'Once in a lifetime' - all the huge investments in Lowestoft in 2021
- Credit: Nick Butcher
While the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted scores of plans nationwide, one town on the Suffolk coast is benefitting from huge swathes of investment totalling tens of millions of pounds in 2021.
From road and infrastructure right through to high street revamps, new beach facilities and digital upgrades, Lowestoft is arguably living through its most significant period of change for decades.
As 2021 begins – a year most are welcoming with open arms, given the vast challenges coronavirus presented to the start of this decade - East Suffolk Council’s cabinet member for economic development, Craig Rivett, talks us through what to expect in the year ahead for the town.
“I think this is once in a lifetime,” he says.
“To see all of this opportunity to come at this time, it is the biggest catalyst of an opportunity that I think Lowestoft could have.”
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The Lake Lothing Third Crossing – The Gull Wing, as it is to be known – has been in the pipeline for what feels like forever.
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But this spring, the town can finally expect to see spades in the ground.
Set to cost between £126million and £146m, it secured the final government approval needed during chancellor Rishi Sunak’s autumn spending review, with ground investigations and archaeological work already carried out.
The scheme suffered a setback when it emerged in August that costs had escalated by around £34m from its original £91m estimate, but Suffolk County Council has committed to borrowing the remainder needed to see it over the line.
County council leader Matthew Hicks in August said: “For every £1 that we spend on the bridge, the region will see £3 in economic benefit – that’s an incredible return.
“The benefits of this bridge will be felt by the people of Lowestoft and beyond, with jobs and apprenticeships created during, and after, the construction period.”
The bridge is not set to open until 2023, and Mr Rivett said that Lowestoft “has heard enough promises in the past” for some to still doubt it will ever happen.
However, he hoped that when they see “hard hats, high vis, spades in the ground they know this is underway”.
“Lowestoft is going to be all the better for it,” he added.
“It is almost that cloud that hangs over the town when the Bascule Bridge goes up and you see the boat goes through.
"That is good for the port but queued up traffic down London Road South isn’t acceptable for a town in these current times, so that is going to be transformative.”
Central government confirmed a £43m pot in July for Lowestoft’s tidal barrier and flood defence walls aimed at protecting homes and businesses alike.
The five-year project won’t be finished overnight in 2021, but work around the harbour area and Hamilton Road/Waveney Road will begin before continuing to the Station Square and South Pier locations later in the year.
Those defences will be half brick and half perspex so people can still see out to sea, according to the council.
However, perhaps its biggest impact will be in lowering the insurance premiums for those who live and work in the area. It could come down by as much as two flood zone categories.
Defences around Velda Close and Aldwyck Way – two roads to suffer some of the worst of the town’s flooding in 2015 – are also set to be completed.
East Point Pavilion
The first of Lowestoft’s projects to be confirmed for Towns Fund cash, £720,000 to be precise, the proviso of that grant was for oven-ready projects to be completed by the end of March.
With that, East Point Pavilion will be transformed into a thriving food hall, events and community space, as well as space for small pop-up style businesses.
A refresh of the toilet block and changing place is also planned for that.
With a completion in March, the new facility will be open for the summer months when it is hoped Covid-19 restrictions will not be as severe as in 2020.
Work to stabilise the cliffs at the southern end of the beach and begin demolishing the old concrete beach huts along Jubilee Parade started in 2020 to make use of the disruption already caused by Covid-19 and reduce the impact on beach-goers.
That is due to be finished in the year ahead, hopefully in time for the First Light Festival in the summer.
Once the stabilisation is complete, a new platform is to be built for the new beach huts.
On top of that, a new disabled access beach platform is being lined up, with work currently underway on designs and ground investigation work.
A firm date for that has not yet been given for completion, but Mr Rivett said he was “pushing to see us have that ready for First Light”.
First Light Festival
The inaugural First Light Festival held in August 2019 was considered a roaring success, bringing out 40,000 people and boosting the town’s economy by £900,000.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the 2020 event to head online, but plans are underway for a physical return in 2021.
