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Can High Streets in towns like Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds survive the current upheavals?

PUBLISHED: 11:30 02 February 2019 | UPDATED: 23:34 02 February 2019

Despite all the talk of internet shopping, most Christmas presents were bought from shops. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Despite all the talk of internet shopping, most Christmas presents were bought from shops. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Archant

Today it feels as if the High Street – the mythical heart of every town and city across the country – is under more pressure than ever before.

The news that Pret a Manger is not coming to Ipswich was a big blow to the town centre. Picture: ARCHANTThe news that Pret a Manger is not coming to Ipswich was a big blow to the town centre. Picture: ARCHANT

Much has been written and spoken about which stores/restaurants/bank branches will be next to close – but how close are we to knowing why this existential threat to so many businesses, and indeed whole districts, is happening?

And why are some shops seen as vulnerable while others are apparently bucking the trend? And can things be turned around for those facing problems?

New technology – the rise of internet shopping – is one reason often given for the crisis in retailing and it no doubt is a factor. Over the Christmas period about 20% of UK retail spending was done online and that is going up every year.

But bricks and mortar shops have always had competition from “virtual” stores. Before the internet came along there was mail order shopping, the catalogues sent every six months to their regular customers by the likes of Empire Stores, Littlewoods, and Great Universal.

Most Ipswich leisure facilities like cinemas and theatres are within the town centre.  Picture: PAUL GEATERMost Ipswich leisure facilities like cinemas and theatres are within the town centre. Picture: PAUL GEATER

The problem today is that we have the “perfect storm” of the internet and a lack of consumer confidence – which always seems more serious for businesses during the first three months of the year when people are naturally feeling poorer after the Christmas excesses.

Last year we lost Maplin and Toys R Us at this time of the year. Now HMV is in administration and other stores are issuing dire warnings. tReds announced this week that they were also in administration.

The problem is, of course, that people are not spending so much money these days. They are not spending as much in shops, in pubs, in restaurants. People are not as keen on acquiring as much “stuff” as they did 10 or 20 years ago.

There are many reasons for this. People are living in smaller spaces without the room to fill up shelves with the latest Dan Brown paperback when they can buy it on a Kindle.

The rebuilt Buttermarket shopping centre in Ipswich has an emphasis on leisure with the Empire cinema and bowling centre at its heart.  Picture: SARAH CHAMBERSThe rebuilt Buttermarket shopping centre in Ipswich has an emphasis on leisure with the Empire cinema and bowling centre at its heart. Picture: SARAH CHAMBERS

HMV is in trouble because people don’t need to buy CDs and DVDs anymore. Some of us dinosaurs might like to collect them, but many people are happy to download music and films without having a physical copy.

Clothes shops have always gone in and out of fashion. I remember a generation ago thinking that I wouldn’t buy clothes from Ridleys or Grimwades in Ipswich when there were brighter places like Debenhams to go to. Now, guess what younger people are saying? I might still love Debenhams ranges but . . .

It isn’t just shops where tastes change on the High Street. The same can be said of leisure premises like cafes and restaurants.

A few years ago it seemed as if the big chain names in this sector would sweep all before them. We’d all be eating posh pizzas and burgers from a multitude of big names.

In the 1950s and 1960s you could park in front of the Town Hall. Times change! Picture: DAVE KINDRED ARCHIVEIn the 1950s and 1960s you could park in front of the Town Hall. Times change! Picture: DAVE KINDRED ARCHIVE

That has stalled somewhat – with several big names pulling back or even closing venues across the country.

In Ipswich the halt of the restaurant revolution has put an end to immediate hopes of a new use for BHS or the Old Post Office on the Cornhill – not to mention the disappointment over the non-appearance of Pret a Manger in Grimwades.

The fact is life is tough for town centres and they really have to be worked hard to get people spending money.

The superheroes event in Ipswich this week helped.

Ipswich Cornhill has evolved over the years, but it is still the same place as it was in 1921. Picture: DAVID VINCENTIpswich Cornhill has evolved over the years, but it is still the same place as it was in 1921. Picture: DAVID VINCENT

Ipswich has been badly hit – but there’s a similar story in Colchester, Bury St Edmunds. Even Norwich which is by far the largest retail centre in the region has not been immune from the challenge of modern consumer tastes with major chains and independent stores closing.

Across the country in 2018 43 high street companies failed, affecting 2,594 business premises and 46,000 staff according the Centre for Retail Research.

That was the largest figure for store and job losses since 2012 – although it was still much less than at the height of the last recession in 2008 when Woolworths and Zavvi (among many others) disappeared from our high streets.

The suspicion is that the current high street recession isn’t over and that there will be more big names restructuring or even disappearing.

Nearly a century ago - Ipswich Cornhill in 1921. But many of the buildings are still recogniseable today. Picture: DAVE KINDRED ARCHIVENearly a century ago - Ipswich Cornhill in 1921. But many of the buildings are still recogniseable today. Picture: DAVE KINDRED ARCHIVE

That means town centres all over the country, including our communities, will be badly affected.

There will always be retail in town centres. And restaurants. And leisure facilities like theatres and cinemas.

But the mix is bound to change. It is constantly changing. But the physical area of town centres is likely to both contract and disperse.

Ipswich town centre will become concentrated between Upper Brook Street and Museum Street along the Tavern Street, Westgate Street and Butter Market Axis.

And there will probably be better connectivity between the town centre and Waterfront along the Saints and Fore Street – but don’t expect the rest of the area between these corridors to become retailing or leisure hubs. They will see more and more homes built for people who want to live right in the heart of the town.

There are some good pointers for Ipswich town centre. There is a concentration of leisure facilities right in the heart of town.

Unlike some places – like Colchester – all Ipswich’s cinema screens are within walking distance of the heart of town (and Cineworld is a very short walk from the railway station and has restaurants nearby).

Coffee shops are sometimes sniggered about by shoppers – but they are usually quite busy and provide meeting places which enhance the social nature of town centres. Starbucks might have struggled to find a large enough premises in Ipswich town centre but Costa and Caffe Nero seem to prove that there is a market for their products.

I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Starbucks didn’t take over the Grimwades site that had been earmarked for Pret – but nothing has been arranged as yet.

In short Ipswich town centre is very different now from what it was like in the 1960s when cars parked on the Cornhill.

It is different from what it was like in the 1980s when the Cornhill was first paved and new shops were springing up all the time.

Exactly what will or will not be here in five years’ time is impossible to say. But it will still be recognisable. Town centres evolve as tastes change. The evolution might be moving faster than sometimes at present – but I’m not convinced they are yet facing an existential threat.

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