!-- consent -->
Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Ipswich has a long and proud history, competing with Colchester for the title of England’s oldest town. Its many fine buildings and beautiful churches reflect its former wealth and significant industrial past. According to the last census, the population has risen to 139,700.
During the 1960s it was ripped apart, with ancient properties demolished and replaced by dual carriageways and modernist office buildings, separating communities from each other, in a bid to regenerate the town and attract new businesses.
Being just an hour by train from the City of London’s expanding financial centre, Willis Faber’s arrival in its prominent iconic Grade I offices was key to enabling the town’s ambitious plans to evolve, developing new employment opportunities as cigarette manufacturing and heavy industry disappeared. Whilst some other institutions also took up the challenge, the town never became the important financial hub it hoped for.
Half a century on, with a declining town centre as major retailers shut their doors, Ipswich has fresh ambitions: for City status. A welcome move, given that Suffolk is the only county in the region without a city. With its strong cultural heritage, excellent theatres, museums and parks, as well as a university, a range of innovative hi-tech companies, and Europe’s largest grain exporting port, alongside leading professional practices in accounting and legal services, there is much to capitalise on.
To be successful, revitalising the town centre, with tree-lined avenues enhancing public spaces and linking it to the popular Waterfront, with its mixture of hospitality and housing overlooking the marina, must be a priority.
Cracking down on litter is a serious issue, when post-pandemic tourism has plummeted. Better street lighting would also help.
Reinvigorating the empty buildings with fresh investment means having a proactive creative plan. Increasing vitality by repurposing some sites for residential use is a laudable ambition, but the design and accommodation must be high quality, with spaces for cars.
Reviving Ipswich Arts School and moving the Central Library, currently hidden in a back street, into the town centre would add to the cultural ambience
Holding a monthly ‘late night shopping’ event, with live music on the Cornhill, or imitating Channel 4’s success with ‘Piano’, allowing amateurs to display their talents, would bring more life to the town centre. Such measures demand convenient access by foot or car, and safe parking at lower rates than currently available.
Whilst not everyone in the town owns or has access to a car, a high proportion do, providing independence and freedom, including for the disabled.
However, I fear a new report, designed to restrict vehicle access to the town, designates car use as the enemy.
The Ipswich Transportation Task Force has just published its proposed strategy to tackle the “challenges facing transport and mobility across the town.”
Based on a review of ‘key evidence’ by a cross-organisation group comprising local public sector leaders, it “covers all aspects of how planning and investment decisions should be considered, and to promote walking, cycling and public transport.”
The strategy proposes five objectives:
The Task Force is inviting people to take part in a survey with results reported to Suffolk County Council. One can only hope that the emergency services contributed to the discussions, since previous changes to the road infrastructure around the town resulted in ambulances and other vehicles being held up.
Unfortunately, the majority of Ipswich residents, including essential businesses, their employees and customers, have never heard of this Task Force and the strategy, and were not consulted on its proposals.
Having read the 40-page document, it appears to be almost entirely focused on people travelling to/from work in the town, accounting for the busiest periods across the road network. There is no mention of the increase in people working from home, which includes a high proportion of public authority employees. Nor does it appear to appreciate that thousands of Ipswich residents need to travel by car to their highly skilled jobs at Martlesham’s hi-tech centre and the super-efficient Felixstowe freeport.
Ipswich is a rural town, not a metropolitan city with hundreds of thousands of daily commuters; given the size of the town’s population, we are talking about hundreds of people, not thousands, on the move during morning and evening rush hours. Many already cycle or walk into town, take the bus, or use their cars for convenience, dropping off and collecting the kids at school, doing a quick shop or checking on elderly relatives en route. Beyond the peak, buses in the town are often virtually empty, whilst services in rural areas are limited and trains are not only unreliable, but expensive following a recent six per cent fare increase.
Yet the essence of the strategy is to remove cars from the town centre, inevitably impacting existing and potential economic growth.
For example, Ipswich Town Football Club draws hundreds of visitors into the town for its increasingly successful games, with supporters using a range of transport: trains, coaches, as well as cars. They pack the bars and nearby food outlets, often staying overnight. A new 100-room hotel backing onto the ground will undoubtedly prove popular when it opens shortly.
There are, realistically, four or five main roads into the town, which are inevitably subject to queuing at peak times. Such queuing is regularly exacerbated by uncoordinated road works, with some routes repeatedly closed without advance warning! Yet the ITTF strategy seems to imply changes to these roads, to reduce vehicle access, when it should be improved.
And, buried within the text is a threat to the outer town centre with ‘general traffic managed through secondary tier parking charges’, without any clarity as to what this could mean.
The report’s authors have ignored the potential impact on essential services such as plumbers and electricians, gardeners and cleaners, many self-employed, who drive to jobs in their vans; these are likely to be their only vehicles, no doubt powered by diesel or petrol. There has also been a huge increase in the amount of home delivery by supermarkets and other suppliers, negotiating not just Ipswich’s main roads but the narrow routes bordered by rows of Victorian terraces.
In the last few years, millions of pounds have been spent to make roads across Suffolk more cyclist friendly. Nevertheless, too few take their own responsibilities seriously, riding on pavements without due regard for pedestrians. It is time for them to be regulated for their own, and public, safety and to contribute to the road fund tax.
As local authorities complain about the lack of government funding to meet soaring costs, and Council Tax increases, this is not the time to waste what funds are available on proposals like those from the ITTF which will discourage inward investment.
The average Suffolk wage is less than £30,000 a year and, after pandemic lockdowns, people are frankly fed up with politicians telling them what they can and can’t do. We are a democracy, not a dictatorship. Living in a rural area, having a car is not a luxury; for many people it is essential to cope with the pressures of their daily lives. If they can’t drive to facilities in central Ipswich, they will go elsewhere. Public transport can never offer the same flexibility at all times, day and night.