Ipswich expanded town: missed opportunity or lucky escape?
Residents of Suffolk might lament the influx of Londoners as house prices in the Southeast push the London commuter bubble well into East Anglia. But in 1966 Shankland, Cox and Associates (SC&A) were commissioned by Harold Wilson’s government to plan an expansion of Ipswich to accommodate at least an additional 70,000 Londoners. The plan never came to fruition, as other New Towns were built instead. Two elements of the Ipswich expansion debate have left legacy of traffic congestion on Ipswich today – a hot topic of conversation in the town. The first was the advise, by at least two independent consultants to develop to the West was not followed through. The second was an assumption that the road network within Ipswich would be upgraded whichever side of Ipswich was developed. What actually happened was incremental expansion in most directions, but especially to the East and no new road provision into the town centre.
New and Expanded Towns
The New Towns 1946 had 14 new settlements under construction accorss the county by 1950. This towns, mostly designed to accommodate dispaced Londoners and Glasweigians, were modelled on the early 20th century gardens cities at Letchworth and Welwyn. These incuded the likes of Basildon, Crawley and Hemel Hempstead. In the late 60’s a second wave sprung including the new city at Bletchley, which became Milton Keynes. In 1968 the Act was revitalised, with a view to significantly expanding existing towns Peterborough, Northampton, Warrington, Central Lancashire (essentailly filling the gap between Preston and Leyland). Ipswich, joined that list and plans were drawn up to double the size of the town. The rationale was twofold: accommodate tens of thousands of Londoners in healthier environments, and breathe life into rural regions, where agricultural mechanisation had stagnated growth.
For Ipswich, accommodating 100000 new citizens would need major new urban districts. Following contemporary principles of urban design that such districts would need to have their own shopping and service centres, with the existing town centre elevated to status of the distinct centre.
Which side to develop?
The report argues early on that progressive concentric growth for Ipswich was possible but not desirable. Such growth would be difficult to provide services for and put pressure on transport networks, while limiting the ability to add capacity in the future. Taking their cue from such luminaries as Soriya y Mata and Ebeneezer Howard, the architects proposed two or more garden suburbs housing 50,000 or more.
The sites for major new clusters are to the Southwest (Belstead), Northwest corridor towards Stowmarket. Martlesham Heath, was preferred to be retained for recreational purposes, while the Felixstowe corridor is rejected as it would require a new road (at the time the port of Felixstowe couldn’t justify the bypass of Ipswich – containerisation later transformed Felixstowe to a nationally strategic gateway handling 42% of the UK’s containers).
A key argument emerged about agricultural land: the Martlesahm side has sandier soils less agriculturally productive. The North of Ipswich, which has remained undeveloped to this day, possesses deep clay loams ideally suited to arable farming.
Availability of transport, power supply and drainage networks favoured the southwest and northwest corridors. An earlier report (called the Vincent report which I’m yet to track down) commended Martlesham and a large corridor filling the entire peninsula between Ipswich and Felixstowe.
There was consensus that the attractive town centres of Woodbridge and Hadleigh had to be protected, and this is certainly justified the remarkable concentration of medieval buildings in these towns. There was less compassion for Ipswih and Stowmarket which boast even more of these ancient buildings, but had perhaps developed too much strategic industry. Nevertheless S&C ruled out any urban motorway between Christchurch Park and the Wet Dock, to protect the coherent value of the town. Ipswich got lucky here: many cities in the UK are blighted to this day by the severence and congestion brought on by urban motorways: most famously Birmingham (which is now in the process of removing its inner “concrete collar”). Road capacity might have been sensible at the time, but the severance created by poorly planned urban motorways was not.
Transport constraints and solutions
Transport appeared top of S&C’s concerns:
“the efficient performance of these functions is hampered by a number of defects of Ipswich today – above all, traffic congestion.”
The recent developments and Whitton and Chantry were exacerbating cross town congestion – neither development entailed more transport capacity. Meanwhile the central medieval street pattern did not provide wide streets for new mixed traffic.
The architects made an early recommendation for town centre pedestrianisation, which was later followed through to great success. It was rightly stated that no busy road should run between the town centre and the river, and this was substantiated with a proposed major distributor road to the south of the Wet Dock. The latter route wasn’t delivered as planned, resulting in inadequate cross-towns culminating in a southern boundary gyrator y, which has caused severance ever since, whilst failing to provide adequate capacity. The gyratory, in its current form stymises attempts to join the excellent Waterfront district with the medievel core.
Although a railway loops though Ipswich, its circuitous route and the location of the central station some distance from commercial centre gives it limited appeal as a commuter route. Its line of route is constrained by geography, as the Felixstowe branch enters Ipswich on a 100ft plateau, and a direct line into the town centre would have required an expensive unattractive line on a steep gradient. The loop means extended journey times from the suburban but densely populated Derby Road station environs. A connection from the branch lines to the town centre would be feasible along an existing route to the dock, but would just miss the main station preventing interchange with the main line. There is no readily available solution even if the funds did magically appear. S&C had no solution and this remains a challenge today.
Urban form and fabric
It may come as a relief that the modernist architecture common in the New Towns, never came to fruition in Ipswich. Nevertheless parts of the vision for offices in parkland between Grayfriars and station came later, including an ill-fated move of the market to the area now occupied by green space in front of the Grayfriars building (rechristened Ipswich1 in the noughties).
