By Richard Baker
THE growth in population, to a figure reaching over 200,000, has strengthened Northampton's role as a major employment, retail and residential centre of Northamptonshire - retaining its position as the largest town in England.
Situated within the wider Oxford - Milton Keynes - Cambridge Corridor, Northampton has become an important centre for high-performance engineering and high-end shoe manufacturing, and as a logistics and distribution centre. Other areas that are also highly represented are in business administrative and support services, and financial and insurance activities with major employers include Barclaycard, Cosworth, Panasonic UK Ltd, Travis Perkins, Avon, Carlsberg UK and Nationwide Building Society.
In recent years, the distribution and general industrial market has been the main thrust of the commercial property market, accounting for a substantial proportion of Northampton's employment growth.
The French property investor, Barjane, has recently launched its first logistics development in the UK; a 257,000 square foot warehouse building at Brackmills Point, purpose-built for sporting goods retailer Decathlon. The new site has proved a perfect location for Decathlon, which has relocated from a smaller 190,000 square foot building nearby, in order to accommodate the increasing logistics requirement associated with its growing UK store network and online sales. The new site also provides for expansion of up to 100,000 square feet on adjacent land.
Also within Brackmills Industrial Estate, two retail warehouses, totalling some 336,000 square feet have been purchased by the real estate investment company Warehouse REIT. The properties are let to John Lewis, at a rent reported to be £1.83m per annum and are operational critical to John Lewis in what is still an undersupplied part of the UK for mid-box warehouses.
The ongoing requirement for the more traditional employment land, for general industry and offices, needs to continue to be accommodated. This will ensure that there is a balance in the economy in terms of job supply across the sectors. Northampton's new Local Plan, which has recently been approved for consultation, has identified sites that have the capacity to deliver more employment growth. These include land within the town centre such as Four Waterside, as well as on Brackmills Industrial Estate, Swan Valley and Pineham, Moulton Park and Lodge Farm.
The retail market remains one of the dominant themes of discussion in the last few years, as town centres continue to experience higher rates of vacancies - with national retailers closing down completely or some of their stores, and customer behaviour towards online retailing continuing to change.
Northampton has a compact town centre which performs a regional role within the county. Apart from retail, other uses - including residential - have an important role to play towards ensuring the vitality of the town centre. While vacancy rates have fallen over the past ten years, the current level of empty shops gives rise to some concern given their spatial concentration. The Borough Council aims to maintain and enhance the vitality and viability of Northampton's town centre by focusing investment which will help to promote their economic prosperity.
The Borough Council has recently applied for £25m from the Government's Future High Street Fund which could be used for redevelop part of the town centre. A new taskforce - Northampton Forward - has been established and unveiled its submission to revitalise the town. Among a host of proposals, such as a new indoor food hall, the council is looking to improve the visual appearance of town businesses at ground floor level with new, traditional shop fronts. Money would also be offered to landlords to renovate empty offices units on upper levels or encourage repurposing of vacant properties.
Particular areas of focus within the submission include Market Square, Greyfriars, the eastern section of Abington Street, the route along Marefair and Gold Street, and the area around Fish Street and Dychurch Lane
Just outside of the borough, work has started on construction of HS2, which will provide a high speed rail link between London and Birmingham - with a later phase proposed to link further to Leeds and Manchester. An advantage of this for Northampton is that this offers potential to release capacity on the West Coast Main Line (WCML), with the possibility that new service patterns could be introduced - perhaps including fast, long distance services calling at Northampton.
This would increase the range of destinations available and with Northampton in the heart of the Oxford - Milton Keynes - Cambridge Corridor, play an important contribution to the wider growth aspirations. It will strengthen its role as a great UK location for a range of employment opportunities, as well as offering an excellent quality of life for its communities.
Further information or advice can be obtained from Prop-Search on 01604 492000 or 01933 223300 or at the website www.prop-search.com