Stephen Chown, director of Chown Commercial, considers Northampton Town Centre a year after the Mary Portas Review and says the Planners need to be brave!
The Mary Portas review was published a full year ago and its good news that Town Centres are still on the Government’s radar both local and national. Her review was a high profile agenda for change on the High Street and, for a change, Northampton was ahead of the curve on most of the recommendations.
What is becoming clear, however, is that the good work of the BID (Business Improvement District) and its partners is only part of the solution. The biggest driver for growth and prosperity for a town like ours comes from local and national economic activity. Currently, the strict adherence to planning rules is threatening to hold economic activity back and stopping the high street from finding its place in a changing world.In a nutshell, the traditional view of protecting retail at all costs in the central core is denying the change the town needs to see for it to recover.
There are numerous examples of non- a1 retail proposals being turned down to protect the vitality of the town centre. The result, in practice, is that the shop stays empty or is let to an unattractive temporary user often paying rates only, making the town appear even less attractive to other retailers.The opportunity for increasing investor confidence through new rental evidence has also gone along with the critical economic activity and job creation and town perception via quality fit outs and quality shop fronts is also missed.
For example, Barclays have had a refusal against their proposal to occupy a very large unit on Abington Street and the shop remains empty a year on. A national hot food user has been told not to even consider a unit next door to Burger King on the market square and the best we could then achieve was a poor quality temporary letting up till Christmas, but it’s empty again now.
Even out of town proposals, which would not harm the town centre are suffering. The proposed Lidl next to Sainsburys at Sixfields and also the redevelopment of the unsightly former BP site close by on Weedon Road are all examples of sensible proposals which would kick start economic activity, struggling if to strict adherence to planning rules are applied.
I believe that a good case can be made for all of the above on the basis of choice and convenience for the consumer with the important benefit of creating new jobs and getting the whole economy moving. The rules to protect our high street are in my opinion hindering progress in Northampton and very possibly throughout the country. I would urge the planners to be brave and use their power to support sensible well-argued proposals even where, strictly speaking, they are not supported by policy. We have a surplus of retail I would rather see quality leisure and A2 – A5 uses rather than an increasing number of empty units or low quality retail temps. This way we may just help the economy to get going and as a result improve the increase demand for the remaining shops and new schemes, the ultimate aim being to provide economic conditions which would make the Grosvenor extension viable and get the heart of our town centre beating again.