Not all doom and gloom for our town centre - new investment making a difference
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Walk down any high street in the country and you can see the damage that two years of Covid and its associated restrictions have wrought.
In many cases what we have seen is just an acceleration – albeit a big one – of existing trends, with a move to internet shopping and out-of-town retail.
Most town centres had some empty shops at the start of 2020 but there are far more at the start of 2022.
However, towns like Ipswich have suffered a completely new type of hit from Covid. Before the pandemic, our town centre businesses used to benefit from a great deal of trade from office workers popping out at lunchtime.
Over the last two years the number of people working in town centre offices has fallen dramatically and may never recover to previous levels due to the advent of “hybrid working” where people spend part of their working week in the office and part at home.
Smaller towns have found it easier to bounce back from Covid because their town centres didn’t have that many office workers in the first place.
We can spot this trend from Ipswich Borough Council’s car parking usage. Our short stay car parks, generally used by shoppers, have bounced back relatively well. Before the Omicron wave hit, we were seeing usage starting to get closer to pre-Covid levels.
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However, our long stay car parks, generally used by office workers, were still way down on pre-Covid usage even before Omicron. Before the pandemic you would struggle to find a parking space Monday to Friday in our Portman Road car parks. Now, even with spaces taken out for the testing centre and the new Kevin Beattie statue, there are still empty spaces.
While times are undeniably tough for town centres it is not all doom and gloom, and we are now starting to see quite a bit of new investment in Ipswich.
Sports Direct have confirmed that they will be opening a new store in the former BHS building on the Buttermarket. Honey + Harvey are close to finishing the fit out of their new café on Queen Street. BrewDog will be opening a new pub on the Waterfront. Starbucks will be returning to the town centre next to WHSmith. Tesco have opened a new store on Tavern Street.
We have seen quality new independent shops open too, such as Wildgoose Fine Foods in St Stephens Lane and Dial Lane Books – currently in the running for the “independent retailer of the year” award.
We are also seeing new residential development such as the McCarthy and Stone homes – currently being built in Lower Brook Street – which will bring more footfall to the town centre.
The encouraging thing is that all of these are completely private sector developments which required no involvement from the council other than, in some cases, granting planning permission.
These were hardnosed business decisions by commercial operators who believe that they can make their money back by investing in Ipswich town centre.
I am sure we will see more over the coming months.
However, we must recognise that the private sector is not going to be able to sort out all the issues in Ipswich. Next week I’ll detail some of the investments Ipswich Borough Council is making to help bring new life back to our town centre.