Fears that Northampton’s high street is becoming a ghost town may be unfounded at least for now – as our latest empty shops survey has shown a surprising turnaround.
Two years ago when we last carried out our regular count of the vacant units in the town, ‘to let signs’ were in place above 78 shop fronts.
Since then, the town has been hit by some challenging developments.
In August last year, one of the biggest, busiest shops in the town, Marks & Spencer, shut its Abington Street premises, prompting fears that a huge town centre unit would be left vacant for years to come.
In August, the Chronicle and Echo reported how the number of people visiting the centre had fallen dramatically in the second quarter of 2019 compared to the previous year – just as bosses at the sprawling Rushden Lakes retail park in the north of the county celebrated their 10 millionth visitor.
But our latest survey carried out this week shows there is cause for cautious optimism.
The number of vacant units has actually gone down to 72 – the second-best result in our yearly town centre health check since the 2009 low of 68.
The regeneration of small and medium-sized premises appears to have been key to the improvement.
Leader of Northampton Borough Council Jonathan Nunn said the health check was “part of the message” that bigger retail units were “not what the town needs or wants.”
“As an individual town, we didn’t want to spend the sort of money that Marks & Spencer needed to keep going,” he said.
“But this shows that the independent side of things really does have hope.”
Councillor Nunn’s comments are further signs the borough council has abandoned hope of attracting a John Lewis to the town, instead favouring the idea of a place where smaller, boutique-style enterprises thrive.
In autumn 2020, some 68 extra units sill be added to the town’s cultural quarter when the Vulcan works opens its doors. The site will be aimed at small, creative enterprises.
With Northampton now within sight of a potential £50 million windfall (see page nine) the town’s ability to fill smaller venues and its spirited independent scene could be key to deciding where the money is spent.
Though they are privately owned, Councillor Nunn said the Chron’s figures add weight to the belief that the former BHS and M&S buildings in Abington Street should be divided into smaller premises.
“Those two buildings need something quite dramatic to happen,” he said. “They are former department stores and they are not suitable for what the world wants at the moment.
“We are keeping an active dialogue with them.”
Though the improved vacancy rate is down to smaller venues being re-let our results are not completely clear cut.
For example, work has finally started at the former Ballestra nightclub – one of the largest vacant units in town.
Planning permission was granted for 69 flats and a Cosmo world buffet in Market Square back in July.
On the other hand, a stroll around Market Walk will tell you that not all small units are being replenished quite so quickly.
Earlier this year it was announced that the site was being put on the market for £2million.
The Chron’s annual town centre health check sees us count the number of vacant shops, bars, cafes and restaurants in the town centre on a given day at the end of summer.
This year, the place hardest hit by shop closures was Market Walk. Currently, 17 of the 25 available shops there are empty. In 2015 just seven were closed.
Elsewhere around the town, Abington Street has 11 empty units compared to the 13 seen in 2017.
The majority are now bunched down the de-pedestrianised end which was intended to rejuvenate that part of town.
St Giles Street has seen a great improvement since the eight empty shops seen in 2017, when major resurfacing works were taking place.
Currently, three sites in the street are not in use.
Gold Street, now home to Mexicasa and Turtle Bay, has seen the biggest improvement overall though. In 2017 there were 14 empty units. This year there were just seven.
And the Grosvenor Centre is faring better too despite the impact of WH Smith. This year there were nine empty shops compared to 14 in 2017.