A VISION FOR THE FUTURE OF DEREHAM TOWN
Dereham town wakes up to a bright and sunny morning. In the Market Place, shopkeepers and cafe owners sweep the pavement in front of their premises; there are people walking or cycling through the town centre as the town comes to life for another day. A horse drawn cart carries a large water bowser and workers spray the hanging baskets and pick up any litter. The paved area is hosed down daily in readiness for the street food and their chairs and tables.
Some years ago, the town council had the foresight to enlist the support of the district and county councils in a project designed to transform the town centre. With the help of Heritage Lottery funding the town centre was reconfigured to include:
- pedestrianisation of the Market Place – completely paved (similar to Cirencester)
- vehicular access to the Market Place restricted, for example, deliveries to businesses only between 10pm to 8am; no access for buses; cars limited to single file one direction only with no stopping, no waiting and no parking apart from a few disabled only bays;
- erection of new raised flower beds, planters and street furniture including lamp-posts, sign-boards, benches and statuary and new hanging baskets to shop fronts.
- A town centre frontages scheme with guidance on the quality of facades, shop signs, blinds, decorations, paintwork and colour palettes, designed to produce a more co-ordinated and attractive prospect to visitors. The guidance includes advice on security and pest control as well as a hanging baskets offer and includes a “visitor friendly” kitemark
These changes have resulted in a much improved and pedestrian-friendly “heart” of the town. Small independent cafes have sprung up and are now able to serve customers out of doors in pleasant weather. New craft shops, clothes, jewellery and gift shops and delicatessens have also opened in and near the new Market Place.
New signage and seating encourages people employed in the newly created professional services quarter to come out at lunchtimes and after work, to browse the shops, buy their sandwiches in the Market Place and then eat them in the nearby Queen Mother’s Garden which is clearly signposted and easily accessible from the Market Place. It is a tranquil and beautiful environment with seating.
Regular markets take place, including monthly farmers markets and quarterly arts and craft fairs, in the Market Place, with stalls and canopies in fetching green and white stripes, provided by the town council and stored nearby when not in use. The frontage of the cinema has been greatly improved, thanks to a restoration project undertaken by the present owners and supported by the town and district councils.
Interpretive sign boards have been installed in a number of key locations, including the Market Place and next to the town’s museum. These encourage visitors to take a number of different heritage walks around and through the town and view many of the fine and historic buildings.
Town centre access
Car parking is now managed in such a way that certain areas are for short stay parking only, thus encouraging residents from within Dereham and the surrounding areas to pop into town and shop. Consequently the town still acts as a service hub for villages within a ten mile radius.
The town has grown over the last 15 years. This is partly as a result of new housing, some of which has been taken up by commuters, with numbers of commuters travelling to Norwich each day. As the bus service is very frequent, fast and affordable, commuters now elect to leave their cars at home, if they are near the bus route, or to use one of the fringe-of-town car parks designed specifically for this purpose. This is balanced by increasing numbers commuting into Dereham to work in one of the new businesses springing up in the town centre. With its close proximity to the A47, many firms now choose Dereham as an attractive and practical central location for their base. There are plans under way to add new rail links.
Walking and cycling are actively encouraged by the town council. A network of cycle ways and footpaths has been developed so that it is possible to cycle or walk to work or into the town centre from the new housing estates that have sprung up.
Accessibility is good with frequent bus services to surrounding villages as well as into the other main towns. Bus movements no longer pass through the Market Place and there are plans for a bus station which will include a waiting room and toilet facilities with wheelchair access.
The improvements to the town centre have been carefully managed in order to preserve those architectural features and sites which are of historic or cultural interest. The town’s heritage is now more visible and attracts numbers of visitors every year to explore the heritage trails and walks. In addition, new visitor experiences such as Puzzlescape also bring visitors into town to enjoy new experiences alongside the well known and well used leisure centre and swimming pool and Strikes Bowling and children’s indoor play. These and other attractions have co-operated in a local effort to market the town and its amenities.
Like most town centres, the number of retail units in use for retail has reduced over the last ten years and some have been converted to other uses. Meanwhile there is also a renaissance of smaller, innovative independent retailers. Several initiatives have helped this evolution. For example:
- Repurposing of some retail units into good quality office accommodation and/or dwellings. The development of new living accommodation in the town centre is one of the things that has helped to keep the town centre and the night time economy alive.
