'Abington Street is screaming out for improvements.'

TWENTY years ago, the Chronicle & Echo reported fears that Abington Street was dying as more empty shops appeared at the end of Northampton's main shopping route.

This disquiet – back in 1985 – prompted planning officials to pin their hopes on banning traffic through Abington Street in a bid to draw back the crowds.

But it was not until 1993 that the uppermost end of Abington was finally pedestrianised; some eight years later.

Sound familiar? In 2005, the north-eastern end of Abington Street is once again struggling.

Over the past 18 months, retailers have left that part of Northampton town centre in droves.

Unsurprisingly, shoppers are following with their feet in a vicious circle of decline. There are 18 empty shops in the main retail thoroughfares and shopping centres in Northampton and three more stores are in the process of closing down.

Northampton Borough Council bosses have now admitted that the town centre's retail situation is in crisis and that action is needed very quickly.

However, it is still not clear what firm action will be taken or, crucially, when.

Abington Street has borne the brunt of the town centre's decline, with a string of shops closing in recent months, culminating last month with the announcement that its established department store,

The Co-op, was to cease trading after 70 years.

As Northampton waits to see how those who have the task of managing and improving the town centre tackle the problem, we chart the decline and look at the issues involved.

The Downfall

Abington Street has been experiencing decline for several years. But the rot really began to show early last year when a number of smaller or independent shops shut down.

The voids they left were not filled quickly and many remain empty. Hair salon Mirror Image closed its doors, as did Cash Converters, Going Places and The Wedgwood pub within a short space of time.

Further down Abington Street, towards Market Square, the bureau de change and The Model Shop closed, while the unit between Jessops and Ann Summers has lain empty for some time.

Businesses did not clamour to snap up this seemingly prime retail space. Was Northampton not an attractive place to set up shop?

Or maybe retailers predicted that more units would soon become available.

In February, independent record shop Spinadisc closed after 31 years of trading. As well as blaming internet downloading, owner Dick Raybould said expensive parking and gangs of youths were driving customers away from Abington Street.

Now it has been revealed that youth service Connexions will open up an office in the former Spinadisc shop; a strange choice in a prime retail location.

In recent weeks, the situation has got worse. In April, catalogue chain outlet Index closed down after the Littlewoods-owned store was among those sold to GUS in a deal that will see 3,200 jobs go.

It is thought the GUS group will re-brand the store as another Argos, in addition to the St Peter's Way store, although there has been no news about when the Abington Street unit will reopen.

Last month, The Co-op announced that a "significant and sustained" loss of trade had led to its decision to close its two-storey department store in Abington Street.

It will close in the summer, after almost 70 years of trading, and other shop owners have pointed out how difficult it will be to fill such a large retail space.

Then, last week, it was revealed that shoe shop Ecco – which opened only last year – is to move out of Abington Street. Its shop has been put up for rent and the company confirmed that it was looking for a new location in the town, but one has not yet been found.

Rumours have also been circulating about the future of Northampton's Primark store, one of the largest shops in Abington Street.

Speculation that the discount chain could buy Littlewoods has led some to wonder if a deal could lead to a possible change of location for either of the Northampton stores.

Ian McClurg-Welland, the Northampton town centre manager, said: "Primark is among players, including New Look, who have expressed an interest to buy the chain. At this moment, the speculation continues as to whether Littlewoods will remain in the marketplace and trade on, or accept a takeover bid from another retailer.

"The corporate decision will determine the outcome locally as to actual location of business. For the moment, there is nothing to suggest any changes."

What's gone wrong

Not all of Northampton's town centre is suffering decline. St Giles Street keeps its small, independent shops and boutiques, while The Drapery is ticking along as home to Northampton's biggest department store, Debenhams, plus other stores, banks and sandwich shops.

Wellingborough Road is an interesting mix of upmarket boutiques, delicatessens and independent shops, despite a high number of fast food takeaways.

There have been multi-million pound improvements at the Kingsthorpe shopping centre, giving the area an enlarged Waitrose and a new frontage and car park.

But Steffan Suter, the owner of Steffan Jewellers in Abington Square, summed it up: "Abington Street is the artery of the town and, unfortunately, it has got problems."

