Town centre recovery delayed by lack of office workers

Ipswich Cornhill

Ipswich Central is urging public sector employers - especially councils - to bring more staff back to their offices. - Credit: Paul Geater

Business leaders in Ipswich town centre are becoming frustrated by the slow return to office work by council staff - who would regularly visit the shopping centre during lunchtimes before the pandemic struck.

Figures from the county council suggest that the footfall in the town centre is still only about 50% of what it was pre-Covid - and Ipswich Central believes a significant factor with this is the reduced number of employees working in town centre offices.

National statistics from the Centre for Cities suggest that in "small cities" like Ipswich more staff are returning to offices than in large areas like London or Birmingham.

In some places nearly 50% of staff are back in their office on any given day - but Ipswich Central chief executive Paul Clement said there were significant factors in the town.

He said: "We have a fairly small number of large offices in the town like Axa and Willis. Axa in particular are bringing more people back to their office because it is easier to run a call centre from an office.

"But we also have a large public sector (councils/government departments) in the town - and they are bringing far less of their staff back and that is slowing the recovery in the town centre."

Ipswich Council, Suffolk County Council and Babergh/Mid Suffolk Councils are all based in Russell Road - and all have only a fraction of their normal staff working from their offices at present.

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A spokesman for Ipswich council said: "We have a responsibility to ensure the safety of our staff and our residents while we continue providing essential services. That will be our priority as we regularly re-assess the risk of and effectiveness of how and from where we deliver those services."

He said some staff were unable to work from home and that the council was monitoring government advice on the safety of bringing back more staff.

About 12 staff from Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils are in Endeavour House most days - compared to 130 pre-pandemic - and a spokeswoman said they had asked their staff how they would like to work in future.

Most said they would prefer a mixture of office and home working so the council was looking at how that could happen.

She said: "We are now working with staff and councillors to explore how we can best use our floorspace at Endeavour House in future – with the technology, layout, policies, culture and knowledge we need to enable staff and partners to collaborate effectively, whether they are there in person or working remotely."

And across Suffolk County Council between 40 and 50% of staff could work from their pre-pandemic normal place of work.

A spokesman for the county said: "We have recently increased the maximum occupancy limits, allowing more of our staff to move from working at home to working in the office, while maintaining safety and adhering to COVID19 secure principles, which remain vital if we are to continue to play our part in preventing the spread of this disease. 

"Council meetings have also returned to our council chamber."