Are there any bright spots in the crisis facing our large town centres today?

Debenhams on the Ipswich Cornhill

The loss of Debenhams is a shattering blow for Ipswich town centre. Picture CHARLOTTE BOND - Credit: Charlotte Bond

I am well aware that Covid-19 has been an economic disaster as well as a health disaster – and to look at the state of our major shopping centres it is clear just how serious that is going to be for our large town centres.

The news that Debenhams is to be liquidated has come as a crushing blow for Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Colchester – and linked with the fact that Arcadia with its Top Shop and Dorothy Perkins stores is also in administration, it is really difficult to work out what will happen to our town centres.

The collapse of Debenhams is likely to have a particularly shattering effect on Ipswich town centre.
It is the largest store in the town centre in the most prominent location in the town centre. Ironically it is believed to have been one of the most profitable stores in the chain – but that simple fact is unlikely to save it.

There has been talk of Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley swooping down and buying up the Debenhams brand – but he’s only thought to be interested in 30 of the 154 stores and while it would be great to think our local stores were among them, I’m not holding out too much hope.

In Ipswich he’s currently fitting out the former BHS store to be a new Sports Direct/Flannels and USC store after buying its freehold. I was told when that was announced that “Mike Ashley doesn’t like paying rent” so I can’t really imagine him taking on the tenancy of the town’s Debenhams store to set up in competition with his new department store in Butter Market street!

And as the age of the department store disappears, it really is difficult to see what could happen to Debenhams on the Cornhill. My fear is that it will be left for years as an empty shell in the heart of the town – just like the old Grimwades and the Old Post Office.

The question is: What can you do with a purpose-built 1970s department store when the department store retail model just doesn’t work any more?

Debenhams is not a particularly ugly building – but it’s hardly an architectural jewel either. It is what it is. Conversion into smaller shops with something else on the two storeys above would be possible, but hideously expensive.

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What could you do with two floors of wide open space with no windows or other access to natural light? Flats might be an option – but you’d need a complex design to make it work and there are several other large-scale apartment projects on the drawing board in the town centre already.

And from what I understand, the building is showing its age. It’s well into its fifth decade and while it isn’t in too bad a state and has been maintained well enough, it has reached the point in its life when it does need some heavy-duty – and expensive – attention.

It was welcome news to hear that the council was trying to buy the building to ensure that it was never given the chance to be forgotten about by an anonymous landlord based well away from the area – but given all the financial problems faced by borough, it is probably right that they are not committing themselves to a project that could become a money pit on a grand scale at this time.

So I cannot really think what on earth can happen to that site and I fear that it will be left empty, or under-used, for years. 

I don’t take any pleasure in that – and it would be wrong to see this as a purely “Ipswich” problem. All over the country towns and cities are facing similar problems – and many, like Northampton, have lost much more than Ipswich.

What will happen to the Debenhams stores in Colchester and Bury? The Colchester store is another fairly traditional department store design – but Bury’s does have the advantage of its slightly-quirky “spaceship” design.

Debenhams at the Arc shopping centre in Bury St Edmunds

Debenhams at the Arc shopping centre in Bury St Edmunds has a quirky quality that might be attractive to investors. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

That might lend itself to a performance space – but of course there’s the Apex just opposite! But somehow I feel that Bury St Edmunds might have more luck in finding a tenant for that building than Ipswich has with its Debenhams store.

The fact is that our large town centres are facing a crisis. It isn’t caused by Covid – Arcadia, Debenhams, and the Peacocks/Edinburgh Woollen Mill group were in trouble long before the pandemic struck.

But the Covid crisis has telescoped and magnified the problems. They have hit us harder and faster than we expected – and it has left councils like Ipswich facing problems with raising cash needed to help.

I’m trying really hard not to be too pessimistic about the future for our large towns – but right now as we’re facing a really economically bleak midwinter, it’s really tough to find the bright spots from the crisis that is facing our large town centres.