Your Town: Lowestoft - Rejuvenation, opportunities and hope abundant in coastal town
PUBLISHED: 06:00 22 February 2019 | UPDATED: 08:10 22 February 2019
As part of a new EDP project, we’re casting a close eye on life in our towns. Today, reporter Reece Hanson takes a look at the UK’s most easterly town: Lowestoft.
While mystery surrounds much of the country’s post-Brexit future, one coastal town appears to be relishing the opportunities it will bring.
Although a “shadow of itself”, there is plenty of hope the once-booming fishing industry which put Lowestoft on the map decades ago can do so again with vigour.
Such was the dominance of the industry at its peak, the town became firmly established as the fishing capital of the country.
June Mummery, managing director of fish market auctioneers BFP Eastern, has previously hailed Britain’s departure from the EU as the “renaissance” of the East Anglian fishing industry, a view she continues to hold ahead of the “massive, exciting opportunity.”
She said: “With Brexit, Lowestoft has a chance to rejuvenate and the best chance we have for that is through fishing. It is about potential and this will save our coastal communities.
“Lowestoft is my town and once fishing comes back we can start employing people and that is the key. That money will stay in the town, not over the water.
“Brexit will be the best thing to happen for coastal communities. I look at it as a massive, exciting opportunity.”
She hopes a new dawn of the industry would herald a transformation of the town, both on land and out at sea.
Mrs Mummery, who also serves as vice-chairman of the Lowestoft Fish Market Alliance (LFMA), added: “One job on sea means several on the land, from marketing and selling the fish to building boats and nets.”
Waveney MP Peter Aldous, who has successfully fought alongside the LFMA to ban electric pulse fishing from EU vessels post-Brexit, has vowed to make sure the town is best placed to take advantage of any opportunities.
He said: “The town’s fishing industry is something that has taken up a lot of my time. There is an opportunity for the industry to play an important role in the revival of the economy of Lowestoft, bringing more jobs back to the area.
“Fishing can play an important role in giving Lowestoft back an industry. It is what the town is known for.
“With Brexit and leaving the EU, we are retaking control of our waters and that provides the opportunity to plan more fishing in Lowestoft.”
Another crucial area for many residents in the town is the potential third crossing over Lake Lothing, with 68.5pc of readers taking part in our survey saying they viewed the development as important.
Mr Aldous, along with council leaders from Lowestoft Town, Waveney District and Suffolk County, have all backed the project, with a three month examination period continuing by the Planning Inspectorate until June. A decision is likely to be known in December 2019.
Should the job market boom come to fruition, it would be a relief to many in the town. The survey found 75.7pc of readers were concerned about unemployment in Lowestoft, while 63.4pc were concerned about homelessness in the town.
The two, however, are not linked, according to the chief executive of a service battling to keep people off the streets this winter.
Emma Ratzer, of Access Community Trust, has helped oversee the Waveney-wide Thin Ice Project, which began on November 1, amid concerns
for those without a home in the bitter conditions.
She said: “The long term problem is those entrenched in drug or alcohol misuse who can be difficult to accommodate or won’t engage for whatever reason, and we have a hardcore number of them in Lowestoft.”
The future for Lowestoft’s tourism sector remains positive, town leaders said.
Peter Aldous, Waveney MP, believes the town’s tourist trade will be boosted by the success of the local industries, labelling the ongoing off-shore wind farm developments as an “important statement.”
East Anglia ONE is two collections of turbines starting in the north off the coast of Lowestoft and stretching down beyond Southwold, marking a £25 million investment in the Port of Lowestoft.
Mr Aldous said: “There are definitely understated assets here with the fishing and the wind farm, and it can all help bring people to the town.
“I think there is plenty to be positive about, and there are significant projects ongoing, like the windfarm and the engineering facility at East Coast College, and they are important statements about Lowestoft.
“We must make sure we are in the best place to take this opportunity.”
When surveyed, many readers said their favourite part of Lowestoft was the beaches.
While the Thin Ice Project has remained consistently busy throughout the winter, Mrs Ratzer believes the town’s homeless problem is not as bad as many similarly-sized towns.
The project, which brings together Access Community Trust, Lowestoft Rising, Waveney District Council’s housing team and Lowestoft Foodbank, provides a night shelter until February 28, although will return if temperatures drop again.
So far it has provided 226 bed spaces between January 1 and February 12, while a similar number of beds were allocated between the launch of the project and the end of December.