Even the Market Square end of Abington Street has not been hit so hard by decline. New Look moved into bigger premises in the former Dixons store last year and George and Silverscreen have opened.

But some predicted problems when Abington Street was pedestrianised in 1994.

The late Charlie Rous, then editor of Northampton-based Marketeer magazine, told the Chronicle & Echo that pedestrianisation only worked when it was successfully designed and in the town it was "peculiar".

He compared parts of the town to the Hampton Court Maze, said there were too many driving restrictions and called for free parking to draw in shoppers.

"I think the system we have is killing off the town centre to a degree," he said. "You have got to allow people to shop comfortably."

But, in March this year, town centre manager Ian McClurg-Welland put the increasing number of empty shops in Northampton down to a "bit of a letting recession" and said he was confident the units would be filled "in a few months".

However, this recession does not seem to be affecting Milton Keynes, 14 miles down the M1. At the centre:mk, business is booming and attracting shoppers from all over the south Midlands and further afield.

But when he heard about Ecco's move – the latest shop to go – Mr McClurg-Welland said: "Abington Street is screaming out for improvements. We need to find a solution very, very fast."

What's being done

In 1999, plans were pulled together to reverse the downward trend in Abington Street. This package of regeneration proposals – Abington Street 2000, A Sculptor's Vision – was presented to councillors and the Northampton Town Centre Partnership and met with unanimous support.

Six years on, nothing has got off the drawing board.

But the blueprints have had three names in six years. Northampton Borough Council renamed it The Abington Street Renaissance Project and put it on the backburner, in anticipation of the Grosvenor Centre's expansion.

The public may well wonder why improvements could not have been made to Abington Street anyway, certainly while negotiations with Grosvenor owner Legal & General were going on and even if its huge planned expansion got underway.

Perhaps that would have gone some way to keeping shoppers in Northampton during the years of disruption.

Originally due for completion in 2004, the doubling of the Grosvenor Centre has now drifted to "if" rather than "when" and Abington Street's decline has continued unabated and unhindered by any attempt to rescue it.

Behind the scenes, there is suggestion that the borough council's negotiations with Legal & General are now turning into "abortive talks" and attention is turning back to Abington Street as the crisis there deepens.

So the regeneration plans have been resurrected and given a new name . . . The Abington Street Project: A Fusion of Ideas. What happens next remains to be seen.

But there have been some changes in the town centre in the past few years.

One is the proliferation of amusement arcades. At the last count, there were six gambling outlets operating within a half-mile radius in Northampton's town centre.

Planners have allowed some of the arcades to open up, but fought the two most recent applications, only to be overturned by a Government, keen to liberalise gambling regulations.

Parking and enforcement is another hot topic with consumers and business people alike. The past four years have seen tougher enforcement of parking rules and regulations after the borough council took over responsibility.

But shoppers and retailers have complained that ticket prices are too high and wardens are far too draconian, driving spending power into places such as Milton Keynes.

The way ahead

It does not take an expert to realise that years of inertia have taken their toll on Northampton. The shopping public has been saying it for years . . . on their way to spending their money in Milton Keynes or Birmingham.

And the old Ikea syndrome has reared its head again with the proposed new Sixfields district centre.

When global retailer Ikea wanted to bring millions of pounds of investment into the area by opening a store on the outskirts of Northampton, it was shooed away by the Guildhall and South Northamptonshire Council.

Northampton Borough Council's reason was that it would take trade away from the town centre.

Instead, Ikea is on its way to – surprise, surprise – Milton Keynes.

Now, at Sixfields, plans to turn the sterile retail park into a landscaped shopping and leisure village centre have not been welcomed by Mr McClurg-Welland, or council leader Phil Larratt, who again fear it will take trade away from the town centre.

There is less and less trade to be taken away. A proactive approach needs to be taken to encourage businesses to open up in Northampton town centre, maybe with reduced rates for new start-ups and certainly immediate aesthetic improvements to the look and feel of Abington Street.

Northampton's town centre may be too far behind to compete with the likes of Milton Keynes and Birmingham, but there are many positive aspects to build on around the largest Market Square in Europe: history, character, independent shops and the all-important high street stores.

If action is taken to capitalise on those aspects, perhaps – eventually – the rest will follow.