Diss Heritage Triangle, South Norfolk
In Diss, South Norfolk, a £3.4 million programme known as 'Heritage Triangle' was designed to regenerate the old commercial heart of the historic town, built around a six-acre body of water known as ‘The Mere’.
Located between Thetford and Lowestoft, Diss was a royal manor at the time of the Domesday Book, and later developed into an important market town, trading in the wool and linen textile industries. The wealth generated led to the construction of many of the town’s surviving medieval buildings including the parish church, guildhall and warehouses. Latterly, the 18th and 19th centuries saw the addition of a number of fine townhouses, including the striking neo-classical Corn Hall.
Formed by St Nicholas Street, Market Hill and Market Place, Diss 'Heritage Triangle' is bounded by the Corn Hall in the west, St Mary’s Church in the east with Diss Museum and Market to the south. Shaped like a funnel with the parish church to the north, the marketplace was and remains the historic commercial and retail heart of the town. The combination of its irregular plan, the lie of the land, and the variety of fine buildings facing onto the marketplace and the fine grained, human scale surrounding streets of the town centre all create one of the finest pieces of townscape in Norfolk.
Investment in the historic area
By the early 2010s the town centre was in need of investment to allow Diss to reassert its potential as a thriving, vibrant and accessible historic market town. The arrival of three supermarkets to the south of the town caused a change in focus away from the old centre. However, within walking distance of the Triangle, the supermarkets helped to protect the historic centre from further development. With over 60,000 visitors per week to the supermarkets, the programme sought to capitalise on this ready-made footfall.
The programme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), Diss Town Council and Norfolk County Council, oversaw a number of projects designed to breathe new life into the heart of the town:
- Corn Hall restoration and extension to create a 21st century arts and heritage venue, the focus of the Triangle
- Interpretation in the Corn Hall and on the streets, telling the story of Diss’s commercial heart, its buildings and traders
- Heritage Triangle public realm works, making an attractive destination by reducing the dominance of the car and increasing areas for people to linger
- Creation of Mere Boardwalk and Wildlife Gardens - restoring a derelict piece of public land to the rear of the Council offices, and creating a floating boardwalk linking across part of the Mere. The aim was to give different audiences a reason to visit the top end of Diss, and to create a circular route for all
- Formation of Diss Heritage Triangle Trust CIO - a charitable organisation to promote the Triangle, generate income to maintain investment for the future, caring for the planters, managing the garden, staging events
Restoring the Corn Hall
Built by local Diss architect George Atkins with giant Doric pilasters ornamenting the main hall (the original glass and cast iron roof of which was removed in the 1970s), the mid-19th century Corn Hall (Grade II) functioned as a corn exchange until the 1990s, making it one of the last functioning corn halls in England and the last in East Anglia. The Corn Hall had, alongside its principal use, regularly been used for other activities such as bazaars, concerts and civic functions.
After its closure as a corn exchange, its adaptation to increase these other uses made perfect sense as a way to keep this fine piece of local architectural heritage alive. The venue, today replete with impressive new foyer and entrance hall, is thriving once again. It's a key driver of the local economy and cultural offer in a town centre that also features a proliferation of independent and unique shopping and leisure experiences housed in the town’s broad selection of historic retail buildings. The success of the Corn Hall is illustrated through its being shortlisted in the Norfolk Arts Awards People’s Choice Best Venue category three years running. The overall Heritage Triangle scheme was also a finalist for the RTPI’s Excellence in Planning for Heritage and Culture Awards 2018.
It was clear to us early on that the use of heritage, culture and social content could be a major weapon against small town centre decay. Diss is fortunate in that it has, due to the Corn Hall restoration being expanded into a wider heritage project at the suggestion of the HLF, been able to take action and create new destination value, especially with the creation of the new garden and boardwalk. This is why we were recognised by the RTPI as a finalist in the planning for heritage and culture.
Success of the ‘Heritage Triangle’ programme
The overall success of the scheme is also demonstrated by the performance of the local economy. Since the start of the project in 2014, vacancy rates in the area have fallen from a high of 19% (86 retail units) to just 5% (1 shop) in 2018. This is a 70% drop, which is more impressive considering prevailing economic conditions during that time.
We searched throughout Norfolk and Suffolk for the ‘right’ location for our business, and eventually settled on Diss Heritage Triangle specifically because of the planned enhancements. Diss is more of a destination now, and our business is growing daily as a result.
The Diss Heritage Triangle today stands out as a successful example of where a historic town centre has bucked the trend of decline in similar places and has thrived, based on a diverse and interesting cultural and retail offer underpinned by the quality of the town’s historic environment. In particular, the adaptation and augmentation of the Corn Hall exemplifies the positive benefits of reusing and adapting heritage assets to bring about wider social and economic benefits, and the project also highlights the importance of high quality public spaces as a key driver of wider economic activity.