David Ruffley speaks in the House of Commons on Bury St Edmunds development

Thursday, 28 October, 2010

In a Westminster Hall debate on the economic development of historic towns and cities, David Ruffley MP applauded the new £136m retail development, the arc, which has provided over 300 jobs for his constituents and the surrounding area.

As well as employment, the arc has attracted thousands from around the region to flock to Bury St Edmunds to appreciate its historic beauty and the innumerable independent and locally owned businesses that grace the town. 'Although modern' Mr Ruffley said that the arc was 'architecturally in tune and in sympathy with the great historic core of my town.'

The full text of the speech is set down below:

Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): This has been a good-natured debate, but I am afraid that I am going to introduce an element of controversy: I yield to no one in my belief that Bury St Edmunds, which I have the honour to represent, is the best historic town in these isles. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) on securing this important debate.

My constituency is truly historic. Its famous abbey ruins were central to the initiation of Magna Carta, and St Edmund, the patron saint of England, is buried there. It has a terrific cathedral whose tower was recently finished using millennium money. That is the true ship of the fens; forget about Ely cathedral. The town centre has magnificent Georgian streets and a marvellously restored Georgian theatre, the Theatre Royal. An important and traditional brewing business, Greene King, now one of the biggest brewers in western Europe, is located right in the centre of town, providing jobs and a focal point for community activity.

As many speakers in this debate have said, however, historic towns cannot stand still. If they are imaginative and have intelligent leadership, they must combine the best of the past and the future. For that reason, I wish to draw attention to the biggest retail development that Bury St Edmunds has ever seen: the Arc development, built on the old cattle market in the town centre. I pay tribute to St Edmundsbury borough council, under the excellent leadership of Councillor John Griffiths and his deputy, Councillor Sara Mildmay-White, for being an example of localism at its best. Such an important development would not have occurred without their vision and practical ability to drive it through.

Importantly to me and many of my constituents, the development, although modern, is architecturally in tune and in sympathy with the great historic core of my town. It was designed by Sir Michael Hopkins, whom architecture buffs will know as the architect behind Portcullis House and the auditorium at Glyndebourne. Anyone who looks at the design-thousands upon thousands of people from across East Anglia shop there, particularly at weekends-can appreciate what a fine piece of work it is.

The Arc has 370,000 square feet of retail, a 40,000 square foot public building-I will speak more about that in a minute-and 62 residential units. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) drew attention to the importance of car parking. That was a controversial issue during the development, but the Arc has 850 car parking spaces, including a particularly fine and distinguished underground parking facility.

The total cost of the scheme was approximately £136 million. The developers, Centros, assembled much of the finance, but St Edmundsbury borough council ensured that money was stumped up for the public venue, which cost about £16.5 million, including a modest contribution of about £1.5 million from the East of England Development Agency, which will soon be late and lamented, as it did its bit for my town while it existed.

The economic rationale for the development was clear. Several years ago, the town leaders-I played a modest part-understood that a new and more acquisitive society had been created by the boom years. Sadly, the boom years turned to a bust, but they will return under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. People want better retail and more of it. We realised that unless we moved with the times, Bury St Edmunds might keep its history, but it would not keep its retail sector running at the level necessary for the market town to remain vibrant.

We commissioned a study that showed that people in the Bury St Edmunds catchment area were spending about £700 million on what is called in the jargon 'comparison goods'. The analysis stated that without the new development, the amount spent in the town would be only £263 million. In short, we were competing with the much bigger retail centres of Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich and Colchester. We are now back in the game. Some of the early benefits and signs of the Arc's importance can be seen in the figures produced by Experian, the financial analysts, for Bury St Edmunds since the opening of the development at the start of 2009.

Bury St Edmunds has moved from 161st in the country's retail rankings to 145th. Some 300 new long-term jobs have been created on the site, and an unquantifiable but significant number of additional jobs have been created as a result of the development. Nine companies based in and around the town were involved in the building, which also boasts a timber-frame aspect and waste disposal facilities, all drawing on local business.

The main indicator of footfall in Bury St Edmunds is car parking. The number of cars parked in the town has risen by 8%, while centres in other parts of East Anglia have experienced a typical decrease of about 10% in the past two years. It is estimated that the development generates £500,000 a year in business rates. Not all the units have been let, so we expect that number to grow. The commercial property vacancy rate since the development opened has been about 8.5% , while the average throughout England and Wales at the start of 2010 was 12.4%.

Meanwhile-other hon. Members may have noted this phenomenon with regard to new developments in their constituency-outside businesses have come in to get a bit of the action. Where such businesses see more footfall, they see an opportunity to grow. Existing and long-established shops in Bury St Edmunds, such as Palmers, were initially concerned that they might be crowded out or that the new development might take away their custom. In fact, I am told, Palmers reports increased turnover since the Arc opened.

One significant entry into the town has been a high-quality, brand-new, badly needed Asda superstore west of Bury St Edmunds town centre, where it now serves a huge part of the population that felt disenfranchised in retail terms. That is one development for which the borough council cannot claim credit; it is all down to the doughty campaigners of the Howard estate, their unofficial leader Mr Ernie Broom and the redoubtable men and women, mainly pensioners, of the over-60s club on that fine estate. If I may be party political for a moment, they are an example of the big society in action. They assembled public meetings and persuaded Asda that a shop was needed there. We got the shop, and it has been a huge success. That ties in with the redevelopment of Western Way, where the borough council has moved its offices to a modern site.

I hope my few brief remarks have reflected what other colleagues have also said this morning: that history can, indeed, be combined with the best of the future. If towns have good leadership and individuals who want to participate to build a stronger community-a stronger business community-that will welcome tourists and shoppers from outside the area, there is a way forward. It is not always big Government who can make big developments happen. Like so many other historic towns, Bury St Edmunds does not need a handout; all it needs is a hand up from good leadership at the head of its communities. As I reflect on what has been achieved in the past two years, I am proud to have been the Member of Parliament for somewhere that is very fine and is, dare I say it, the best historic constituency.