Diss: Looking to town's past to help shape a new future
PUBLISHED: 14:12 22 March 2019 | UPDATED: 14:55 22 March 2019
Archant Norfolk Photographic
Diss in many ways is a quintessential market town, shaped by the agricultural land and villages around and traders and tradesmen responding to local needs.
The town has a long association with landowning families. And from the 16th century to the late 18th century, it was an important centre for the East Anglian linen industry, mainly because hemp growing and linen production were centred on the town.
Looking to the past for a bright new future may seem a strange way to plan for the town’s place in the 21st century, but that was the thinking behind Diss Heritage Triangle – the £3m project that officially comes to an end on March 31 after five years of development in the town centre.
After a successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project has included the restoration of Diss Corn Hall, improvements to the streetscape and a new Mere boardwalk and wildlife gardens, as well as promoting the town’s history to draw in shoppers and visitors.
Project manager Sheila Moss King said: “The idea was to use the heritage asset to create destination value, to make it a place that people know of and come to and where they will linger longer.
“If you can get people to stay longer because they have different reasons to come, you get them to contribute to economic regeneration.”
When launched in 2014, 18pc of shops in the Triangle were vacant. At the end of 2018, this had reduced to 5pc. But the project has faced some scepticism for being concentrated on one part of the town centre.
Mrs Moss King said: “One of the complaints that people have is that Mere Street needs attention and it too has lots of historic buildings and that is true absolutely but if you are going to deliver a project it has got to be manageable and the Heritage Triangle was just about manageable.
“The intention has always been, and the council has always said, that the next thing that they wanted to do was to look at Market Place and Mere Street.”
The restoration of the Corn Hall has been universally welcomed, however. In the mid-2000s the hall was a struggling arts venue with a leaky roof. Now it is a state-of-the-art facility.
Corn Hall programme manager Angela Sykes said: “Market towns are obviously suffering at the moment, and to try to stop the rot in Diss it needed a catalyst.Developing the Corn Hall and reinstating it as a cultural hub up was an absolutely key part of that.”
How young people are being given a say in town
For young people growing up in a small market town is not without frustrations but in Diss youth voices are increasing being heard.
Diss Youth Town Council was launched at the end of 2018 with the idea of young people themselves getting involved in the decision that affect their lives.
With the help of youth worker Julia Fairbrother and Diss deputy mayor Sonia Browne, it is made up of enthusiastic youngsters, mainly pupils from Diss High School. Their aims include being a voice for young people on the issues that matter to them and challenging stereotypes of young people.
Youth council chair Kieran Murphy, 16, a student at Diss Sixth Form, said: “I don’t think people
have a bad impression of young people generally but obviously recently we had the incident involving gang problems. After that we saw our role as getting the reputation of young people back
up. We do a lot of things in the town so it is a case of challenging perceptions.”
The council carried out a survey of young people into how they would like to see almost £100,000 of section 106 funding for recreational facilities spent.
Kieran said: “The town council wanted out advice on how the money should be spent. We found out the top priorities were the skate park, the park at Diss Mere, Diss Youth & Community Centre and athletics facilities.”
Julia Fairbrother, who is also involved in Diss Youth Group and a range of activities and groups based at Diss Youth & Community Centre, said: “I’m just there to facilitate them, but they are a good group of young people who are proactive and try to get involved in the town as much as possible.”
Conscious its events could be skewed towards an older audience, Diss Corn Hall is also increasingly engaging with young people. Programme manager Angela Skyes said the venue was looking for young people to get involved.
She said: “We are starting is a young programmer group for our film selection. It is ideally focussed towards 18 to 30-year-olds and the idea is to get them engaged in film and the selection of films that we can put on and that will appeal to that age group.
“But we are also looking at other areas. If someone who was a budding music entrepreneur would like to work with the Corn Hall we would be interested in talking to them. All these things need to sustainable, but we definitely need to work with younger people to program things that they are going to want to come and see.”
Small town no barrier to global success of Diss businesses
Located mid-way between Norwich and Ipswich, with a mainline train station and decent A-road links, for businesses looking for a place to invest and grow Diss has a lot going for it. But it is also a small rural market town, so has to work hard to gain attention.
Respondents to our Diss survey were split evenly of how attractive the town is to businesses but many singled out more job opportunities as key to future prosperity and to encouraging more young people to stay and make their lives here.
Diss Business Park and the fast expanding nearby industrial estate at Eye can boast success stories. Specialist audio visual distributor Midwich, which employs over 270 people at its head offices in Diss, is a global player but chooses to remain in Diss.
The company, who recently paid managing director Stephen Fenby £3m in dividends after seeing a 20pc rise in revenues, said: “We are expanding across the UK, Europe and as far afield as Australasia, however, we see our operation in Diss as the base of this expanding global group and that’s the way we would like it to stay.”
Prospective Diss district councillor Graham Minshull said: “Midwich is a massive success. A big international company operating in the town and we have two or three other companies that basically started in people’s bedrooms but are now big operations. They have chosen to stay and that is partly because we have quality people here that they don’t want to lose.”