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BHS crisis could leave a big hole in Ipswich town centre

PUBLISHED: 10:00 28 April 2016

BHS has a significant presence in Ipswich town centre. This is the Arras Square entrance to the shop.

BHS has a significant presence in Ipswich town centre. This is the Arras Square entrance to the shop.

The sad news about the apparent likely demise of BHS is being touted by many as another example of a much-loved high street name failing to adapt with the times.

Two Ipswich MPs on opposite sides of the NHS crisis

The two MPs for Ipswich, Ben Gummer and Dr Dan Poulter, seem to agree on most things politically (as you’d expect from two members of the same party).

They’re both in favour of staying in the EU, they both supported changes to social policies like gay marriage that upset some more traditional members of their party, and they are both what might have been called in earlier years “Tory wets”.

But on the current NHS junior doctors’ strike they seem to be poles apart.

And what adds to the spice is that Mr Gummer is the junior minister at the Department of Health doing a similar job to that which Dr Poulter did before he left the government last May.

Mr Gummer wrote an article which was published earlier this week explaining the government’s position exactly. Dr Poulter has signed an all-party letter urging the government to introduce its controversial contract only after having trialled it first.

I know neither feels this is a personal spat. It is simply a question that they see a different emphasis on the dispute and how to best solve it satisfactorily.

Neither has discussed the other’s position with me and I’m sure they see this as a policy issue.

But I can’t help wondering what each feels in private – after all no-one wants to be at loggerheads with their neighbours!

And it has also enabled many analysts to look back at its recent past and the actions of its past and current owners – however I suspect none of this looking back will do much to ease the concerns of those working at the stores across the country.

So far as Ipswich is concerned, a closure would leave a huge gap in the town centre and lead to more pain for retail staff in the town.

Over recent years we’ve seen the departure of Littlewoods, Grimwades, Woolworths, Allders, TJ Hughes, and the Co-op Department Store just a year or so after it was sold to new owners.

Most recently we saw the departure of Next and Gap from the town centre – although in those cases the companies are, of course, trading elsewhere.

There seems to be a general view in the world of retail that BHS is unlikely to be saved, at least in its present form.

Which leaves a massive question mark over the largest single unit on Ipswich’s Butter Market street. This is a unit that is part of the Buttermarket Centre that was specifically created for BHS about 20 years ago.

Ipswich has one of the largest BHS sites in the country.

What now remains to be seen is whether anyone else is keen to take on what is a modern (well 1990s) unit that was designed to be customer-friendly.

We are forever hearing that major national chains are queuing up to come to Ipswich but cannot find any “big box” units that are suitable for them.

We were told that was the reason Next, one of the most successful national retailers, walked away from Ipswich town centre last year. I’ve been told they are very keen to return if they can find the right place.

Well, it looks like there’s likely to be a very large “big box” unit available in the not too distant future.

It isn’t listed so there shouldn’t be any problem in making it fit the company’s specification.

Mind you, I’m not convinced that the existence of a “big box” store is the be-all and end-all of retailers’ plans – if it were, why on earth did it take so long to sort out the former Littlewoods’ store in Tower Ramparts?

So I do have worries about the future of the BHS unit in Ipswich. And from a personal point of view, I’m very sorry to hear of the company’s problems.

I’ve heard a lot of people saying they were used to having a BHS on the high street, but never used it. Well, my family has used it over the years and I’ve been in this week to get one or two items of clothing that I like.

My mother always stocked up on Prova biscuits before they gave up selling food years ago – and more recently younger members of my family loved the Flipback teenage range for many years. I shall be very sorry if the company disappears.

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