Ipswich's issues aren't unique - so don't expect much government help

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

Ipswich town centre cannot expect to be treated as a "special case" by government. - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

Last week's column having a go at the lack of vision from the local authorities responsible for Ipswich prompted quite a reaction - most of it seemed to be basically supportive.

I hadn't planned to return to the same theme this week, but the publication of the Centre for Cities Report 2022 this week really does highlight many of the challenges facing Ipswich and dozens of towns and cities like it across the country.

And the fact is, it is not a pretty picture for places like Ipswich, nor for many other places across the country. The fact is that looking at this report Ipswich is seen as an "average" place with many problems similar to those found in many other similar places.

So from a national perspective we need to understand that the government is unlikely to see Ipswich as a "special case." Yes, we can all identify issues but they are unlikely to be seen as major on a national scale.

Something that is also clear with the Allies and Morrison Report published last week and the Centre for Cities survey that came out on Monday is that in some ways Ipswich needs to be more introspective.

It needs to look at itself, or at least a fairly compact geographical area around it, for the vast majority of its wealth. It doesn't have, and is unlikely to ever have, the kind of magnetic attraction you get from places like London, Cambridge, or - dare I say - Norwich.

At the moment it seems to be struggling to attract visitors from nearer home - that really have looked on Ipswich as the "county town" in the past.

Since my piece last week I've heard from several people who live in east Suffolk but have told me they haven't visited Ipswich town centre for years - going back well before the pandemic.

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They just don't see it has anything to offer them. One said they did like to come to the New Wolsey Theatre but part of the attraction was the car park next to it - it was a pity there wasn't a decent restaurant nearby but they were happy with a snack in the foyer before the performance and get out of Ipswich as soon as the performance ended.

Smaller shopping centres around Suffolk seem to be doing much better - Woodbridge, Stowmarket and Felixstowe all seem to be retaining more of their home town shoppers and attracting more from villages who might previously have gone into Ipswich.

I don't know that there's much Ipswich itself can do to reverse this trend - which makes its drive to get more people to live within a short distance of the town centre all the more important.

The other driver for Ipswich's prosperity has been office workers in the town centre with their lunchtime spending - and the relaxation of the "working from home" instructions could bring some of them back.

But I really can't see everyone returning - in any case, many employers have seen the success of working from home and have downsized their town centre presence or even moved out altogether. 

This is not a factor that has really impacted other smaller market towns - and for the large regional centres it is not as significant. But in Ipswich it clearly is still having a significant impact.

Looking at the Centre for Cities report, that is a pattern that is faced by similar-sized towns and cities across the country. 

It calls for government support to help places transform and the Town's Fund is there to help that - but frankly the sums involved are really not enough, in themselves, to transform anything.

So I come back to the start. If Ipswich really wants to transform itself into somewhere truly special its civic leaders - councillors, officials, business leaders - will have to work together and really show some imagination because the government isn't going to see it as anywhere special.

That means putting their efforts into improving the town - not slagging off their political opponents or spending hours searching for every tiny problem when anyone comes up with an imaginative solution to a problem.