Northampton Town Centre – Time to Rethink?

Town Centre 1

Economic storm clouds over Northampton may bring unexpected benefits

Northampton Town Centre – Time to Rethink?

The news that the Northamptonshire County Council has agreed the expansion of Primary schools in Northampton to provide an education opportunity for the ‘unexpected’ increase of 1600 children across the Borough is simple common sense.

After all what is the alternative?

I was at a recent meeting where in response to the question of “Why did the increase come as a surprise”, was told by those responsible for planning the school expansion that it was due to two main factors, the first being a net inward migration of people into Northampton and the second being that residents in and around the town centre aren’t moving out.

Essentially the economic situation being faced by the people of Northampton, combined with a lack of investment in-house building as a result of the Conservative – Liberal Democrats failing economic policies has seen people either financially unable for or unwilling to take the risk of becoming a ‘second stepper’.

In other words people are just not in a position or prepared to take a ‘second step’ and move out of their homes in the town centre to homes on the edges of the town.

The demand for the increased education provision is also being reflected in the need to expand and increase other essential services such as health provision and access to public transport for the growing town centre population.

Of course it will be really good news to see essential family services improved and increased, but the demand of an increasing town centre population will also see a demand for improved facilities and infrastructure especially roads, parking and access to shops.

Sadly in spite of the Northampton Conservatives announcement that Northampton is ‘bucking the trend’ the evidence which shows an increase in the number of businesses closing down and leaving the town, or by the huge numbers of people who no longer use the town centre with a fall of half a million between April and September last year compared with the year before doesn’t support their claims.

The half a million fall in the number of  people who visited to Northampton  in the six months to September 20111 would have been even bigger had it not been for the Queens Jubilee, Olympic Torch and St Crispin’s Fair, two events which certainly won’t happen in 2013.

If as all economic experts predict the number of Northampton Town Centre business premises vacancies continues to rise it may be time to reconsider the traditional living and working?

Over a number of years it has become the norm for people to ‘second step’ out of the town centre as their economic situation improved and at the same time for businesses and employers to also choose to move to premises out of the town.

Northampton has also followed this trend with Barclaycard moving to Brackmills and of course the Conservative County Council decision to move the majority of its staff to a purpose-built facility at John Dryden House on Bedford Road.

The emphasis of employers and people living outside of the town had the effect of removing economic activity from the town centre and as residents have got used to moving around the outskirts of Northampton from their homes to their place of work and shopping at out-of-town shopping centres such as Weston Favell and Riverside has become a natural extension of the same movements.

Town Centre 2

Is it time to increase living in the town and work outside of it

However with an ever-increasing number of people becoming the settled community in the town centre and the availability of ‘brown field’ sites for development perhaps it is time to think differently and change the norm by making Northampton a place where people live first and travel out of the town to their place of work rather than expecting to reverse the current trend of people living outside and NOT coming into the town.

Investing in providing homes alongside improving education, health and infrastructure within the town centre will not only bring economic activity back into the town and increase the attractiveness of investment by businesses especially retail, but will also make the town itself more vibrant at times other than just the night-time economy.

Northampton as the recently agreed Central Area Action Plan shows has the sites to build thousands of homes within the town which as people has to be a priority with thousands of families unable to have a home of their own because of the lack of new builds.

It may also be the spur that the Conservative County Council needs to address the unacceptable standards of Northampton’s roads and footpaths and deliver on the promises they made in the lead up to the 2005 and 2009 County Elections to repair and maintain the roads.

Of course this does not mean that we should abandon the plans to attract investment and jobs back into the town centre to add to the economic activity in the town, but perhaps this should be seen as another benefit alongside increasing the number of homes for people who will live within walking distance of the town centre.

There will be those who think this is to radical but I would argue that in reality an unexpected and unintended outcome of the Government’s failing economic austerity policies is that there will have to be investment in providing and improving many of the essential services and infrastructures so why not really take the regeneration of Northampton seriously and put people first.

Unfortunately the Borough Council Conservative administration appear to have adopted a ‘small town – narrow minded’ attitude in which they believe that the only way the town can survive is as a part of and under the control of a future Northamptonshire County Council Unitary Authority.

Northampton Labour continue to believe that the destiny and future of Northampton should be determined by the residents of Northampton not professional self-serving and self-interest politicians.

It is why we believe Northampton’s future lies in becoming an Independent Unitary authority.

If as expected the UK is entering the first triple-dip recession in history with austerity lasting for another 10 years perhaps the survival and regeneration of the Northampton Town Centre lies in being radical and ambitious for the town and its people.

It is a debate worth having.