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Should Ipswich apply to become a city?

The results of a new survey reveals that a majority of businesses and residents aged 60 or under support the concept of the town becoming a city. Our Chief Executive, Paul Clement, calls here for a full and inclusive debate to begin...

Next year, in honour of her Platinum Jubilee, the Queen will bestow city status on towns felt worthy of the honour. There is no guarantee of success, but the government has opened an application process. Between now and December towns like Ipswich can decide whether to apply; astonishingly, my wonderful hometown hit a stumbling block and, as a result, it looked like we had withdrawn from the race before it had even started.

Ipswich Central and All About Ipswich are organisations that jointly represent over 750 local businesses. Members, primarily based in and around the town centre, contribute over £22 million a year to the local economy through business rates and provide jobs and careers for over 25,000 people, most of whom are local residents. Every 5-years businesses vote to renew Ipswich Central for a further term and so, when we choose to enter important debates, we do so with democratic legitimacy in the same way as councillors or politicians.

We are also founding members of the Vision Board. In 2019, we agreed unanimously with our fellow members to a proposal from Suffolk County Council that, whenever the opportunity to apply to become a city next arose, Ipswich would apply, and all parties would support it. We believe in standing by decisions made.

We constantly liaise with businesses in order that we can best reflect their views. An article on LinkedIn regarding Ipswich’s ‘false start’ to city status has now received over 8,500 engagements. All but a tiny minority of businesses have been astonished (or, rather, “gobsmacked” to quote one) at what has been described as an embarrassing absence of leadership, vision, and ambition. As huge contributors of public money and with responsibility for paying the wages of thousands of residents, it is tragic that others have chosen now to either discount or ignore the voice of business.

Of course, so soon after covid, there are other important things to worry about alongside Ipswich becoming a city. But, since this opportunity comes along infrequently – it last happened in 2012 – we must balance the immediate, unarguable, needs of our town together with its longer-term future. The strongest argument for this came from one business owner who wrote to me saying:

“…we must focus on the future and the legacy that we leave behind for the next generations…”

Becoming a city wouldn’t be a badge on a wall; if Ipswich were to be successful, it would really matter to its future, particularly for our young people. There are still only 51 cities in England. In the 5-years following the Queen’s last award, every one of those saw their local economy grow at a rate higher than the national average. Cities attract more inward investment and appeal to more visitors. That’s more jobs, new skills, higher wages and better opportunities for our young people.

Suffolk is also very unusual as one of only a few English counties without a city. Cities traditionally spread the benefits that they attract far beyond their own boundaries and into their hinterland. Therefore, Suffolk too would benefit from having a city. Other towns in Suffolk can, of course, apply – and, frankly, if we aren’t going to bother, I’d encourage them to do so - but surely everyone expects Ipswich to take the lead?

Those inclined to let the Queen award city status to somewhere else offer only five arguments against:

1. “Ipswich is fine as it is” – if that’s the case, why would becoming a city change anything for the worse? Find me one city that would, on reflection, prefer to return to being a town.

2. “Ipswich needs to improve before it can call itself a city” – improvements take money. Dan Poulter MP answered this one by confirming that government funding would be easier for him to obtain if Ipswich was elevated to the status of a city.

3. “Ipswich shouldn’t spend tax-payers’ money on such a speculative process” – you do sometimes need to speculate to accumulate but, given the importance to town centre businesses, Ipswich Central will offer to meet the reasonable costs of an application, meaning that not one penny of council taxpayers’ money will be used.

4. “Ipswich Borough Council’s ruling administration confirmed it would apply, so we object on political grounds” – if short-term political point scoring now trumps long-term, strategic decisions on behalf of future generations, we really are all doomed!

….but, the saddest of all must be:

5. “There’s no point as Ipswich won’t win and failure would push the town backwards” – fear of failure and lack of belief in one’s own ability is completely alien to businesses. Can anyone imagine Gareth Southgate now not entering England in the next tournament for fear that his team might not win again?

    Contrary to the obvious and persuasive long-term benefits and the lack of any discernible down-side, the ‘evidence’ proffered by opponents are a couple of “un-scientific” and unrepresentative on-line surveys. Today, though, we have released new, more “scientific” research commissioned on behalf of Ipswich Central businesses. Rather than relying upon anonymous on-line feedback as others have done, we appointed an independent market research and polling specialist, Latimer Appelby, to contact a demographically representative sample of 500 Ipswich residents by telephone and to speak to them directly about the future of their town. The headline results alone reveal that public opinion is much closer than previously reported:

    Should Ipswich apply to become a city?
    Yes = 41% / No = 46% / Undecided = 13%

    The results would likely shift towards those in favour once careful and considered explanations were given; something that others have refused to date. Headline results are a blunt tool that fail to provide detailed explanations; this new data reveals more when the same responses are divided into age groups in line with the Office for National Statistics (ONS):

    Ages 18 to 29
    Yes = 48% / No = 36% / Undecided = 16%

    Ages 30 to 40
    Yes = 46% / No = 41% / Undecided = 13%

    Ages 41 to 59
    Yes = 43% / No = 44% / Undecided = 13%

    Ages 60+
    Yes = 26% / No = 61% / Undecided = 12%

    ...or, to further emphasise the point:

    Age <60
    Yes = 46% / No = 41% / Undecided = 13%

    Age 60+
    Yes = 26% / No = 61% / Undecided = 13%

    With no weighting applied, younger age groups (under 40’s) emerge as having the ambition to apply. It is only amongst the over 60’s where a majority emerges for the town remaining as it is. This will undoubtedly have skewed the previous, less “scientific”, surveys. By comparison these were statistically meaningless as no information on respondents is known e.g., whether they lived in Ipswich, numbers, age, sex etc.

    It is also worth noting that, whilst very important to the town, the proportion of over 60’s makes up less than one-third of the total 18 + population; less still if under 18’s are included. Statisticians would insist on weighting the results according to the demography of Ipswich’s whole catchment, thereby indicating a substantial majority of the overall population in favour.

    What is also clear is that, alongside the support amongst the under 60’s for applying for city status, a further sizeable proportion are yet ‘undecided’ and require more information.

    This new data suggests that the sponsors of the previous research have been too quick to rely upon its “un-scientific” findings. They have stated that, if more “scientific” research were to be undertaken, they would reopen the matter and rethink their position. The evidence they need is now before them. The methodology used ensures that this new data is robust with respondents being demographically representative and able to be profiled according to the wider Ipswich population.

    So, we are asking for those who have tried to shut down this important debate to now do as they have promised and rethink. They need to listen to the voice of town centre businesses and recognise the hopes and aspirations of younger people, many of whom are employed by those same businesses. The matter of whether Ipswich applies to become England’s oldest city needs to be made collectively and in the interests of not just the current, but the next and future generations.

    Paul Clement
    Chief Executive
    Ipswich Central & All About Ipswich

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