OPINION: What we can and can't do to help Ipswich town centre

The Town hall. Historical buildings in Ipswich town centre PICTURE: CHARLOTTE BOND

There is no magic bullet for High Streets, writes David Ellesmere, but things are being done to help - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

Last week I highlighted some of the positive investments commercial operators are making in Ipswich town centre.

This week I want to look at some of the work Ipswich Borough Council is doing to help our town centre recover from the effects of Covid.

Perhaps the first thing to note though, are two things that the Council can’t do, but are frequently asked to do.

The first is to lower business rates. The level of business rates is not something the Council has any control over. They are set nationally by the Government. However, because the Council is responsible for collecting the money and businesses receive bills from us, many people think we set the rates too. In reality, we just collect the money and hand it straight over to the Government.

The second request is for the Council to reduce the rents of commercial properties. Again, this is something that we have little or no control over. We can only set rents for the properties we own and the vast majority of properties in the town centre are owned by private landlords. They are free to charge rent at whatever level they want, and the Council cannot tell them what to charge.

However, where we do own property, we are using it to improve the town centre.

We bought the former Burtons and Dorothy Perkins building through our property investment company and secured Deichmann as a new tenant.

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We have refurbished the Old Post Office and attracted upmarket restaurant The Botanist as an occupier. The restaurant is currently being fitted out and will be opening in the next couple of months.

We are working with a local community interest company to bring St Stephen's Church back into use as a brand-new live music and community space and have recently secured a substantial grant to enable this work to go ahead.

We are currently in the middle of the refurbishment of the historic listed cottage on College Street. When we bought the cottage, it was in a terrible state and on the “buildings at risk” register. Our investment will enable it to be taken off the register and brought back into use.

We have successfully bid for £4.3m from the Heritage Lottery Fund which, combined with funding from the Council, will enable us to make the largest investment in Ipswich Museum since it opened 140 years ago. When the museum re-opens it will bring lots more people into the town centre.

One of the savings we had to make in an emergency “Covid Budget” was the closure of the Council’s Customer Service Centre in the Town Hall. I’m pleased that, in our budget last week, we were able to partially reverse this cut and re-open the centre for two days a week which, again, will bring more footfall.

And we shall shortly be able to announce even more new tenants we have been able to attract to the town centre.

Where we don’t own buildings ourselves, we are still looking to provide help.

The Council funded the initial works to bring St Matthews Baths back into use as a music venue which was such a success during the recent Sound City weekend.

Crowds at The Baths music venue in Ipswich

The Baths were revived after years away in 2021 - Credit: Marcus Neal

Part of the £25m Town Deal money we successfully bid for is an £8m fund to bring problem empty buildings in the town centre back into use. The intention is to use this as a “revolving” fund where buildings are bought, brought back into use and then sold or rented, with the proceeds then used to bring further buildings back into use.

We are also looking to improve the general environment of the town centre by using the Town Fund to improve public spaces including Arras Square, increase the amount of greenery and provide more information and public trails.

There’s no magic bullet for Britain’s high streets but, with investments like these, we can help Ipswich’s town centre back into life.

- David Ellesmere is the Labour leader of Ipswich Borough Council