Ipswich: Mary has got it right on town centres, says Paul Clement
I CANNOT remember a time when our town centre - alongside just about every town centre in the Country - is quite so talked about.
The pessimists believe that the High Street is now dead, beaten by a combination of out of town shopping, online retailing, and the high cost of trading in town centres.
I don’t agree with them. In her government report a year ago, the TV personality, Mary Portas, said that the high street as we know it is gone, but a revival is possible. I am much more persuaded by Portas’ view.
The reality is that the pessimists have been predicting the death of the High Street for over 40 years. They have always been wrong - beaten by a love for our town centres and a desire amongst us to always see them succeed.
This is not to say that town centres like Ipswich can afford to sit still and wait for a recovery.
My primary concern is that some may think they can do just that, or maybe just tinker around at the edges. Slow change is no change, the consumer will just get ahead of us. We need to change our place quickly and dramatically.
I am quite sure that the pessimists are starting writing their response right now - “Ipswich is hopeless......nothing can be done.......until you reduce car parking costs to nil it won’t work.......just go elsewhere”. Well, if we all listened to them, we would do nothing and that simply is not what the vast majority of people like you and I want. Let me also tell you that practically everywhere else has their share of pessimists too!
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Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), like Ipswich Central, are part of that solution. There are now over 140 in the country, all tackling similar sorts of issues that Ipswich Central is involved in here. One of the next to launch is in Norwich, Bury St Edmunds already has one, and Lowestoft aims to create one later in the year.
BIDs are funded by businesses, and are created because those businesses are amongst the optimists - the majority want to fund improvements to benefit themselves but also, crucially, their customers and their staff. BIDs are not funded by council tax which continues to entirely support statutory services providers such as Councils and the Police.
But BIDs and Councils work best when they work closely together. Jointly, they can achieve far more for our town centres than either can on their own.
In the last year, in Ipswich, through just such joint working we have provided new Christmas lights costing £100,000, a new consumer website, a customer loyalty scheme which has 15,000 subscribers, new planting arrangements, the Blackfriars area initiative, new permanent lighting to the Saints’ Quarter and Blackfriars, our first town smartphone app which will launch in a matter of weeks, a Clean Team which spruced up over 25 grot spots in 2012, Street Rangers who helped Police exclude known criminals from the town, celebrations which included The Maritime festival, more Park for £1 promotions...........and the list goes on.
Is this enough - no!
Could we do more - yes!
Could we all do some things better - yes again!
Would we be better just doing nothing - absolutely not!
In fact we need to do more, and we need do it on an even bigger scale. We need to redevelop areas of the town centre which have had no investment for years. We need to stop talking about numerous new and different development opportunities and concentrate on delivering what we already have in a prioritised way. We have to encourage more varied types of uses, like Vue Cinema, into former retail units. But, above all, we need to create an integrated Waterfront Town Centre experience for visitors since this is our unique selling point - no matter how hard you try, you can’t get everything that our town centre could offer on the internet, out of town, or even in our competitors’ locations.
So, let’s be brave. Let’s ignore the pessimists. Let’s continue to work together in a new and entrepreneurial way so that our town centre can build on what has been done and become a place fit for the post-recession consumer. Let’s not resist change, let’s embrace it, let’s get on with it!
;; Paul Clement is chief executive of Ipswich Central