In Ipswich, a survey by the local paper has confirmed that only 18% of respondents did their Christmas shopping in the town centre, but only 28 per cent shopped on line; the others went elsewhere.
I’m afraid that includes me. Although I like to buy my fresh fruit and veg, and my garden plants, from the market, it is six weeks since I’ve bothered.
It’s only a 20 minute walk, or a half hour drive (don’t ask!) and the weather has been good, but there is nothing I want to buy; like so many similar towns, there are rows of empty shops, but Debenhams and M & S, together with Waterstones and Laura Ashley, stagger on, alongside numerous ‘pound’ shops, with another to join them shortly, but we are about to lose Gap after 20 years, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Office gives up too. When invited to advise, the former chairman of M & S, Sir Stuart Rose, condemned Ipswich as unwelcoming. That says it all.
Ipswich is the county town, just over an hour from the City by train, and it should be thriving, but we have an ‘old Labour’ council, which does a lot of talking and commissioning consultants’ reports, but has no vision, nor ambition. It wants to be able to blame the government for all the empty shops; the more depressing the town centre, the more Labour voters…
Although crime generally is pretty low, people don’t feel safe walking around after dark so this, in turn, impacts on business in bars and restaurants. In effect, everything shuts down when the shops close at 5.30! Those of us going to the theatre or cinema feel threatened.
Educational standards and skills are poor, except in private schools, although beginning to improve now that the county council has recognised the problem, which affects the whole of Suffolk. Ofsted was quite brutal in its analysis, forcing the council to make radical changes. Suffolk appears affluent, and is a net contributor to the Treasury, but there is a lot of deprivation – something hidden from the many famous personalities, including Harriet Harman and Nick Robinson, who have holiday homes here.
In Ipswich, the council spends £1m a year on ‘economic development’ yet it hasn’t created a single job (except in the council). It is the private sector which has increased employment , with jobs in insurance, the motor trade, and housebuilding. It is also the small business entrepreneurs, with their individuality, and focus on good customer service, who are reviving retail in secondary locations, well away from the town centre, leading down to the Waterfront, which also attracts a growing number of ‘smart’ people, drawn to the excellent restaurants and marina, also home to the University.
There is something so romantic about boats, sipping a glass of wine after work overlooking the moorings helps one to relax, and to dream. Yet Labour councillors opposed further increasing the number of moorings, claiming it would be divisive – the politics of envy – despite drawing sailors from around the country and Europe.
Ipswich is not alone in having problems; they are reflected in former industrial towns across the country. It reminds me of my weekly visits to Doncaster some years ago, when I did the PR for a major trailer manufacturer; I couldn’t understand why the town was such a dump, when it had so many fine Regency buildings and a charming Regency racecourse, as well as hard working people, many skilled engineers, who wanted better. The council was doing nothing to improve their lives.
So, what is the solution? Town centre living.
Ipswich has some wonderful cultural assets in its museums and medieval buildings, as well as its long history as a maritime centre, and birthplace of Cardinal Wolsey. Things it should be capitalising on.
Instead of building a ‘garden city’ on prime agricultural land to the north of the town with no proper road access, building up to 5,000 new homes without any solution to the increased traffic, the council should concentrate on all the large redundant brownfield sites, currently providing cut price car parking and car washes, between the town centre and the Waterfront.
Overnight, the town would be revived, with a mix of stylish housing, offices, retail, cafes and restaurants, art galleries (we have enormous artistic talent in Suffolk), architects and other creatives delivering strong, prosperous, communities, around attractive open spaces. This ‘gentrification’ was achieved across London boroughs, from Wandsworth to Islington, and continues to happen around the UK, as councils recognise that town centres need to change and reflect what people want – not what council leaders and their officers think they want.
One of my favourite places is York Square in Chelsea, on the site of the former York Barracks. This is evidence of what can be done – and we in the regions should be equally ambitious in translating such successes into our own towns and cities. Ok, it’s Chelsea, but people from all walks of life enjoy the events, market, cafes and restaurants, Zara (if only) and other individual retailers which may be ‘names’ but they also offer quality at a fair price. And there is the Saatchi Gallery.
To achieve this means council leaders imposing your ideas on your officers, having an open mind when landowners make new proposals, and having a clear delivery plan. It also means talking to businesses, instead of about them. It means enforcing change from the top, including amongst fellow councillors who may be stuck in a timewarp. We are in the 21st century, with so many fantastic opportunities: for tourism, education, relaxation, as well as work – bringing more investment and income to our towns and cities. We have to face change and enable it; without it, there will be insufficient monies to meet all the financial challenges to deliver excellent services.
It means modernisation and reform within your authorities. Getting the right people with fresh
ideas, and it won’t be easy.
Discussing modernising the Civil Service, David Willetts, said ‘for every one person who wants to do something differently, there are four trying to prevent change’.
I know what he means! But don’t let it stop you; council leaders have a responsibility to their residents, and show some leadership.