Thoughts on the regeneration of Ipswich town centre

Work has finally begun on the Cornhill regeneration, a project which has divided the town: some people think it will provide a much-needed cosmetic and financial boost to the town centre, while others have criticised the design and suggested that the money (£3.6 million) would have been better spent elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Borough Council is set to put its element of council tax up by 3% from April – part of the Borough’s reported ‘to do’ list includes improvements to the ‘entrance to the Waterfront’, i.e. the area between Stoke Bridge and Dance East.

I fully support spending money to improve the appearance of Ipswich and I broadly agree with the sentiment behind the wider ‘Ipswich Vision’ that the town needs a clear joined-up approach to planning and design, which should not only prepare the town for the future, but also reflect its current and historic identities.

But I do have some concerns about the ways in which these things are being implemented. Are designs being chosen that are sympathetic to the underlying fabric of the town? Are materials being used that will stand the test of time, or will these modern structures begin to look tired or broken in a few years? Will the vision ultimately turn out to be a confusing muddle of ‘patch and fix’ solutions? Are we really making the most of the town’s rich and varied history, or is Wolsey’s Gate a metaphor: a priceless treasure hidden away in an unattractive setting amidst the exhaust fumes of the one-way system

It has long been a truism that the most visually pleasing way to experience Ipswich town centre is (with some notable exceptions) to ignore the street level and to focus on the architecture above – this is particularly poignant on Carr Street, with its traces of the once grand shopping complex of the Ipswich Industrial Co-operative Society.

I’d like to see local authorities support an ambitious and wide-ranging town centre rejuvenation that focuses on providing a streetscape that residents can be proud of. Surely it is not beyond the realms of possibility that civic authorities and businesses in the town centre could work together to provide more attractive – and sympathetic – storefronts. The successful Saints district is a commendable example of where the town’s historic buildings and independent businesses are operating in an appealing and harmonious relationship.

It is impossible to escape from the fact that there a large number of empty units in the town centre, resplendent with whitewashed windows and faded ‘closing down’ signs. It would be nice, for a start, if efforts were made to improve the appearance of these. With internet shopping, it is unlikely town centres will ever return to being the same kinds of retail space that they were before. However, town centres are still locations which attract people. In the age of social media – and increasing loneliness – they should provide a valuable space for face-to-face interaction. Empty units are sometimes used for pop-up stores: why can’t some of them be used to facilitate cultural provision in the heart of the town? At the moment, there is a rather clinical and corporate feel around much of the redevelopment going on in central Ipswich – pop-up cultural events and exhibitions could provide a welcome antidote to consultant-driven attempts to determine how we should use our town centre.

A big problem in politics, at both the local and national level, is that ordinary people feel detached from those making decisions on their behalf. In terms of reconnecting with people, the local authorities should look to provide a town centre that not only engages visitors in ways that are not exclusively retail-orientated, but which also enables residents to feel invested in – and proud of – our town. I’d be interested to hear people’s views on this.

 

Advertisements

Drugs gangs and political tribes in Ipswich

Last night I went to the Ipswich North East Area Committee meeting, both to get a sense of the issues that most concern residents as well as seeing how the town’s elected representatives conduct themselves in a public forum.

In the latter regard, I can’t say I was hugely impressed. Though I have a lot of time and respect for some of the individual councillors – and I also want to avoid the personal attacks that diminish much of Ipswich’s local political discourse – I’m not sure the blatant hostility between the Labour and Conservative representatives paints either party, or our local democracy, in a good light. Whether it was the Conservatives’ petty refusal to heed Labour’s Shelley Darwin’s perfectly reasonable request to be called ‘chair’ rather than ‘chairman’, or Labour repeatedly cutting off (or ignoring) the Conservatives, it was not an edifying or particularly dignified spectacle. It also didn’t help that the acoustics were terrible, which meant that the residents who had showed up on a chilly evening to hold their councillors to account could barely hear what was going on!

During the meeting, Sara Blake from Suffolk County Council delivered an interesting presentation on ‘rethinking ‘County Lines’ and youth gang violence in Ipswich’, a topic which has been in the news a great deal recently – and is an issue which a number of St. John’s residents raised with me during the recent by-election campaign. ‘County Lines’ refers to the phenomena of drug supply routes from major cities to smaller towns and rural areas, using children and young people as part of the distribution network. The research into Ipswich has been undertaken by University of Suffolk academics and their report is worth reading. If residents want to contact the Council about the report, they should use the email address community.safety@suffolk.gov.uk

I am not going to outline the report here, but I would like to draw attention to some of its key recommendations. These include the very reasonable suggestion that clear leadership – and accountability – is required to tackle the problem. Yet, in almost the same breath, the report advocates that the issue should be the joint responsibility of the County Council, Borough Council, and the Police and Crime Commissioner. In theory, this seems totally reasonable. In reality, long suffering Ipswich residents will already have a sense of how this kind of relationship might work in practice. Sarah Adams (Lab) pointed out last night that ‘multi-agency’ ultimately means that no-one is responsible, but I would suggest the issue runs deeper. Indeed, the Area Committee meeting presented a microcosm of the problem, as councillors from Labour and the Conservatives sought to score political points rather than offer much sense that their parties will work together to come up with solutions.

