Town Centre Decline – Action Not Froth Needed

A fall of over 800,000 visitors since 2011 cannot be ignored.
A fall of over 800,000 visitors since 2011 cannot be ignored.

Town Centre Decline – Action Not Froth Needed

This morning I was in the process of buying diesel from a well-known supermarket chain when I noticed on the nozzle an advert saying “shop on-line today” which perhaps reflects the problem associated with the continuing decline in Town Centre shopping.

It got me to thinking again about what if anything is behind and is influencing people to stop coming to Northampton.

In response to concerns I’ve expressed in the past about the serious fall in the number of visitors by over 720,000 between 2011 and 2012 the reaction from the Northampton Conservatives has been woeful in the extreme.

Their whole reaction to what is rapidly becoming a retail crisis is to blame the drop in visitors on the weather and ignoring calls to take it seriously.

What is clear when talking to friends across the town is that they very rarely go to Northampton because of the condition of the streets and infrastructure as well as the increasing decline in the shopping offer?

One argument that is always sited by those who no longer go to town is the increase in the number of “Pound Shops.”

Two things immediately spring to mind when I hear the argument around the rising number of “Pound Shops”.

The first is that if there wasn’t a customer base for what they sell there wouldn’t be as many of them.

The second is that people were not only unhappy but actually saddened by the closure of the Abington Street Woolworth’s a few years ago.

The reason it springs to mind is because when F. W. Woolworth first opened his ‘five’ and ‘ten’ store in the USA it had none of the stigma we now see aimed at low price supermarkets.

In opening a store that sold everything for either five cents or ten cents Frank Woolworth’s aim and ambition was to build a business where the poor and working people on low incomes could shop which during the depression years of the 1920’s provided a certain level of goods at a price people could afford.

It was of course a great success but after sustaining losses over a number of years the business as we now know was first of all closed in the USA and then across Europe.

The question is are today’s ‘Pound Shops’ the natural successors to Woolworth’s and as well as reducing the number of empty retail units in the town don’t they provide a similar service to low-income people and families?

The reality is that the footfall is continuing to fall and the rise of the ‘Pound Shop’ that sells everything from egg timers, plates, cutlery, household goods et al is almost identical to those that made Woolworth’s such a household name.

The problem of course is that just as Woolworth’s in its time met a need and filled a niche in the market then the cut price stores are fulfilling the same need today, driven increasingly by declining town centre retail spending.

The fact is no matter what the Conservative are trying to spin Northampton as we have seen by the footfall data and failure to attract the jobs that the Enterprise Zone was designed to achieve is continuing to be unattractive to retailer investment.

Regrettably a new Railway Station and Bus Station whilst hopefully improving existing facilities, which only time will tell, aren’t developments that will attract inward investment.

A new approach is required based on an acceptance that footfall will continue to decline as on-line shopping increases which even well-known companies are now promoting.

The footfall will also continue to fall unless the retail offer, through niche high quality independent retail outlets is improved.

I have long argued for a reduction of retail rents and business rates but without a stimulus to the incomes of those who will be spending money in the shops and businesses, in other words the residents of Northampton the whole system will continue to be decline.

Taking money from the consumer and subsidising businesses is not the answer.

Only by supporting the businesses and stimulating the economy by also supporting the consumer through paying them a living wage will spending and the economy improve.

I suspect there will be photo calls and announcements over the next few months that will effectively be no more than papering over the gaps.

The footfall results for the October 2013 to the end of March this year will give us a better understanding of the extent of the problem.