12 Jun 2011

The Future is Northampton


Distribution Warehouses: from here to the death of the high street

Northampton is an interesting but unassuming Midlands town which has had a great deal of planned development thrust upon it. It is at the epicentre of what was the Sustainable Communities Plan announced by Prescott in 2003 only to be scrapped by Pickles in 2010. But despite the much publicised death of regional planning the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation lives on and the new Core Strategy still contains plans for big expansion – 7 ‘sustainable urban extensions’ as well as large scale inner urban development. 23,000 new homes are still planned in Northampton by 2026.


New Ways - a future from 1925

Northampton has always been compliant to central diktat, unlike stroppy Home Counties exurbia. In 1968 it was designated a New Town and the population has since increased by nearly 60% to 210,000. Then it was included in Prescott’s Milton Keynes/South Midlands Growth Zone. This was always fairly bonkers as the intention was to divert development from where it really wanted to be – the Thames Valley, Surrey or anywhere posh where the locals would thwart development – to somewhere 70 miles away up the M1 which didn’t matter so much. In fact it was an early form of Localism.


The past is a foreign country


Blessed with good parks and rolling landscape

Prescott, the Sustainable Communities Plan, regional planning, growth zones …. what a curious far away place the recent past is. No longer command and control, planners are now the Enemies of Enterprise. The future is about embracing communities (or is that big business). But Localism is really ritual theatre to reinforce the identity and belief systems of the privileged. It is not about practical things like delivering housing or jobs. This is the preserve of the Market god. However faith in the Market god is badly misplaced since his or her model of housing delivery is well and truly bust. Two thirds of people under 45 now think they will never own their home. (Must be true, it was in the Guardian.) Without first time buyers the mass housing market, which has underpinned most of our fantasies of well being in recent years, does not work. But this is a heresy not to be spoken – something so terrible that it strikes at the very being of Middle England.

Strangely planning is complicit in this. As a profession it has yet to understand the scale of the housing crisis triggered by casino banking but which is actually far more fundamental than that – the pyramid selling of housing that so many of us are complicit in. It offers no coherent alternative to the charade of Localism, partly because everyone really knows this is just window dressing – it is not meant to change anything. And the apparatus of planning is still all there; a vastly complex structure with its evidence basing-demand forecasting-sustainability appraising-environmental impact assessing-stakeholder involving-infrastructure levying-market appraising that seems to make little impact on the quality let alone the quantity of new housing in particular.


Northampton plays the game


Take me to the River Nene

So what does any of this mean for Northampton? Well despite the catastrophic failures of the housing market it’s still game on for growth planning, at least in theory. The planners to their credit are putting in place all the pieces of the Local Development Framework jigsaw. There is a Core Strategy which covers the town and sensibly the surrounding semi-rural areas as well. A Town Centre Action Plan has been produced and there are imaginative proposals for improving the ecology and accessibility of the River Nene. A ‘tariff’ for developer contributions covers everything from crèches to crematoria. The West Northamptonshire Development Corporation and the HCA are assembling land and remediating it for development – really quite amazing in Pickles world. So if new housing and jobs are not delivered in Northampton it won’t be for lack of plans.

Two things in the Core Strategy really strike you. The first is that the ‘sustainable urban extensions’ remain a blank canvas (of which more later). The second is the extent of the problems created by the New Town developments from the 70s onwards which now have to be overcome. These are a series of inward looking Radburn estates tagged on to new expressways, hugely car dependent and with little relation to the older Northampton. The new shopping centres, offices and factories are all out of town. The town centre is economically weak – overshadowed by nearby Milton Keynes.


City centre ambitions


Closed: ambitions for civic transport. Borough Transport offices.

