Can Ipswich really stop Marks and Spencer moving out of town?

William Hutchinson, of Black Horse Lane, stole meat from a display at Marks & Spencer in Ipswich Pi

Is it possible to buck the market and prevent a retailer like Marks and Spence from moving out of town? - Credit: Archant

Ipswich Borough Council's commitment to protecting the town centre is admirable and in my view deserves to succeed.

However, if I am being totally realistic I have to say that I fear the borough's determination to make it as difficult as possible for Marks and Spencer to move out could ultimately fail - and be bad news for Ipswich shoppers.

Last week M&S announced it was going to build a large new clothing and home superstore next to its new food hall at Stanway, just off the A12 between Colchester and Marks Tey.

The Colchester town centre store is to close later this year when the new superstore is completed and the jobs transfer to the new site.

In announcing this move, the company made it clear that its future strategy is centred more on out-of-town stores where it can attract bigger spends on its food sales.

This isn't a strategy just for Colchester - it is a national strategy and you only have to look at what the company has been doing over recent years to bring that about.

Town and city centre stores in places like Northampton, Portsmouth and Stockport have closed.

Most Read

More locally smaller shops in Felixstowe, Clacton, Sudbury and Newmarket have gone but we have seen the food store at Martlesham expand - and the company is widely believed to be wanting to build another one on the opposite side of Ipswich.

Beardmore Park.M&S

Marks and Spencer has expanded its Martlesham food store in recent years. - Credit: Archant

All these changes have inevitably prompted speculation about the future of the town centre store - a vital cornerstone of its retail offer and even more important following the collapse and closure of Debenhams last year.

Last week Ipswich council leader David Ellesmere pointed out that the borough had bought the former Toys R Us superstore at Copdock to prevent M&S from taking it over and moving from the centre - and was also actively trying to prevent them from moving elsewhere on the edge of town.

That was a key motivation in the borough buying the former sugar beet factory at Sproughton - to develop it as an industrial estate, not a retail park.

I wish the borough luck in that - but I can't help feeling that in the long term it's impossible to buck the market. If M&S really wants to move out of the town centre, eventually it will find somewhere else to go.

From what I gather there aren't particularly close relations between the borough and M&S, which is hardly surprising. I don't think there is any suggestion that the company is planning to pull out of town in a fit of pique - it's just that they don't feel there's anything to talk about at present.

What does worry me is that when a site somewhere out of town does come up, probably in another local authority area but not too far from Ipswich, the company might jump at it - and that would not be as convenient for shoppers as the old Toys R Us or sugar beet factory site.

Of course, direct intervention from a local authority can work spectacularly well - as it did in Ipswich in the mid-90s with Sainsbury's.

From the late 1980s there was growing speculation that the company wanted to close its Upper Brook Street shop to concentrate on its new superstores. The company more or less admitted that when we talked to them about future plans.

When it announced plans to open in Hadleigh Road it looked like the end for the town centre store - but the borough imposed a condition that it had to stay open for a few years after the new store was built.

By the time the condition ran out, sentiment had changed. Supermarkets including Sainsbury's and Tesco had started opening smaller town and city centre stores again - and Upper Brook Street has gone from strength to strength.

Today's borough bosses will hope that history can be repeated with M&S in the town centre.

I have to say I cannot really see any suggestion that sentiment among retailers might be swinging back to large town centre stores unless you are in a mega-centre like London, Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham. But never say never.

In the meantime, the most compelling reason for the company to retain its Ipswich town centre store would be for customers to use it as much as possible.