In April 2009, Roger Tym and partners were commissioned by Northampton Borough Council to undertake a comprehensive health check of Northampton town centre.
The objective of the study was to present a quantitative and qualitative assessment of the Northampton Central Area, to help the council with its creation of a Central Area Action Plan. This CAAP was a requirement of central government.
Three relevant studies had already been undertaken:
- Northampton’s Retail Strategy (2008)
- Northampton Market Square Study (2008)
- West Northants Retail Study (2008)
However, none of these included a detailed town centre health check, hence the 2009 Tym study was designed to provide the missing information, to help the creation of the hugely important CAAP.
Town centre health checks are required by central government’s Planning Policy Statement 6 (PPS6), which sets out 12 key indicators of vitality and viability.
Tym used standard published data sources as well as their own observations.
Management Horizons Europe (MHE) 2008 Shopping Index, ranks all town centres nationally in terms of their shopping offer. Below are the MHE 2008 results for Northampton and its comparator towns – MK is better than NN1:
- Northampton 43.
- Peterborough 43.
- Milton Keynes 30.
- Leicester 14.
- Oxford 45.
- Coventry 60.
- The town centre has an average proportion of comparison floor space but a below average proportion of convenience floor space, with Sainsbury’s at the Grosvenor centre being the only large food store.
- Services as a whole are over represented, but restaurants, cafes and fast food are underrepresented. This is despite high per capita spending compared to nearby city/town centres and a high population within a 15 minute drive time.
- The town centre has 26 of the 31 Goad key multiples, on a par with Leicester and Coventry. It has a ‘middle’ fashion ranking from Management Horizons Europe and is ranked below Milton Keynes and Leicester but at a similar level to the other comparator centres.
- However occupier demand is low compared to the other centres, where high quality comparison and restaurant operators are seeking space. This is perhaps because of poor perceptions of the town and lack of clusters of particular types of outlet (e.g. premium retailers or family restaurants)
- Vacancy is very high as would be expected, this has worsened since the start of the recession. But, because vacancy has always been high compared to other centres, the losses suffered have not been in other areas.
- Prime Zone A retails rents are low in Northampton, presenting an opportunity for new retailers. Retail yields are strong- on a par with Milton Keynes and have strengthened over the past decade, perhaps due to improvements to the public realm.
- Crime is recognised as an issue and there are schemes in place to target crime and improve perceptions of safety.
- The public realm is pleasant if somewhat tatty, for example with damaged street furniture. Much of the town is pedestrianized. There is generally good signage, although minimal signage from the station. Investment in the public realm has already taken place along Black Lion Hill and further work along Gold Street is due to be completed at the end of July 2009.
- Pedestrian access to and through the centre is good, although the centre is spread out so it takes time to walk from one end to the other. Abington Street is the busiest location, with the Drapery and Gold Street also busy. Hardly anyone visiting Morrison’s walks to the rest of the centres.
- Train and bus links are good but the stations are peripheral and in poor condition. The visitor survey found that most people travel either by car or bus.
- The town centre has a fairly local catchment- if another centre is either closer or the same distance away; it seems people visit that instead.
- Most people visit Northampton only once per month or fortnight, suggesting that they shop in other centres as well.
- Non-food shopping is the most popular reason for visiting the town centre, which accords with the fact that over half the floor space is comparison goods. Eating out is a secondary reason for some visitors, although people do not seem to see the town centre as a restaurant destination.
- The market is full with visitors and they like the independent stalls although feel there is lack of choice.
- Overall visitors rate the town centre poorly, in particular for environmental factors including cleanliness, safety and character (although pedestrianized streets are liked).
- Around half the residents surveyed stated that Northampton town is their main shopping destination. This accords with the findings of previous studies but is low compared to the situation in, for example, Milton Keynes.
- A low proportion of residents use the Sainsbury store, stating the supermarkets outside the town centre are easier to get to and park at.
- Reasons for not using Northampton are that it has a poor range of multiples, although it is true that the centre lacks premium outlets. There is also reasonable parking provision as compared to surrounding centres.
- With regard to leisure, restaurants are a popular activity and the town centre is reasonably popular- although most people visit their local restaurants. Safety concerns are the most cited reason for not eating in the town centre.
- Cinema and theatre are also popular- and town centre provision for the both is good.
- Report Recommendations.
- The Town centre is spread out and lacks a core, with the Grosvenor centre showing its age. This needs addressing.
- Access by public transport is good, but stations are peripheral and dated! This is being addressed.
- Within 15mins of Northampton there is a high population with high capita spend. This population should be able to attract better quality retail and restaurant operators into the town centre. Sadly this is a chicken and egg situation. Currently, this population with high disposable income is dismissive of the retail offer, and feels that the whole experience in the centre is too “down market”.
- The Town centre needs a broader range of higher quality shops, but how is this achieved? ---- better access, better parking, less anti-social behaviour, a better social experience?
- The council should resist edge and out of the centre applications for new comparison retail. It is clear that previous out of centre developments have accelerated the demise of town centres generally.
- The proposed Grosvenor redevelopment should provide a larger food store.
- Restaurants are too dispersed; people do not perceive Northampton to be an eating destination. It is unclear how this situation can be changed, unless it is by a number of new restaurants opening, that happen to link those already in existence.
- Public Realm e.g. street furniture needs upgrading and investment. The Town Centre Manager and the BID to assist with this.
- St Peters Square sadly reflects the characteristics of a retail park.
- St Giles Street should be secondary retail frontage due to low footfall and mix of shops, but could be promoted as a unique area.
The “Roger Tym” health check was valuable and exposed the truth of the matter -----“I told you so!”
It is essential that this health check is repeated in 2015 and then every 5 years.
We live in a rapidly changing world in which our competitor towns are also being proactive.
We are still “behind the curve” and this needs to change.
Adapt or die!!!
In 2014, Peter Brett Associates (they had taken over Roger Tym), were commissioned by NBC to conduct another health check.
The exercise was completed and the results sent to NBC in Jan/Feb 2015 for approval. WHY WOULD THEY NEED APPROVAL?
Despite several attempts, by June 2016, both Watchdog and BID had been unable to get sight of the report.
One can only assume that NBC has suppressed a critical health check……..