The report rightly describes how the Orwell valley encloses Ipswich Town centre within a green rim. It was proposed that this rim be assenuated with tower blocks.
A chapter is devoted to recreation. In an age before cheap flights to Europe a key policy concern was to ensure that there was enough recreational space. There is an emphasis on National Parks (of which there were none initially designated even close to East Anglia), but also coastal and open recreational space.
“Sports such as pony riding and polo may well increase in popularity” alongside golf would require the open space at Martlesham. The Gipping Vally was seen as an ideal location for a linear park featuring lakes and water features. The estuaries, Felixstowe Ferry and Languard Point are cited as much needed water areas.”
Interestingly Ipswich appeared to offer a greater range of services than either Cambridge or Norwich. Whilst today Ipswich undeniably has the greatest football team in East Anglia, its ranking for services has probably slipped.
Agricultural lobby and shifting policy kill the planned expansion
The agricultural lobby in Ipswich was particularly influential. The consultants also identified a need for recreational space in an age when as people got better off, were expected to take more holidays around the British countryside (no Easyjet back then).
This meant the consultants were sent back to their offices, on Silent Street in Ipswich, to evaluate the costs of agricultural land. Even though they double counted the agricultural land costs (they included purchase of the the land and the loss of agricultural output – only one is required hen we are calculating cost to society as a whole) they still found in favour of expansion to the West.
This conclusion was supported by Nathaniel Lichfield and Honor Chapman in 1969.
In the end the expansion of Ipswich was cancelled obsensibly because other towns were chosen, but possibly due to a more successful countryside lobby.
In any case Peterborough, Northampton, Warrington and Central Lancashire were expanded. Ipswich was left to grow incrementally without any major transport investment until the Orwell Bridge and A45 bypass came in the 1980’s (motivated by the staggering growth of the port of Felixstowe)
The Ipswich Transport legacy
Subsequent incremental expansion of Ipswich, principally to the East, came with little additional road capacity into the town centre Census travel to work data, excellently presented by the UCL spatial analysis team, shows the East is the largest flow into Ipswich Town centre.
Each dot in the analysis represents a similarly sized population area (MSOAs approximately 10000 people).
Meanwhile the roads into Ipswich remain narrow. Even supposedly arterial routes such as Woodbridge Road, Norwich Road and Felixstowe Roads are narrow. Only London Road washes its face as a properly dimensioned transport corridor. Too often congested roads double up as residential streets, which is undesirable for residents and ineffective for transport.
There have been valiant and innovative attempts to deal with the transport most most notably the Ipswich Guided Busway and Park and Rides, impressive cycle lanes in Kesgrave, and the bus lanes on Norwich Road. Ipswich retains an extensive municipal bus service with a modern fleet. But extended journey times affect busses as well as cars, undermining the attractiveness of public transport resulting in the vicious spiral of declining ridership. Longer distance busses are also being rationalised in the face of budgetary cuts in affecting local authorities across the UK.
Ipswich is now planning to expand to the North. Given the impossibility of road widening in the north of the town, a proper emphasis on bus rapid transit is essential. It is not longer justifiable to create new roadspace anyway, for a whole host of factors. Although the circuitous rail route isn;t favourable for commuting to the town centre, a new station or improve access to Westerfieeld station is essential. Abellio Greater Anglia must also deliver on their franchise obligation to run direct services from Westerfield to London. Inevitably the residents of the new development will make regular cross town trips to retail parks at Nacton or Whitton. Unfortunately this is a byproduct of the unsophisticated urban sprawl, which creates car dependency and smothers cities in pollution, inefficiency and poor health.
Did we dodge the new-town bullet?
The new and expanded towns have had mixed success, many suffering from high levels of deprivation and a legacy of poor design. That is not universally the case – Milton Keynes, which has vastly less historical anchoring than Ipswich, is a dynamic, growing and healthy city.
Its hard to say whether a larger Ipswich would have thrived, or whether the Belsetad suburb would come to look like car dependent and poorly accessible Castle Vale on the edge of Birmingham or the strangely defined new town of Central Lancashire. The success would have been in the design and the delivery: overly prescribed cities don’t work as Jane Jacobs wrote in 1962 and the Koreans are learning today in New Songdo.
So how has Ipswich fared on its subsequent path of incremental growth? Could more have been learnt from the S&C plans? Failing to provide enough transport infrastructure to accommodate growth was certainly an error – one repeated up and down the country. As Ipswich expands into the playing fields on its northern skirts how can we provide smart linkage into the local economy without strangling the town? There are several policy tools at our disposal. An incremant on the newly built properties to fund busses? A cycle hub and training? Ipswich is similar in size (although not in demographic) to Cambridge but has significantly lower cycling mode share. Ensuring that train station is fully developed is essential as mentioned earlier.
The planning of post-war Britain was visionary. It was often flawed, but many of its ideas and ideals are not without merit, and at least offer fascinating reading for city history buffs. Ipswich has remarkable historical assets, and hopefully, in due course its full potential will be realised.
COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS IN URBAN EXPANSION: A CASE STUDY, IPSWICH NATHANIEL LICHFIELD AND HONOR CHAPMAN
NEW TOWN AND TOWN EXPANSION SCHEMES Author(s): D. A. Bull Source: Ekistics, Vol. 25, No. 150, URBAN SYSTEMS AND URBAN FORM (MAY 1968), pp. 295-305 Published by: Athens Center of Ekistics Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43619164 Accessed: 02-02-2017 19:58 UTC