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.