Town centre faces tough facts of life

Thousands of people came to the the Ipswich Christmas lights switch on in the Cornhill.

Thousands of people came to the the Ipswich Christmas lights switch on in the Cornhill.

I REALLY was rather disappointed by the trading figures that were revealed by Ipswich Central for the pre-Christmas period earlier this week.

The great new Christmas lights that brightened up the town centre, combined with the sparkling new tree and the events laid on to surround the festive run-in had brought an optimistic glow to the town.

And the positive comments we heard from Ipswich Central chief executive Paul Clement made it seem as if all was well in the town centre.

However when the figures came out this week, they showed that trading was actually 2.9 per cent down on 2011, and that was a considerably larger fall than the national average – even when internet sales were taken out.

I accept that the roadworks and the new out of town stores like John Lewis at home had an impact – but the roadworks are necessary if the town is to modernise and I’m afraid that out of town shopping centres are a fact of life.

There is no major department store, John Lewis or anyone else for that matter, that wants to come to the town centre.

They didn’t want to move into the empty unit in the Buttermarket.

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They didn’t want to take the smaller empty unit in Tower Ramparts, and they didn’t want to build a new department on either the Mint Quarter or the Civic Centre site.

Maybe we all suffer from the belief that the town centre should be dominated by shops.

Yes, retail is important – but bringing in new users like the Vue cinema proposed for the Buttemarket centre is probably even more important for the future.

Shopping has been a great leisure activity of the last 30 years.

As more of us are buying more online (and where else will we find music that is not on a top-30 album in the future?) we will find other things to do in our leisure time.

We will want more places to meet for a coffee or a snack, more places to listen to small-scale live music, more places for “events” to happen.

To be fair to Mr Clement and Ipswich Central, no one recognises this fact more than them – but it will not be an easy concept for many who have a traditional view of the town centre to grasp. And it is a change that will have to be handled with care if Ipswich is to thrive.