Gavin Maclure's Musings

My take on politics locally, nationally and internationally

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UPDATE: Ipswich Beacon Town Conference

As reported yesterday, the second Ipswich Beacon Town conference took place at the Corn Exchange on Friday with keynote speaker Sir Stuart Rose, former boss of Marks & Spencer.

Sir Stuart listed a number of ideas on how to improve the welcome to Ipswich and it’s town centre retail offering. First up was making the railway station more inviting and to erect clear signposts to the town centre from the station rather than visitors first being greeted by three lanes of traffic. He said: “The railway station would not be out of place in Siberia! It is a depressing station that you want to get out of – and there is nothing to say ‘Welcome to Ipswich.’ There is not even a sign to the town centre and when you get out you straight away have to dodge the traffic.”

However, he did praise the map-based monoliths implemented by the previous Conservative-led Borough Council which have popped up around and within the town centre.

Tatty: Ipswich Market

The retailing guru also reiterated what right-minded Tories and also a former Labour mayor have being saying for years: move that tatty market! The Cornhill is the last open space in Ipswich town centre (when the Del Boy market is not in town) and should be permanently liberated in the style of Exchange Square in Manchester, which was transformed into a continental-style piazza after the IRA bomb in 1996. Exchange Square also just happens to be outside the largest M&S in Europe…

As has been reported on Ipswich Spy, Michael Foot, aka Cllr David Ellesmere, went all starry-eyed in front of Sir Stuart and leapt up to say that moving the market was a great idea. Let’s see if he follows through now the conference has wound up. We don’t have to get rid of the market – well not the nice bread and olive stalls – but just move it up Lloyds Avenue, down Princes Street and Queen Street (which will be pedestrianised in the next year as part of the ‘Travel Ipswich’ project) or down the Buttermarket. But getting rid of it from the Cornhill and then transforming this space with tiered seatings and cafe style outdoor seating will do wonders for the town centre retail experience – we might actually get a tenant for the now-closed Clinton’s store.

We’re just fine: Cllr Carole Jones

Fellow bloggers and of course the Morning Ipswich Star seem to have conveniently forgotten something that happened at yesterday’s Beacon conference. My spy at the meeting tells me Michael Foot’s Labour party is still alive and well in Ipswich: cue Labour’s Economic Decline Development Borough portfolio holder. Once Sir Stuart had finished his speech explaining what was wrong in Ipswich and how it could be fixed, up popped Labour’s Cllr Carole Jones (and partner of council leader Michael Foot David Ellesmere) to say Ipswich “was fine” and Sir Stuart “just didn’t know it well enough”. My source tells me it was “embarrassing”.

So unlike Ipswich Spy, I won’t be dancing a jig to the bright new dawn just quite yet. Let’s remember Labour have form when it comes to the Council helping to kick start the economy. They moaned profusely about the Giles Circus development implemented by the former Conservative-led Council, which undoubtedly attracted Waitrose to Ipswich town centre. Are they really going to do one better and transform the Cornhill in the same way?
I hope so but I wouldn’t put money on it.


David Cameron quizzed on Ipswich

The Morning Evening Star had a meeting with David Cameron at their Lower Brook Street offices yesterday whilst the Prime Minister was in the region with his Cabinet.

The interview can be read in full here.

What always strikes me when David Cameron speaks in the provinces is how immaculately briefed he is. It also helps he has a memory like a sponge, as was witnessed in all its glory when he gave a “look, no notes” speech during the Conservative Party conference’s leadership contest in 2005 in Blackpool, which catapulted him to the finishing line and the rest, as they say, is history.

It was good to hear the Prime Minister talk about our dreadful railway line and rolling stock but it looks as if it is down to the rail operator who wins a new 15 year franchise to decide if it is worthwhile giving Ipswich commuters decent carriages and seats (it seems Government cannot force the monopoly operator to give us a decent service!). The East Anglian Daily Times editor, Terry Hunt, who was also present at the meeting with the PM, summed it up well when he said: “It is a deterrent to business growth at the moment. The line has a poor reputation. This town is just an hour from the city yet it can feel a lot longer.”  It certainly does!

I can’t help thinking that a lot of the problems we have in this town is a lack of confidence, not just the economic variety, but in local people as well. Ipswich has so much to offer but all you hear is moaning about the town. The town centre is not as bad as people make it out to be: there are new shops and there has been work done on Giles Circus which undoubtedly contributed to Waitrose choosing to set up shop in the Corn Exchange. And the Council officers have finally got round to launching the Town Centre Masterplan: the brainchild of the last Conservative-led Administration and the best effort so far to help integrate the Waterfront with the Town Centre.