- The development of good quality office space in the town centre has led to the nurturing of a small but growing professional services sector, clustered around the Market Place and the High Street. Over a ten year period, the numbers employed in the town centre in this sector have increased three fold, from around 80 to more than 200. These employees use local services, shops, cafes and restaurants during the day time and bring a pleasant, bustling and purposeful feel to the town centre during the day. These offices enjoy super-fast broadband services and that has attracted small businesses who might otherwise have sought to locate themselves in Norwich. With the good transport connections in Dereham, this is no longer a must for such small firms such as marketing agencies, architects, surveyors, solicitors, consultancies, IT agencies and financial services of all kinds. It helps that these small firms are able to purchase small numbers of daytime only parking spaces.
- Business rates incentives have been used to encourage more craft and gift shops, independent bakers and delicatessens and small, quirky cafes and restaurants.
The town has a clear offer to visitors who will find it easy to find information and to navigate around the town. The installation of new pedestrian signage was a good opportunity to rid the streets of unnecessary clutter and old and obsolete signs.
Heritage, culture and visitor economy
The redevelopment of the Queen Mother’s Garden into a tranquil and attractive space encourages many visitors and residents to use the area as a quiet place to rest, to read, to contemplate nature and, as mentioned before, to enjoy their locally purchased food and drink in the peace and calm. The new signage includes the installation of interpretation boards in the Queen Mother’s Garden which explain the history of the place and gives directions to other local attractions and guidance on local footpaths and other heritage sites.
A series of short walks and trails around the town, taking in some of the main sites of interest has been developed and these leaflets are readily available in the town library and various retailers, cafes and bars. Naturally the heritage trails encompass the heritage railway station and its small museum, the memorial garden, the Dereham Windmilll, Bishop Bonner’s Cottage Museum and St Withburga’s Well, but they also include a series of short walks where the focus is on the natural environment, such as Ted Ellis Way, the Rushmeadows and Neatherd Moor.
The Mid Norfolk Railway is a major attraction almost all year round and brings hundreds if not thousands of visitors into the town. Now that the railway has new tourist signage about the town, resulting from the wayfinding project, more visitors are attracted into the town centre, following their visit, or to take in the windmill.
Many of the special services and events organised by MNR are very popular with families, some travelling from far afield and booking into local accommodation. There has been a shortage of good quality hotel rooms in Dereham town, but this is changing now that planning consent has been awarded for a four star hotel on the same site as Greenstones and McDonalds.
The Dereham Memorial Hall continues to provide a diverse programme of arts and entertainment all year round; drawing customers from a 20 mile radius and sometimes further afield for major events. Local audiences have increased too and there is now a full time centre manager. This has been made possible by the opening of a conservatory-style extension which houses a cafe during the day and pre-show meals on show nights only. There is a lovely nature-themed play area next to the extension and this encourages local families, mums and tots to use the child-friendly cafe.
Dereham Sixth Form Centre has gone from strength to strength and now services post 16 education for both the high schools. It has also developed a specialist centre in IT skills, supported by expertise from a nearby university and this has increased the catchment for post 16 to a much wider area. As a consequence of this, the numbers of school-leavers which leave Dereham at age 18 has reduced with more of them staying on to gain good quality jobs in the burgeoning professional services, finance and IT sectors.
The town’s primary schools have also embarked on their own ten year plan, designed to raise standards to among the best in the country in important measures such as english, numeracy and IT skills. This is further supported by weekly code clubs at the library.
The town neighbourhood plan has enshrined policies to ensure that all new housing developments include affordable housing for local people, adequate outdoor play areas and school places for children, and access on foot or by cycleway to local services and, ultimately, into the centre of town via a network of footpaths and cycleways.
While the growth in housing has placed pressure on local services, especially doctors, there is an initiative under way to open up new services in the Dereham Hospital, including X-Rays, Scans and a new Small Injuries Unit. This last, it is calculated, will relieve pressure on both local GP surgeries and on A&E services, the nearest of which is half an hour away.
The creation of a new business centre with good quality office space and all services included on an ‘easy-in, easy-out’ basis has encouraged many new firms to start trading since their initial financial outlay is relatively risk-free. The development includes an open space for networking and where sole traders can take advantage of the free wi-fi to work and mix with other small traders. It is gaining a reputation as a friendly and supportive environment for new start businesses and attracts new and young firms in higher value occupations including a whole range of IT and code based disciplines.
The business centre has a strong relationship with the sixth form college and students often undertake projects or work experience with some of the more established firms. This means young people are less likely to leave the area in order to find good employment opportunities in this sector and also less likely to enter into low value occupations.
If the vision can be shared by and supported by the voluntary and community sector, the public sector, the private sector and interested members of the public, we can, acting together, work toward change to bring about a future that we desire rather than being at the mercy of economic shocks.
aboutDereham Partnership, July 2019