Town centres are here to stay – it’s time we made them fit for the 21st Century

Q: With the news that Northampton has one of the worst rates of vacant units in the UK, at 25pc, what can councils do? Are there any quick fixes when it comes to empty bricks and mortar?

A: With every week that goes by, it’s becoming clearer that the pandemic prophets of doom got it wrong about the high street. Our sales and footfall are back to pre lockdown levels, life is returning to city centres as commuters flock back to offices, and there’s no doubt that town centres will play an important part in the future of society.

There are vacant shop units throughout the UK mainly because we developed far too many retail premises over the past 40 years. In 1970, our shoe shop on The Drapery, Northampton traded successfully, as did most of the other retailers in the town. 

Most of the properties there then are still standing, but the occupants face extra competition from The Grosvenor and Weston Favell shopping centres – both built in the 1970s. Nearby at least three busy retail parks have opened, together with several supermarkets, while Rushden Lakes, a successful retail development with 40 shops including Primark and M&S, is 15 miles down the road. It’s hardly surprising there are so many vacant units in Northampton. 

The county town is not alone: too many shops have been built in Wrexham, Dartford, Northwich and on the outskirts of Rotherham. Every high street in the country has suffered from out-of-town retail, so the rash of empty shops in Northampton is only partly due to an increase in online shopping; it’s also caused by the desire of property developers to develop new property. 

Well, I have good news for developers: plenty more construction is needed, but now the emphasis is on creating a new type of town centre.

Originally, most towns had a thriving agricultural market that attracted people from the surrounding countryside. Enterprising retailers opened shops to serve a captive audience (have you wondered why so many towns have a “Market Street”?). As a boy, I remember livestock being auctioned in the centre of Kettering. That market has gone, but the shops remain.

Today’s towns need a different community purpose – a collection of things that you can only do face to face: entertainment, coffee shops, medical services, hairdressers, leisure facilities, advice centres and, of course, a key cutting shop. 

These essential services will create an active social hub, especially if some former shops are converted to residential use. This vibrant activity will attract more retailers, put the buzz back into our town centres and provide the perfect environment for new, innovative and enterprising shopkeepers.

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