New Orwell crossings and Cornhill upgrade signal bright future for Ipswich town centre

Overall look of the bridges for the Upper Orwell Crossings from Foster + Partners.

Overall look of the bridges for the Upper Orwell Crossings from Foster + Partners. - Credit: Archant

For those of us who know and care about Ipswich, the last seven days have been one of the most exciting weeks in the town’s recent history, writes Paul Geater.

The lock bridge for pedestrians and cyclists - part of the Upper Orwell Crossings by Foster + Partne

The lock bridge for pedestrians and cyclists - part of the Upper Orwell Crossings by Foster + Partners. - Credit: Archant

First we got the first glimpse of the quite stunning £100m Upper Orwell Crossing designs from the Foster + Partners team that was behind the last truly outstanding new building to go up in the town.

Then we saw the first designs for the new Cornhill which do not level the whole square – but do create a much brighter focal point for the town with a new water feature and sculpture.

Together these developments could really transform Ipswich town centre, and I’m sure most people welcome the investment that they will bring to the town.

But of course there will be critics who don’t like what is planned – and we’ve already seen some of their comments appearing on our websites.

Architects' impression of the new look for Ipswich Cornhill - seen from Tavern Street.

Architects' impression of the new look for Ipswich Cornhill - seen from Tavern Street. - Credit: Archant

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While many of the comments have come from “usual suspects” who seem to want to moan about everything in the town, there have been issues raised that deserve an answer.

The main one concerns the Upper Orwell Crossings and the claim by some people that this scheme should not have been prioritised above the construction of a northern by-pass.

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There is a growing case for a northern by-pass for Ipswich – but it is wrong to see this scheme as being “in competition” with the Upper Orwell Crossings for investment in Ipswich.

There is no civil servant at The Treasury or the Department for Transport in London with a £100m pot of money for Ipswich that has to go to either the crossings or the by-pass.

Each has to be considered on its own merits. The Treasury clearly believes that a case has been made for them to spend £77m of the £100m cost of the Crossings. That doesn’t mean they are any more or less likely to approve spending on the northern by-pass.

The important thing for the government is that projects should be able to show a clear economic benefit throughout the year. The crucial point in favour of the Upper Orwell Crossings is that it unlocks the value of the island site in Ipswich Waterfront – potentially worth well over £1bn in new economic activity for the town.

Another argument I saw against this was that the town centre’s traffic network could not take extra traffic generated by the island site.

No it can’t at the moment. But that is precisely what the new bridges are being built to address! Once they are completed in 2023 they will take the new traffic that is generated in that part of the town and enable it to truly reach its final potential as one of the economic engine rooms of the entire region.

One last point on the northern by-pass - v- Upper Orwell Crossings debate. When an economic assessment of the northern by-pass was last carried out in the 1990s, it was found that its value to Ipswich was considerably less than that of a new crossing over the river somewhere near the town centre.

Has that changed materially now? I’m not sure.

And while I’m sure there are those who sit in their cars or lorries on Valley Road on the comparatively rare days when the Orwell Bridge is closed and think they know much more than the “traffic experts” and accountants about such things, the government does have to listen to experts when handling hundreds of millions of pounds of public money.

Turning to the Cornhill. The design won’t please everyone – but the general reaction to last year’s public consultation was that the area needed to be improved and the suggestions from the public have been incorporated into the new plans.

People have questioned why spend money on this rather than a new homeless shelter. The fact is that something like this should stimulate economic activity that will bring in far more money in the long term that will enable more to be spent on projects like homeless shelters.

And one person suggested the money would be better spent on encouraging new businesses to come to the Cornhill.

That is precisely what this is all about. You won’t get big names coming into the Grimwade’s building or the old Post Office until the work is completed.

But once the work is finished by December 2018 hopefully major retail and restaurant chains will be falling over themselves for a piece of the action the heart of one of the most up-and-coming cities (I know, but if the description fits for Chelmsford and Cambridge . . .) in the country. And that’s something to be excited about.

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