There have not been many new planning applications to occupy my mind so the devil got me ruminating on the future of shopping in and around our town. Whilst the developed world remains economically depressed, owners and developers have to run their businesses in the most economical fashion possible to reduce overheads: and concurrently, consumer spending is much reduced. Thus all shops are faced with a depressing financial outlook. Added to this, much purchasing is now done on line -14% is the projected figure for 2012. So retailers are looking for the cheapest site to buy or rent, that can be staffed the most economically with the largest footfall. Easy access and free car parking help but that excludes the poorest third of the community who do not have access to a car. So, in this time of economic stress there is a rush to the outskirts of British towns. Interestingly, it is my observation that it's not occurring to such a great extent in any European country that I have visited. It would have been helpful if Mary Portas had researched more widely before she issued her report.
In Ipswich our empty shop rate at 11.5% is less than the national average of 14.6%, but it will surely increase as planning permissions are granted outside the town centre. By Christmas, I predict Tesco will have been allowed to build their food store on Grafton Way. about the size of Sainsbury's Hadleigh Road, and the John Lewis At Home store and a large Waitrose will be open; soon the Crane's site will be home to DFS and Paul Simons soft furnishings. At Martlesham Heath, there is already a large Next, a Sir Philip Green store, and M&S is to take over the old Glasswell's store. M&S remain committed, they announce, to their flagship Westgate Street shop but it's well known they are fighting for their life. Lastly and possibly most importantly, everyone has welcomed the proposal to convert one of our biggest retail spaces, the ex- Allders and ex-TJ Hughes shop in the Buttermarket Centre to a nine-screen cinema. I regard this as a highly significant change of use as it means day shopping becomes evening leisure. (Note the presence of a 450 space car park on site.)
From these changes, I conclude that more spending and more life will be sucked out of the town centre. In the light of these I now think the UK needs to consider very carefully about how we use our town centres in the future. I do not see how they can return to that golden era when we all did our shopping there. Changes in the economy, the overwhelming presence of the motor car, misguided planning decisions and the intern et mean that it is impossible for town centres to make a comeback.
Should we then abandon our town centres? Yes and no. As I have reasoned above, it's time to change its function. It is no longer where we'll go shopping but it should be the centre of our community with more speciality shops, particularly food, a hardware store and a bookshop. Empty consumerist palaces should be used for community halls and schools because the most vital change, literally, will be to revive the town centre as somewhere respectable to live in.
Apart from over the shop, which has some difficulties in this age, there is a large amount of brownfield land unused. The Mint Quarter and its surrounding shops in Carr Street and Upper Orwell Street are largely empty; the Westgate (Civic Centre) site is derelict and could be enlarged with the vacation of the courts and now the police station.
The problem. as ever in this country, is land ownership; these two tracts were bought by private developers for retail development. Hence their owners, understandably, put a high valuation on them, which places them beyond affordability for other uses. I believe that Britain as a society should urgently think about this problem. The Government has failed to move forward from its turn-of-the- century thinking, with its support of the Portas Report and injection of money into her ideas. This will not work in the long run.
I should like to start a debate on how you, our members, think we should proceed. Let's hear your replies in the Newsletter, or directly to me.