The announcement of the closure of Marks and Spencer’s Kettering store should act as a wake-up call for us all and action is needed to safeguard the future of our town centre
The other day the deputy leader of Northampton spoke publically about their Council not having the answer to dealing with the pressures the retail sector was facing in their town. This was the correct and a brave thing to say. Too often people in both public and private life hate to admit they don’t know what to do, and as a consequence ignore the question completely. There are no simple quick-fix solutions to revitalising our town centres but just because a question is difficult doesn’t mean it should be ignored.
The other week when Marks and Spencer’s announced they were closing their store in Kettering I wrote to the Chairman and Members of the Council's Scrutiny Committee asking for their support in getting the Council to look at the future of Kettering’s town centre. I wrote:
I’m sure you’ll agree that it is terrible news to hear that Marks & Spencer are closing their store in Kettering. I’m equally all sure we all have ideas and views about how KBC can support the retail sector in the town, and possibly about how shopping trends are changing and giving retail challenges across the whole country, as well as possibly have ideas about how high streets will change in the future, but whether that evolves naturally or whether KBC can try to influence that is possibly up for debate.
Currently KBC have some really good plans to make some improvements to our town centre but these are based mainly around the obvious things a council can influence e.g. events in the market square, new street furniture and improvements to the street scene etc. But I can’t help wonder if that is enough on its own?
We’re almost left with a chicken and egg situation that private sector investment will come with increased footfall, but footfall won’t come until there is more investment and more of a reason to visit the town centre.
I can’t therefore help but wonder if the council shouldn’t be doing more and taking more of a proactive role in the community. What sort of future do we expect or want for our town centre and is there anything that can be done to encourage it?
I suspect there are no quick fix solutions or easy answers, but I would hope that the Council’s scrutiny function could play a part in this and thrash out some of the issues and possibilities in a way that would constructively help inform the executive.
I would suggest that R&D would be a perfect place to do this and wonder if you would agree that we should take an active lead in discussions. We could (and in my opinion should) set up a working group to investigate some of the challenges and move towards proposing some solutions. We could for example try to take evidence from the retail sector, maybe even ask about the specific commercial challenges that M&S faced.
We could speak to the new fledging Chamber of Trade about what support they feel they need and about what they, and other members of the community see as the future for the town centre and we could certainly try to explore some of the lessons from other similar towns around the county to see if anything they have done might be appropriate for Kettering.
Obviously I could ask for Scrutiny to look at this myself and as leader of the opposition put it on the agenda for a future meeting, but that would potentially be counterproductive if the committee itself were not in agreement of the need to act, so I’m asking you as Chair and the Committee as a whole their views and whether people think that a working group should be set up to look just at these issues, and if so whether we could either meet or perhaps have an email discussion about who we should invite to discuss these matters and take evidence from.
Any conclusions or suggestions we have could then be passed to the executive for them to discuss between themselves and hopefully we will end up with a plan of action along with some defined proposals.
I’d be pleased to hear of your or any other members' thoughts on this. Obviously the closure of M&S as Kettering’s main anchor store is sad news, but if we as Councillors can use this negative to create some kind of positive we could perhaps at least turn this to the town’s long term advantage.
Cllr. Mick Scrimshaw
Not having had any response to that original email from any of the recipients, I raised the issue this week in the Committee meeting and am pleased to report that the Chairman agreed to put it on the agenda for a future meeting.
As I said at the top of this post, just because a question is difficult doesn’t mean it should be ignored and I am sure that if the Council can put together its collective heads and work with residents and the local business community along with people with similar experience and expertise from outside the area we will be able to offer meaningful support which will help secure the future of your town centre in whatever form we decide we need. All we need is the will to act!