Mrs Ratzer said: “The project has been very good at getting people off the streets, and most of those people have now moved on into supported accommodation.
“People do get anxious when they see someone who is homeless and worry that there is not something going on, but this year we wanted to make a big deal about what we do so people know.
“Homelessness is slowly creeping up but we have a really good response to it in this town.”
Walking through Lowestoft’s town centre may not be the same experience it was a decade ago, but that isn’t a bad thing, according to those leading the fightback of the high street.
While the departures of familiar facades has left some concerned about Lowestoft becoming a “ghost town”, the empty shops provide an opportunity in the eyes of Lowestoft Vision.
The Business Improvement District group have been working in partnership with Lowestoft Town Council to make the town more accessible, appealing, attractive and secure.
Dan Poitras, chairman, said: “At the minute there are plenty of projects in the works that hopefully will happen over the next year to make the town centre more of a destination in a cultural and artistic sense.
“Shops closing down is a concern but we have to look at it as an opportunity to bring in new venues and new facilities.”
With some big name chains leaving the town in recent years, it has proved the independent businesses and shops which have thrived in tough conditions.
Deputy mayor Peter Knight, who owns High Street Haberdashery, said: “The town centre has been through a lot of changes with some businesses closing and others opening, but it is adapting.
“There absolutely are reasons to be optimistic. The internet has come in and changed the way people spend their money, but you can’t get a personal trainer or hot coffee there because the postal workers will spill it.
“If the town centre was the same as it was 100 years ago it wouldn’t survive.”
Councillor Knight’s comments were echoed by Danny Steel, owner of commercial property consultants Steel and Co.
He said: “Every town centre in the country is going through changing times with so many of us buying online and that isn’t going to stop.
“We need to manage that change as it moves into more of a focus on the night time economy and specialist traders.
“Take the guitar shop on
High Street as an example of an expert in their field and people come from all over the area to visit. That is the kind of shop I think will flourish moving forward.
“Central government has recognised the struggles and there are some quite large grants around which Lowestoft Vision and the town and district councils are working on to make sure we get our fair share.”
On Facebook, several readers raised concerns and suggestions for improving the footfall in the town centre.
Paul Baxter said: “First thing, make all car parks free and get people back shopping in town again. I drive through the town six times a week. If it was free parking for the first hour I would stop off five or six times a week for a paper and a cup of coffee and who knows what else I may see in the shops.”
Kerry Lee said: “It looks very unsightly when you go into the town centre. It needs money spent on how it looks and we need more ‘proper’ permanent shops, and police patrolling the town especially to deter the drug users.”
In a survey carried out by this newspaper, 81.2pc of readers said the empty and closing shops in Lowestoft’s town centre were an issue, and when asked about their least favourite part of the town, 138 of the 236 who took part said the town centre.
Many readers also called for a regeneration of the town centre, with some labelling it as a “ghost town”, when asked what they would like to see change, including making car parks free to welcome visitors.
A trio of London Road North stores have announced plans to close their current stores in Lowestoft already this year.
Claire’s left the high street after the expiration of their lease on February 2, while The Body Shop is set to close on March 9.
Beales also announced their branch in the town is to close by the end of April, although no jobs will be lost after bosses reaffirmed their commitment to the town. The store will instead be based at Palmers, which became part of the Beales group in November.
It is not just shops which have been forced to close, however.
RopeWorks in Battery Green Road closed its doors for the final time at the end of January, citing parking woes, competition from national chains and poor management behind the decision, which came after less than two years.
Other stores have remained empty for months.
Tuttles Corner closed in October, while the former Poundstretchers store at the corner of Milton Road East and London Road North closed after being relocated to the former QD Stores building in October 2016.
The same year saw Argos and BHS leave their Lowestoft branches, although the latter was filled by B&M.
The town’s post office on London Road North also closed last year, with the council since buying the building to boost regeneration.
The prospect of the return of Lowestoft’s market is one which has received backing in an effort to restore footfall and local spending.
Stall holders at the town’s outdoor market at the Britten Centre were evicted at the end of 2016 amid plans to refurbish the site.
June Mummery, of fish market auctioneers BFP Eastern, said: “Every town has a market and we need to bring ours back.
“Lets make it free for a year for people to open stalls and just ask for a contribution to clean up at the end of the day.