The Core Strategy and the Action Plan include lots of sensible policies to strengthen the town centre – to try and make it a ‘city centre’. Bravely it includes a ban on any further superstores, which are already hyper dominant with just four big supermarkets taking 40% of the total retail spend. Enemies of Enterprise indeed! The strategy also includes lots of good intentions about improving sustainability with obligatory calls for ‘high quality public transport’. Poor public transport is an intractable problem for Northampton. Always off the main line its rail links were butchered by Beeching so although it has outer suburban services to Euston and the West Midlands, there is no connection to other Northants towns, or to Leicester, Nottingham, Peterborough or Bedford. No wonder its expressways are clogged. Worse are the bus services. Northampton Borough used to run its own buses and their jewel box like offices survive next to the First bus garage. Londoners enjoying the benefits of regulated (and heavily subsidised) London Transport cannot imagine what it is like to rely on the anarchy of competing bus companies and where there are virtually no buses after 7 in the evening. All the sustainable travel policies in the world will not overcome the madness of bus de-regulation.


Amenities and services are left wanting

Although the Core Strategy says all the right things, Northampton’s experience shows us how difficult it is to deliver against the pressure of government backed market forces and the crippling lack of resources and powers of local authorities. There is a strong sense that the horse has already bolted. The business parks and estates along the motorway have little at all to do with Northampton the real place but are part of the amorphous M1City which is a fairly inevitable result of their genesis as an extruded part of the London megalopolis.


The Belgium of England


Free market or real market?

When Ian Nairn stopped off in Northampton on his 1972 journey through England what he saw was the handsome County town rebuilt after the great fire of 1675 which was just then being knocked about a bit, and the Northampton of what had been the ubiquitous boot and shoe industry. It was a distinctive, distinct and quite separate place – certainly not part of the Home Counties. Nairn loved the open market which he thought was more like Belgium than anywhere in England (he thought this a compliment). Nairn rightly bemoaned the ignorant destruction of distinctive buildings around the market place, one of the finest in England, and the extreme banality of their replacements. Worse was to follow. What was the subtle skyline of the town seen from the South Bridge over the Nene is now completely dominated by the dismal 1972 Grosvenor Centre flanked by office slabs of a similar date and more recent cliffs of apartments near the Station. Even more disgraceful is the blank and unfathomable Crown and County laager beyond the Grosvenor Centre which has no relation to anything. It is shamed by the quality and confidence of the Police, Fire Station and Baths across the ring road built in 1938-41 and which Pevsner found ‘desperately uninspiring’. Well, all things are relative.


The creativity and street levels are a joy


Not all doom and gloom


Great and gaudy: Barratt’s

Whilst redevelopment in the 60s and 70s was undoubtedly a tragedy as in so many historic towns, in fact there is still much to admire about the centre of Northampton. Many of the streets radiating from the grand All Saints, rebuilt in1680 after the Great Fire, retain their character. The Town Centre Action Plan could provide the basis for a real renaissance provided the government actually supports Northampton’s apparent determination.


Remember the future? The Express Lift tower

Apart from the Market Place the ‘must see’ buildings of Northampton are somewhat eccentric. Firstly the Town Hall designed by Edward Goodwin in 1861- wonderfully over the top Gothic which caused a sensation in its time. In the 1990s it was extended in a modern interpretation of Gothic, and exceptionally well done. On Derngate is the house remodelled at the end of his career and far from home by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (now National Trust). His client the model train maker Bassett Lowke also commissioned Behrens to design a startlingly modern Expressionist house on Wellingborough Road in 1925. Other curiosities include the Carlsberg Brewery of 1971 suitably by a Danish architect and with a wonderfully jagged roof line. Even more unusual is the 127m high Express Lift Company testing tower, only built in 1982 and quickly redundant. Now listed it sits in a roundabout at the centre of a fairly bleak residential redevelopment.


Built to last: the lively streets of the boot and shoe industry

Northampton’s development as an industrial town was slow but in many ways successful. The boot and shoe industry was small scale, initially domestic workshops and later small factories closely related to terraced housing, a lot like Leicester. The grander factories like Barratt’s Foot Shape Boot Works on Barrack Road were Edwardian. The town reputedly had the best working class housing in England and the middle class suburbs around various fine parks remain very attractive.


