If our towns are to flourish we must rethink what we want them to offer

Town centres have to be about more than just shops. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Town centres have to be about more than just shops. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Over the last week there’s been a fresh debate about the impact that out-of-town shopping centres have on our traditional towns.

Futura Park, one of the retail parks around the edge of Ipswich. Picture: LUCY TAYLOR

Futura Park, one of the retail parks around the edge of Ipswich. Picture: LUCY TAYLOR - Credit: Lucy Taylor

There seems to be constant talk about whether or not town centres as we have come to know them can survive – and what should be done to try to bring new life to them.

Much of this has focussed on Ipswich, but the same arguments apply to Colchester and Bury St Edmunds – and can have a ripple effect on places further afield, like Norwich, Cambridge and Chelmsford.

What is absolutely clear is that town centres, their managers and local council planners cannot buck the market.

They cannot put up barriers and say: “Thou shalt shop in the town centre and not go to retail parks!”

The fact is that retail parks have been around for decades now and sell a variety of goods that you don’t want to lug around from town centre shop to town centre car park.

If you’re buying a lawnmower or a table lamp or some paint to decorate your bedroom, these days most people want to drive up to the retail park, find what they want and load it into the car.

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Shopping can be a leisure activity – but if you’re looking for these kind of things, it is not something you want to linger over.

Other types of shopping are far better suited to town or city centres and are far more leisure-oriented.

Clothes shopping has stayed in town centres because many people like to go from store to store to see what is available before deciding to buy something.

The same goes for many specialist shops – and places that sell entertainment items.

But we must get over this notion that town centres are all about shopping. They are not – and never will be again.

Town centres are about leisure. Shopping is an element of that, but they are about eating and drinking. They are about going to the theatre and the cinema. They are about finding space to meet people. They are about living.

I know some people have said there are too many coffee shops about these days. Really? Have you been into a coffee shop between 10am and 4pm?

Have you managed to buy your Americano or Skinny Latte without having to queue while the barista makes it?

And then people moan about the cost of this coffee.

How long do you spend in the coffee shop, using their wi-fi, reading a paper, chatting with your mate who you bumped into on the street and asked: “Fancy a coffee?”

That’s what the town centres are about now – not a frenzied rush around the shops for essential supplies once a week.

And don’t give me this guff about Ipswich car parks being too expensive or the congestion being too bad to get in. What rot!

Most Ipswich car parks – certainly those run by the borough – are pretty reasonable in comparison with those elsewhere.

Yet despite this, the most popular one in the town is the NCP park behind Marks and Spencer, which is also the most expensive.

That always looks to me as if it is ultimate proof there are some visitors who are so lazy they would rather pay eye-watering prices than walk 50 yards to a more reasonable park.

And, yes, the traffic getting into Ipswich is worse than it was 20 years ago.

But have you ever tried driving into the centre of Norwich, or Cambridge, or Colchester, or Chelmsford, or Leicester, or Nottingham, or Oxford, or Canterbury, or... you get my point.

And while most of us use retail parks around our home towns, how many travel miles to visit those around other towns – I’m talking about standard retail parks, not huge shopping centres like Lakeside, Bluewater or Westfield?

When we go for days out to other cities we go for the leisure experience: for the chance to visit somewhere different, as much as the actual shopping.

But we don’t go to the Hellesdon retail park. What’s the point of going to B&M in Norwich when there’s one at the Anglia Retail Park in Ipswich now?

What we do have to bear in mind is that if you live in or near a town and use it as your usual centre, then familiarity does breed a certain amount of contempt.

“Different” places often have an excitement that you don’t get when visiting your local centre – and that will always be the case.

But if you accept that your local town centre is continuing to evolve, then you might well come to accept that things are getting better, however you want to use it.