A good start – but our town centres are not out of the woods just yet

More than 9,200 people visited Ipswich town centre on Monday, June 15 as coronavirus restrictions we

More than 9,200 people visited Ipswich town centre on Monday, June 15 as coronavirus restrictions were eased Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

The re-opening of town centres this week appears to have gone very well in both Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds – and some of the smaller towns in the area have also been seeing shoppers return.

Ipswich Market was busier on Tuesday. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Ipswich Market was busier on Tuesday. Picture: PAUL GEATER - Credit: Archant

From an economic point of view, this is good news – we have to get the economy moving forward again and the ability to actually get out of the house and feel as if you are part of wider society is very important for all of us.

But there were, and still remain, serious concerns for many people. And I’m not sure we should see this as the beginning of the end for lockdown – it is rather the end of the beginning.

The good news is that there were quite a lot of people heading out to the shops on Monday, which prompted queues to form outside some stores.

MORE: Queues as town centre stores reopen

I didn’t go into the town myself on Monday, but I did see the pictures and talked to colleagues who had been there. I did go in on Tuesday to see how the market was trading in the new town centre regime – and to get a feel of how the town centre was operating.

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Overall I was very impressed. It was not as busy as it had been on Monday. I walked along Westgate Street, part of Tavern Street, Upper Brook Street and the top of Princes Street where the market was operating.

I felt the town centre was a very safe place. There may have been one or two occasions where someone briefly encroached on the two-metre “barrier” – but only for less than a second at a time and as I was outside I really didn’t feel worried.

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Having said that, one thing that did strike me was that Ipswich Central might as well not have put out the “keep left” stickers because just about no one was paying attention to them.

Is it because Ipswich shoppers don’t know their left from the right, or be able to work out which way an arrow is pointing? Or is it that they just don’t care about rules like this – and this applies to shoppers of all age.

As I said, the town centre wasn’t full enough to feel crowded or threatened by this. But it did make me wonder how careful people were being over personal safety.

On Tuesday there were a few people waiting to get into Primark and JD Sports – but other stores, including Debenhams and Marks and Spencer, had no queues at all. I didn’t go in but there would have been no problem shopping there.

So the town centre is back in operation. But I don’t think it is out of the woods. The town centre is about much more than shops. To make it a destination you need to have the cafes, pubs and restaurants open.

And that is going to be much trickier. For a start the government is still trying to decide whether the two-metre rule should be relaxed into a one-metre rule to give more hospitality businesses a fighting chance of being able to reopen.

MORE: Shoppers return to Ipswich Market

I know that bosses at Ipswich Central would like to see this – and they’re even more keen on getting a decision one way or another. If the two-metre rule stays most will find it impossible to reopen, but at least if they knew that they could take the decision to lay off their staff and pull down their shutters.

But for many people (and just at this moment that includes me) whether it’s a one-metre or two-metre rule is totally academic. I’m not going to start eating out or drinking in pubs before there’s a proven vaccine – or the number of cases of Covid-19 in this country is down in single figures. It’s just not worth the risk.

According to recent polls about 45% of the population feels like this. If that’s true then the hospitality sector will continue to face serious problems over the next few months.

And it isn’t just the presence of the virus that is a factor. It is the changes to life that have come in over the last three months. I need some new trousers. I’d planned to wait until Debenhams reopened. I know what I want so I checked Debenhams website and found they no longer stocked them in long sizes – so I went to an online store, ordered exactly what I wanted and they should be with me by the time this is printed.

I would hate to see Ipswich’s largest department store close – but I fear that whatever the queues on Monday say, the fact is that the lockdown has accelerated the move towards online and retail park shopping.

I don’t see the imminent implosion of shopping centres everywhere, but I don’t see the “new normal” as being sustainable for centres in their present form or size. What will emerge, I’m not sure, but with high summer starting imminently the next few months could be crucial.

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