What the future holds for our town centres

Kettering town property for let, rent
Kettering town property for let, rent

Our town centres are facing a tough future, according to an extensive report which paints a bleak picture for shopping in the north of the county.

Business leaders, traders, policitians and shoppers have all had their say on what is in store for our high streets, following the report from the Local Data Company.

The report revealed that in 2011, 25 per cent of Corby’s town centre units were vacant, and more than 17 per cent of Kettering’s high street stood empty, with the national rate stabilising last year at 14.3 per cent.

But it warned that many centres are ‘locked in a spiral of decline’, and predicts that vacancy rates will rise in 2012 in the face of out-of-town shopping developments and internet spending.

The regions with above average empty unit rates are in the North and the Midlands, with the East Midlands’ average vacancy at 12 per cent.

The high streets in Rushden, Wellingborough, Corby, and Kettering have seen the loss of major retailers in the past year, such as TJ Hughes, and there are currently questions over whether Bon Marche will keep its stores open in the north of the county.

Duncan Walker, investment director of Helical Bar, which owns Corby town centre, said: “High street shopping is not dead.

“I think it differs from place to place, but I think in the future Corby will still see the town having a strong, retail-based high street.

“High streets up and down the country are facing tough times, but I think they will bounce back.

“I think the report is misleading, as it counts empty retail units that are vacant on purpose for future developments.

“We think the figure could be closer to around 10 per cent, not including those units empty on purpose.

“We bought Corby town centre last year because it was a good, strong centre that has come on really well in the past few years.”

The report did not have vacancy figures for Rushden or Wellingborough, while neighbouring Northampton’s town centre is more than 15 per cent empty.

But Wellingborough Improvement District has recently collated figures which suggest Wellingborough currently has an 8.6 per cent vacancy rate.

The report also shows that high street spending is down from 49.4 per cent in 2000 to 42.5 per cent last year, with this rate further expected to dwindle.

It also revealed that the internet’s share of the market has doubled in the past 11 years.

The report said that the high street has ‘structural issues’, such as having too many shops for a dwindling market share.

Joanna Chapman, Wellingborough Business Improvement District manager, said: “I think the high street will still be here in 10 years’ time.

“But high streets will have to adapt with the times and become community centres and cultural hubs.

“This includes not only shops, but people eating, drinking and socialising, whether in restaurants or meeting up in town centres for community get-togethers.

“It would be great to see community groups, artists, crafters and such like all meeting up in the town centre.

“We’ve got a strong community base in the town centre with a lot of independent traders so we’ve got a strong starting point.”

The report also mentioned the measures outlined in December by retail guru Mary Portas to save high streets, which included cutting business rates – a view shared by traders.

Simon Turner, of Kettering Chamber of Trade, said: “Freezing business rates instead of putting them up will go a long way to helping the situation.

“They are set to go up in April, but that isn’t a good move.”