Is it right for Ipswich council to buy retail parks outside the town centre?

Ipswich council now owns the Marks and Spencer foodhall at Martlesham. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Ipswich council now owns the Marks and Spencer foodhall at Martlesham. Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

The news that Ipswich Borough Assets has spent £23.3m on buying Beardmore Park in Martlesham Heath to provide an investment income stream has provoked many comments over the last week.

Should Ipswich council only invest in the town centre? Picture: OLIVIA HALSEY

Should Ipswich council only invest in the town centre? Picture: OLIVIA HALSEY - Credit: Ipswich Cornhill in 2018. Picture: OLIVIA HALSEY

Many have seen it as a vote of no confidence in Ipswich town centre by the council-owned investment company. The leader of the Conservative opposition at the borough has described the investment as a “stab in the back” for central Ipswich traders.

I can see that, if you’re looking for gesture politics, it could look that way.

However the other argument is that Beardmore Park is going to earn profits for someone, and it might as well be for Ipswich council which can put the money back into the town itself rather than someone like the Grosvenor Estate or the Mars Pension Fund.

Personally I find that argument more compelling. If it is possible for the council to borrow money at a fixed low interest rate and make an investment profit of £400,000 a year from retailers like Marks and Spencer and Poundland then I don’t see a problem with that.

After all Beardmore Park isn’t new – it’s been there well over a decade. If Ipswich Borough Assets didn’t own it someone else would, and as I’ve already said there’s no guarantee any other owner would give two hoots for the economic wellbeing of the town centre six miles away.

I’m not totally convinced by the argument that if IBA has a commercial relationship with Marks and Spencer it will make it easier for the borough to deal with the company if there are any issues with its continued operation in the town centre in the years ahead.

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It sounds like a nice idea, and it would be good to think there could be some relationship there – but I’m not really sure how that could make a huge difference.

However for all these reasons the organisation representing town centre businesses – Ipswich Central – feels that on balance the deal should be okay for the town.

I don’t really see a good reason to disagree with that . . . unless you simply play politics with the issue.

And that, frankly, is what it appears that the Tories in Ipswich are wanting to do in this case.

There are questions about the wisdom of local authorities borrowing huge sums of money from the Public Works Loan Board to make commercial investments.

But it is a policy that has been championed by the Conservative-led governments of the last eight years and by Conservative-led councils across the country. More than £4bn was borrowed by councils for investments during the financial year 2017/18.

The biggest investors were Tory-controlled Spelthorne in Surrey, Lib-Dem controlled Eastleigh in Hampshire, and Warrington in the north west that is controlled by Labour. Every party is doing it. The Tories at Mid Suffolk and Babergh have investments across the south of England.

So why, when the Tories elsewhere are making these investments and the town centre businesses see no problem with it, are Ipswich Conservatives so opposed to this policy here?

It looks as if it is simply a case of opposing for the sake of opposing. I’m not really sure that they’ve come up with any arguments against the investment any stronger than: “It doesn’t look very good for the town centre.”

Personally I remain reasonably optimistic about the largest shops in Ipswich town centre. I can seen the logic of having a relationship with Marks and Spencer – but I cannot really see that the company’s store in Westgate Street is under immediate threat.

It was rebuilt about 20 years ago and always seems fairly busy. When was the last time you went to the foodhall there and you DIDN’T have to queue at the checkout?

There are rumours that the company is looking to announce more store closures early next year – there is a general feeling that people would be amazed if Ipswich was among them.

The same, essentially, applies to Debenhams. I know that company has even greater problems than Marks and Spencer but the Ipswich store is known to be profitable, always seems quite busy, and has a very long lease. I can’t see it is under immediate threat.

Ipswich town centre certainly has challenges, just like town centres across the country.

Out of town retail parks do pose a challenge that cannot be ignored – but to just see any investment in them as siding with the enemy in a battle of attrition is rather pointless and can be self-defeating. Town centres are evolving and pretending retail parks don’t exists helps no one.