Our town centres are in crisis – Paul Clement, Chief Executive

25 March 2019

In a recent interview with the Ipswich Star, I said what many have known – but others have ignored – for too long – “most town centres are in crisis”.

Furthermore, I admitted that Ipswich is not sheltered from the storm; it is right in the eye of it, and we have the same choice that every town centre has which is to either to grab the wheel and carefully steer our way to safety or stand on deck and hope that a rescue boat will save us before we hit the iceberg.

Before we give up and throw ourselves overboard, let me clarify; it is the retail sector that is in crisis and not the meaning or relevance of town centres per se. Across the UK 14 shops are closing every day and this number is relatively evenly balanced between large chains and smaller independents. Many other retailers are entering Company Voluntary Arrangements (mCVAs) to free them from debt and historic liabilities. Lower rents and heightened vacancies make it impossible for landlords to release cash to invest and so the problem gets worse. The antiquated system of business rates doesn’t help.

It is the perfect storm and it is not over yet. Indeed, as retailers face rent demands in March – which coincides with the end of the traditionally toughest quarter of the year – I predict that we will see more store closures, CVAs and names that disappear forever from our high streets.

In Ipswich, we must face up to the harsh reality. We have far too many shop units, many of which are beyond their useful life. We need to bring forward alternative uses for areas like Carr Street, Westgate Street and Blackfriars; likewise for statement buildings such as the old Post Office, and the former BHS and Grimwades stores. We need to concentrate retail in the very core and completely rethink the surround.

The definition of a crisis is “something that can threaten all of society or communities within it”. The potential structural failure of UK town centres risks ripping out the very heart from local communities. This is, indeed, a crisis.

My message to colleagues in Ipswich is, therefore, simple – the solution to the current crisis is not to wait for a future market upturn. Firstly, it won’t happen and, secondly, we will never be forgiven if we sit and wait for it. It is our problem and we need to deal with it by intervening and accelerating the pace change through a bold and updated Ipswich Vision plan.