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New report shows tourism is thriving in the East of England, but highlights the plight of listed buildings when the retailers leave town

PUBLISHED: 12:08 11 December 2018 | UPDATED: 13:13 11 December 2018

St Nicholas Street, Diss. Picture: Edward James

St Nicholas Street, Diss. Picture: Edward James

Archant

The latest research by Historic England shows that tourism is booming in the East of England, with the number of day visits almost doubling from 10m in 2012 to 18m in 2016.

Heritage tourism generated £950m in spending by tourists who made 20.5m visits to our region, according to Heritage Counts, the annual audit of England’s heritage produced by Historic England.

But of the 142,000 retail, hospitality and commercial operations occupying listed buildings in town and city centres across England, the number of independent businesses has declined by 18% since 2012, while on the other hand, the number of branded retailers in listed buildings has shot up by 154% and branded food and drink establishments by 173%.

Today, branded pubs are the largest single occupiers of listed buildings, with Greene King, Marstons and Mitchells &

Butler being the most prevalent brands, closely followed by large coffee chains like Caffè Nero, Starbucks and Costa.

Independent businesses are particularly important in the current retail environment, as national retail brands continue to consolidate, leaving behind “vast amounts of empty floorspace”, according to the Local Data Company.

Adala Leeson, head of social and economic research at Historic England, explained that when historic buildings are left empty they are at an increased risk of damage and decay, as well as being a potential blight on the area.

“The best way to protect a building is to keep it occupied, even if the use is on a temporary basis,” she said. “A number of the country’s high streets are struggling and so some historic buildings are struggling to find any use. However, such buildings can become centrepieces of future regeneration and the next phase of the Heritage Action Zones scheme will see Historic England work with councils and other partners to find new ways to champion and revive our historic high streets. We have secured £40m to improve up to 60 historic high streets across England over four years.”

The report claims that heritage-led regeneration can turn derelict historic areas into vibrant places in which people want to live and work.

In Suffolk, North Lowestoft has become a ‘Heritage Action Zone’ as it includes some of the oldest and most significant parts of the town, which is famous for, amongst other things, its fishing heritage and association with the Victorian philanthropic developer Samuel Morton Peto.

North Lowestoft was originally the main medieval settlement, developing around the fishing industry, with merchants’ housing and commercial premises lining the High Street on the cliff top, whilst the buildings associated with fishing, such as net stores and workers’ cottages were on the lower ground area by the sea.

The North Lowestoft Conservation Area is a conservation area at risk, and one of the main aims is that it will be revived through a five year Partnership Scheme, run by East Suffolk Council and Historic England. At the heart of the Heritage Action Zone is the renewal of historic buildings and routes, the legacy of Lowestoft’s fishing past.

Following a £3.4m regeneration programme, the Heritage Triangle in Diss, South Norfolk, is highlighted as an example of where a historic town centre has bucked the trend of decline in similar places and has thrived, according to the report. In particular, the restoration of the Grade II listed Corn Hall to create a 21st century arts and heritage venue shows the positive benefits of reusing and adapting heritage assets to bring about local social and economic benefit.

Ms Leeson added that the value of heritage is not just about money, as heritage has a number of social benefits – “it can help to create a sense of identity and belonging for communities,” she said. “The rise in the number of people making heritage-related day visits in the East of England is good news. We have rich heritage for people to enjoy.”

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