'Incredibly disturbing': stats reveal just 1 in 4 Ipswich workers returned to town centre

Retailers hope that the shoppers will be back in Ipswich town centre at the end of the second lockdown. Picture: SARAH...

Just 1 in 4 workers have returned to working in Ipswich Town Centre according to the Centre for Cities - Credit: Archant

Just one in four workers have returned to work in the centre of Ipswich, new research has found — highlighting the problems the town centre faces.

According to think-tank the Centre for Cities just 27% of workers in the town centre had returned to their usual place of work at the end of May — starving shops and cafes of would-be customers.

Paul Swinney, the think-tank's director of policy and research, said: “At the end of May just 27% of people had returned to their places of work in the centre of Ipswich – slightly higher than national average.

Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at the Centre for Cities

Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at the Centre for Cities - Credit: Centre for Cities

"While I’m expecting this figure to increase in the weeks and months ahead as people return to normality, it’s very possible that many businesses will adopt more hybrid forms of working.

“There will be both short and long-term consequences of hybrid office working. In the short-term it will create more problems for central Ipswich’s cafes, restaurants, pubs and shops that used to rely on custom from office workers.

"In the longer term for those businesses that go hybrid there will be the challenge of a drop in creativity as more home working  means fewer ‘watercooler’ moments.” 

The Centre for Cities statistics are based on analysis of mobile phone data, and a comparison with data from the end of February beginning of March 2020.

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The data includes high street, hospitality and office workers based the town centre.

However, an expert at the think-tank said they were unable to differentiate between the sectors that workers returning to the city centre were employed in.

Paul Clement, chief executive of Ipswich Central business improvement district, said the Centre for Cities study was "incredibly surprising" and "incredibly disturbing".

Paul Clement, chief executive of Ipswich Central

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

"Certainly most of the offices that are part of the business improvement district (BID) are beginning now to return people to their desks, albeit on a sort of part time hybrid basis.

"I think the answer will be, how do people react to July 19 when the government instruction is no longer to stay at home and work. Then it's down to the employer and the employees to decide what's best.

"I think that's the important thing. What will happen from July 20 onwards? 

"For a place like Ipswich where we don't yet have enough people living in the centre of town — we know the priority has got to be to get people living in the centre of town.

"A lot of businesses depend entirely on people coming into work and then spending money in other businesses.

"But we do need to accept the new reality of hybrid working and not everyone coming back. Whatever that gap that's left is has got to be filled by more people living here." 

Despite this Martin Reader, founder and director of property consultants Reader Commercial, said there had been a strong demand for offices in the first quarter of this year.

"The first quarter of this year we saw a marked improvement," he said. 

Mr Reader's firms has already let several multi-thousand square foot offices this year — both to firms that have moved within the town and moved into the town.

He said: "We've seen a lot of encouraging signs. The parties that we are talking to — the directors and partners of professional firms — have indicated to us that the remote working practices they've put in place have been very effective through the pandemic but when permitted they would like to see employees back in the office in some form."

Mr Reader added he believed that some companies would be looking to downsize their office space.

"We do believe that some companies  will be reducing their footprint, because of the positive steps they've put in place with remote working," he said.