part of our agenda. As a bona fide third-sector organisation we're able, and very willing, to make the necessary applications.'

Mr Price said that the county council's property advisory panel had agreed on Monday to give the partnership a six-month option to buy the site and he was now waiting to hear the price. Partnership chiefs have been pressing for the land to be gifted to them, or transferred for a nominal amount.

They estimate that, once bought, a further �75,000 would need to be found for a fully-costed business study on their plans.

Mr Price said the scheme would result in worthwhile savings to councils through shared overhead costs and the communal use of facilities such as toilets and a cafe.

* In a separate bid, the partnership and Potter Heigham Parish Council are applying for funding to buy the village's redundant Roundbridge Centre from the county council to develop as a headquarters for its Happing Care business, plus a cr�che and pre-school facilities, day-care, education, learning and training centres, and other community use.