Anyone interested in our historic towns and cities - and that must surely include all Ipswich Society members - will have thought about the future of Britain's ‘high streets'. I say ‘Britain' because this is a national problem, however much some people may deplore what is less than ideal in Ipswich. I thought it might be helpful to set out in general terms the ‘pros and cons' which I will call the ‘black view' of pessimism and the ‘rosy view' of optimism.
The BLACK view of the future of town centres
a) Starting in the 1950s and 60s, town centre properties were bought up as investments by pension funds, insurance companies etc. so that now very few shops belong to individual owners and occupants. (Half a dozen at most in our town centre?) Rents have surged accordingly so small businesses rarely set up and grow.
b) In the 1980s especially, the Government encouraged or watched benignly the building of superstores out-of-town which catered for increasing numbers of car owners and free parking. Retail parks also appeared, attracting various businesses to huge ‘sheds' with huge stocks.
c) The convenience of internet shopping is obvious. It is increasing fast, benefiting delivery firms but certainly not town centre shops.
d) This means that all ‘high streets' are too big, especially those that don't serve a large and affluent catchment area. Empty shops then create a bad impression on potential shoppers, making a vicious circle.
e) Consequently, reducing the size of ‘high streets' to make areas of viability more compact might be a logical idea but in practice commercial decisions produce closures like a scattergun. (In Ipswich ‘abandoning' shops in St Matthew's Street and the west end of Westgate Street and the east end of Carr Street would be unlikely to happen neatly!)f) Niche-market shops are sometimes advocated as a partial solution but these are small by definition and how many delicatessens etc. could a town like Ipswich sustain?
g) Town centres are sometimes viewed as dirty and dangerous so there are many people who prefer to drive to out-of-town stores whenever possible.
The ROSY view of the future of town centres
a) Whilst some people dislike crowds, many others - especially the young - enjoy the bustle of town centres, not necessarily to buy but to socialise. The present profusion of coffee bars and snack bars illustrates this wish to relax and chat.
b) ‘Comparative shopping' where the customer can feel and try on clothes, for example, will always have a place not to be destroyed by internet shopping.
c) A pleasant built environment will continue to attract users. Cleanliness, good paving and trees all complement what an historic town should provide, with well designed shop fronts making the most of old buildings. (Sensible improvements of the Cornhill should help.)
d) Ample and relatively cheap car parking in town needs to co-exist with the option of good park & ride services and good local bus services. (Ideally, a frequent and well advertised bus service needs to run between the town centre and the Waterfront, which is fast becoming such an important part of town.)
e) More people living in the town centre is an advantage. This requires new town houses and flats (e.g. on the former newspaper Archant site as proposed) and more people living over the shops (there was a scheme pioneered in Ipswich but Government funding was withdrawn).
f) A safe and unthreatening environment is essential. (g) A thriving market is a big asset.
h) Promoting the uniqueness of a town centre helps to motivate shoppers and visitors. (Sceptics need to be persuaded that Ipswich is no longer mainly an industrial town - but one with a mixed modern economy and housed in many attractive buildings and a historic street pattern with its subtle twists and turns.)
My guess is that the health of our town centre, compared with towns of similar size in Britain, could be described as ‘above average but must continue to improve'.
I feel sure that the Editor would be pleased to receive your thoughtful views on whether the future is largely ‘black' or ‘rosy'.