The DTZ Report into Ipswich's town centre probably tells us what we already knew, if only we were to face the obvious. Ipswich's shoppers are no longer flooding into the high street to do their shopping. In fact, the British Retail Consortium suggests footfall in December was 2.5% lower than the previous year, and December with its all-important Christmas trade is the barometer for the year.
Where I think DTZ have got it wrong is in their analysis of alternative destinations to Ipswich town centre. They suggest high street spend is going to Colchester, Bury, Woodbridge and Felixstowe. They fail to report that Ipswich folk, most of whom, I suspect, are not travelling very far on a regular basis for their comparison shopping, are choosing Ransome Way, Martlesham or Copdock.
Clearly decision-free car parking has a major influence and by decision-free I mean that there is no stress in trying to decide the duration of your stay as you arrive. Just pull up, park, shop, browse, enjoy a coffee and leave. No need to watch the clock, stressing that your hour may be up, your ticket expired and the warden issuing fines.
The other factor to get shoppers back to the town centre is variety: variety that involves a leisure offer. DTZ suggest that Ipswich is under-provided with town centre pubs and restaurants, (3% below the UK average of 16%) and entertainment venues (12.7%, UK average 15.4%). The latter will be partially fulfilled when Vue Cinemas finally convert part of the Buttermarket Shopping Centre but these changes won't necessarily provide people (footfall) and the local authority need to be proactive.
It is essential that town centre offices are fully occupied and that office workers pop out for the occasional sandwich, the lunchtime shop or something for tea on the way home.
So who do I envisage occupying these offices? How about the Local Authorities themselves (Suffolk County Council and Ipswich Borough Council)? By moving people and departments out of Grafton House, Endeavour House and Constantine House and into Princes Street, Museum Street and Lower Brook Street. Whole departments operating perhaps marginally less efficiently than at present but providing life and spending power on the Cornhill.
Even DTZ agree with my previous suggestion of additional residential units in the town centre. The future of Cox Lane is not the Mint Quarter, or the Cloisters but a mixed use scheme of town houses and apartments. Will the former Civic Centre site - Westgate - ever make a shopping centre? I doubt it, given the exodus of shoppers from high streets across the country, but it would make a superb residential quarter, enhanced by the almshouses of Black Horse Lane, a pub and a theatre on site and easily accessible by car from Civic Drive. DTZ suggest this site has clear advantages over 'The Link' (the former EADT printing works) in Lower Brook Street.
But, and this is critically important, Westgate is only a few steps from the retail offer of Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and Next. The DTZ Report drops names of retailers who might, just might, come to Ipswich. I think it more important to ensure that we keep those we've already got. Incidentally the brownfield developments suggested above will go one third of the way to providing the numbers planned on the greenfield Northern Fringe.
Facts and Figures from the DTZ Report for Ipswich Town Centre
- 1.3 million square feet of retail space
- 570 retail outlets
- 17.5% vacant units (UK average, circa 14%)
- 20% vacant floor space (UK Average 12%)
- A lack of independent shops - viz multiples = 37% [of floor space] (UK average 29%)
[DTZ is a global real estate adviser based in Chicago, its parent company is UGL Ltd. DTZ's history dates back to 1784 with the founding predecessor firm, Cheshire Gibson established in Birmingham. A second predecessor firm, Debenham and Tewson was founded in Cheapside, London in 1853.]