Six empty units at ailing Northampton shopping centre could be filled by bars and restaurants
A shopping centre, where bosses admit most visitors are market traders using its toilets, has switched focus from retail to food and drink.
Bosses at Market Walk are applying to Northampton Borough Council for special permission to lift the protection on town centre retail so it can attempt to fill half a dozen units that have been empty for up to six years with cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as offices for professional and financial services.
A report on behalf of its landlord, UGS, says the arcade is losing sizeable chunks of money because of empty space - created by the exits of the likes of Next and Laura Ashley - and artificially low rents, and is forthright about some of its own current tenants.
Jonathan Manns, of Colliers International, says: "All recent lettings have been to largely unknown, low-value independent retailers.
"More importantly, they have also each been on all-inclusive or rent-free deals. The centre is running at a substantial financial loss and what lettings there are have been agreed to mitigate business rates liability and contribute towards the steep running costs associated with covered shopping centres, via service charges, on as many of the vacant units as possible."
Despite concerted advertising since 2010, four in 10 units stand empty, not helped by the desertion of all of Market Walk's anchor stores.
Footfall has receded to such an extent that the main patrons are no longer even shoppers.
Mr Manns says: "Research undertaken by UGS indicates that the primary driver of footfall is currently tradespeople from the market square taking advantage of the centre's toilet facilities."
The situation has grown so bad that a comprehensive review of Market Walk found options to arrest the decline are "extremely limited".
Mr Manns says: "No viable redevelopment options were identified except, potentially, redevelopment of the shopping centre as a car park."
Some of Market Walk's woes have come from retail's continuing shift from the high street to online trade, and some can be attributed to competition from the neighbouring Grosvenor Centre.
But the report also sets out the sums of money considered to be lost to other towns from Northampton, which is deemed to have a particularly low annual spend per adult of just £1,683.
- 35 per cent (£515 million) is spent in the Northampton area
- 21 per cent (£309 million) in Northampton town centre
- 21 per cent (£309 million) lost to towns including Wellingborough, Market Harborough, Bedford, Banbury and Corby
- 15 per cent (£231 million) lost to Milton Keynes
- seven per cent (£117 million) is spent in Kettering
The application will be determined early this year.