Ipswich MP: 'We can't let iconic buildings become dilapidated'

Will the Old Post Office have a new tenant next year? Picture: ARCHANT

The Old Post Office building will benefit from Town Fund money - but has fallen into disrepair - Credit: Archant

From March 8, all parties have been able to start campaigning ahead of the local elections in May.

But this can only be done in a very cautious manner, adhering to Covid safety guidelines with lone individuals delivering leaflets and engaging with voters on the doorstep.

I have started to deliver some surveys myself to hear more from constituents about how we can improve our town.

One aspect which I think is key to reinvigorating our town is to do something about the old disused buildings which have been left unoccupied and gathering dust in our town for too long.

This is why I have welcomed the £25million from the government as part of the Town Deal.

Two of the eleven projects we are funding are specifically targeting the iconic disused buildings of the Paul’s Silo and the Old Post Office. They will be cleaned and refurbished to be put back into use.

This is all well and good and I’m very glad that something is finally happening with these buildings.

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However, the real question is why did we get to this position in Ipswich in the first place? And how do we ensure that going forward we avoid this from happening?

It was reported this week that it will probably cost around £100,000 to just get the pigeon faeces removed from the Paul’s Silo building. It is so caked onto the walls and the floors inside that it requires a mammoth industrial clean to even make it safe to occupy.

No wonder it is costing that much just to remove the poo! Nothing symbolises the problem we have more than this £100,000 figure. It costs this much because the building has been left unoccupied and uncared for over the past 23 years, leaving the bricks to have basically been penetrated by pigeon poo.

The Old Post Office is admittedly a more positive story, and I am glad that the council ended up taking it back from Lloyds Bank who had been leasing it beforehand.

The refurbishment of this building is largely nearing completion and the approximately £1million from the Town Deal will push it over the edge and get it back into use.

It is still unfortunate, though, that this building sat there unused for three years.

The same applies for the Old County Hall, which was left dormant for 15 years before the recent decision to convert it into 40 new flats.

We simply cannot go on with our iconic buildings becoming dilapidated when they should be delivering the economic, social and cultural life in our town.

The borough council obviously has big role to play in all this, but it is a serious failing that across our town that these buildings have been left vacant for too long. No single organisation is 100% responsible for the situation we are in.

It may well be the case that there needs to be a change at both the local and the national level to provide a carrot and stick model which would encourage the owners of buildings to sell up or develop the buildings themselves, so that they can be put to good use rather than sitting on them for years on end.

This may well include implementing a disincentive to building owners who leave their buildings uncared for and unoccupied.

The new strategy for these buildings needs to include both a short term and long-term plan.

This will mean that any building which has been left unused – there are many more across town – must be immediately made ready for pop-up shops or to house artists or local cultural initiatives while a long-term owner is secured for the premises.

Conservative councillors believe that this should be implemented across the board. The borough council should be using its money more efficiently in making use of our infrastructure.

I was surprised to hear on BBC Radio Suffolk on Tuesday that the Labour leader of the borough council, David Ellesmere, in response to their pushing up council tax by 2%, was peddling a line about being short-changed by the government when this is simply not the case.

It is remarkable that he should be saying this only a week after the government provided both the £25million Town Deal money, in which out of the 45 successful towns we got more than 38 (with only three getting more).

On top of that, it is creating the new Freeport down the road at Felixstowe which either directly or indirectly employs more than 6,000 of my constituents.

On the programme, he claimed that the council is experiencing a shortfall of funds because it was told by the government to spend what was needed at the start of the pandemic and this would be covered.

According to Mr Ellesmere, the council has spent £16million and is in a £6million shortfall.

I am very keen to talk to him about these numbers and it is bizarre to me that instead of raising this issue with me, the local MP, so that I can then raise it with the government, he has instead made an off the cuff political attack without discussing any problem constructively.

I have been keeping my eye on local council funding to ensure that our town receives a fair funding deal over the course of this pandemic and as such I have been receiving data from the House of Commons Library.

Over the course of this pandemic Ipswich Borough Council has been given, at the very least, £33,569,871 in additional funding from the government.

This figure is drawn from the four tranches of the emergency funding allocation, the Next Steps Accommodation Programme, the Reopening High Streets grant fund, Small Business Grant Fund and the Council Tax Hardship Fund.

The figure also includes the £1,244,250 which was given to Ipswich Borough Council as part of the Local Authority Discretionary grant fund, which they have been using to provide further support in cases where there is an extra need.

This level of funding is on par with the most similar borough councils across the country such as Gloucester, Lincoln, Chesterfield, Nuneaton and Bedworth, and Scarborough. So, it is very clear that Ipswich is in no way being ‘short-changed’.

It is clear that the relentless negativity from Labour councillors is just not getting us anywhere and as we know from the state in which some of our buildings have been left in Ipswich, the Labour councillors should probably be looking at how to invest more sensibly in our town.

And they are claiming all this while having exposed the taxpayer to huge risks in their latest forays into investment, having spent £22.5million on office blocks in Peterborough.

This being spent during the pandemic, when working from home has opened up a whole new debate on ways of working, would appear to make this a questionable investment.

It might be different if this money was actually invested within Ipswich, supporting a worthwhile project that could be a significant benefit to the town but this obviously isn’t.

Even if things go well, it is anticipated that it will take 10 years of office rents for Ipswich to make its money back.

Ultimately, I do have serious concerns about local rate payers being exposed with these risky investments.

I continue to hope that our Labour-run borough council focusses its attention less on risky business ventures outside of our town and more on spending money on local initiatives.

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