It’s been a cheerless time this year for Northampton’s high street – but are all shopping streets on their knees? Well, that depends where you’re looking.
In a bid to find a solution to Northampton town centre’s gloominess the Chronicle & Echo visited a market town in the north to see how they turned their ghost town into a boom town.
Altrincham shares a lot of parallels with Northampton.
Namely how it’s struggled with attracting footfall after the Trafford Centre opened – similar to the ongoing rivalry here between Northampton town centre and shiny new Rushden Lakes.
Richard Roe, Trafford Borough Council corporate director of place, said it was The Sun publishing the town’s low shop vacancy rates on its front page back in 2010 which was the catalyst for change.
He said: “I think it was one of those things – the authority recognised that there was an issue in Altrincham and that it needed to do something but only sometimes when you see it put into that stark contrast you don’t necessarily realise that you’re the worst until someone tells you that you are the worst.”
In 2010 many of the independent businesses that once helped to shape Altrincham’s identity disappeared, with the town recording more than 30 per cent of its shop units standing empty.
“It’s a spiral of decline,” Richard added.
“Once you get to that level people don’t come in because the town doesn’t look great, the high street doesn’t look great and that reduces footfall.”
“So you get more empty shops.
“The range of shops that start to come in is cheaper shops with a lower spend: charity shops and card shops.”
After spending a generous £3 million in Altrincham over the past eight years now the town has had a reinvigoration.
Richard said that the council creating a much nicer environment, through a public realm transformation project, has built private sector confidence again.
He said: “We spent in the region of about £3 million to date but we are probably only half way through.
“There will be another £3 million in the next few years as well.”
The facelift included the council putting in new benches, street lighting and bins and pedestrianising a large part of the town centre to make it look more modern.
Then a ‘shared surface’ was installed throughout the main road in the centre of town.
The kerb line between the pavement and the highway was removed to make it more pedestrian friendly, integrate the town better, encourage drivers to slow down and make them travel around the outskirts of the town instead.
When Marks & Spencer in Abington Street closed its doors for the final time in August the move left Northampton with a two large vacant town centre retail units, including BHS.
But what has Altrincham done to get the traders back in through the doors?
After New Look upped and left in 2013 a town centre loan scheme was set up so the council could lend £20,000 to businesses planning to occupy a vacant town centre unit.
Martin Ledson, town centre manager, said: “We allow that funding to be spent on capital works, in other words the refurbishment costs.
“We also allow for the funding to be used for early stage running costs. So things like rent and rates during the initial set-up period to make things a little bit easier.”
So far the loan has helped 22 businesses to open in Altrincham and has created 100 new jobs and leverage of more than £600,000 of private sector investment.
So, what has the Chron learned from Altrincham?
Online retail giants like Amazon and eBay have made shopping instantaneous for consumers at the click of a button with overnight shipping and delivery – killing off our high streets left right and centre. No longer is the town centre built to survive through retail alone.
Northampton’s high street and, more obviously, the market square seemingly needs to welcome more of a food, drink and leisure offering now more than ever to put us back on the map.
Help, like it has in Altrincham, needs to come directly from council leaders to restore pride and conviction back into its people.
'It's about everybody networking together'
Former chairman of Altrincham BID Martin Duff moved to the town in 1980 before setting up Randalls Jewellers in the high street.
The businessman took the plunge when he opened his shop back in 2010 during same time the town had the highest rate of empty shops in England.
Although he was unsure of the future he was confident that his business would survive because of its friendly customer service.
Now Mr Duff, who is Altrincham Unlimited (BID) vice-chairman, is part of the scheme to generate £1.4 million over five years for projects to improve the town centre.
These projects include enriching the visitor experience, tidying up the town and hosting business breakfasts and social media training for smaller firms.
He said: “In the last few years we said ‘we are not going to compete, we are going to find our own identity’.
“It’s all about everybody networking together and it’s about getting the pride back in.
“When we were first here I bumped into someone and they said: ‘oh... I’ve only come in just to pop into Debenhams’. It was almost an embarrassment.
“Five years ago they would say it was rubbish and on its knees.
“Now it’s brilliant.”