Ipswich does have a problem with attracting businesses. So much so, that if BT pulled out of Martlesham, the impact on the town’s economy would be catastrophic. But why are businesses and employers not keen on Ipswich (even in the boom years!)? The mainline railway service certainly doesn’t help but that can’t be the only thing. When I chaired the Strategic Overview & Scrutiny Committee we did a piece of work scrutinising the effectiveness of the Economic Development department at Ipswich Borough Council. Three weaknesses stood out:-

1. A lack of political leadership required to drive the work of Ipswich Borough Council Officers but also sell Ipswich to potential investors. Cllr Richard Atkins was the Liberal Democrat Portfolio Holder for Economic Development at the time and he told my Committee he “steered” his department and did not “lead”.

2. An ill-thought out strategy by the Officers to sell Ipswich. Officers were quizzed by all three parties on the Committee, with Labour’s Cllr Martin Cook repeatedly asking what sales collateral (brochures, magazines etc) were being used to sell to businesses the benefits of locating to Ipswich. Time and time again there was no answer (most likely because there was no sales collateral). Civil servants by their very nature are lackadaisical but there was something fundamentally wrong with their responses to councillors’ scrutiny of their work. They just didn’t seem to get it.

3. Low educational attainment. Qualifications at NVQ Level 4 or above held by Ipswich residents aged between 19-59/64 years is 17%.  The regional percentage is 27.8% and the national (England only) percentage is 30.5%.  Businesses need skills and will only set-up shop where the skills exist. It’s up to local people to ensure they have the right skills to find work when they leave school. The opening of University Campus Suffolk is a great first step in helping to raise the skills bar in our town.

If local authorities do anything with our money, it should be helping to kick-start areas of the economy and then step back and let the private sector take over. This has been seen recently with the Giles Circus development and the way-finding maps around the town centre (both driven by Conservative councillors).

Today we need action more than ever and less talk from our politicians to get us out of the current economic gloom.


Economic Development takes a back seat at Labour run Council

Ipswich Borough Council held a full meeting of its Councillors last Wednesday. There was some disquiet as to why the meeting was being called at all and I note Paul Geater from the Morning Evening Star made a big thing of the cost in his Friday column (not online) last week.  However, I believe it is important all Councillors of the Borough present themselves in public on a monthly basis, especially as one of the main agenda items is Council Questions, where the Opposition Parties and members of the Public get a chance to hold the ruling Party to account by questioning Executive Councillors. It enhances democracy and considering the money wasted by Councils up and down the land, a monthly public meeting is good value for money.

There were eight questions on Wednesday, seven from Opposition councillors and one from a member of the public.  It is impressive to see the Conservative Group, who are by far the biggest Opposition political group (with the Lib Dems only having four councillors to their sixteen), looking organised with six questions being asked by the Shadow front bench including two from the Conservative Group Leader, Cllr John Carnall.

First up was Cllr Nadia Cenci, shadow portfolio holder for Fairer and Greener Ipswich and Safer Ipswich, who asked a question on the locality budgets policy which Labour reversed when they took office in May. If it had been implemented, it would have allocated £5,000 to each councillor to spend on community projects put forward by residents in their ward and has proven a very successful policy at Suffolk County Council and at other councils across the country.  Cllr Martin Cook, the Finance portfolio holder, replied that the money was still needed to save libraries, a service provided by the County Council and which were never going to be closed, despite the Labour Party’s propaganda in their leaflets at the last election (see here).  So it looks as if Labour are going to ensure your money is spent only where it will benefit them come next year’s election.

The next couple of questions were on the important subject of Economic Development. This portfolio is looked after by Labour’s Cllr Carole Jones. She was asked by the Conservative spokesman for Economic Development, Cllr Kym Stroet, what steps the Council had taken, in light of the retail chain T J Hughes entering administration, to save the jobs of workers at the store in Ipswich. Now, Ipswich Borough Council can’t actually do much in this scenario – as much as the Socialists would like, the Council can’t dictate to private businesses. Cllr Stroet should have perhaps alluded to this in his question to make it more credible. Nevertheless it was a good attempt for a new councillor and at least it gave us the pleasure of Cllr Jones floundering around for a few words to make it sound she cared many more jobs could be lost in our town.

Next the leader of the Conservative Group, Cllr John Carnall, stood up to pose another question to Cllr Jones. He asked if the Labour Party planned on honouring its pledge in its manifesto to “redouble efforts to bring new investment and jobs to Ipswich”. Instead of setting out ways in which the Labour Administration would assist in facilitating the development of private enterprise in the town, Cllr Jones blamed the lack of staff in her Economic Development department and that it was all the fault of the Tories. In his supplementary question, Cllr Carnall shot back that he had yet to see evidence the number of officers working in the Economic Development department directly related to the number of new businesses opening up in the town. Cllr Carnall then went on to ask if the Labour Executive were in support of  the new Tesco development – approved* by Planning Committee over a year ago – and the retailer’s commitment to inject £70 Million into Ipswich and to create 900 jobs?  Even mentioning the ‘evil’ word Tesco caused an uproar on the Labour benches and they proceeded to shout Cllr Carnall down saying the Tesco development was a matter for the Planning Committee and shouldn’t be raised at Full Council.  Of course, Labour do not wish to be reminded that at the Planning meeting they voted against Tesco’s application and the creation of 900 jobs in the middle of a recession.  This massive investment in Ipswich was only approved because of Conservative and Liberal Democrat votes.  Cllr Jones refused (not something she can do but there was not a peep from the Labour Mayor) to answer Cllr Carnall’s supplementary question, and instead said she would read out her prepared supplementary answer, which is difficult to do when you don’t know what the supplementary question will be in advance!  So we were treated to Cllr Jones waffling on about another pot of taxpayers money (aka Regional Growth Fund) they could waste. Perhaps they should take some new money from Tesco and not hard earned taxpayers but, of course, that’s not what Socialists do.

