Are Empty Shops are Indication of Priority Failure?
In 2010 I asked in full council the then Northampton Borough Council Cabinet Member responsible for the Town Centre how many empty retail shops there were in the town.
In a political gaffe of epic proportions the answer was clear and unambiguous being, “I don’t know and if Councillor Palethorpe is so interested he should go and count them”, which of course I did the number at the time being 56 and which rose to 60 throughout the year.
What was remarkable was the attitude at a time when any suggestion of out-of-town development was immediately extinguished as part of the Town Centre First Policy, so you’d have thought that the administration would have at the very least known how many vacant premises were available.
History of course shows that it became a major issue in the run up to the 2011 Northampton Borough Council election with a promise that the Town Centre First Policy would be scrapped to allow out-of-town developments but that the regeneration of the town centre would be given number one priority.
To be fair to the hard work carried out by the Northampton Town Centre BID the number of empty shops fell during 2011 from 60 to 47, which is why the latest information of vacancies rising to 68, the highest level for four years is not only alarming but disastrous for Northampton?
What is disappointing is the fact that they will still be required to pay Non Domestic Rates on the empty properties of almost £500,000 a year which begs the question of how can those who own or are marketing the retail units encourage companies to invest in Northampton and bring them back into use.
What the issue also raises is why the current Conservative administration has not prioritized the Town Centre as promised but prefer instead to spend millions of pounds of Northampton taxpayers money and rents on trying to persuade people to change their landlords and/or to have Parish Councils whilst cutting funding to the police and supporting their County Council colleagues in cutting front line services to the elderly and vulnerable.
Surely the regeneration of Northampton Town Centre has to be the number one priority and not the pet political dogma projects of a minority of the Conservative administration.
If the Town Centre is allowed to continue to decline what incentive will there be for Legal and General to ever commit to the expansion and redevelopment of the Grosvenor Centre?
We have seen over recent months contradictory and clearly mistaken statements from the Conservative leadership with first of all Cllr Suresh Patel as Chair of a Panel investigating the retail offer in the town saying “we know we have a serious problem”, then Cllr Tim Hadland, the Cabinet Member responsible for the Town Centre saying we shouldn’t be concerned because “We’re bucking the trend in Town Centre decline”, and now with the latest data the Leader of the Council blaming everyone from Athens to Westminster.
Why would anyone invest in a Northampton that in recent times has demonstrated political confusion and where there appears to be a real lack of will and commitment?
On the other hand if you were being cynical, the decline of Northampton plays into the hands of those who are opposed to a Unitary Northampton preferring instead to support a Unitary Northamptonshire County Council where Northampton itself will become albeit the County Town no more than a bit player in the county and region.
It is why Labour has always argued and supported the call for a Unitary Independent Northampton and has argued that the regeneration and support of businesses throughout the Borough and the Town Centre has to be the number one priority.