Positive signs in our Kettering town centre health check as number of vacant units falls

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Hair and beauty salons saw the biggest year-on-year increase

If you read the Facebook comments on many Northants Telegraph stories about Kettering’s town centre you’d think it was one of the worst in Britain.

Negativity about vape stores, charity shops and empty units seems to be shouted about louder than what our town actually offers, and can potentially offer in the future.

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Yes, the presence of so many online outlets and Rushden Lakes means it’s not what it once was ‘back in the day’, a problem faced across the county. But our annual town centre health check shows it’s not all doom and gloom – with the number of vacant or long-term closed stores falling year-on-year.

High Street health checkHigh Street health check
High Street health check

Once again, armed with a clipboard, we analysed 306 units from Sheep Street in the south to Newland Street in the north to break down the figures and see what’s here for shoppers and visitors.

Our findings

Last year the vacant total in our analysis was the highest of any of the 19 categories we placed units into, but that’s not the case in 2024. This year the tally for that category had 35 notches – down from 42 – which makes up 11.44 per cent of the town centre, rounded to two decimal places.

Hair and beauty now takes top spot with 37 stores – up from 32 – at 12.09 per cent of those we analysed.

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Cllr Emily Fedorowycz outside the former M&S storeCllr Emily Fedorowycz outside the former M&S store
Cllr Emily Fedorowycz outside the former M&S store

The remaining categories have shown little year-on-year change. For all of the moaning about vape shops and charity shops they still take up a small total of the town, at 1.96 per cent and 3.27 per cent respectively.

Food and drink takes up a large proportion combined with cafes and restaurants (7.48 per cent), fast food takeaways (6.54 per cent), food retail (5.88 per cent) and pubs and bars (2.94 per cent).

The number of estate and lettings agents has decreased slightly to 4.9 per cent, with mixed retail (7.52 per cent) and banks and financial services (3.92 per cent) also just falling.

Clothing and footwear (5.88 per cent), pharmacy and health (4.58 per cent), books, music, entertainment and art (2.29 per cent), newsagents (2.29 per cent) and phone stores (3.27 per cent) have all increased slightly.

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How each category comparesHow each category compares
How each category compares

The number of jewellery stores (2.29 per cent) and gambling premises (1.96 per cent) has remained the same while we placed 9.15 per cent of units into the category other.

Alison Holland, founder of the Brightwayz social enterprise and vice-chair of the Kettering Town Centre Partnership, said: “It’s really promising to see the positive changes in the town centre with the reduction in vacant units.

"There will always be a certain level of businesses coming and going but the town centre is definitely on the way up.

“I think the new town council have done a really good job at organising so many events and activities in the town centre over the past couple of years. These being people into the town centre – it’s the people that make a place great.”

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Gold Street, KetteringGold Street, Kettering
Gold Street, Kettering

What’s changed, and what about the bigger units?

The biggest name to leave our town centre in the past 12 months is Wilko, whose Newland Street store closed after the retail stalwart fell into administration.

The closure of The Loft nightclub, Abacus and Cheers Bar in Dalkeith Place also left a big hole in our night-time economy, although there’s been plenty of interest after the building went up for sale.

You can argue that Kettering’s problem isn’t the number of empty units, but the size of the units which are empty. Some seemingly show no sign of reopening any time soon, with Wildwood in Market Place closed since the start of the Covid pandemic and the old KFC in Silver Street still unused.

But there’s hope that, in some cases, that could change. The inspiriational duo of Beccy Hurrell and Lindsey Atkins – who were commended by the Prime Minister – are pressing ahead with their plan to transform the old Gala Bingo site into a community hub. Last week we reported that councillors are exploring the potential to turn the empty former M&S store into an indoor market. And the old Bonmarché site, which has been vacant for four years, looks set to become a 24/7 bingo lounge.

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We’ve also seen a genuine buzz and huge reaction to some stories we’ve done about sites that are opening. Although it is just outside the area we analysed, the recent launch of the Aso Rock African restaurant in Rockingham Road received one of the biggest social media responses we’ve seen in recent months. News of nightclub Tropicana, which opened in Ebenezer Place in October, was also well-received by our readers.

Jamie Cooper outside his Gold Street butchers shop.Jamie Cooper outside his Gold Street butchers shop.
Jamie Cooper outside his Gold Street butchers shop.

The number of events put on, including Friday night discos and Summer Saturdays, has also helped with town centre footfall.

How does Kettering compare?

In recent weeks Northants Telegraph reporters have conducted similar analysis of the three biggest other town centres in the north of the county.

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Mayor of Kettering Cllr Emily Fedorowycz (Green) urged people to venture into Kettering and find places they don’t even know about.

She said: “As the mayor of the town it’s my job to champion Kettering and everything good we have going on – and there are a lot of amazing things!

"However, we have to be honest about our town centre, which, like many others across the UK, has its challenges. I would say though that there are a lot of really great shops and venues that locals still don’t know about, often because it’s been so long since they’ve been into the town centre. Market Street is becoming pamper central with nails, hair and beauty, The Yards is now full retro with records, vintage clothes and retro games, the High Street is starting to pop with little independents and there are some really great places to get a pancake or a waffle.

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“If you have succumbed to the default of feeling that there’s nothing going on, I challenge you to venture out – whether that’s to enjoy a drink with a friend, or popping to the Newlands Shopping Centre for some fresh vegetables – come out, and start seeing the good. Our town is what you make of it, and if you start looking for the good, I’ll guarantee you’ll see it more and more.”

Cllr David Brackenbury (Con), North Northamptonshire Council’s executive member for growth and regeneration, said: “I’m pleased to hear that the number of vacant units is down because they can become dilapidated and don’t send the right message that we all want – that our towns are open for business.

"The Hi Street! campaign that we put on has been brilliant and has shown that the people of Kettering care about their town, want to see it thrive and want people to spend their money here.”

Cllr Brackenbury added that a promised review into parking charges has not yet been completed.

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He said he would love to see free parking for shoppers and visitors to all north Northamptonshire towns, but developed in a ‘practical way’ where it’s not abused by commuters who fill spaces. He added that Kettering has a different dynamic to other local towns where parking is free because of the number of staff who work at Kettering General Hospital and the proximity of the train station to the town centre.

Traders’ reactions

Popular entrepreneur Jamie Cooper owns Jamie's Quality Butchers in Gold Street and has worked at the shop since 1997. He’s always looking at new ways to bring people into the town and said the reduction in vacant units is good news.

He said: “Everyone wants the big brands but the independent market is getting bigger and bigger.

“People always say they want a Primark and yeah, it would be nice for some people, but they are still spending their money here. Good places that are doing good jobs are full.

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“The town centre is still busy and the footfall is still there.”

Davina Parkhouse, owner of popular High Street mini department store The Bean Hive, said they’re still taking on more traders and are busy. They recently remodelled one of their most popular areas of the shop, which sells a variety of sweets.

Davina said: “It’s great that the number of vacant units has decreased and it’s great that we’ve got people talking about the big units – like M&S and the bingo hall – as well.

“There’s a lot of negative Nellies but I do still feel that people want to support the town.”