The Sorrows of Young Womersley


The Alice Coleman critique ends here, at the precinct...

The planned expansion of the town has proved more problematical. One of the first post war developments was the King’s Heath estate, designed by the Borough Architect J.L Womersley in the early 50s – before his Sheffield apotheosis. Now very rundown it is nevertheless easy to see why this was initially highly regarded, a physical manifestation of the Welfare State ideals. Set around a generous oval green the terraces of maisonettes and houses are well laid out and show touches of detail and care in design which is so patently missing from so much recent social housing. On the entrance axis to the estate and next to the green is a broad shopping precinct which should be, and probably was, the social heart of the estate. Sadly most of the shops are now empty and the precinct looks like a wasteland. The evident problems of the estate have little to do with Alice Coleman’s critique – the layout is conventional and very legible. It seems to have a lot to do with lack of maintenance and lack of opportunities. King’s Heath is just part of the base of the English housing and class pyramid.


...and here, facing the park


Eastern District twinned with Stasi-land


Given the "current climate" can you stop taking pictures?

Womersley post Sheffield also advised on the New Town developments of Northampton. The Eastern District was the first to be built starting in the early 70s. The scale of the new district – it has a population of 45,000 - and the rapidity of its development was extraordinary. This was not an urban extension – it was a new town plonked down beside Northampton. It includes its own town centre, Weston Favell, which is certainly a period piece. The shopping centre is high up above car parking and servicing originally reached by dramatic concrete stairs. It has an unexpectedly grand barrel vaulted roof. The original has been extended by more conventional retail park tat but the most extraordinary extension is a flying Evangelical church across the highway. Commercially successful it actually has a threatening feel and is the only place on our travels where we have been stopped by the Police for taking photographs. (Actually we were also stopped in Upton on the same day. Clearly paranoia is a big theme of the new Northampton.)


We can learn from this

The Eastern District is a maze of Radburn estates and you are instantly lost. Thorplands designed by the Northampton Development Corporation was under construction when Pevsner was revised in 1972. Bridget Cherry concluded: ‘This looks very promising. The varied heights, angles and textures of the houses already begin to create the atmosphere of a village centre with an identity of its own.’ Nearly 40 years later these qualities of design and place-making can still be discerned. With its local facilities, play pitches, pine trees and broad vistas it comes close to the social democratic dream – as long as you don’t look too hard. If the houses had been built better and maintained better it might well be des res today, but actually it is shabby and run down. The manic separation of traffic from pedestrians creates a confused layout where parking always ends up dominant. Easy to criticise now – the question is are new housing layouts learning enough from this? From our chronological tour of Northampton housing developments I fear not.


Tales of the Riverbank


I will not re-use a Carlsberg marketing slogan

The River Nene running south of the town centre is a big asset to Northampton. Surprisingly broad, slow flowing, lined with willows and in places flanked by parkland it almost has the quality of The Backs. The industry along the banks has largely disappeared apart from the Carlsberg Brewery. So Northampton was well placed for the Urban Renaissance as translated from the original Rogers by volume house builders.


Spot the security camera

In Northampton riparian development inevitably involves retail parks but the Morrison store off Victoria Promenade actually deserves some credit. It is a bit more than a shed and its jolly turrets are something better than desperate. Even better you can reach the front door with its nice little garden centre outside without having to walk across a huge car park – it is on the pedestrian desire line from the town centre to a new pedestrian bridge (although cycling is discouraged with draconian fencing chicanes).

Both banks of the river are lined with similar blocks of 4 storey yellow and red brick apartments with hard block paving everywhere, all verdant with weeds. A processional pedestrian way flanked with really utilitarian looking flats leads to the heart of the development – which is of course the car parks. The Mary Ann looking ‘fronts’ facing the walkway are actually the backs ‘cos inevitably the entrances are via the car parks. And they are huge and horrid. It’s not the apartments which are the problem, although they are pretty bog standard; it is the layout and the dominance of parking and traffic engineering. West of South Bridge more similar flats are under construction and more still are planned nearby on the hugely significant site between the Nene and Delapre Park which desreves much better.


