Some of the most inspiring people I’ve met in Ipswich have been our local business owners. They’re incredibly passionate about what they do and the town.

The last two years have been an incredibly challenging time for town centre businesses, yet they haven’t let that get them down and they continue to be positive about what they do and what the future can bring.

When the Chancellor visited last week I was very proud to introduce him to a number of these local business-people and I could tell how impressed he was by what he saw.

Since the onset of the pandemic I’ve met with so many local people who, despite all the challenges, have still decided to take a risk and open up a shop or take ownership of one because they believe in themselves and in the potential of our town. This is a credit to them.

Despite all the challenges the town centre faces, these business owners are the reason why I continue to believe that we can get the town centre working again for Ipswich residents, and yet another reason to push towards the town achieving its full potential.

We should be optimistic about our town wherever we can. We should be talking up the town and the brilliant people who play such a key role in driving it forward. At the same time, as the elected MP, I have a duty to reflect on all the conversations I have with my constituents on a daily basis. This is particularly true since I have been knocking on so many doors over the past couple of months. I have heard directly from constituents that there are concerns about the town centre – and, while I remain very optimistic about the potential that our high-streets have, there are some areas which need addressing.

So yes, we should appreciate that we have a lot of potential in Ipswich – a lot of passion, local business owners with drive and entrepreneurial spirit – and that it’s a great place to live. At the same time, we need to be open about any problems that do exist. These concerns can only be addressed and improved if we acknowledge them first.

Many of the challenges facing Ipswich are not unique to Ipswich – we find the same concerns in large towns and urban centres up and down the country.

However, many long-term Ipswich residents feel it has gone downhill over the years, and I have heard the opinion that it doesn’t quite work at the moment. When it comes to local issues, on the doorstep, the town centre seems to come up more than any other issue.

It’s clearly something that my constituents feel strongly about, so it’s my job to work with others to help address it.

Many say they are sick of there being so many empty derelict buildings, some say there is nothing there for them, many others complain about fears of crime and anti-social behaviour, and many comment that they don’t always feel comfortable in the town at certain times of the day and in certain areas.

It’s hard for me to overemphasise quite how many times the exact same comments have been made by different constituents.

We have seen some progress when it comes to getting empty buildings back into use. The Botanist taking over the Old Post Office building is the most high-profile example. We also have the Micro-shops on Carr Street, but sadly there are still too many examples across the town centre where not enough progress has been made.

The reasons for this are myriad and complex. I hope that the compulsory rental auctions announced by the Government in the Queen’s speech will help, but realistically it will not be a simple solve-all solution. It is a step in the right direction.
I’m more than happy to challenge constituents when I believe they’re being too pessimistic about the town centre.

Sometimes I do also think some long-term Ipswich residents are guilty of seeing some of the things that may have got worse over time without appreciating some of the things that have got a lot better (the waterfront being one example). However, I think on some issues they definitely have a point.

Do we have a problem with certain groups of young men loitering around the town centre drinking alcohol, littering and occasionally making inappropriate comments and sometimes making people feel uncomfortable through their behaviour? I think we do.

The last time I broached this topic all hell seemed to break loose and I was reported to the police for committing “hate crime”, so I choose my words with care.

The truth, as far as I’m concerned, is that certain areas of the town centre have been blighted by the behaviour of these individuals.

There is no good screaming, “Ipswich is safe” at the top of your lungs if many long-term Ipswich residents simply don’t see it this way. We need to listen to the residents and their concerns, and take steps to improve the situation.

We need a no-alcohol drinking zone across the town centre that is properly enforced.

The threshold for local police moving on groups of individuals who are blighting the town centre is currently too high in my view. If the behaviour of a group of individuals is having a negative impact on the majority who are behaving responsibly, then interventions should be made and there should be proper penalties for repeated offenders.

Ultimately, the town centre is our shared public space and we all have a responsibility to not behave in a way that makes others feel uncomfortable. It’s a shared spare to be treated with respect, and we should have no tolerance for anyone who degrades that public place for others.

Over the coming weeks I will be meeting with the Police and Crime Commissioner, Chief Constable and others to discuss what steps can be taken to address my constituents concerns.

- Tom Hunt is the Conservative MP for Ipswich.