Town Centre Footfall = Town Centre Decline
Northampton in common with Town Centres throughout the UK is in need of not only radical but drastic solutions to first of all stop and then reverse its decline.
It is something that the Labour group has been calling for over a number of years which is why the latest Conservative proposals are not only welcome from the point of view of the businesses but also a demonstration that they may at last be recognising the importance of the issue.
The problem of course as we all know with ‘Strategic Proposals’ is that they are usually a rehash and yet another announcement of what has already been announced which fuels the public’s perception that the Council are just trying to ‘spin a good news story’.
What will make the difference this time according to the Conservative administration is that Northampton for the first time will have a ‘Town Team’ to lead on the town centre improvement?
It will be led by a ‘Town Centre Czar’ who will be known as the ‘Town Centre Summit Chairman’ and who is going to ‘Host’ a ‘Town Centre Summit’ in September.
Let me say I have no problem with the appointment of Stephen Church a successful local businessman who until recently had a very successful business in the town and who having closed his business down is someone with first-hand knowledge of the problems associated with town centre retail.
The question that we don’t seem able to get an answer to is what does the strategy do?
In the words of a famous American Advert, “where’s the beef”.
Over the past two years the administration has been quick to disparage concerns about the falling footfall in the town as alarmist or talking the town down whilst saying as they have that under their control ‘Northampton has bucked the trend”.
The Borough Council annual performance data recently published in fact shows that the footfall target for the last year missed the Councils target by 835,000 and lower than the previous years by 682,000.
Numbers which as a rule seem to be of little importance but if the estimate that each visitor to the town spend between £20 and £40 means that the cost to local businesses is between £16.7m and £33.4m
The Councils attitude has done a disservice to the Town Centre Business Improvement District members who have continued as they have for a number of years to promote and support the Town.
Which begs the question?
Why hasn’t the Council Leadership worked for the past two years with the BID to develop a strategy and more importantly what is the role of the BID Chairperson in the new process?
The major question is when is a ‘commitment – promise’ not one?
Or what is it going to meaningfully achieve in addressing the real problems Northampton faces?
The latest announcement is full of “we will acknowledge, review, discuss, debate, consider” but what?
We will acknowledge the contribution of the Town Centre BID?
Shouldn’t the excellent work they do be acknowledged and supported all of the time?
We will review the “night-time economy”!
How? Look at the number of venues closing or facing economic difficulties? Shouldn’t they already be doing it?
We will discuss the decline of the town centre?
How many times have we heard that? and, What has the result been, apart from yet another action plan?
We will debate how an action plan can be developed and implemented?
The only real practical proposal is to extend the ‘Up to 1 hour free parking to 2 hours’ effectively providing the one hour of free parking that was promised in 2011, but only for the month of August when it will revert back to the existing pricing.
The problem is that for all of the talk the Conservatives don’t appear to have grasped the nub of the problem.
That over 23% of the shops in Abington Street are closed and that the Town Centre offer to visitors and shoppers is declining.
They don’t seem to realise the difficulties faced by the towns businesses in spite of their own data released recently which shows the council has failed to meet its own rental target for vacant properties.
Perhaps the more telling information is that the level of commercial rents due which are over two months in arrears has risen compared to last year.
It is time for the Conservative Leader of the Borough Council to stop looking for self-acclamations and self-interest and start putting Northampton and the people of Northampton first.
Perhaps the hope is that he will achieve his ambition of a place in Westminster and therefore can avoid having to explain his leading role in the decline of Northampton.