Will last year’s ‘election bribe’ bring good news for Ipswich?
PUBLISHED: 06:00 01 October 2020 | UPDATED: 08:12 01 October 2020
This week we’re all being asked our opinions on proposals for new projects for Ipswich that might be funded with £25m as part of a Town Deal scheme using direct government investment.
A total of 15 potential schemes have been drawn up for this proposal – and we have also been asked if there are any further schemes that might benefit from the government funding.
Most of the list look very feasible, especially given the quite large sum put up for grabs by the government. But there remains in the back of my mind a big question mark, and the warning voice saying: “If something looks too good to be true, it probably is!”
When the Town Deal was announced about a year ago, with Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick paying an early visit to Ipswich a day or two later to talk about it, I could not escape the feeling that this was being waved around as a pre-election bribe.
Many people – from all political parties and none – have pointed out that the vast majority of parliamentary seats that this was targeted at were key marginals. Ipswich certainly fell into that category when the general election came along a couple of months later although to be honest I never heard anyone say: “I’m voting for the Conservatives because of the Town Deal!”
If it was designed as an election bribe it was a very expensive white elephant.
What does worry me is that when the government – and particularly the Treasury – starts to look at the £3.6bn national town deal fund and the £25m promised to towns and cities like Ipswich, it may decide that the budget is unsustainable in a Covid-ravaged financial world.
So how many of the 15 schemes proposed will see the light of day? And is there any hope for any new schemes to come forward suggested by the public?
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Some of the proposals look pretty obvious and should be a no-brainer to get official approval, like the scheme to improve Paul’s Maltings and create an attractive new public open space at the gateway to the Waterfront at Stoke Bridge.
It is also good to see the government making an early, £1m, commitment to support Ipswich council’s bid to buy the freehold of Debenhams. That is a vital site for the town centre and it should be good news for it to be under the control of the local authority.
Others are not so obvious. Why on earth do we need a new “medium-sized (800-1,200)” music venue in the town centre when we have the Grand Hall at the Corn Exchange (capacity 1,076 according to the council website)?
Surely what is needed is a smaller venue and maybe a couple of recording studios – a 300-400 capacity like Ipswich’s answer to the Cavern Club. We need a music academy, not a venue that is too big for up-and-coming bands.
Something else that slightly puzzles me is why the Town Deal is seen as the vehicle to finance an Integrated Care Academy at the university. Given the number of times Matt Hancock has stood up at Westminster or visited TV studios over the last few months to say how many more nurses and other health workers are going to be trained by the NHS, isn’t this the kind of project that should come out of health or education budgets?
Other proposals are very welcome. Over the last few months many more of us are making more use of our local neighbourhood shops, and the proposal to spend a significant amount on improving what have for many years felt like forgotten areas could be very good news.
And personally I like the idea of boosting cycling in the town centre by completing the “missing link” between Yarmouth Road and the town centre – and going ahead with the new cycle path over the lock gates to bring more people on to the Island Site in the middle of the Wet Dock.
But there are also other proposals that should be considered. Ipswich council planners rather reluctantly agreed to a new temporary permission for NCP’s Tacket Street car park last week. Could that not be transformed into a new urban open space with the company encouraged to build a new multi-storey park at Cox Lane.
It might not be the Mint Quarter planned a quarter of a century ago, but an open space behind Carr Street which is set to become a more mixed area with flats and a new school, would be welcome – especially if it has play equipment for young children who live nearby.
Overall though, the list of proposals could be transformative for the town of Ipswich – I just hope that a decent number of them do get through the government vetting process, although I would be very pleasantly surprised if they all make the final cut!
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