“We have lost something and we need to claw it back. You can be surprised at what markets can have, and Bungay has a great one.
“If we don’t use what we have we will lose it. It upsets me seeing places going to rack and ruin.”
The town was awash with colour in August last summer as the Continental Street Market set up shop to popular reviews. Although one of a number of stops on
the global schedule for organisers RR Events, the taste left a lasting impression.
More than a third of crimes in Lowestoft in 2018 were violence or sexual offences, Suffolk Police figures show, although crime levels dropped from those the year before.
A total of 3,054 reported crimes were categorised as violent or sexual, more than double the second highest category of anti-social behaviour (1,379).
Other common offences include criminal damage and arson, with 1,029 reports, shoplifting and thefts, with 858 reports, and public order offences, with 709 reports.
Throughout 2018, Suffolk Police recorded 8,216 offences, which marked an 8pc drop in crime from 2017, where 8,955 offences were reported.
Superintendent Paul Sharp said: “We need to be able to deal with what is the traditional, public crime types, like assaults and burglaries, but we need to balance that against being in a position to tackle hidden types of crime, such as domestic abuse and online offences.
“We need to make sure we have got the right elements in place to provide an effective response and to prevent people becoming victims of crime in the first place.”
A number of readers have also had their say on life in Lowestoft, with many believing the town had better attributes than others in the county and beyond.
Gary Bennett said: “Personally I love it here. My business boomed and my charity work is awesome. My children all did well at school and beyond. There is good and bad everywhere.”
Ian Rigg Peterson said: “I’ve lived here 15 years after we were priced out of Norfolk and desperately needed a three bedroom house after our second child was born. We all love being here. We love the beach and the surrounding area and we love being in Suffolk.
“My wife and I are Londoners and we wouldn’t want to go back with the stabbings and gang violence.”
Lee Marshall Pounds said: “Me and my partner moved here from London five years ago and I can tell you know I’d never go back to London.”
Other readers called for improvements to be made in the town.
Jennie Seaman said: “More help and support is needed for mental health in our area for young and old.”
Lesley Jervis said: “We need to go back 45 years when our town was alive and great. Great High Street with so many shops to visit and so much going on up and around the beach. Now it’s just dead and boring. I’m so glad I have the memories of when it was great.”
Sue Bendall said: “We moved here 10 years ago and we love it. I think it could be good if we had cheaper parking and a decent indoor market every day.
“We have the beach, the broads and Beccles and Norwich is within reach to go to.
“It would look so much better if they kept up the flowers all up the town and try to have events up the main town area as it seems to draw a lot of people up there when something is on.”
Lowestoft’s last local authority-maintained secondary school is preparing to become an academy this summer, with hope the four academies will continue to improve standards.
Pakefield High School was inspected by Ofsted in May 2018, although has recently sought approval from the Department for Education to join the Clarion Academy Trust in April.
The school, which opened in 2011, was rated as requiring improvement by inspectors following the last visit, but in January, trust chief executive praised the work of the staff for rising standards across all areas of the school.
The school will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of East Point Academy, who improved on its requires improvement rating in March 2015 to be classed as good in November 2016.
Ormiston Denes Academy was also rated as requiring improvement during a full inspection in June 2017, but a monitoring inspection in July 2018 praised the staff and trust for taking “effective action” to tackle the areas identified.
The town’s fourth secondary school, the Benjamin Britten Academy of Music and Mathematics, is yet to be rated by Ofsted after opening in 2016 following the closure of the Benjamin Britten High School.
Our view: From Lowestoft’s chief reporter Reece Hanson
Our towns and villages face more challenges than ever before, and it can be easy to be critical amid the uncertainty of what lies ahead and what has gone before.
But for all of the doom and gloom, there is also plenty of optimism and hope in abundance.
It can be easy for those in Lowestoft to sometimes feel forgotten, belittled or ignored, especially with several shops and business closing already this year, and major projects like the third crossing over Lake Lothing continuing to take time.
But to say that is the main feeling in the town would be unfair.
Lowestoft’s residents and businesses owners back themselves, and rightly so.
It’s true the town isn’t the bustling hub it once was, but those involved in turning it around believe we can take advantage of whatever opportunities come our way.
No one knows what the future will bring but, in the meantime, let’s be positive and share in the hopeful enthusiasm that is so abundant.
What do you think is good about the town? And what would improve Lowestoft? Email us your views to firstname.lastname@example.org.