Cllr Carnall then had another question, this time to Cllr Martin Cook, on the total savings achieved by consultants contracted by the Council to find ways of cutting costs in the Borough.  Cllr Cook was forced to admit £6.4 Million savings had been found from a £4 Million investment in a consultancy firm.

Then Mrs Sally Wainman stepped up to ask a question on, you guessed it, Broomhill Lido.  Mrs Wainman asked what the Council meant by saying they would “pledge up to a million pounds” in its advert to potential Lido developers. Her question was directed to the portfolio holder for Culture, Cllr Bryony Rudkin.  This was a very dry question but Cllr Rudkin put a brave face on it and explained to Mrs Wainman that the wording was standard procurement language.  The next exchange was more interesting when Mrs Wainman was at pains to point out that lidos were back in fashion in the UK, especially in London. Cllr Rudkin begged to differ and pointed out when she went swimming in Plymouth’s lido, she was the only person there! And that London is a very different place to Ipswich (shock horror!). It seems Cllr Rudkin is not so keen on lidos.  This is promising news as whatever the merits of lidos, I don’t want a penny of my Council tax paid out to running one.  What on earth has a Council got to do with running a lido Mrs Wainman??!!

Now it was the Liberal Democrats’ turn.  Cllr Inga Lockington asked the Labour Council Leader, Cllr  David Ellsemere if the Council intended to honour the “promise” made in their leaflets to save all Ipswich Libraries?  Sometimes I wonder which side the Liberal Democrats are on, then again so do they!
Cllr Ellesmere was delighted once again to talk about “saving the libraries”.  This forced an interjection from Conservative Cllr Judy Terry, who is also the portfolio holder responsible for libraries on Suffolk County Council, to point out not a single library was ever earmarked to be closed.  A point cleverly lost on Labour during the election and it would seem even after the County officially announced no library would be closed (unhelpfully after the Borough election).

And then we came to the final question of the evening to Cllr Jones from (and at this point I declare an interest) my wife, Cllr Tanya Maclure, who asked what the Labour Administration’s plans were for the ‘Town Centre Masterplan’ created under the Conservative-led Council that had been due to go out to consultation in May, which happened to be the same time Labour took back power of the Borough…
Cllr Jones’ answered that Labour were still deciding if they agreed with the Masterplan for bringing jobs and growth to Ipswich and that they had also been asked by Ipswich Central – the town centre management company – to postpone the consultation until later this year, which they duly did. Instead of taking the reins of power, Labour have once again demonstrated their lack of leadership and vision for Ipswich (see here for more) and bowed to a body unaccountable to the people of Ipswich.
Cllr Maclure’s supplementary question cleverly caught the hapless Cllr Jones out. She pointed out that whilst the Council was dithering over the Planning Masterplan for the town, a developer had submitted a planning application for the Lower Brook site currently occupied by the Morning  Evening Star.  Should the Council not be ensuring effective development of the town centre rather than piecemeal development?
Cllr Jones spluttered there would be more than one development application coming along.
YES, that is why a Town Centre Masterplan is needed to allow a cohesive planning strategy for growth!

The final business of the evening was for the Council to agree to a “friendship agreement” between Ipswich and Nettuno in Italy.  There are religious links between the two towns through the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace at St Mary at the Elms Church. There have been pilgrimages from Nettuno to Ipswich to visit the Shrine.
A number of councillors spoke to offer their support for the civic “friendship agreement”.  Cllr David Goldsmith informed us that Nettuno would like to sell their wine in Ipswich.  I bet they would but what is the Council doing to help Ipswich sell our wares in Nettuno?  Cllr Richard Atkins from the Liberal Democrats spoke in his usual philosophical style, saying Nettuno had smiled at us and therefore we should smile back: all very cuddly Liberal!  Cllr Carnall and Cllr Maclure made good points that the benefits to Ipswich needed to be measured, to assess the value of the “friendship agreement” and that it can’t just be seen as a councillor junket.  These ties between communities in different countries are important but it is also important that whilst “social capital” is beneficial to the soul it doesn’t pay the bills and therefore “economic capital” needs to be garnered from all these forms of activity – have we any wine we can sell the good people of Nettuno?

*The new Tesco development is currently being held up in the Courts as a rival developer has asked for a Judicial Review of the Council’s planning approval decision.