The wrong change - and not just from the supermarket
In the Society's 50th anniversary year, it is natural to look at where Ipswich has come from and where it might be going. On joining the Society's Executive four years ago, my first questions were: "Where is the vision for Ipswich? Where is the strategy? How can such immense developments in the built environment take place with no accompanying strategic development of the road network which serves them? How will this work?" Sadly, these questions still remain.
Back then, two important public consultations seemed to offer some prospect of resolution. The Local Government Review (LGR) identified two distinct communities within Suffolk and offered Unitary Status as an opportunity for them to concentrate their respective energies in pursuing their proper destinies without undue hindrance from each other. Complementing this, the Local Development Framework (LDF) suggested a structure to steer development in the direction preferred by the community rather than simply to suit developers' ambitions. But what happened?
The Local Government Review
This began with the Boundary Committee inviting local authorities and stakeholders in the county to submit their proposals for models for a new county-wide unitary structure. The Boundary Committee assessed those models for their financial viability and delivering value for money, from which just two candidate models qualified for public consultation, namely a two-authority model comprising North Haven and the predominantly-rural rest of the county, or alternatively a single county-wide unitary authority.
The remainder of the consultation process was fraught with controversy. The final submission to the Secretary of State acknowledged that Suffolk displayed a strong appetite for unitary local government, but too few respondents supported the options offered, persisting instead in asserting models which had already been rejected on financial grounds. Courageous and spirited no doubt but ultimately not a way to make progress. Suffolk therefore kept the two-tier system by default even though it was the one option which most agreed they didn't want!
Since then, the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has stopped all activity towards creating new unitary authorities, so that would have been the outcome anyway.
But Suffolk was generally reluctant even to accept the question that was asked, so North Haven and the rest of the county will presumably continue to pull in opposite directions - and one of the impending axes on public spending in Ipswich will be wielded by a County administration whose rurally based majority displays little appreciation of Ipswich's distinct urban opportunities, challenges and imperatives.
The Local Development Framework
With a similar flourish of new-found executive power, the same Secretary of State suspended the Regional Spatial Strategies, upon which the LDF critically depends and therefore seems dead in the water. But not before the Borough's own Planning and Development Committee had already driven a coach and horses through the process before it was completed, by accepting a proposal to develop a major superstore and hotel complex at Grafton Way. This was in clear contradiction of a Core Strategy which recommended no more large-scale out-of-centre retail development and which sought relief to the road traffic problems around Star Lane. Even when a Core Strategy represents the fruits of three stages of public consultation over several years, all approved by the full Borough Council, it is evidently no match for a determined developer and an irresolute council.
So is it good news that Ipswich Central, the organisation representing several hundred town centre stakeholders, is now in the process of developing yet another vision for the town centre? I certainly hope so. Among other things, this is proposed to promote inward investment by new retailers whose awareness of Ipswich is apparently rather deficient: in a survey of the 25 top national retailers already represented in Ipswich, 43% thought that Ipswich castle was one of the town's greatest assets!
The supermarket and the future of the town centre
Modern supermarkets are perhaps now indispensable for the efficient mass distribution of daily essentials, and the function, scale and dominance of the Grafton Way development in Ipswich might well invite comparison with the keep of a castle. So let us pursue the metaphor and consider this: in the very unlikely event that Tesco invested Section 106 money into restoring the town's historic walls, would the local 'serfs' then be availed the protection and security of the 'castle grounds' only on production of their Tesco Club Card? The major supermarkets offer unprecedented choice, but does this metaphor illuminate how our wider freedom is being eroded, as consumerism and market forces concentrate wealth with the mass retailers, who use it to become developers with the clout increasingly to dictate the shape of our towns to suit their own corporate agenda?
Just as the banking system is essential but has drained the public purse through its more questionable activities, is it acceptable that private profits should merely 'trickle down' into the public realm from the newly rich corporations whose evidently well stocked reservoirs of wealth were derived from us in the first place? While we should be grateful for the supermarkets' distribution efficiency, we should also recognise that this is accompanied by an equally efficient process for taking payment: a penny or two here and there on the hundreds and millions of items sold daily translates into millions of pounds of additional daily revenue for the supermarkets. So does "every little helps" mean that Tesco is helping you, or is it predominantly the other way round? And as for the competition, whose aisles proudly proclaim that they charge no more than Tesco, how often do you see them offer goods below the "Tesco price"? Will we come to see this as yet another aspect of modern life that was too lightly regulated until it was too late, alongside MPs' expenses, banking, and greenhouse gas emissions?
No matter, that is the way we are going and we must move with it and see how well the new development works for the town. We will not have to wait too long. On the same timescale, public austerity will be the consequence of the private global credit crunch: unfettered private acquisitiveness producing a withering public morbidity at precisely the time when further global catastrophes urgently demand globally-co-ordinated solutions which lie beyond the influence of mere individuals or even (perhaps especially!) market forces.
The wider picture
Consultations are plainly one thing and outcomes quite another. The LGR and the LDF failed to deliver for reasons both local and national. This must bring into question just what do we mean by "local democracy"? Is it anything other than that which can evidently be decided only by those with the power and the opportunity? Will "The Big Society" provide a better answer, and will the likes of the major supermarket chains play their proper part?
If the town grinds to a halt under the combined traffic burdens within the Al2/A14 bypass, can we rely on Tesco to fulfil its civic obligations and rectify the matter, perhaps by building a Wet Dock Crossing as the LDF suggested? Undeniably we are "all in it together" and "can't go on like this", so might we even throw off our parochial blinkers and look forward to a coalition of all the parties after the next General Election, to agree a cross-party programme to re-harmonise the private and public sectors for the common good?
More immediately, signs used to be commonplace which read, "Please check your change before leaving the shop as mistakes cannot be rectified afterwards." We must hope that the Borough's Planning and Development Committee checked its metaphorical change before leaving the supermarket. ...