Prince Charles woz ere: Upton in Bloom

What is driving this high density, low quality stuff is the cost of assembling, decontaminating and servicing Brownfield land, the burdens of ‘planning gain’ and of course the Faustian pact with the car. It is difficult to be optimistic that this will change. Northampton waterside is most probably the future. However there has been a bold attempt to follow the real Urban Renaissance model – at Upton, 3 miles west along the Nene Valley. This is a Greenfield site brought forward by the predecessors of the HCA with help from CABE and even Prince Charles. As with much successful development historically, it is the landowner who has adopted design codes – not the planning authority.


Upton Wives


A cover band of architectural styles and motifs

From the bizarre anomie of the Swan Valley business district next to the M1 where huge distribution sheds and huge car parks are set within acres of dog eye daisies and balancing ponds you approach Upton along Tithe Barn Way. (Was that intentional irony?) Across the shallow river valley you glimpse another surreal sight – substantial 4 storey perimeter blocks of houses in white stucco rising up next to the water meadows. You quickly realise that in Upton there is a cacophony of styles but all within a consistent structure of blocks which is coherent and legible - you will never get lost. The variety of styles from neo-Georgian to Ecobuild takes a bit of getting used to and there is something of that subversive Northampton eccentricity here. But actually the standards of design and detailing are very high compared to – well almost any other big new housing estate in England.


Beware of the cars

What doesn’t work quite so well (inevitably) is the parking. There is a very clear street structure and although some parking is allowed on the street, the paving designs are often over fussy to limit this. Most parking is in gated backland courts, which are a big drawback and add to the security paranoia that is something of a feature of the place. Few people are around – it feels a bit like a Stepford Wives set. The Junior School is a sinister affair with huge pitched roofs, blank walls and security fencing. There are no shops (hardly surprising given the huge retail and leisure complex on the other side of the expressway). Upton feels quite isolated by the expressway and is very car dependent, although there is now a bus route and for intrepid cyclists and walkers, the Nene Valley Way.


Victorian Values: the school fortress

The first phases of Upton are still being built and more are planned. It is certainly brave and ambitious and could mature into a successful community. Certainly due to the enlightened approach of the public sector land owners it is about as good as we can get without some much more fundamental changes in the way we plan, design and pay for buildings and community services.


Mastermind


A clear plan facing the park (similar to King's Heath)

So what will we learn from Northampton’s experience of large scale expansion over many decades? The Core Strategy sets out policies for each of the 7 ‘sustainable urban extensions’ it has identified – numbers of dwellings, amount of employment land, school places, size of local facilities, sports facilities, highway authority requirements, generic aspirations for transport and sustainability, flood management, archaeology, SINCs – it’s all there. The last requirement is ‘development proposals must be accompanied by a masterplan’.

The big issue is who commissions and controls the masterplans. At Upton it was the public authorities but Thatcher and Son’s marginalisation of planning has meant that this is very much the exception. Masterplans for Greenfield sites are invariably the creatures of developers and volume house builders. Design, place-making and sustainability are on the back foot from the start as every agency jostles at the developer contributions trough and the existing communities seeks to insulate themselves from the future community at all costs. Public authorities are usually left to try and bring forward expensive and difficult Brownfield sites. And public authorities are left to deal with problem estates which have been starved of investment and asset stripped. How can this be in the public interest? Ironically the biggest sustainable urban extension in Northampton is next to the King’s Heath estate. I wonder how this new development will relate to and improve the quality of life in the deprived estate? How sustainable, how urban and how much an extension of the town will it be; or will it be plugged into new roads turning its back on the estate and the town. I wonder.

So yes planning does need some fundamental changes. What is required is not the mumbo jumbo of Localism but much clearer leadership on the design of places and public spaces – masterplanning for want of a better term. I don’t think this is on the Pickles agenda. Nevertheless what we see in the development of Northampton pressages the future for many of our towns and cities - for good and ill.

