Diss: Growing pains as town faces up to expansion
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Diss has a reputation as sleepy, with a slower pace of life. With the Mere providing a picturesque backdrop, low crime rate, good schools and historic market streets it is easy to think things have not changed.
But like many Norfolk towns, Diss is facing pressures to expand and with it comes growing pains as it struggles to adapt to an expanding population.
In the 2011 census the town had 7,572 residents, by 2017 this had risen to 10,800 but with more new housing this looks set to increase further. Fourteen sites have been put forward for consideration for future development through the Greater Norwich Local Plan.
Long-standing district councillor and Diss resident Graham Minshull, a candiate again at the forthcoming elections, points out the extra infrastructure needed for an expanding population, the doctors, dentists and new school places, only arrive after development, and only if its is on a large scale.
'One problem we have had in Diss for the past 20 years is rather than having one big hit of new housing we have had lots of little developments of 50 homes here, 100 there. They don't bring infrastructure with them,' he said.
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'Infrastructure comes with bigger development. We could have a new school, new library, a bypass even, but if you ask the townsfolk would you rather than an extra 4,000 houses or would you rather leave Diss alone I think that would be a very heated debate.'
To plan for the future the Diss and District Neighbourhood Plan, covering Diss and the surrounding parishes of Roydon, Burston and Shimpling, Scole, Brome and Oakley, Suston and Palgrave, is being drawn up.
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Proposing a vision for a 'vibrant community centred around a thriving market town' it seeks to addresses the problems Diss faces and sets out themes which will help influence future policies on investment, infrastructure and development.
Diss Town Council leader Simon Olander said: 'Infrastructure is a big thing for Diss given that our highways network isn't the best and that was a big part of the consultation exercise a lot of people's concerns were just about being able to get about.'
Reflecting changing public shopping and leisure habits is also another key area of the plan.
Mr Olander said they had 'touched base' with South Norfolk Council about a new leisure centre and hoped new plans could be revived for the Park Road site where previous proposals for a hotel and retail have been refused.
He said: 'We would like to see a mini Riverside type development like the one in Norwich where you have leisure, food outlets and a walkway by the water which we could do down there with the River Waveney. Leisure is a big thing nowadays. I don't large big retail is sustainable and will struggle to survive.'
Diss property hotspot status hides hidden problems
Last year average house prices in Diss rose by almost 8pc. More people moving to the town adds to the pressures on young people looking to work and live locally.
Graham Minshull, prospective district councillor for Diss, said: 'It's interesting that the last time Persimmon Homes were building there was very little advertising in this area but on the platform at Liverpool Street there was a big poster of Diss Mere saying look where you could live at half of the price of a house in Essex.
'Building affordable housing is great but if you are then advertising it in London it is immediately all taken up. So we have to ask how to tackle what is a big problem.'
One answer is to build more. The Greater Norwich Local Plan has earmarked sites for possible future development, including a grouping of six to the north of Diss that could also become one larger scheme to expand the town northwards along the Shelfanger Road.
Diss Town Council leader Simon Olander said: 'In the Greater Norwich Plan we have had a certain amount designated for Diss. They've given us an idea of how many we need to provide up to certain number but that is limited because they know the land supply problems we have in Diss.'
Housing problems highlights other issues facing the town. The average age of people in Diss is 44, with 25pc of the population over 65 and 14% aged over 75. The town's image of being relatively well to do also hides deprivation.
'People are often surprised that Diss is actually one of the most deprived towns in Norfolk,' said Mr Minshull. 'So we have to provide housing for people who can't afford not just to buy but also private rent.
'It is difficult because people don't realise just how much poverty there actually is in the town. Problems with deprivation are there they are just under the surface. Certainly if you talk to South Norfolk Help Hub the number of referrals that come from the town is quite surprising.'
Your responses to our Diss survey
We asked people in Diss what they would like to see change in the town over the next 20 years. Among the issues highlighted as important were the health of the high street, more opportunities for young people, traffic woes and, perhaps more than anything, infrastructure to cope with future development and the town's growth.
Nicola Hensley said: 'Building more houses is fine as long as you improve the schools, doctors and dentists to keep up with more and more houses. We need to keep the community spirit the same but improve on the doctors surgeries, dentists and the leisure centre.'
Hazel Massey worried that more new houses earmarked in the Greater Norwich Plan would pose problems. 'Diss can hardly cater for the numbers of people already living in Diss,' she said. 'This would be a disaster for Diss.'
Owen Atkinson said: 'Too much housing without infrastructure is bad. What I'd like to see is a vibrant town with plenty to do and see with good schooling and infrastructure, plus a couple of music festivals in the park.'
Sufficient doctors, dentists and school places were also highlighted by Sara Knight. 'At least in line with other local areas, recognising the general pressure such services are under,' she said.
She also wanted to see: 'A healthy and expanded town centre making it possible to shop here without having to travel elsewhere. The same community spirit that leads to the town's lovely events throughout the year. A return of events like Gig in the Park and improved leisure facilities.'
Glenn Percy, who highlighted traffic, the closing the tourist centre at the Mere and shops closing as his least favourite things about the town, wanted to see: 'Better roads and less gridlock on Victoria Road. I wish the Mere to remain unspoilt.'