Like many of our historic towns, the heart was ripped out of Ipswich in the Sixties, with a dual carriageway going nowhere destroying ancient buildings, and the creation of a concrete monstrosity and quickly totally redundant ‘retail centre’ at a distance from the main thoroughfare.
Appropriately named Greyfriars, and accessed via an underpass which became notorious for bad behaviour, it blighted the town for 50 years. This vandalism was only partly salvaged by the Norman Foster-designed masterpiece and now Grade I, Willis Building, prominently located by the dual carriageway and opposite what’s left after part demolition and conversion to offices of the now cream-painted monstrosity which is reflected in the building’s black glass. A recent tree planting programme has thankfully further screened it from view.
An ancient Saxon town, home to Cardinal Wolsey, and many fine medieval churches, wonderful parks and museums, if left alone, Ipswich would have been the York of the East Coast. Instead, it has struggled to redefine itself, losing its manufacturing base and facing a long and painful High Street decline.
For the majority of this period, Labour controlled the council, building up debt and a £25m backlog of maintenance on publicly owned properties, including sports and swimming facilities, and neglecting the town’s cultural heritage to a point where museums were only partially open and theatres threatened with closure. During a short period of Conservative administration from 2004 before Labour regained control in 2011, the town enjoyed a significant revival, including debt reduction and major investment in the cultural/leisure portfolio, since partly reversed.
Although still a major port, dominated by grain exports, the business has moved down river, leaving redundant warehouse buildings in its wake. Grandiose plans to reinvigorate the Waterfront were only partly delivered, with the development of a long-overdue university, boutique hotel, a range of flats and successful restaurants, but stalling during the 2007/8 financial crisis, as developers went bankrupt, creating ugly wastelands used as temporary car parking or car washes.
Nearly a decade later, we are at last seeing real evidence that Suffolk’s county town is on the verge of an ambitious and welcome revival due, in large part, to the energy of our MP, Ben Gummer, and the Local Enterprise Partnership, with strong leadership from the Conservative-controlled County Council. This revolution was started by Ipswich Central (the Town Centre Partnership) and its new chairman, supported by the 600 businesses frustrated by the lack of vision and progress in regenerating the local economy.
It took all their determination and single-minded co-operation (as well as ‘some sticky moments herding cats’, according to one person) to convince the leader of the town’s Labour-controlled council that if he didn’t take a positive role, he’d be left behind because there was overwhelming demand from residents as well as investors and the media for action, with the local paper’s influential editor playing a major part.
At a conference a week ago, the initial five-year agenda was announced, designed around 21 priorities with key timelines to be monitored by a delivery group led by senior leaders, with the editor ‘holding people’s feet to the fire’. Since Ipswich is notorious for its difficult, protracted, Planning process, he will have his work cut out. In one recent case, it took seven years for planning consent to be granted and, in another, a prominent mixed use site near the station is stalled because the council refused to consider a revised (and much enhanced) application. Sheer bloody mindedness one could say.
The Vision is built around nine ‘Quarters’, each with its own distinctive character, with high quality housing close to the centre. In my view, this is the key to reviving the town centre, which currently closes down around 6pm and – although safe – it doesn’t feel safe. Improving links from the centre to the Waterfront, and a Wet Dock crossing to divert traffic will not only release more land, but aid pedestrian access. This, in turn, will attract more people to stay and enjoy the restaurants/bars and theatres, rather than beating a hasty retreat in their cars.
Given Ipswich’s location, just over an hour by train from the City, and its skilled workforce (insurance, IT, boatbuilding, creative arts, Felixstowe and Ipswich ports, to name just a few businesses) and university, the town has never been allowed to realise its potential, yet the statistics are overwhelming: house prices are half their London equivalent; building just 2,000 new homes in the town centre would create 100 construction jobs a year for 10 years and generate £3.2m in extra council tax; improved secure car parking would increase retail sales by 30 per cent; an uplift in tourism could generate an extra £40m a year; improved pedestrian access would raise footfall by 25 per cent at weekends; new office space would generate a further 800 jobs.
Ipswich is not alone in having to address its decline and, fortunately, it is nowhere near as neglected as some Northern towns, but this new Vision is a lesson for all councils. By bringing people from across the political and business spectrum together, something really positive can be achieved. But it takes ambition, drive and determination – for the first time in many years, I feel confident that Ipswich’s time has come.