--

N.B.
Unfortunately the Victoria Inn was closed on our visit but it looked good from the outside.

References:
Pevsner and Cherry: Buildings of England – Northants
J. Smith: Northants – A Shell Guide
English Heritage: Built to Last (Buildings of the Northants Boot and Shoe Industry)
Garry Mills, 'The Planners and the Planned', in Alan Moore: Dodgem Logic Magazine
CABE: Upton case study
West Northants Joint Core Strategy

10 comments:

Neil said...

Northampton hasn't always been 'compliant'. it was an anti-railway town. There was a fierce campaign to stop the destruction of the north side of the Market Square. Unfortunately it's a bit of a gormless place too, and lets councillors destroy it, which they have. The town centre is a shambles. It's become a 'doughnut town', empty in the middle with lots of malls etc on the ring roads. There isn't much of a tradition of working class politics in the town, and the 'county set' have been allowed to run it to their advantage at everyone else's expense. There's a well established tradition of golf club politics, with many rumours of corruption. Sticking 20,000 cockneys on the edge of tow was never likely to be a good idea, and the locals still don't like the incomers. There is beautiful countryside around but its being eroded by expressways and pink brick development. The local accent is holding up, however, against creeping Londonisation.

Michael Edwards said...

Dear Jones
I was born in Northampton, much enjoyed reading your mix of sympathy and radical critique and agree with the assessments which you (and Neil) make.
You should get in touch with Bob Colenutt at the Northampton University's Institute of Urban Affars where they have good seminars and dicussions about these things. I went to some a couple of years ago where I was impressed by the energetic enthusiasm for growth but shocked by the xenophobic/parochial tensions between the Northampton people, the Wellingborough / Raunds / Kettering / MK... etc as though they were all threats to each other.It sounded just like the 1950s when I was a child there.

Incidentally my dad (Ted Edwards), who was a Labour Councillor for many years, was very proud of having saved that tower in Abington Park (your photo) from demolition - which had been threatened to save on maintenance.

There didn't seem to be much left politics in those days, beyond happy memories of Mister Bradlaugh, the republican and atheist MP. The CND branch was led by a quaker pacifist who was also a butcher and licensed slaughterer and some fine quaker folk like Bert and Rose Tavener. The shoe trades unions had a collective agreement with the employers which indexed wages to inflation and I was always told that this was why there was so little militancy.

Lewis Womersley (not Wolmersley) did a great job at King's Heath, I agree, and the shopping centre really did work well in the early decades. As you say it is one of the many thoughtfully designed environments in the UK which got destroyed by lack of maintenance and care (and by social polarisation). Reversing all that is going to be very uphill.

Neil: I was raised with a different view of the railway: the story that lord Spencer (who owned huge states north and west of the town, and doubtless still does) refused to have Stevenson's line. He had enough clout or money to avoid parliamentary intervention and thus it was that the line went through Blisworth and Northampton was condemmed to wait years and then get just a branch line. It was told as a instance of wicked aristocrats inhibiting the town's development. This must be easy to check up on.

Jacob said...

I'm sorry but I either can't focus
on the last section or just can't
believe that it is a picture from
a British estate? Can you forward
me more details on that?
This blog is absolutely amazing!

Chris Matthews said...

Sorry for the late reply Jacob. The last photo is at the brand new estate in Upton. See our Flickr for more details/images.

Anonymous said...

Great article. You make the town sound nicer than it actually is. Tho it does have some good buildings.Apathy is sadly rife and employment conditions are not great for many. Though the trades council is trying to change things. Upton concerned me when I visited it once. The pavement and road merge making everywhere a carpark. The "High street" community hall is in a field. No wonder i couldnt find the high street. Aparently some of the housing developement went bust and its used to dump disruptive families who have been ASBOed out of other areas of the town. How lovely. The whole town lacks funding of any kind. God knows what the coucil spend their money on but its not housing, pavement & road repairs, lighting, refuge collection, drain clearing, public transport, youth facilities or landscape maintance. Both county and borough councils are the worst Tory lead example of councils. One can guess where the money goes. Most younger pple think the down is "a dump". But if you have ever visited towns near by like Rushden, Raunds, welly etc, you would understand the (light hearted) p taking of the towns.

