Is there hope for Ipswich high street post-Covid?

A quiet Cornhill in Ipswich on Boxing Day as Suffolk enters into Tier 4. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

What will the future hold for Ipswich town centre after the pandemic? - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

What does the future look like for the centre of Ipswich after the coronavirus pandemic? Angus Williams investigates.

Over the years high streets have been battered. 

First by out of town retail parks, then by the internet giants and now by the coronavirus pandemic.

Hit by lockdowns, falling consumer confidence and people's fear of catching the virus, the centre of Ipswich has lost some of its best known retailers.

But what needs to be done after the pandemic to ensure that the town centre can flourish again?

Andrew Bavington-Barber, is the boss of the Hot Sausage Company and a veteran of Ipswich high street.

"Over my 30 years, I've seen businesses come and go and come again," he said.

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"I'm a little barometer almost. If the high street is up 3% when retail sales figures come out, I'll usually be up 3-4% as well."

Andrew Babington-Barber from the Hot Sausage Co is celebrating three decades on the Cornhill in Ipsw

Andrew Babington-Barber from the Hot Sausage Co is celebrating three decades on the Cornhill in Ipswich. - Credit: Archant

Throughout the pandemic, Mr Bavington-Barber says business has gone from nothing to twice what he would expect, but now it is settling back down.

He said: "We're about back to normal trade-wise, but the footfall is still down.

"What we miss at the moment is a whole raft of office workers. They're just not around but we're still getting shoppers.

"The high street won't be the same as it was before lockdown. It already isn't — there are a lot of empty units.

"I feel that this is just another one of those generational changes for the high street. The nature of retail has changed significantly, but it hasn't died. It's just the high street has to adapt again."

According to mobile phone location data analysed by the Centre for Cities, just 17% of Ipswich's workers have returned to the town centre.

Valentine Quinio, an analyst for the think-tank, said: "The challenge that many town and city centres, whether large or small, will be facing in the next few months is to attract the people back in.

"That said relatively smaller centres, like Ipswich, have fared relatively well compared to large city centres.

"When you look at either footfall or spend data, even though we're still very much below pre-pandemic levels in terms of recovery, it's still higher than in many other large city centres."

But, she said, attracting enough people back to get to pre-pandemic levels will not be enough.

She continued: "A key element of the recovery is that it will have to be green. And it will have to be attracting people back, not by car, but by sort of cleaner modes of transport.

"In terms of the sort of more proper economic recovery, we'll need to adapt to the changes that we've seen as a result of the pandemic.

"But we know, that if workers do not go back [to the office] then we should expect some job losses in the hospitality sector — maybe after the end of the furlough scheme in October.

"So to protect these jobs, there's a need to attract workers back or if they don't come back to adapt the city centre plays — to attract people not just for work purposes, but also for leisure purposes.

"And so that, that involves changing the narrative and the role that city centres play."

In Ipswich, this bid to change the role the town centre plays has been summed up in the idea of a 'connected town'.

Paul Clement, chief executive of Ipswich Central one of the plan's key organisers, said the connected town plan hinges on getting more people to live in the town centre, replacing the footfall that office workers used to bring.

Paul Clement, chief executive of Ipswich Central

Paul Clement, chief executive of Ipswich Central - Credit: Ipswich Central

To do this, he wants to convert empty and under-used space into housing and bring everything people need to live within 15 minutes of their door.

He said: "If you walk along Tavern street, and you look above ground floor, you've got almost all of the above ground floors are vacant.

"Currently only about 1,000 people live in the town centre, and we want to take that up by many thousands.

"Partly, that's going to involve not just apartment building, but house building for families."

A map showing the area included in the connected town concept.

A map showing the area included in the connected town concept. - Credit: IPSWICH VISION

With more people living in the town centre, more services would be required.

This includes things like a vet in the town centre, Mr Clement said. 

"You also would need doctors, dentists, all sorts of different kinds of use, and you would need them longer than just nine to five, because people would live their whole life in the town centre," he said.

"So you start to need very different things, cycling spaces, open spaces, parks, health centres or whatever.

"So it becomes a lived neighbourhood rather than just a commercial centre where you go to work or buy stuff."

One of these services could be a 420-place primary school, planned to take over the site of the former Co-op department store in Carr Street.

A visualisation of the proposed new Central Ipswich Primary School and Nursery, on the former Co-op site in Carr Street...

A visualisation of the proposed new Central Ipswich Primary School and Nursery, on the former Co-op site in Carr Street, Ipswich - Credit: Concertus Design and Property Consultants

Despite this, some of the town centre's other key buildings also stand empty.

The former BHS store has been empty for several years, but the recent collapse of major chains means other like Debenhams and Topman have also closed.

While the Debenhams building has been snapped up by developers there is little indication of what its future use will be.

But other empty stores such as the former Peacocks on Carr Street, have been granted a new lease of life as an indoor marketplace called Microshops.

Microshops in Ipswich has opened with two businesses 

Microshops in Ipswich has opened with two local businesses - Credit: Archant

According to Joshua Bamfield, director of the Centre for Retail Research, schemes like Microshops could help small businesses grab a toehold on the high street.

He said: "It's important to develop independent, or shops that sell locally based goods, because one result of Covid seems to be a renewed interest in buying things that are locally sourced. Independent shops are a good way of doing that.

"And independent shops, perhaps understand their customers rather better. Because,  if you're a national retailer, then every shop has got to look the same. 

"I think it's just one part of how to develop the know how to develop artisan and local producers and local independent retailers — you've got to have a variety of different sizes of shops.

Professor Joshua Bamfield, director of the Centre of Retail Research. Picture: Joshua Bamfield

Professor Joshua Bamfield, director of the Centre of Retail Research. Picture: Joshua Bamfield - Credit: Joshua Bamfield

"If you're going to grow independent traders then you start off small, with a limited range of goods. And then you've got to be able to move on to a bigger shop and a bigger shop and so on."

But, he said, these incubated stores need to be supported on the next step of their journey.

"I''m positive about the future," Mr Bavington-Barber said. "I think it'll be the next generation of the high street. But it'll still be there, I'm confident of that."

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