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Paul Clement: COVID & our Town Centre

Be in no doubt, the global pandemic will be proved to have changed our town and city centres forever. Anyone still thinking that “once this is all over, we can get back to normal” needs to imbibe a dose of reality.

We forget that 2020 started positively. Until the pandemic forced the closure of every high street in March, our economy was in a period of sustained growth. Despite huge government-funded mitigation schemes, in the 9 months that followed, over 25,000 shops, bars and restaurants closed permanently costing local economies 150,000 jobs. As if that were not tragic enough, 2021 has seen a continuation of those trends with the announcement that the Debenhams, Top Shop, Top Man, Burtons, Wallis and Dorothy Perkins brands have been snapped up cheaply by exclusively on-line retailers meaning another 650 shops will shut, with another 25,000 employees left unemployed.

This is truly devastating and, in every sense of the word, a ‘crisis’. As if the bad news to date were not enough, I predict that things will get much worse before they get better. As financial relief - such as the furlough and grant schemes, suspension of business rates and VAT concessions – are lifted, previously strong and profitable high street businesses will be forced to shut up shop permanently. Many doom and gloom correspondents suggest there is nothing that can be done for everyone will just remain at home after lockdown and shop on the internet. However, in order to introduce a little optimism, I profoundly disagree.

Firstly, the changes in consumer behaviour began long before Covid and, with the benefit of hindsight, too many ignored the warning signs believing that if one business closed another would open. Secondly, if Covid has proved nothing else, it is how important our social interactions are and how keen we are to get back out and about and meet people again.

So, given that we know our high streets will never be the same again and that retail will form a far lesser proportion of occupancy; given that we know consumers will want to return but will need new reasons beyond shopping to do so; given that we will have lots of vacant buildings to use; the missing ingredient is a radical, ambitious plan to reinvent places and to repurpose the buildings within them.

In Ipswich, we have been gathering lots of data on how our town centre has been changing and how people want to use it in the future. Key stakeholders have been working collaboratively through our Vision Board to develop bold new plans that will have the potential to transform our town centre. The Prime Minister has now announced that he will set out a ‘roadmap’ to release restrictions in the week of 22nd February. In Ipswich, we must be ready then to lay out our own ‘roadmap’ to renew and revive the town centre immediately afterwards.

It is very tempting right now to be overwhelmed by the bad news, to give up any hope of being able to influence outcomes, and to sit back and wait to survey the damage done. But that won’t be good enough for businesses who, firstly, need to know how and when they can resume trade and, secondly, will demand the reassurance that the place in which they trade has a long-term plan to first survive and then thrive.

At Ipswich Central, we will work tirelessly with our partners so that we can all provide a shared vision for the future, building upon the work undertaken in the last 5-years. Watch this space.

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