Mary C. said...

Northamptonshire's towns are all shabby, dirty and litter strewn, They are full of drunkards many evenings and feel aggressive. Not sure whose fault it is but it's a shame as all the towns have the potential to be so much more than they are. The pubs in the towns are horrendous mainly catering for football fans or down and outs. They need to modernise to accommodate families and to appeal more to females. The towns are stuck in a time warp and their residents lack many pleasures that 21st Century England can offer. Not sure who is to blame but it's a terrible shame! I'm an x Londoner who's lived here 20 years. London has so improved compared to round here!

Chris Matthews said...

Following comment from Mark White (sent via email)

Adrian and Chris

Congratulations on the excellent blog and the work on Ian Nairn. Are there any more Jones the Planner pieces imminent?

Below are some observations and additions on the Northampton piece. As always the views expressed are entirely my own.

The Future is Northampton

A Midlands town? Officially yes, part of the East Midlands, for Government purposes, along with Leics, Rutland, Notts, Lincs and Derbyshire. But on TV Northampton is in the East of England; East Anglia. How absurd that seems when one's local television news refers to "our area's fishing industry" or "our area's coastal tourism." And it does! Regularly! Along with "our area's rural character." We'll maybe give them that one, no settlements, even with post war growth, of the size of many of the other Midlands counties and an accent referred to as "Cockney Yokel" by the Northern writer and broadcaster, Stuart Maconie.

And yes, from the 1960s Mark III New Town of Northampton to the Sustainable Communities Plan, Northamptonshire has ridden the wave of the London and South East economy as much as many places further south, and even the original local accent has it that one washes in a barf not a baff. Watford Gap is the new boundary of the sarf, not Watford, Hertfordshire.

But being in the middle means it isn't just the noisy neighbours that move in with you or you try to keep up with...whilst Wellingborough is a London Expanded Town, Daventry is a Birmingham Expanded Town. Northampton might be a London New Town, but Corby is a Scottish Steel New Town. And in the local dialect, ducks aren't just our feathered friends, just as in the rest of the East Midlands.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this has led to new geographical monikers for this part of the world. First, the South Midlands, as in the Milton Keynes South Midlands Growth Area. Then, South East Midlands, as in South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership.

Let's stick with that. In the Midlands, but also in the South. And the East. And the South East. Perfect sense that the County Town is Northampton. That's all points of the compass covered. Except the West. Except in the name of the Local Delivery Vehicle, the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation

Northampton plays the game

Northampton has never really had "expressways" here they are just "ways." The original 1960s master plan envisaged two major routes straddling the town running south east to the M1, along with new routes through the town. The former were partly built, forming a partial outer ring road, linked, as planned, to the M1, but the latter never came about, owing to some citizen activism against the demolition of the town's inner area that would have accompanied their construction. As such, Northampton's road network is nothing like as comprehensive as Peterborough's parkways or Milton Keynes' grid roads, though a single carriageway completion of the outer ring road is planned alongside the expansion emerging from the Sustainable Communities Plan.

...[1/4]

Chris Matthews said...

...[2/4]


On the railways, the town is ideally located midway between Birmingham New Street and London Euston on the West Coast Mainline Line, Britain's most important railway, linking most of the country's main population centres of Greater London, The West Midlands, North West England and Central Scotland.

However, this is a Loop on the West Coast Main Line. Therefore, the service is restricted to the slow outer suburban lines into London, and trains go no further north than Birmingham. Even when they do, they have to form part of the West Midlands suburban network and as such, rather than direct services to Liverpool or Manchester, the town benefits from regular direct links to Stechford and Tile Hill. Technically it is of course possible to run better services, and at various times in the past decades, the town has enjoyed direct links through the Trent Valley to Crewe, which also provides useful links to the East Midlands via Nuneaton and Tamworth, occasional direct services to Liverpool and Manchester and a service via Watford Junction to Gatwick Airport and Brighton.

