Town Centre Decline – Is it now Inevitable and terminal?

Is decline now ineveitable and what can be done to attract visitors?
Is decline now inevitable and what can be done to attract visitors?

Town Centre Decline – Is it now Inevitable and terminal?

The latest news from the Centre for Economic Business and Research that consumer spending will not increase significantly for at least the rest of the decade and the impact on High Street shops is more than disappointing.

It wasn’t however unexpected coming in the same week that research from the Institute of Fiscal studies proved what millions of people already knew which is that their income has suffered the biggest fall since 2008 with over 35% of people accepting a pay freeze in order to keep their jobs.

Interestingly it isn’t something that Local Northamptonshire Councillors or MP’s have felt it necessary to follow deciding instead to continue with collecting their taxpayer-funded ‘ fat cheques’.

In the real world away from the political bubble of self-interest families are having to tighten their belts and live with the coalition Governments failing economic policies that have led to weak economic growth, higher utility costs and high inflation.

But is it right to blame the decline of the High Street on a lack of consumer spending?

Or are there other factors that have to be taken into account?

The question is not as simple as asking if Town Centre High Street shops can survive another six years of being at the mercy of weak economic growth.

The facts are that in the past year a number of very well-known high street companies including HMV, Comet, Blockbusters and Jessops have closed down which added to those that had already gone such as Woolworths has seen a dramatic change in the traditional town centre.

The major question is how will Town Centres such as Northampton react to the decline?

I have written on a number of occasions that the Conservative led Northampton Borough Council has failed to treat the crisis of the declining town centre seriously preferring to hide behind announcements and re- announcements of construction projects rather than people and businesses.

Listening to Northampton is the first step to solving the problems
Listening to Northampton is the first step to solving the problems

The latest performance information from the Borough Council for the period January to March this year shows that the number of people visiting Northampton’s Town Centre fell by 83,000 compared with the same period last year.

Perhaps most damaging is that when added to the previous nine months data it shows that in the last 12 months (April 2012 – March 2013) over 718,000 fewer people visited Northampton, the largest reduction of footfall in a single year since records began.

The problem for existing businesses is that with almost three-quarter of million fewer shoppers it is not only the multi-national companies who have left Northampton but also the independent traders who have for many years contributed to the town.

Independent Traders are essential to Town Centre recovery
Independent Traders are essential to Town Centre recovery

The most recent example being the sad news that White and Bishop in Bridge Street are closing after 83 years.

The reasons for the closure have been heard before, most noticeably “the fall in footfall” and” developing on-line service”.

What should be of concern to the Borough Council is that White and Bishop are retaining their shop in Rugby which is said to be “doing well”.

It should be a concern if for no other reason than the population of Rugby at 62,000 is 72% smaller than Northampton’s 225,000 so what have Rugby done that Northampton hasn’t?

Similar questions of course could be asked of the decision to close the Disney store in the Grosvenor Centre and concentrate on their store in Milton Keynes.

All of the evidence in spite of what the Conservative led Borough Council try to spin is that Northampton Town Centre is not a destination of choice and is unlikely to become one in the near future without a radical and coherent strategy to support existing businesses and attract new independent ones.

Until they stop trying to hide the problem with PR and Spin and really start to listen and understand why people aren’t willing to visit the town, preferring instead to go to Milton Keynes, Market Harborough and even Leicester the decline will inevitably continue.

With two years until the next Borough Council election it may well be that the decline will have reached a point where recovery is impossible.

It would be understandable for Northampton residents to ask why the Leader of the Borough Council and his Conservative administration aren’t addressing the root causes of the decline of the Town Centre and why so many people and businesses have decided to abandon Northampton.

718338 people turning their backs on Northampton in the last year have sent out a powerful message.

Any sensible and reasonable administration would have carried out a detailed survey of the Northampton residents asking them why they have voted with their feet to abandon the Town Centre.

I’d go as far as to suggest that the reasons would not have been the weather as the Conservatives continue to claim and in fact would go as far as to say that it wouldn’t even be in the top ten.

Perhaps it is only the people I speak to, which I doubt, who when asked why they don’t go to Northampton always include in their answer,

“It’s filthy and unattractive”

“It’s easier to go to Milton Keynes where you’re made welcome”

“What has Northampton got to offer, the shops are dire”

“There isn’t enough public transport and it is too expensive”.

The problem with the Conservatives ‘head in the sand’ attitude is that it doesn’t address or give any confidence to current businesses or potential investors that they know what is a happening to or even care what the town needs.

The major question is

“Just when will the Northampton Conservatives start to listen”?