Pensioners feel ‘lost sense of belonging’ in Northampton centre as retail and bus station improvements recommended
Northampton needs to improve its retail offer, improve signage and review the function of the bus station if it wants to attract more older people into the town centre.
That is the verdict of a piece of research conducted by the University of Northampton in partnership with AgeUK Northamptonshire, which was revealed last week.
The report took on the views of older people and their experience in using Northampton town centre, and has come up with a host of recommendations to be adopted in any regeneration.
It also found that older people had a ‘lost sense of belonging’ that the town centre was no longer ‘a place for them’ and that it was a difficult place to be proud of, with frequent comments about the town looking ‘scruffy’ and ‘dirty’.
Dr Kim Woodbridge-Dodd, researcher at the University of Northampton, was the lead author of the report. She said: “Our report was quite unique because the older person’s voice about town centre regeneration is usually left out or relegated as being ‘less important.’ This is a shame because their link to that centre’s past and how it worked or didn’t, how they use the centre of the present and keep an eye on cost-saving improvement ideas should be gold dust to urban planners.
“Their comments and opinions in our report have shone a light on how their needs can be best served, whilst at the same time regenerating our town centre according in ways that can benefit younger people, often with minimal fuss or cost. It’s win, win.”
Recommendations in the report – entitled ‘A Place for me?’ – included reviewing the retail offer for the potential custom of older people. Much was made of the disposable income that many older people have, and that the town centre should be trying to attract the ‘silver pound’, with those surveyed saying they felt the town centre was geared towards younger people.
The report also found older people didn’t feel safe – though this was as much down to disorientation as any problems with crime. Those surveyed said the town was ‘difficult’ to get around, with the recommendations including improvements to signage and wayfinding in the town and including older people in that process.
The bus station was also a frequent cause for concern for the participants as it did not provide a ‘suitable service’ for older people, with some of the stops being at the Drapery. One elderly person said: “My friend had to wait out here in the rain to get to her bus. God rest her soul, she died a couple of months ago.”
Borough council leader Jonathan Nunn was at The Guildhall as the report was launched on Friday (January 31), and heard first hand from one of the participants.
He said: “In terms of being old and using the town centre, there’s been some really valuable findings. We occasionally reflect on signage but I’ve never done it from a feeling of orientation or disorientation. I’m going to accept the idea of prosperity and the silver pound of older people having disposable income. You also need to feel it’s a safe place to come.
“Experience has told me that the more people you involve in something, the better the outcome is. We have a strange system here at the council where a small number of people are supposed to make decisions. I prefer one where a wider number of people get specialist knowledge and come to collective decisions. It might take longer but you get a better result.
“When presented with facts, I think a lot of people will come to the same conclusion. But if people haven’t been included in the discussion then they may criticise it, and we’ve seen that with some things in the town with the bus station being one of the classics as people didn’t feel involved in the decision. These are incredibly valid comments and will be an important input.”
Northampton is on the shortlist for up to £25 million of government funding in the Future High Streets Fund, which is aiming to deliver improvements to the town centre. The borough council must submit a final business case by April.
Dr Woodbridge-Dodd added: “With plans for Northampton Forward gathering momentum, the time has come to listen to what our elders have to say, seize the moment and really help ‘N Town’ stand proud for years to come.”
Laura Graham, business relationship manager for Age UK Northamptonshire, added: “I’m delighted that our clients had the opportunity to have their thoughts captured and that this report produced such rich and valuable data.
“When looking at the regeneration of the built environment, the temptation can be to focus solely on the financial return on investment and assume that meeting the needs of older people hinders that return. This research proves what we at Age UK Northamptonshire already knew, that older people are integral to the economic success of the regeneration of Northampton.
“The clients who took part have a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw upon and their time and efforts are appreciated by all.”