Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Unlike its neighbouring counties (Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Essex), Suffolk doesn’t have a city and the only town with a cathedral is Bury St Edmunds. This has sparked another debate about whether County Town status should transfer from Labour-run Ipswich to Conservative-run Bury. Whereas the latter is a thriving metropolis, drawing both private and public investment, creating quality new jobs, and is home to award-winning West Suffolk College, Ipswich is still stuck in a time-warp, lacking real vision from the council’s leadership.
However, with its long Saxon and maritime heritage, as well as being the birthplace of Cardinal Wolsey, whose local legacy is the gateway to his planned school, and a modern sculpture close to what was his father’s butcher’s shop, Ipswich is rebutting the suggestion.
The only county in the region without a university until 2007, Ipswich has lost most of its industry, apart from Ransomes, but remains an important port, and is the country’s largest grain exporter. LV, Direct Line, Willis, and Axa all have operations based in the town and BT has a major centre on the outskirts. Rail connections to London are improving, but still far from ideal, inhibiting its attractiveness to commuters, despite low cost housing, which is a reflection of the low wage economy.
Its greatest assets, however, are cultural. Yet little is done by the public and tourism sectors to promote them beyond the town.
The Red Rose Chain and Eastern Angles are two of the most talented and innovative theatre groups in the country, and the New Wolsey Theatre attracts a range of productions, whilst The Regent is a major contributor to the local economy, bringing comedy and music, including ballet, opera and musicals, which attract audiences from across the region.
The unsung heroes, however, are the museums, and their fine collections are of international quality. Christchurch Mansion, in a popular historic park, houses a variety of art, antique furniture and porcelain, offering good facilities for an enjoyable day out. A second, small, museum in a secondary residential location is largely unknown beyond the cognoscenti, with visitor numbers dropping. Despite its fine Egyptian collection and ‘mammoth’, it is outdated, dark and not what families expect as a ‘destination’, being inconvenient to access and without parking. A big minus is its poor disabled access.
A failed Heritage Lottery Fund bid, lacking any real credibility and focus, seems to have removed any vestige of the Labour leadership’s half-hearted enthusiasm for these vital assets. So, fine artworks, furniture, antique clothing, archaeology and other artefacts are sentenced to rotting, unloved, in inadequate storage. In particular, a collection of Chinese porcelain has never escaped from storage because ‘there’s nowhere to display it and it is so valuable, it might be stolen’!
Labour’s failure is hardly surprising. Until 2004, when the Conservatives regained control for too short a period and partially remedied the neglect, the two museums had rooms closed and the buildings in desperate need of restoration and refurbishment. Placed at the heart of a cultural strategy, Labour subsequently cancelled the programme, much of which had already been delivered, including a burgeoning relationship with the Saatchi Gallery, which had shown some works in the town – the first time outside London.
The people of Ipswich, and the County, deserve better, since these collections belong to them and they have a right to enjoy them and benefit from their tourism and educational potential.
There is, however, a solution to the impasse, which would remove any challenge to Ipswich’s County Town status.
Several years ago, Ipswich Council paid £11m for a 130 acre redundant industrial site at Great Blakenham, outside the borough, in the hope that it could overturn the planning authority’s employment designation to allow its development for (council) housing. The bid was unsuccessful so Ipswich commissioned a consultant’s report which came back with an underwhelming 1980s style proposal for a ‘business park’ with some car showrooms; this was adopted and the council will shortly invest yet more public money in ‘infrastructure’ without having any idea of what will actually be required by any ‘business’.
This is a wasted opportunity when the Government recently published its Industrial Strategy, inviting local authorities to bid for ‘Centres of Excellence’ status to create high quality jobs.
A Cultural & Educational Centre as part of the University, celebrating the town’s history, including its industrial past, could tick all the boxes by creating a purpose-built museum and art gallery to display the collections, with secure temperature-controlled storage alongside restoration and conservation facilities and labs, providing related specialist skills, academic research and management training.
There would also be scope to revive the famous Ipswich Arts School, which fostered some of the best local and national luminaries, including Maggi Hambling. Suffolk has an amazing range of artists, past and present, working in all mediums, and a local potter is a challenger in the BBC’s ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’. Art can be enjoyed by children and adults of all ages and ethnicities, abilities and disabilities, and is wonderfully therapeutic in the event of depression or other mental health issues. It should be encouraged and supported.
With the UK leading the world in ‘special effects’ design for filmmaking, skills development could potentially be part of the Arts School remit, working with experts at the London Film School, Elstree and BT.
The County has already committed itself to building a new Heritage Centre/Record Office, which could form part of the project, rather than being located in the town centre. There would also be room to transfer the Transport Museum, currently crammed into a former warehouse without adequate room for properly displaying and restoring the historic vehicles, or for visitors. The Maritime Museum could also move from its current shopfront by the river.
Few people realise that Mrs. Wallis Simpson divorced her second husband in Ipswich, before her marriage to Edward VIII after his abdication; the former courtroom is believed to be in storage and could be restored as part of the Heritage Centre.
Strategically, it is an opportunity for great architecture, something which Ipswich hasn’t seen since Norman Foster designed the Willis offices in the 1970’s; now Listed Grade I, it is an iconic reminder of what can be achieved, and why beautiful buildings contribute so much to the environment.
As Cambridge and the University of East Anglia in Norwich continue to expand their Science base, and enjoy renown for the Fitzwilliam Museum and Sainsbury Centre, respectively, the University of Suffolk in Ipswich is still finding its feet and deserves the reputational enhancement which such a centre would provide. It would also encourage the University to develop a strong relationship with its namesake, the University of Suffolk in Boston, Massachusetts, with complementary departments focused on the arts and sciences, the urban environment, digital media, and business, as well as offering overseas education, with a base in Madrid. Maybe it would like to invest in a University of Suffolk Arts Institute in England?
Some of the costs would come from disposing of existing sites, reducing the need for storage, as well as allocating space for ‘guest’ exhibitions, for which visitors could be charged, through partnerships with museums and galleries across the country and the world.
There could also be an argument for rationalising the collections and disposing of some items, either through sale, or swapping with other collections, but this would require a full audit. In addition to the Arts Council, and HLF, there are private trusts devoted to the arts, which could be approached for funding. The Local Enterprise Partnership and Government would undoubtedly support the proposal because of its broad educational and economic rewards. It is quite likely that a hotel chain, like Premier Inn, would want to share the site, as would coffee shops, restaurants (an opportunity for the local college and its catering school) and small retailers.
It’s time for Ipswich to regain its reputation as a vital centre of historical and artistic excellence, celebrating the University’s 10th Anniversary with a vision for the next decade and beyond. But will the Labour-led council respond to an exciting revolutionary idea, or will it prefer to stick with some car showrooms?