Take One Town and One City
I recently spent some time in Devon and took the opportunity to visit Exeter for the first time in many years which gave rise to a comparison with Northampton where I live.
There are many similarities between the two places with Northampton and Exeter both being the capital town/city of their respective Counties.
What is not comparable is their size with Northampton having a population of over 220,000 compared with Exeter’s population of 120,000.
Most noticeable was the comparison between the centres with Northampton struggling to maintain existing businesses and attract new ones leading to a plethora and ever-increasing number of empty shops and Exeter with very few empty premises.
What was most startling to me was the cleanliness of Exeter, a real tribute to the Council who have clearly made the town centre development their number one priority as part of its enhancement programme.
The absence of litter and especially the despicable ‘chewing gum’ stains on the pavements made the city centre in Exeter welcoming but what was really nice to hear was that the people themselves had such pride in their city.
It was an interesting experience to talk to people and listen to them talking about how they welcomed the opening up of the city centre to buses, mixing with pedestrians and bringing life back to the city.
I asked if they were worried that the number of benches available would attract undesirables to sleep in the centre and was told in no uncertain West Country terms that “it wouldn’t be allowed”.
In stark contrast the refurbishment of Abington Street in Northampton whilst welcome leaves a lot to be desired because the actual pedestrian area itself hasn’t been upgraded which has limits the impact of fitting the new benches.
The failure to open up Abington Street to public transport as promised before the 2011 election and of the County Council to upgrade the block paved area has left it looking tired and worn out.
It is also noticeable that the fitting of new benches which have arms fitted to as a spokesperson for the Council said “prevent people sleeping on them” displays an attitude that the problem of undesirables is now accepted as being here to stay.
It is an attitude and approach which doesn’t lend itself to encouraging people to come into the town.
The issue and problems of the lack of progress in the regeneration and development of the Grosvenor Centre in Northampton has been well documented since it was first muted in 2001 with effectively no progress in the last 12 years.
During the same period not only has Exeter planned and built a new city centre shopping precinct they have also developed and regenerated the existing market and the rest of the city centre.
This has not only attracted big name brands such as John Lewis but they are also looking forward to an investment of over £60m from IKEA who along with a 28,000 sq metre outlet are also building 220 homes employing 200 construction workers and 300 permanent staff once completed.
They have also recently announce that The White Company a major name in the provision of clothing, furniture and bedding is moving to the City as part of the jigsaw that has provided a mixture of small independent and major brands,
Both towns have had to deal with the economic downturn and problems of the world-wide recession but it looks as if Exeter have over the good years had a very focused approach to investing not only in the infrastructure but also people that has held them in good stead during the difficult times.
Northampton in contrast has stumbled from one crisis to another over the past 12 years under the control of Councils who have concentrated not on the long-term benefits for the people but their own short-term political self-interest.
Sadly where Exeter look to the future and continue to build on their success Northampton appear to be going in the opposite direction concentrating on superficial improvements instead of the major regeneration necessary to make the town the preferred inward investment area of choice.