One of the councillors behind plans to enhance Kettering’s town centre says he is positive about the town’s future.
The Telegraph’s Facebook page has been flooded with messages from people arguing the town had little to offer shoppers.
Among the criticism was that there was a poor variety of shops, that retailers were put off moving into the town and that car parking was too expensive.
But cabinet member Cllr Michael Brown has defended both the administration of which he is a part and Kettering itself – urging people to “rediscover their town centre”.
He argued the town was one of the leaders in the area in terms of independent shops, something which was a selling point for Kettering.
Responding to those who have condemned the town’s perceived lack of variety of shops, Cllr Brown said he had tallied up all the shops in the town centre and found there were more clothing and fashion retailers – 45 – than any other type of shop.
There were also significantly more hair and beauty outlets than coffee, phone and betting shops, he said.
Cllr Brown added: “We don’t want to be just a clone town with the same branded names, we want to offer something unique. We offer small, independent shops which bring something different to the table.”
He also said the council would be working with the owners of the Newlands Shopping Centre to try and attract a big department store there. Giving a facelift to the adjacent Newland Street and its bus shelters, he said, could do more to persuade a major retailer to move in.
However, the owner of one independent shop says the town should do more to attract businesses like hers.
Claire Perkins set up Caboodle, a children’s clothing shop selling good-quality, pre-owned items, in Market Street Mews in March. She would have liked to open a shop in the High Street, but was put off by a combination of exorbitant rates and a lengthy minimum lease which would have been a big risk for a small, independent business to agree to.
She said: “Where I wanted to rent it cost nearly triple where I am now. If you are starting up a new business you are never going to risk that.
“I appreciate they do have to have a certain amount of rent but surely it would be better to lower the rent, at least for the first 12 months. Nobody is going to set up a business and pay for a three-year lease. I don’t understand the logic of it.”
But Cllr Brown said the council’s hands were tied in most cases, with the authority only owning about one in 10 units in the town centre.
In terms of rent at council-owned units, he added: “We do our best to keep it low but we have got to get a fair deal for the taxpayer as well as business.”
Readers have also criticised higher charges to park their cars in Kettering than in neighbouring towns.
Cllr Brown pointed to the fact the incumbent administration had cut some charges and frozen others, and added: “Since I have been in the cabinet we have worked very hard to bring down car parking charges in Kettering. This is the first time they have ever started coming down and we have more free days than ever before.”
Meanwhile, Newlands Centre boss Neil Griffin said that from his perspective the town was in healthy shape. Mr Griffin added: “We have 70 shops and there are only two empty, and one of them is under offer.
“I think companies have gained more confidence in Kettering. Regarding the centre, it’s in a better state now than it has been for years, and definitely since the recession. Our shops are on long-term deals. It shows you they have faith in Kettering.
“We are not centre:MK and I am not pretending we are. We are trying to offer the people of Kettering the stuff they need nine times out of 10.
“Our footfall is 1.9 per cent up on last year. The East Midlands and the country as a whole are down.”
Kettering also received the backing of the town’s MP and borough councillor Philip Hollobone.
He said: “I am in Kettering town centre every week and always have a positive experience.
“There are some great shops, there’s always someone you know to bump into and there’s plenty else going on as well.”
Cllr Brown on what Kettering offers shoppers:
“We have Games Workshop, HMV, Marks & Spencer and Waterstone’s – we have all these things that other towns don’t have.
“We have more fashion shops than any other category. I think we are definitely one of the leaders locally for small, independent shops.”
Cllr Brown on attracting a department store:
“Ellandi has come in and done the Newlands Centre up.
“We are getting section 106 money in and that is being used for things like the Newland Street bus shelters and improving shop frontage.
“That will make that big unit where the 99p Stores is more attractive for a department store.”
Cllr Brown on the costs to businesses:
“To the best of my knowledge I think nearly all of them are full. But there’s very little we can do in terms of rents. It’s landlords’ investment, their property.
“We are flexible. With one restaurant we did an initial deal with them to attract them into town.
“We don’t set rates, central Government does. They tell us how much we have to charge people and we collect it on behalf of the Government. We have been lobbying Government to get this devolved locally. It would be nice to control your local economy.”
Cllr Brown on parking charges:
“Our Government grant is being cut by millions of pounds and we want to keep council tax down, but we are slowly going to bring parking charges down. It’s one of our top priorities.
“There’s a change of direction at KBC due to [finance portfolio holder] Ian Jelley and me working together to reduce car parking charges, and there will be more to come.
“As we grow our council tax base it will hopefully give us more money to play with to do this sort of thing.”
Cllr Brown on how else to boost the town centre:
“This year’s Kettering-by-the-Sea was the best we have had. There will be the Christmas celebrations, although we are running out of [empty] shops to stick the grotto in.
“There’s still work to do – pedestrianisation, traffic flow and work on the bus shelters.”
Cllr Brown on the future for the town centre:
“There’s always work to do and we will try and do it. We have just come out of the deepest recession and we have got the internet to compete with. [But] I think you can get a lot more in Kettering than elsewhere in the north of the county.
“It is on the up. We did have some low points on the way but that’s not unique to Kettering.”