City Conversations: The Future of Norwich

Bringing Norwich together: the vision for the City of Stories.  

Our first in person conference in two years felt like a welcome step back-to-normal. Free to attend, our City Conversation brought our local businesses together to hear from keynote speakers Bill Grimsey and Ojay McDonald, put questions to a panel of Norwich decision-makers—including representatives from City and County Council—and network in person. 

You can watch a recording from the event on YouTube here, or read on for a brief summary of the day.  

Stefan Gurney, our Executive Director opened the conference with an overview of Norwich BID’s past eighteen months, and an introduction to BID’s ambitions for the next few years. From our business covid precautions, including social distancing stickers, to our eco-focussed projects like Upcycle Your Waste, and the growing success of our Destination Marketing Organisation, VisitNorwich, Stefan demonstrated how Norwich BID prioritised the needs of our businesses, and helped the city grow. And for the future? The BID aims for Norwich to be bigger, bolder, better.  

In his introduction, Stefan also touched upon what became common themes for the day: hybrid working, changes to Permitted Development Rights, transport (and what transport needs might be for the future), and climate change. And the way forward for the city as a whole: Partnership, collaboration, and proactive change.  

Bill Grimsey City Conversations

Bill Grimsey, ex CEO of Wickes and Iceland, and a pivotal force in the fight for the high street, gave a rousing and challenging speech on the past, present and future of city centres. Whilst Bill emphasised the strengths and current success of Norwich, (based on his visit and recent statistics) he reminded us that it was crucial to not be complacent, and to be ready for change. The priority for Bill? Planning for the future, and creating a 20 year vision. (Read about Norwich’s 2040 vision here, developed by Norwich City Council, in partnership with Norwich BID and other key local organisations.) 

Through Bill’s presentation, the need for an experience-driven city centre was highlighted: the high street needs to move away from carbon copy retail clones, and focus on individual strengths. In an uncertain future, community and localism is the answer: and if the past eighteen months have demonstrated anything, it is the extraordinary strength of Norwich’s communities. Whilst the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic was factored in, the biggest challenge (and driver for change) that Bill predicted would be climate change.  

For Bill, ‘Towns of the future will be brands’ – something that Norwich is already developing within the City of Stories identity: an inclusive brand which showcases the strength of our unique city.  And the focus for residents: quality of life.  

Ojay McDonald City Conversations

Ojay McDonald, Chief Executive of the Association of Town & City Management, presented next. He opened with a slide introducing Ryan’s World (an all too familiar sight for parents), a 10 year old YouTube star who reviews toys, and whose videos have been viewed over 45 billion times. Ryan’s impact on the toy industry is colossal, with his reviews having the potential to drastically influence sales: and as Ojay said, YouTube might be the future of retail. 

YouTube, online shopping, social media, the rise of the influencer: the rate of retail innovation is extraordinary. Ojay suggested we were living through a period of change comparable to the Industrial Revolution and that our understanding of space and place needed to change. It’s not just about retail; cash is disappearing, some blockbuster movies no longer make it to the cinema, and the city centre needs to find a new way to be relevant in virtual world.  

The anchor for cities may no longer be the flagship store. In Stockport, they’re reiminagining the city centre by creating a community green-space along the river, which has reduced capacity and instead drives engagement and investment into the city. Thinking outside the box will be crucial for city centre development, but change needs to be made tactically and consciously.  

Ojay also warned of the climate crisis: extreme weather incidents are likely to become part of the new normal, and ‘climate proof’ cities do not always stand up to their claims. Zhengzhou,  a city in China, was deluged with a year’s worth of rain in just three days, and in spite of being built as a ‘sponge city’ designed to mitigate the impact of floods,  over 300 people died and an estimated $10 billion was wiped off the local economy. Climate crisis mitigation needs to begin now, and be baked into planning decisions and infrastructure planning. For Ojay, the future of all cities needs to overlap economic drivers with the environmental ones.  

Hayley Johnson City Conversations

Our panel event brought together sector experts, and council decision-makers, including Stephen Evans, Chief Executive, Norwich City Council and Tom McCabe, Head of Paid Services and Executive Director of Community and Environmental Services.  
Transport, and the need for an effective public transport network and cycle route network, was talked about widely. Whilst Norwich benefits from having a walkable city centre, and compact inner city catchment, the urban sprawl of the suburbs extends and diversifies the transport needs. As the major city within a rural area, Norwich also needs to provide transport routes for those travelling from a significant distance away, who will use the city in different ways to local residents. 

As a city with two renowned universities, Norwich is a young city, with a median age of 33. This presents considerable opportunities: how can we as a city capitalise on our youthful population? With tech looming large as a significant employment industry, and Norwich’s growing tech sector, can we capitalise and build our reputation as a city for tech? 

Another common theme for the discussion was the changing use of the city, from residential developments to the Evening & Night Time Economy. Permitted Development Rights was a concern for all involved – the balance between creating affordable property, and keeping the city a vibrant place to visit and enjoy. (Our Executive Director, Stefan Gurney, has been campaigning to ensure the change to Permitted Development Rights do not adversely impact our businesses.) 

But one thing was very clear throughout the morning – the future for Norwich is bright, and our local residents, businesses, and government are passionate about ensuring the success of the city.  

Key TakeAways

Experience in the City
In recent history, the city centre experience has been based upon shopping. Now, retail can only be a component of the success of cities: a healthy local economy will be built around mixed-use, from leisure and culture to wellbeing.  
The Norwich Experience has always been a crucial part of Norwich BID’s work. Our experience work covers a wide breadth of projects, from our free music programme Head Out, Not Home, to Urban Art, to Christmas wrap-around activities and yearly large-scale events, such as Love Light Norwich 

Climate Change & a Greener Future 
How can we limit the impact of climate change in our cities? 
Green spaces in city centres need to be a priority.  As Norwich BID explores the potential for urban greening, we continue to support businesses in reducing waste through Upcycle Your Waste, in a move towards net zero and creating a circular economy in the city.  

Travel & Access 
The way people reach and use our cities is changing. How can we factor in the needs for today, and the way people might come to the city in future? 

From the need for electric charging points, to changing routes into the city, the future for transport is diffuse. Norwich BID has supported the introduction of Beryl Bikes into the city, consults regularly with Norwich City Council and Norfolk County Council, and has created new framework for responding to transport consultations which puts our businesses first.  

Quality of Life 
Covid altered the way we live our lives, and our priorities. With a move towards hybrid working, a renewed emphasis on work-life balance, and a demand for more living space, people’s needs are changing.  

Norwich’s extraordinarily high quality of life index makes it an excellent city for living. Through our InvestNorwich project, Norwich BID will drive inward investment into the city, by encouraging companies to relocate, and supporting our businesses in the recruitment and retention of staff.