Although we aim to focus on the future rather than the past, it is hard to avoid reflecting that when we ran the Borough Council for 4 years between 2007-2011, the Lib Dem administration had worked incredibly hard to agree a commercial proposal for the complete revamp of the Grosvenor Centre. This plan was one of many things that was dropped by the Conservatives who took over from us. If that plan had gone ahead, the whole town centre would look very different.
I know that The Grosvenor Centre has just changed hands, so hopefully the new owners might have more interest in redeveloping the site.
Northampton is suffering from what the Americans refer to as ‘Donut town syndrome’. The town allowed a number of out of town shopping centres to be developed all round the town like Sixfields, St James retail Park, Weston Favell, Wyevale etc, and gradually the town centre died. People began to feel that they couldn’t be bothered to go into the town centre, especially as it cost them to park there, whereas the neighbourhood centres were free. There used to be a number of large stores that drew people into Northampton town centre – Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, Beales, British Home Stores etc etc, but these have gradually closed, and now there are few large stores left – New Look is closing shortly.
Clearly online shopping with firms like Amazon developed massively during the pandemic, and of course Amazon don’t have retail outlets and they don’t pay Business Rates. They seem to pay very little in the way of corporation tax either, so it’s hard for traditional retailers to compete.
The recent development of Rushden Lakes and the presence of a very large compact shopping area in Milton Keynes, both within 20 minutes of Northampton, hasn’t helped. The Conservative council failed to object to Rushden Lakes when it was planned, despite the fact that it was estimated it would take 10% of trade from Northampton. It has drawn trade from Northampton, with better shops and free parking, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the 10% proved to be an under-estimate. Although it brought jobs to Rushden, Rushden’s own town centre is struggling.
Lots of towns are facing this challenge, but Northampton does appear to be particularly badly affected by an excess of betting shops, charity shops, pound shops and boarded up shops. In addition, local people complain about antisocial behaviour and rough sleepers causing them to feel uncomfortable in the town, especially in the evenings. I know that there have been some efforts to deal with rough sleeping, and not every rough sleeper is prepared to accept the offer of somewhere to sleep. However many towns have dealt with this much better than Northampton, and there are lots of positive new approaches to try to deal with this issue.
With the move of the University to the outskirts of the town, the provision of student accommodation has made it far more attractive for developers to convert stores like M + S and BHS to student flats. The good part about this is the fact that it increases footfall in the town centre, the negative is that every large store site that is developed as accommodation means one fewer shop to attract other shoppers into the town. However with this increase in people living in the town centre there needs to be ‘quality’ nightlife on offer – dining, cafes etc.
Although it is good news that the town has been successful in gaining some Government funding for the revamp of the market square, many businesses have told us that they have doubts about how the improvements to the market square will attract people into the town. If you talk to people about the things that they do like about Northampton the answers tend to be:
It is worrying that the redevelopment of the market square will take many months, and that will once again deter local people from going into the town centre, so yet more stores may close.
The proposed increase in the cost of car parking in the town centre is yet another nail in the coffin of town centre retailers. Clearly people should be encouraged to walk, ride bikes or take buses, but at a time when major shops are throwing in the towel, it is hardly the right time to make it even less attractive for car drivers to come to Northampton instead of going to Rushden Lakes. In addition, bus subsidies are being withdrawn, so the wish to encourage more people to use buses will be rather hopeless if there are no buses to use.
We have a number of ideas to try to reverse the steady decline in the town centre that has happened ever since 2011. Given the high cost of parking in the town centre, and the need to improve air quality (which is really poor in many approaches to the town like St James), new Park and Ride schemes could help to encourage people to get into town without taking their cars in. The service needs to be flexible enough to help people working and studying in the town centre, as well as shoppers. These could be part of the Active Travel Routes project.
Apparently there are plans for an ‘Active Quarter’ to add to the Cultural Quarter, as part of the Active Travel Plan, we would welcome this
We have a superb Museum of Leathercraft in Northampton which is a source of world-renowned reference material. This needs to be moved into a building with public access and could really help to put Northampton on the map.
The market is being destroyed by the relocation to the bottom of town during redevelopment. The late Fitzy’s son has apparently already announced that he cannot continue his father’s business down there, despite the stall rental being waived. We used to have a thriving market with a popular Christmas Market and Farmers’ Markets. The market could be good again if traders are encouraged to be there with free stalls, especially for local small businesses trying to get established in Northampton.
Given the fact that a lot of money is being spent on the market square, it is vital that the space is used for many events that will draw in the crowds to help local retailers. There have been occasional events in the market square in the past (mainly pre-covid), but once the square is finished there need to be events week after week. Shopping centres like Rushden Lakes and Milton Keynes don’t have a large public space like this, so it needs to be developed and exploited as a means of drawing people into the town.
More pedestrianisation might help the centre to become more attractive to families. Apparently this has been very successful in Leicester.
Finally, I wish we could do something to reduce business rates, as it is that cost, together with commercial rents and energy costs that retailers tell us are overwhelming them. Everyone is suffering from the cost of living crisis, but many retail businesses are suffering most of all, especially those with lots of staff like pubs and restaurants. Business rates are collected locally but go to central Government, and the decision about the amount of business rates rests with central Government. Unless there is a change of Government (possible but probably not for about 18 months), that’s something we can’t change.
Northampton needs some imagination and inspiration. It would be good to source fresh ideas from local people and to get some energy behind this. I’m afraid that the Conservative administration are out of ideas and out of energy. They inherited a bankrupt council from the old County Council, and have struggled to make any headway – they have to cut millions from this year’s budget, and because the Cabinet is the same old Tories who bankrupted the County Council, they just don’t have any fresh ideas, and they reject anything we suggest as a matter of principle. It doesn’t stop us trying, and the best way to help is to vote for us in Parliamentary, Council and Town elections
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