I do not think I am alone in thinking that our town is increasingly let down by petty party politics, rather than the co-operation and consensus building that is required for successful policy and improving community cohesion. Is party loyalty really more important than working together to solve an issue which affects the lives of the town’s most vulnerable children? There have been statements from county and borough council representatives and the Police Commissioner, and a pledge to work together, but it is imperative that the soundbites translate into a real strategic partnership, which also works to reduce barriers between the various agencies concerned with young people and crime prevention (according to Junior Smart in a recent article on this subject ‘The agencies aren’t talking to each other – in some respects the agencies are more territorial than the gangs are’.)

Sara Blake’s presentation prompted some quite impassioned responses from the councillors – including Alasdair Ross (Lab) who is leading for the Borough Council on this issue – and from the floor. The comment that resonated most with me was the resident who suggested that the wider community also needed to take responsibility and do something, as the problem is clearly going from bad to worse. Hopefully, and despite the acoustics, the Councillors heard her powerful plea for Ipswich to ‘come together’ over this issue.

Thank you St. John’s!

I’d like to thank all of the voters who turned out to vote for me yesterday, or who sent in postal vote for me – I’m sorry I couldn’t push Labour and the Conservatives a bit harder, but I will continue to fight for a more liberal Ipswich.

Congratulations to Sarah Adams (Labour), the new County Councillor for St. John’s, and thanks to Sarah and James (Conservative) for the decent spirit in which the by-election was contested. Residents certainly appreciated having different parties out and about in the Division.

Thanks to all the Council staff who ran the count last night – it all went very smoothly and we got home on the stroke of midnight.

Finally, thanks to everyone who helped my campaign: especially Trevor Powell, my election agent; Cathy French and Oliver Holmes, who organised canvassing; Inga and Tim Lockington; Maureen Haaker, and all the Lib Dems in Ipswich and further afield who helped in one way or another.

I think we can be pleased with the following:

  1. We doubled the Lib Dem share of the vote in St. John’s compared to May’s County Council election.
  2. While the Tory and Green vote collapsed in this by-election, and Labour received 136 fewer votes than in May, the Lib Dems were the only party to increase our number of votes, picking up eighty more, despite a lower turnout overall.
  3. We slashed the distance between ourselves and the Conservatives in St. John’s – we are now only 14% behind the Tories, compared to 27% in May.

I am especially pleased with (and proud of) the positive nature of our campaign, and I will take a lot away from the meaningful conversations that I had on the doorstep. Thank you, St. John’s!

Ed

 

Speaking up in St. John’s

The St. John’s by-election is nearly upon us and residents can breathe a sigh of relief that their third election of the year is drawing to a close!

I’ve been struck during the campaign by how many residents have been willing to talk about their concerns (rather than exercising their democratic right to tell canvassers to ‘go away’!). In fact, several people have mentioned how pleased they have been to see a genuinely contested by-election in the Division. Whatever the result tomorrow, whoever wins will have had to work for it, which can only be good for local democracy.

On the other hand, many of the voices I’ve heard on the campaign trail have reflected a concern I have had for a while about the relationship between communities and local government. People who genuinely want to see improvements in their local area are increasingly disillusioned with the ability of the Council to fix anything: there is a sense that, despite ‘consultations’ and the like, nobody is actually *listening* to residents. This, I believe, is indicative of a broader, and worrying, sense of isolation in our community.

What is the solution? I think the power of face-to-face communication is massively undervalued in modern society, and often ignored by politicians. You only have to look at some of the absurd stage-managed aspects of the recent General Election campaign to see the hoops that some politicians will jump through to avoid talking with real people!

While I’m a bit of a twitter addict, I don’t think social media is the best forum for engaging in political debate and discussion. Face-to-face communication will always have far more complexity, humanity, and nuance. You can’t look a candidate in the eye on social media and decide whether or not you trust them, for instance.

The main thing I will miss about the campaign is meeting and talking to residents – but if elected I promise to continue the conversation (although I promise not to knock on doors at dinnertime):

  • I would hold monthly open surgeries for residents to come and talk to me. This is something Lib Dem County Councillor Caroline Page does in Woodbridge to great effect.
  • I’d make sure to be visible in the community and would regularly attend community events and forums.
  • I would create opportunities to empower residents to become involved in conversations with each other on the issues that concern them.

On the last point, it is perhaps worth pointing out that some of my historical research has been on Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, one of Britain’s symbolic sites of free speech. Inspired by this, a few years ago I helped organise an event on the Cornhill for young people to have their say on issues that concerned them – in the audience was the town’s current MP (and former St. John’s Councillor) and the former MP. It was a fun event, but also meaningful: politicians listening to schools pupils, and young people gaining the confidence to speak up in public.