Mr Rivett said it will be adapted to take into account the necessary social distancing measures needed - but the size of the beach meant it could easily be spread out over a greater distance.
Linked to that, a Winter Solstice programme utilising video and social media contributions, as well as commissioned poetry and art, will link up with First Light for the summer.
“It is part of that aspiration that we increase the cultural offer across the year,” Mr Rivett said.
“When we have the East Point Pavilion completed, we can have more on offer across the year.”
East Suffolk Council’s cabinet gave the green light last year for the Smart Towns pilot in Framlingham to be rolled out to other key towns in the district, including Lowestoft.
That scheme provides free Wi-Fi in the town centre – useful for shoppers, residents and businesses alike.
But it will also help firms in the area with features such as footfall data, information on offers available or promotional events and help businesses understand the peak times. Work began at the end of last summer and is due to continue through 2021.
With more people working from home thanks to the pandemic, upgrades to broadband are desperately needed.
The 1gigabyte broadband rollout will mean a parent can deliver an animated presentation via online chat functions to work colleagues while a movie is being streamed in an adjacent room and youngsters are playing the latest 4k ultra HD games, without the network being unable to cope.
Work across the key Suffolk towns to benefit from the boosted provision began in 2020 and is set to continue through this year.
The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) has embarked on a £16m redevelopment creating 100 new jobs, with the expanded centre offering additional research opportunities, work with local businesses and increased engagement with youngsters through its schools programme that aims to inspire children to pursue science careers.
Work has been ongoing since 2018, and had hoped to be completed by the end of 2020, but the final touches should be done in 2021.
Suffolk Wildlife Trust
Suffolk Wildlife Trust has been busy with its new visitor centre at Carlton Marshes just outside Lowestoft, which Mr Rivett said was due to have a formal opening this year and dubbed it a “phenomenal asset on our doorstep”.
Investment in the new centre and associated infrastructure exceeds £2m, on top of the £1m already spent on wetland habitats.
The Broads Authority is also planning to install new public moorings on the marshes to that people can come in by boat as well as by road.
Suffolk County Council has launched a six-week public consultation from January 4 on plans for a 1,300-home garden village adjacent to the A47.
It comes as part of plans by the county council to use some of its underutilised land to facilitate new homes.
Councillor Nick Gowrley, county council cabinet member for housing said the authority recognised “the importance of working with local communities and stakeholders on developing plans which work for them and add real social value to their communities” with people able to share their views on areas for development, highways and access arrangements, pedestrian and cycle links and other matters.
Heritage Action Zones
Lowestoft has two Heritage Action Zones – one for the north and one for the south – and both will feature continued activity in 2021.
In the north there is a planned return of the Heritage Open Days, while £700,000 has been committed to shop front improvements in both zones.
In the south, late spring will see the cultural programme begin that will explore the history of the area and showcase the shops operating there.
More details are set to be unveiled at a later date.
East Coast College
Fresh from £12m investment in its Energy Skills Centre, East Coast College has signed up to the government’s Kickstart scheme designed to help people aged 16-24 who are unemployed and claiming Universal Credit. The college is working alongside nearby councils to facilitate six-month paid work placements with local employers, due to be signed off by the Department for Work and Pensions soon.
The likes of the tidal defences and the Gull Wing have grabbed the headlines but a host of other individual regeneration schemes are also taking place.
Planning permission was agreed by East Suffolk Council in November for the long-derelict Royal Court Hotel to be converted into a café and 15 flats. Developers confirmed the properties would be ready by the end of 2021.
Alongside the East Point Pavilion, East Suffolk Council also secured £30,000 of Towns Fund cash to refurbish the small park next to the Town Hall. Like the pavilion, that work must be completed by the end of March.
Other schemes in the pipeline include an ambition by the port to expand the outer harbour and £20,000 from the Arts Council England to facilitate a new cultural hub.
So why are so many organisations lining up to invest in the town?
“I think they can see the potential for Lowestoft,” Mr Rivett said.
“We have got such a strong story to tell of what Lowestoft was, what it is, and what it can be.
"They have faith in it and we certainly should be unrepentant in our belief of what Lowestoft can be.”