I want to know why Ipswich isn’t fighting to become the UK City of Culture

The real Cornhill Christmas tree in all its glory - but Ipswich needs a cultural boost. Picture: ARC

The real Cornhill Christmas tree in all its glory - but Ipswich needs a cultural boost. Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

The Christmas lights are up, and on, all over Ipswich. The Bury Christmas Fayre starts today. So the festive season has well and truly started.

I’ll soon be dusting off my Christmas CDs to put in the car (if the family don’t hide them away first) and retailers will be rubbing their hands, hoping for a busy few weeks.

Most of my Christmas preparations will take place in and around Ipswich. I probably will visit Bury at some point to get a few things, but it won’t be over the next few days because I don’t really “get” Christmas festivals.

It’s nothing to do with the fact that the organisers of Bury’s event can’t spell! (Fayre is a word for large quantities of food and drink set on a table. The event taking place in Bury is a fair – a carnival or festival). It’s just that I’m not a great fan of mulled wine and hot chestnuts and I’d rather do my shopping in peace.

But I know thousands of people love it, and see it as the start of their Christmas celebrations. I hope they have a great time.

As I said, most of my Christmas shopping will be in my home town of Ipswich, with occasional forays to other parts of east Suffolk for particular goodies. (I’ll probably leave Woodbridge until December – I’ve heard that the horrors of Woods Lane often extend into the town centre.)

The fact is that most of the shops I want to go to are in Ipswich anyway. And if I go to branches of the same store in Norwich or Westfield or Cambridge or wherever, the same things are on offer – it is in the smaller shops in places like Framlingham, Snape Maltings or Hadleigh that you might find something different.

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But the Christmas season does raise the question of what people want from their “town centre experience” and it’s something that Ipswich still has to get to grips with.

Shopping is becoming a less important element of the town centre and the retailing area probably does need to contract in size – areas like Carr Street and St Matthew’s Street are likely to be seen as rather more on the fringe.

However, the town can still do much more to attract people to its cultural and leisure offer.

We have great cinemas and theatres in Ipswich but there remains gaps in the town’s leisure offer.

Where is the town centre display promoting the fact that Ipswich is the oldest English (ie Anglo-Saxon) town? The place still doesn’t seem to have the confidence in its past that it deserves.

Where is the promotion out there of all the great cultural offerings we have: from Dance East to the Pacitti Company, to the theatre groups like Eastern Angles and the Red Rose Theatre Chain?

Where is the effort from groups representing town centre business to promote these organisations – not just to the tourists who might come here for a weekend from London, but also to local people?

The town needs a grand gesture to get the message across about what a good place Ipswich is: not just to come and shop, but to visit for the arts and the culture.

Every four years there is a UK City of Culture. This year it’s Hull. There are five shortlisted candidates for the next City of Culture in 2021 – Coventry, Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland and Swansea. Why isn’t Ipswich on that list?

Is anyone, anywhere, now thinking about getting a bid together for the 2025 City of Culture?

And I don’t just mean the “usual suspects” ? those involved in the cultural organisations (although they would be important). I also mean the business leaders – especially those who rely on the public’s custom.

How about it, Ipswich Central? Having the title “UK City of Culture” would do far more for Ipswich (I repeat, the Oldest English Town) than a website giving a what’s on list for the next few weeks.

And let’s be a bit more self confident. Let’s not worry if our claim upsets those in Colchester who shout about that being Britain’s Oldest Town. A bit of banter between two neighbours never hurt anyone!

But it’s not going to be an instant fix. In the meantime our town centres will be hoping the shoppers head towards them this Christmas.

I have no problem at all with towns trying to appeal to shoppers for their support – but I suspect for most people the crucial issue will be the ease of shopping and whether they can get what they want; and there’s no reason why our towns can’t fulfil that simple requirement for most of their residents.