The number of empty shop units in Northampton town centre has shown no sign of improvement since last year, despite national figures suggestion business growth is back on the up.
The Chronicle & Echo has been running its own yearly survey to count the empty premises in the town centre since 2009.
When the healthcheck began, in the grip of the financial crisis, there were 76 empty shops in the town.
In 2012, there were 68 empty units, prompting some optimism that the town was coming out of recession. But last year that number rose again to 77.
This year the Chron can reveal that figure has remained exactly the same.
Leader of Northampton Borough Council, Councillor David Mackintosh (Con, Rectory Farm) said: “The survey shows that it remains a challenging time in the town centre.
“But we are doing our best and with things like the Business Incentive Scheme and free car parking, we are slowly seeing improvements.”
The Chron survey shows the town’s indoor shopping arcades are a problem area when it comes to vacant units.
In the Ridings Arcade, three of the eight available premises are shut.
The Grosvenor Centre has one more vacant unit than the same time last year, though 2014 has seen a range of big name closures, including La Senza and House of Fraser.
Market Walk, formerly Peacock Place, also continues to be problematic, with 11 of the 25 units there empty, the same as last year.
The Next clothing store there is due to close soon as the company moves its town centre outlet to the Grosvenor Centre.
But Councillor Mackintosh said there is cause for optimism, with the authority’s Business Incentive Scheme set to see 10 empty units filled in the town in the coming year.
Market Walk will soon be home to Mistygrove Framing, which has been awarded a £10,000 grant from the scheme. Dychurch Lifestyles will be opening a new shop in York Road, thanks to an £11,875 grant.
The council leader also said new Next and Primark stores will fill vacant large units in the Grosvenor Centre.
He added: “The Grosvenor Centre is going through a process of refurbishment, which will give a better feel to the shopping centre .
“I’m certainly pleased the owners of Boots have announced plans to refurbish the store a couple of weeks ago and there were plans announced for an Ed’s Diner in the old Disney store.”
But leader of the borough council’s Liberal Democrats group, Sally Beardsworth (Lib Dem, Kingsthorpe), believes work to de-pedestrianise Abington Street will only lead to more empty units along the town’s main shopping street.
She said: “Businesses at the top end of Abington Street are going to really struggle. I think they should look at putting in for a reduction in their rates.
“They won’t be playing on a level playing field to the pedestrianised parts of the town.”
Councillor Beardsworth says the figure of 77 empty units in the town was ‘tragic’, adding that the Conservative authority should have sought to encourage University of Northampton graduates to take up more ‘starter units’ in the town.
“We’ve got a lot of talent that we should be displaying,” she added.
On a more positive note, St Giles Street has shown signs of improvement on last year with only six empty units out of 50.
The street is characterised by small independent shops and cafés which business owners feel put more of an emphasis on quality products, compared to bigger chain retailers operating elsewhere in the town.
“They like the personal touch” says Gaynor Ward of St Giles Cheese, which opened in 2010 and has been one of the success stories of the street.”
Although the street continues to be a hit with many shoppers, the same cannot be said of the neighbouring Ridings Arcade, with almost half of the available units empty.
The strip is usually shut early in the evenings and on Sundays, which can often adversely affects businesses on St Giles, it was said.
Michella Dos Santos, of Magic Bean Emporium, said: “When they close that off, we get nobody.”
She also indicated that other businesses suffered similarly, and that the council should try to keep the walkway open to the public.
“I think the council could do a lot more, they’re hindering rather than helping a lot of the time,” continued Miss Dos Santos, whose shop has only been open for two months.
When asked about the quality of shops in the town centre, she said it was suffering from a lack of quality retailers.
She said: “There’s too many betting shops, there’s too many pound shops.”
Gaynor Ward believes that the presence of bigger retailers helps smaller businesses by attracting shoppers into the town centre.
“I don’t think St Giles Street can survive if there’s not big names elsewhere,” she said. “On a Saturday we get a lot of people who come in at the end of the day after they’ve done their shopping.”
It remains to be seen whether St Giles Street will continue to thrive alongside larger chains, or if the loss of House of Fraser will trigger more big brands to depart.
But for now St Giles Street remains the street that offers the most to smaller independent businesses, and to shoppers in search of something a bit different.