North Walsham’s shopping precinct ‘like the Marie Celeste’

A succession of business closures has left North Walsham's shopping precinct 'dying on its feet', according to worried traders who fear it will be very difficult to stop the rot in the current economic climate.

Shoppers are hit by a three-sided square of whitewashed windows, empty shop fronts, and To Let notices as they enter the St Nicholas Court precinct from the town's central Market Place.

In the past six months the two largest units in the precinct – Norfolk County Council's Connexions centre and CST's Bar and Grill – have both shut up shop, joining Zelley's jeweller, Roger Hilton hairdresser and butcher's J and N.

And, in a fresh blow, Elaine Cull, chairman of the precinct's traders' association, says this year she will be closing her Counting Stitches shop, one of a handful still open.

Town mayor Anne Rose believes the number of absentee landlords charging escalating rents is partly to blame for the plight of the precinct, together with the economic downturn and practical problems such as its off-centre position and a lack of signposting to direct shoppers from Market Place.

She added: 'It's like the Marie Celeste down there – very sad indeed, but it's privately owned and doesn't come within the town council's orbit.'

Rob McEvoy owns the Bike Riders shop which is one of the only remaining businesses in the main square.

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He is four years into a 15-year lease and said he dealt with his landlord through a London estate agent.

'Absentee landlords have no idea of what is happening locally. It doesn't look good down here. It's still very tough for retailers and there are plenty of people struggling,' he said.

'This summer is critical,' said Mr McEvoy. 'That's when I do most business. It would be nice to see things pick up then with some of these units getting taken. If not, I will have to reconsider what I'm doing here.'

He has raised concerns about a planning application, lodged by charity Elizabeth FitzRoy Support, for a day care centre in the neighbouring former butcher's.

Mr McEvoy fears it would not be open daily to the general public and would therefore present 'another closed front' on the precinct.

At florist The Daisy Chain, one of four businesses still operating along the precinct's side alley, owner Sarah Grady said for relatively little cost people could be enticed into the precinct by making it more inviting, with seating, trees and attractive planting. 'At the minute people sit in the churchyard to have their lunch. Why not try and get them to come here instead?' she asked.

Ms Cull said after eight years in the precinct she planned to close sometime this year and run her business via the internet because it was no longer financially viable to trade from the shop.

'Sometimes I can go an hour or more without seeing anyone,' she said.

North Walsham Chamber of Trade chairman Colin Page said they would resist any attempt to permit non-retail use of precinct units, such as the day centre application. 'Once you allow that to happen you never get the shops back,' he said.

The old buildings and yards demolished to make way for the precinct, which opened in 1971, could have been incorporated into an attractive shopping complex similar to those in Holt.

'Instead we're left with these uninteresting buildings and in the current climate it wouldn't be economic to bulldoze them and start again. We need some sort of effort to bring life back there.'

Mr Page said he believed finding takers for the larger units would be key to reviving the precinct's fortunes.

But Bill Borrett, Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for corporate affairs and efficiency, said they had a long lease on the former Connexions building, which was still being used as an office.

It was the council's biggest office property in the town and, in a bid to cut costs, more staff could be moved there from other council buildings.

A spokesman for North Norfolk District Council said the management and occupation of precinct units was 'essentially a commercial matter.' If the site were to be redeveloped, it lay within the town centre policy and core retail areas of North Walsham, where a range of uses would be acceptable, with retail and commercial on the ground floor.

He added: 'The site also lies within the Conservation Area where new, good quality development would be welcomed.'

What's the answer? Let us know your views on the precinct. Email or write to The North Norfolk News, 31 Church Street, Cromer NR27 9ES.