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Rift appears between town and gown

PUBLISHED: 16:09 29 October 2008 | UPDATED: 09:13 13 July 2010

TOWN and gown appear to be parting company in North Walsham after some 400 years of harmony.

Paston chiefs want to move out of their historic buildings in the heart of North Walsham into a brand-new, edge-of-town, college near the Victory pool.

TOWN and gown appear to be parting company in North Walsham after some 400 years of harmony.

Paston chiefs want to move out of their historic buildings in the heart of North Walsham into a brand-new, edge-of-town, college near the Victory pool.

And a sizeable section of the North Walsham community isn't happy with the idea.

There were strong and reasoned arguments on both sides of the divide at last Friday's public meeting in the town.

I came away from the debate troubled by what I see as significant shortcomings in Britain's planning system.

When we are presented with major developments such as this, it is always the applicant who has had the benefit of costly expert advice, who is able to furnish flash drawings and graphs, and is fully aware of the countdown timetable.

Residents who oppose such plans are immediately placed at a disadvantage - with no cash to pay for specialists to help present a professional counter argument, and often with only a hazy grasp of planning procedure - hence the 11th-hour protests in North Walsham.

There is a legitimate opposing view. The college's proposed move will alter forever the dynamics and face of the town.

Paston chiefs were equipped at the meeting with many convincing arguments about why the college has to move.

But I'd bet a tenner opponents could find a consultancy firm to give them good reasons why the proposed site should be avoided and the college built afresh at the Lawns, the historic buildings retained, and new college sports facilities provided near the Victory.

Paston College chiefs' imperative is to ensure the best possible educational environment for young people, and full-marks to them for pursuing that goal.

They cannot be expected to consider how many businesses might go to the wall as a result of the move, or the possible consequences for their old sites.

It's that last point which I think highlights another pitfall in our planning laws.

The future use (or disuse) of the Lawns and Griffon sites will not be among the planning considerations which district councillors review before deciding whether or not to approve the move. But it should be. If Paston moves, it will leave a massive, gaping hole in the very heart of North Walsham. It astonishes me that this application can be both submitted and granted with only a meaningless “all will be well” sop thrown to those deeply concerned about the fate of the college's current home.

We have learned bitter lessons from the long abandonment of the former Crane Fruehauf site, the continued dereliction of the old HL Foods factory land and the eyesore which is North Walsham railway station.

They were and are blights on the town's reputation and attractiveness, contributing to a sense of malaise.

Some fear, especially in the current economic climate, the college's present site could also lie neglected for years. Others gloomily predict conversion into flats for the wealthy. And others forecast discordant, piecemeal development.

Well-meaning reassurances about “interesting and exciting possibilities” are simply unacceptably vague at this critical juncture.

To coin a phrase made famous in a previous American election campaign: “Where's the beef?”


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