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ASK anybody about Ipswich town centre and you will probably get the same response - it's been punching below its weight for some time, with Norwich and Cambridge streets ahead for shopping and lifestyle.

ASK anybody about Ipswich town centre and you will probably get the same response - it's been punching below its weight for some time, with Norwich and Cambridge streets ahead for shopping and lifestyle.

However fashion chain H&M is opening here next month, and plans for the £230million Mint Quarter shopping centre are due to be submitted within a year. On Monday we'll see the launch of a major initiative to improve the town centre and NEIL PUFFETT asks what it will do for Ipswich.

GET ready to see some action!

That's the message today for people in Ipswich, as final preparations are put in place to kick-off a £3.2million scheme to improve the town centre and attract new shoppers.

Monday will herald the official launch of the Ipswich Business Improvement District (BID) which will bring free parking, grafitti and chewing gum clean-ups, and better customer service to enhance our town.

The launch comes after more than two years of hard work, as the BID was given the go-ahead last summer, following a ballot of town centre businesses.

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What you'll see first will be street rangers and rapid-response cleaning teams. Other aspects will include free parking campaigns, improved lighting and planting schemes, and marketing.

Paul Clement, head of the umbrella organisation behind the BID called Ipswich Central, said £625,000 will be spent on the various projects in this first year, from funds raised through an additional levy on businesses.

He said: “The aim of the BID is to introduce to the town centre vastly improved levels of management.

“If you can raise standards and promote that, then more people who don't currently use the town centre will want to do so.

“People who are seeking employment may look towards Ipswich as a place to work, and people looking to stay somewhere for the weekend may consider it.

“If you deliver services very well it can make a very real and very quick difference.”

Mr Clement said Ipswich already has a number of key things going for it, but feels central management of issues affecting the area stretching from the Waterfront in the south to Crown Street in the north will make things even better.

He said: “The town is reasonably safe but I want it to feel even more safe.

“You are never going to get rid of crime completely in a town centre but with some of the initiatives being introduced we should be able to assist the police and make things safer.

“Likewise, although Ipswich is a clean place to be and won cleanest town in the UK this year, we want it even cleaner.

“There are also still people outside the town who feel it is inaccessible. We can change that.

“The single biggest thing was if you are going to do all this, you have got to change the perception of Ipswich which is done through marketing. In the past, marketing campaigns have not been dynamic enough.

“None of these things will work overnight but the BID is in place for five years.

“We have got to be careful not to raise expectation that in 12 months everything will be fantastic. But as time goes by we are expecting more people in the town centre as a result of the BID.

“People will stay longer, spend more money and employers should have a greater level of employee satisfaction. It will be easier to attract people to visit and shop, and businesses should begin to see Ipswich as a better place in which to do trade.

“If what we are doing is making a difference we will do more of it. If it is not making a difference we will change what we are doing.”

In the past few weeks researchers have been patrolling the streets, collecting statistics and working out how many people currently shop in the area.

This will provide figures that future studies will compare against, to gauge how successful the BID is.

Mr Clement said: “I'm very optimistic that what we are going to do is going to make a difference.

“We will not just be delivering extra services - we will be delivering extra services in a quality way.

“The hard work really starts next week.”

N Which area of the town centre do you want to see improved? Write to Your Letters, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN.

n> Town rangers

From Monday a team of four street rangers will patrol the streets of Ipswich town centre.

These will be the “eyes and ears” of the BID, and will take action to get issues sorted as they arise.

This could include reporting areas that need cleaning, helping out with public safety issues or helping shoppers on the streets.

n> Digital radios across town

More than 100 hand-held digital radios, which make up part of a town centre wide system, have already been issued to shops and to security guards.

The radios link businesses with each other as well as police and CCTV operators.

Mr Clement said: “If you run a shop or office, the moment anything happens you can contact a team of people that can respond.”

n> Specialist cleaning teams

A total of 52 “hotspots” across the town centre - one a week - will be targeted by a specialist cleaning squad.

Contracted cleaners will focus on issues such as chewing gum, graffiti and fly-posters in areas that have been highlighted as in need of “intensive cleaning”.

There will also be increased street cleaning on Sundays and before trade begins on Mondays to ensure the town centre is sparkling for the start of the week.

n> Free parking

Parking at the NCP car parks in Cox Lane and Tacket Street will be free of charge for one Sunday a month - the first occasion being May 6.

Mr Clement said: “Any customer will be able to arrive at those car parks, spend as long as they want, and not pay a penny to park.”

The free service will also apply to the park and ride, on one Sunday each month beginning on May 20.

Mr Clement said: “For people living an equal distant between Ipswich and another shopping destination one of the things our research has revealed is they are put off Ipswich because they feel it is quite difficult to get in to. The perception is also that parking is quite expensive.

“We found that people said they were willing to give the town centre a go if we offered free parking.

“It is about us breaking down barriers like that and getting people interested in the place we are promoting.

n>Targeted marketing campaign

A total of £160,000 will be spent in the first year of the BID on promoting Ipswich through marketing.

Mr Clement said: “Never before has Ipswich town centre had a really co-ordinated 12-month marketing campaign which talks in a really consistent way to anyone who may want to use the town centre.”

Adverts will appear in newspapers, magazines and on the radio, but will also take many other forms.

n>Planting in 40 areas

£14,000 will be spent in the first year on shrubs, bushes and trees at 40 locations across the town centre to improve the look of certain areas.

n>Improved lighting

Money will be spent to improve lighting in the town centre, to make the streets safer and look better.

n>Customer service training for town centre businesses

From September customer service training will be available to all businesses in the BID area.

Mr Clement said the hope is that over time an “Ipswich standard” of training will be achieved.

Developers Shearer Properties are currently drawing up proposals for major new development of The Mint Quarter, and are talking to retailers.

The quarter covers the area bordered by Upper Orwell Street, Carr Street, Upper Brook Street and Tacket Street.

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