Ipswich - Connectivity and skills will drive future growth
Ipswich is the county town of Suffolk. It is the main employment, administrative, education, recreational, leisure, retail, arts and cultural centre for the county.
The resident population of the town is just 136,000, although the wider urban area exceeds the boundary of the local authority into surrounding districts increasing the population to over 157,000. However, there are approximately 372,000 living within the Ipswich travel to work area. This covers over half the county and includes Felixstowe, the UK’s largest container port, 10 miles from Ipswich.
Figure 1: Travel to work areas in Suffolk
Source: ONS, 2016
Ipswich is the centre of economic activity and employment for surrounding settlements supporting over 80,000 employees, with a combined GVA exceeding £4bn. The town has a strong connection to farming and agricultural manufacturing and is still a functioning port, handling several million tonnes of cargo each year including the largest exports of grain in the UK. However, its largest employers are now in the insurance sector (including AXA and Aon) and BT’s international research base at Adastral Park, with a workforce of over 4,000.
New business formation in Ipswich is just above the national average, although business density (the total number of businesses per 10,000 population) is lagging. However, private sector jobs in knowledge intensive business services make up 15% of all employment sectors, above the national average (14%) and this is reflected in higher productivity (£35.8 GVA per hour) and higher patent applications which are about 18 per 100,000 population, above the national average (11).
Additionally, there are a number of sectors with the potential for future growth including: tourism and hospitality, arts and culture, green energy, ICT and creative industries, and logistics. Ipswich is well placed to become an attractive place to new businesses and workers, connecting centres of research and development with finance and trade.
Quality of life and affordability
Ipswich is one of England’s oldest towns with hundreds of listed buildings many of which are concentrated in the town centre. The quality of the built and natural environment provides the basis for an excellent quality of life. Further, house prices are below the national average and considerably more affordable than many other places in London and the Greater Southeast. However, with a house price to earnings ratio of 9 times greater than the average annual wage, many are still unable to get on the property ladder. Plans to build a further 10,500 new homes by 2027 will help to address this problem while attracting inward migration and investment.
Challenges and opportunities
1. Town centre
For Ipswich to prosper and grow it needs a successful town centre. This means rethinking the meaning and shape of the ‘town centre’ first articulated through the work of the Ipswich Vision Board.
The ambition is to develop the town centre around five distinct districts and better connect the historic town centre to the north and dynamic, new Waterfront to build a unique ‘East Anglia Waterfront Town’.
Providing high quality commercial, and importantly residential property, in the heart of the town will help cluster economic activity and deliver environmental benefits. Population and economic growth will be achieved through the development of the town centre as a compact, liveable and walkable place rather than through urban sprawl. The concept of the ‘15-Minute City’ is a guiding principle for this model. It prioritises centrality, density, beauty and accessibility. It impacts positively upon the local environment, increases provision, helps to make places healthier and adds to their overall appeal.
It can also power local economies, creating greater vibrancy and increased use of shops, bars, cafes, theatres, cinemas, libraries, medical provisions, parks, open spaces and so on. To achieve this, the Ipswich Vision prioritises a town centre developing around the needs of people living and working there and those who want to visit.
2. Skills and employment
The unemployment claimant count is higher in Ipswich (4.9%) than the East of England (3.1%) and the UK (3.9%). However, economic activity and employment rates are both higher than the regional and national average.
Ipswich has a relatively lower skilled population, compared to the region and nationally. The proportion of pupils achieving 9-4 grades in Maths and English at GCSE (66.4%) is below the national average (72.2%) and most other urban areas in the UK, while the working age population with high level qualifications (NVQ4 and above) is low (37%) compared with the East (39.5%) and nationally (43.5%).
Low skills are contributing to a relatively low waged economy, with earnings below the regional and national average, although a comparison of resident earnings (£555.2) and workplace earnings (£556.6) does not suggest significantly higher wages benefiting those travelling into the town for work.
Ipswich is also a ‘cold spot’ for participation in higher education. The University of Suffolk, which opened in 2007, will help to improve this picture over time. By widening participation and attracting a diverse student population from non-traditional backgrounds it can both redress skill gaps and shortages in the local workforce, to meet current and future needs, as well as improve social mobility in the area. But there are clearly deeper entrenched problems with educational attainment in schools which will need urgent attention.
3. Transport and connectivity
Ipswich is well connected by road (A12/A14) and mainline rail, to London, Norwich, Cambridge and Stanstead airport, which in addition to Felixstowe, provides a gateway to Europe and beyond. The town is also relatively well connected in terms of broadband infrastructure, ranking 14th among all urban areas in the UK. There is, however, a need to improve public transport - a daily net inflow of 7,700 employees into Ipswich is placing increasing strain on travel routes as well as net-zero objectives - and to ensure high quality, superfast, broadband provision.
An integrated and modern transportation system, connecting the town centre and the waterfront, significant areas of interest, business and recreation within Ipswich, as well as rapid and reliable connections to wider towns and villages in the travel to work area are needed. Upgrading the rail link between Felixstowe to Nuneaton, will allow Felixstowe to continue its expansion, and reduce the volume of additional road freight on the A14, as well as bringing increased opportunities for Ipswich based business. In addition, Ipswich rail station will benefit from the council’s ‘Transport Fit for the 21st Century’ scheme including upgrades to bus services which will improve the station’s appeal and encourage more people to switch to using public transport. An additional crossing of the river Orwell would also have the potential to ease congestion and allow a more efficient flow of traffic from east to west.
Considerable funding is required to deliver these schemes alongside investment and development for overall improvements to the A12 (Southbound towards London and northbound towards Lowestoft) and the A14 towards Cambridge. In addition, significant upgrades to the A12/A14 ‘Interchange’ of East Anglia’s two busiest highways, is urgently needed. These are major infrastructure developments which a ‘County Deal’ should take forward.
Ipswich must further capitalise on the benefits that its location offers and improve both the prosperity and prospects of its population, offering new and varied opportunities to those who study, work and visit alongside those who call it home.