A leaked borough council-commissioned study of Northampton’s town centre which highlighted the issues it faced in attracting visitors and how its fortunes could be turned around was never widely shared.
Northampton Borough Council has admitted the town centre health check report had only been discussed internally and had not been debated by councillors or published on its website.
The final report has been seen by the Chron – but not by some borough councillors – and points out several issues the town faced then and still does today, as many of you highlighted in your answers to our own town centre survey.
But where is the new retail plan?
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this report,” said Sally Beardsworth, the Lib Dem leader at NBC.
“I think all councillors should see it so that we can discuss it – that’s the whole point.
“It’s something we can ask each group about and see what we can do and what we can implement.
“This is what we should be doing. It’s the town that matters, not politics.”
The ‘Northampton Town Centre Health Check’ was carried out by development and infrastructure consultants Peter Brett Associates and its aim was to present the borough council with “policies and strategies to enhance the vitality and viability of the town centre”.
The results were published in July 2015, around the time the Cobblers loan scandal arose, and the cost of the study is not known.
Early on in the document, a reference is made to 10 previous studies carried out between 2008 and 2012, all of which were borne in mind when the report’s author wrote: “It is clear that Northampton has been found to be underperforming for the scale of the town and its catchment area.
“The town centre has experienced significant competition from out-of-centre development and requires further premium comparison retail occupiers in order to attract visitors.
“The town centre retail offer does not align with the local demographics which demonstrate significant spending power among local residents.”
Out-of-town shopping was and remains a threat to businesses in central Northampton with Milton Keynes and now Rushden Lakes providing an alternative for consumers.
The report referenced the town’s struggles when it recommended the council encourage higher-end retailers to help Northampton be more competitive and differentiate itself from out-of-centre destinations and places like Milton Keynes.
“Northampton finds itself between the two types of centre without any clear direction as to its role,” states the report, describing the town as not quite Milton Keynes or Leicester but bigger than other market towns.
An ideal place for those high-end stores, according to the survey, is the “attractive” St Giles Street, a destination that remains popular with readers today as revealed by our own town centre survey results. Its architecture, streetscape, the nearby Royal & Derngate and quality food and drink offer around Guildhall and All Saints Church made it an ideal spot for those high-end shops.
The report said: “St Giles Street should become a focus for higher-end retail activity and it should continue to contribute to the town centre’s cultural offer as well as continuing to be a focus for public realm improvements which would further enhance its character.”
Key to Northampton’s future, agents said, was ensuring the town centre was not only improved by retail but by other uses like museums, cafes, restaurants and bars which are not just focused on the night time economy.
Market Square, for example, could be improved by replacing the businesses on the western side with food and drink units.
The shops with openings on to both the Drapery and the square were said to “create issues with layout and servicing” and so are better suited to cafes, restaurants or bars.
These would in turn help “increase visitor dwell time” as well as animating the square with the potential introduction of outside eating areas.
Northampton’s nice architecture is mentioned several times in the report, but it’s felt shopping streets were let down by storefronts – so it suggests improving shop frontages in Abington Street to help fill empty units.
So what’s the plan now? Where do we go from here?
"REPORT WILL BE USED FOR OUR TOWN CENTRE STRATEGY"
The report suggested the council prepare an “overarching town centre strategy and masterplan”, something Councillor Tim Hadland, cabinet member for planning, said NBC was working on.
“This report identified a number of strengths and opportunities for the town centre, along with weaknesses we were already aware of,” he said.
“As it did not include any new policies, it has been used internally by officers and councillors to develop and prioritise some key projects, which have resulted in the awarding of the Purple Flag status for the town centre, for a safe and vibrant night-time economy and the extension of the Business Incentive Scheme to 2020, which provides funding for vacant unit refurbishment, additional retail space and shop front restoration.
“These projects have also encouraged a wide variety of new uses for town centre property, such as residential and leisure, and enabled the council to develop close and positive working relationships with investors.
"Although things have moved on in the last few years, this report will be used to inform the work we are undertaking with the Northampton BID to develop a town centre strategy, exploring the recent changing trends in the retail sector, and the impact of the new Waterside University campus, opening this September.”
"THEY PUT A LID ON IT BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T LIKE WHAT IT SAID"
A prominent town centre businessman, who has now seen the report but did not wish to be named, believes the council has simply dragged its feet since 2015 by not producing an action plan – as recommended in the Peter Brett report.
He also believes the study should have been debated in the council chamber, if not published on the borough’s website.
“If an optician says you’ve got glaucoma, do you ignore it and go blind, or do you do something about it?” he said.
“I think they put a lid on this report because they didn’t like what it said.”
The businessman said he believes the town needs to hire a retail “tsar” to draw in better retail and leisure providers.
That person, he added, should work alongside the top town planners at the borough to draw up the masterplan.
“I’m not looking to one of the politicians to do this – someone who might be a postman by day and a councillor by night,” he said.
“I am expecting the executives, the people on £150,000 wages, to come out and solve these problems.
“I find it annoying that we are being denied a beautiful town centre to match the beautiful county.”
NORTHAMPTONIANS STILL WANT TO SEE SAME IMPROVEMENTS THREE YEARS ON
Three years on from the borough council-commissioned report, the Chron ran its own town centre survey and the results echo the findings of the 2015 study’s market research.
People still want to see an improvement in the cleanliness of the town centre and a better range of stores to fulfil shopping needs.
Meanwhile, independent retailers were held in high regard by those who answered our poll. The top five phrases used in 954 responses were “personal service”, “customer service”, “more personal”, “something different” and “better service”.
We asked you how frequently you visited shops in the centre and the most popular answer was once a month – 23.6 per cent, similar to the 2015 study.
“In terms of its overall level of vitality and viability, Northampton town centre has broadly stayed the same over recent years, yet public perception of the town centre is weak and it is these perceived issues which should be targeted and improved,” concluded the report.