What does the future hold for Ipswich town centre?
PUBLISHED: 14:37 23 November 2018
Ipswich Cornhill has been reopened after its nine-month reconstruction - but where does this leave the centre of the town, and what future does retailing have in Suffolk's county town?
Paul Geater looks at the future of Ipswich as a regional centre.
As a large county town, Ipswich has many of the same problems faced by cities and towns of a similar size across the country – it is not unique and many of the issues are commons with other places.
However almost every large town and city in the country has some unique selling points, and so does Suffolk’s county town – the Waterfront and one of the finest urban parks in the country bookend the town centre.
And the issues facing retailers, restaurants, and leisure operators in the town are no different to those anywhere else in the UK.
Question marks hang over some of our most iconic town centre buildings
The new-look Cornhill is a vital tool in a bid to revitalise the town centre. Some critics have said the £3.6m would have been better spent on attracting new business to Ipswich – but that’s the point of the Cornhill.
Businesses have been unwilling to move to Ipswich because the town centre looked dull and uncared-for. Investment like this gives the right message.
It’s no coincidence that Pret a Manger is due to open in the old Grimwades building early in the new year just after the completion of the Cornhill work.
But there are still many gaps on the Cornhill and elsewhere in the town centre that need to be filled – and question marks over some of the most iconic names on the high street.
The Old Post Office, most recently a branch of Lloyds Bank, has been empty for some time and needs a well-known tenant.
But its steps make it difficult for people with disabilities to access and it would require a large amount to be spent on a news lift before it can realise its potential.
There are a small number of businesses for whom such a historic building would make a good home – one national restaurant was interested earlier this year, but that had financial challenges and pulled out of all its expansion plans across the country.
Because it is not just national retailers that are facing challenging times – large chain restaurants are also finding the economic situation tough.
Prezzo and Byron Burgers have been forced to close some outlets and seek rent reductions on others to make them financially stable.
This affects towns and cities across the country – but in Ipswich it has meant there has been no progress on converting the former BHS into shop units, restaurants and a large bar.
The application from Ken Ford, who was behind the Buttermarket conversion, has been approved in principle by planners but no tenants have committed themselves to the scheme, which would allow work to start.
Of the retailers that are represented in Ipswich, both Debenhams and Marks and Spencer have well-documented national problems.
They are the two largest stores in the town – and these national pressures have meant that there is some concern about their future in Ipswich.
However while M&S has closed some of its traditional stores in places like Northampton, it has extended the hours of its Ipswich store which was rebuilt only 20 years ago into a modern layout.
Debenhams is the largest single shop in the town centre, and can claim to be the only genuine department store left in Ipswich. It has national problems – but the Ipswich store is said to be profitable and is only five years into a 125-year lease so does not appear to be under immediate threat.
A concentrated effort
Ipswich Central is hoping that the town centre will “contract” with areas like Carr Street becoming less reliant on retail. The old Co-op is due to be converted into a new Primary Free School.
However elsewhere in this street, budget retailing continues with stores like Peacocks, B&M and Poundland continuing to thrive.
The future of the town centre appears to be more mixed developments with leisure to the fore in the Buttermarket and Cardinal Park – albeit with a large emphasis remaining on retail in much of the town.
Because while online retail is picking up – and some sectors are hit more than others – the vast majority of shopping is still done within real-life stores.
According to the Office of National Statistics, the highest proportion of online shopping ever seen in the UK was in November last year when just under 20% of purchases were made online.
The 20% mark is almost certain to be crossed this month (November has always been the busiest month for online sales ever since records were first kept in 2006). But it seems certain that overall, more than 75% of sales this month in the UK will be from real shops.
The popularity of coffee shops (despite the fact that Starbucks seems to have difficulty in establishing itself in the heart of Ipswich) continues to rise as new place for friends to meet.
And there are also signs of developments on the pub scene with the old Lloyds Tavern coming back to life (although the Golden Lion and The Swan are both currently still closed).
Looking further afield at Greater Ipswich
It’s not just the town centre that is facing a new reality.
Some of the largest “retail park stores” are also coming under pressure, or have closed. That has caused a problem for their landlords – and also an opportunity.
When B&Q closed on Anglia Retail Park on Bury Road in Ipswich in June 2016, that was seen by many people as the potential death knell for a location that had struggled to find tenants.
Instead it provided a real opportunity – the unit was split into three (or four depending on how you want to look at it), with Go Outdoors, the Bounce/Billy Beez play centre, and The Range moving in.
Their arrival also attracted B&M to move into the old Comet unit – and suddenly the Anglia Retail Park has become a popular shopping destination. Especially as you can enjoy a Costa Coffee there during your visit.
There has been no such revival yet for the old Toys R Us unit at the bottom of the Exchange Retail Park at Copdock Mill.
It is difficult to see a single retailer wanting to move into such a large unit – and some of the businesses that might have been interested in moving there have taken up space at Anglia Retail Park a couple of miles around the A14.
But if it were split, there may yet be more retailers interested in medium-sized units on a popular retail park (even if it would be quite a stroll to combine a visit there with a browse in Currys/PC World or a coffee at Costa).
The next big challenge will come when the Homebase closes at Warren Heath, next to the Sainsbury’s superstore (who owned Homebase when it was first opened in 1986) closes in the next year.
The DIY/garden centre market has fractured over the last few years – with people preferring to shop at specialist DIY stores like Tool Station or Screwfix, at household stores like The Range or B&M, or at specialist garden centres.
The last remaining B&Q in Ipswich is a short distance from Warren Heath on the Ransomes Euro retail park – as are many other units that might want to move into Homebase so a fresh name could be needed for the location.
Some retail parks seem to have been on a steady upward trajectory over recent years – Ransomes Euro retail park and Futura Park on the opposite side of Ransomes Way have managed to attract tenants, including the top prize of a Waitrose/John Lewis superstore.
Nearby Martlesham Heath, certainly still part of the Greater Ipswich conurbation, has also succeeded in attracting tenants to such a great extent that it can now be very difficult to get in or out of the area without facing long traffic queues at popular times.
This has led some to suggest that the centre of gravity for customers in Ipswich has moved out of the town centre to the eastern of town retail parks.
While that may be true for specific items, it is unlikely to be true for the whole communal experience. All roads – and bus routes – lead to the town centre. It is why pubs and restaurants in the town centre are generally busier than those on the outskirts. It is why people arrange to meet at Costa in Giles Circus more often than Costa at the Anglia Retail Park.
Moving with the times
Town centres and retail parks have, of course, been constantly evolving and changing over the decades.
When Solar (now Morrisons) opened at Sproughton Road in the 1970s there were fears for food stores everywhere. They survived although the food halls at Footmans (now Debenhams) and Woolworths bit the dust.
In the 1980s the arrival of Sainsbury’s Tesco, and Asda superstores around the town sparked new fears that the last remaining food stores would close. Sainsbury’s in Upper Brook Street stayed open as a condition of the company building the Hadleigh Road store.
Now it’s a very busy store and has been joined in the town centre area by a Waitrose and a Tesco on the edge of the town centre in St Matthew’s Street.
Times change – but Ipswich will continue to evolve as a shopping centre/somewhere to meet.
And the Cornhill at the heart of the town centre is an important element of its latest regeneration.