Let’s create more opportunities for ordinary residents of all ages to get their voices across and – more importantly – to feel as if they are being listened to by those who represent them.

Slow down in St. John’s

This was the last weekend of the by-election campaign, and I was back out on the streets of St. John’s Division, delivering letters and meeting residents. I therefore missed Lewis Hamilton’s victory in the Italian Grand Prix – but I did hear about drivers who confuse St. John’s residential streets for Monza racing circuit, and the problems that these speeding motorists cause for local people.

DSC_1049-01
About to start my deliveries around the Foxglove Gardens estate – with its effective residential road design.

Many residents are concerned about speeding, whether on the traditional thoroughfares or on streets used as ‘rat runs’. There is also a great deal of disillusionment at the seemingly endless bureaucracy that is required before the Council can do anything about this matter. This, unfortunately, only leads to further apathy towards local democracy (I personally think that local government needs to be much more proactive in empowering communities and helping them to solve day-to-day problems, such as speeding motorists).

Obviously speeding is a dangerous menace and there are solutions that the County Council can apply. If elected on Thursday, I would push for the following:

  1. Sensible traffic calming throughout St. John’s. This does not have to be expensive – we just need to implement measures that force drivers to think about the road ahead. Walking around the Foxglove Gardens estate today, I noted the sensible road layout and traffic calming features throughout. As a result of these, I saw far more children out and about near the roads – a real contrast with other parts of the Division, where parents are rightly worried about cars going too fast.
  2. The establishment of a Community Speed Watch group. Through resident power, we can make speeding as antisocial as drink driving. Community Speed Watch also has the advantage of improving community relations among like-minded residents.
DSC_1043-01
Twenty’s plenty in residential areas

The Liberal Democrat County Councillor for St. Margaret’s Ward, Inga Lockington, has been a prominent and successful campaigner for lower speeds in her Division. The County Council’s decision-making process can often – ironically – move at a snail’s pace when it comes to speed reduction measures. If I’m elected, I’ll work hard – like Inga – to ensure that bureaucracy does not slow down efforts to improve our safety on the roads, and that high-speed antics are confined to the racetrack.

A rainy day look at County reserves

There were plenty of puddles on the streets of St. John’s Division this evening as the glorious Bank Holiday weather gave way to the more traditional downpours. Before rain stopped our canvassing efforts, we heard from a number of residents who are concerned about the continued cuts to public services. Suffolk County Council’s Conservative administration has been squirreling away around £10 million per year for a hypothetical ‘rainy day’, yet we are facing £31 million of budget cuts in 2017-18.

Residents – quite rightly – wonder whether or not the Tories’ barometer is on the blink as the harsh reality of their damaging cuts to public services becomes more evident on a daily basis.

DSC_1030-01
Rainclouds gathering over Spring Road this evening

It seems common sense to invest some of the County’s large reserves to preserve important services, including healthcare. Of course, it is also prudent not to go too far in running down the reserves, which is sometimes the case with Labour’s proposals. In a prime example of where taking the centre ground makes a lot of sense, the Suffolk Liberal Democrats have argued that the Council should balance investment from reserves with maintaining a sensible emergency fund – this was crystal clear in Councillor John Field’s reasoned response to the 2017-18 Suffolk County Council Budget (and Labour amendment) from earlier this year. Sadly, the Conservative austerity budget passed – but residents of St. John’s should bear in mind that if I am elected on 7 September, I will always push for a fair, humane, and pragmatic approach to budgetary matters. After all, there is always a social dimension and impact behind the neat rows of numbers on  budget spreadsheets.

Happy National Dog Day!

Today is National Dog Day, so today’s campaign blog is all about pups and hounds.

One of my favourite parts of the St. John’s Division is the Newbury Road dog park – one of those rare spots where our four-legged friends can run around together in an enclosed space, and their humans can also make friends with each other – it’s a real community asset.

DSC_1101-02

I know residents are probably fed up with having to go out to vote in 2017 – for St. John’s, the 7 September by-election will be the third election this year. However, this does mean that voters with canine companions get one more chance to use the #dogsatpollingstations hashtag on twitter! Here’s Otis, giving a fine example of how it is done (photo courtesy of @RichardBeeby):

otis

Finally, and regardless of your political leaning, I would ask readers to take a look at the campaigns promoted by Suffolk Guide Dog Forum, either on facebook or twitter. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I would like to improve accessibility for all residents – please think about sending our MP (the former County Councillor for St. John’s) an email to ask him to meet with Guide Dogs and learn more about their work. It is shocking that almost half of Guide Dog users have experienced an access refusal in the past year. I also think this is a petition worth signing – why are we not making accessibility the core principle of new infrastructure development?

That’s all for today – whatever type of pet you might have, I hope you have a very pleasant National Dog Day!