All these services have ceased. All were well used by Northampton travellers, but routing through a non upgraded loop attracts a time penalty, and private operators aren't willing to pay that penalty to serve a small market town. A small market town of 200,000 people and growing. Northampton's rail services are still constrained by the gradients surmountable by mid Victorian technology. Extending the Thameslink service to Northampton was also considered, via the reopening of the disused line to Bedford, which could have also included a station to serve Brackmills, the town's largest industrial estate and home of Barclaycard, the town's largest employer. Such a link could have provided direct links to the new East West link at Bedford, Luton Airport and the international services at St. Pancras, and more than just an additional service or two to London to relieve congestion on the existing loop, but direct services into the City.

Sadly it looks like this will never happen, WNDC have now purchased part of the line, and the existing disused track is being removed to make way for a footpath, cycle way and nature reserve. Not enough to kill the idea off of course, but there is popular political and business support to link two currently dead ends roads severed by the former railway to create a southern link road for the new Enterprise Zone. An excellent idea, were they being linked under or over the railway, or at least via a level crossing, but that is not what is being proposed.

If this was Germany, a town the size of Northampton would probably also have a light rail network. There were trams once of course, and there was talk in the 1990s of a guided bus network, but that one never happened. Could the central reservations and wide verges of the new town highway network not accommodate a light rail network?

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Chris Matthews said...

... [3/4]

The Belgium of England

The Market Square, never referred to as the Market Place, still retains enough buildings of quality to still have a touch of a Grande Place or at least a Grote Markt about it. By the time Nairn visited, the south side had already been compromised by the replacement of Waterloo House, whose twin, Victoria House, stands at the north western corner, with the current incongruous concrete block, and the eastern side, by the replacement of The Peacock, a 16th century coaching inn with the 1960s Peacock Way shopping precinct, itself now replaced by the 1980s Peacock Place shopping centre. The Grosvenor Centre, which replaced the north side of the Market Square in the 1970s, is due to be expanded and upgraded, and whilst this will restore some original street patterns, reviving old buildings is unlikely. However the upgrade has been under discussion since the late 1990s, though the builders have now moved in to construct a new bus station on the site of the old 1930s (indoor) Fish Market. This will replace the 1970s bus station, Greyfriars, former winner of "Demolition" on Channel Four and dubbed "the mouth of hell" by Kevin McCloud.

Certainly Greyfriars lacks natural light and is only accessible by foot via subways. And it definitely gave the original street pattern a good kicking when it appeared in the 1970s along with two multi storey car parks, two multi storey office blocks and two areas of Space Left Over after Planning, the ubiquitous SLOP. But it does integrate local, regional and national services into one terminus and you wait indoors. There's also some good use of varnished wood for seating and panelling inside. The new bus station is much smaller. Can it accommodate such a range of services? Can you wait for them in the warm and dry?

The cliffs of apartments near the station are in fact a leisure development, Sol Central; hotel, restaurant, bars, multiplex cinema and a multi storey car park. Mixed use in the town centre is of course admirable, but Sol Central is a definite missed opportunity. It replaced Barclaycard House when Barclaycard moved out of the town centre to Brackmills (see above). This was a megalithic structure by Seifert which plunged one side of the main route from the town centre to the station into darkness.

Not all doom and gloom

There is still as you say, much to admire, though many older correspondents to the local press disagree; a recurring narrative of everything was alright until the 1960shat I paraphrase below.

"Up until then, this was a bustling county town, an attractive market town, set amongst beautiful countryside. And then, they built over the countryside to accommodate the newcomers, knocked down the town centre to accommodate new facilities for them and everything's been downhill ever since. No town has lost so much of its heritage as Northampton, and no town has suffered as much in consequence."

Well no, not really. Of course more original buildings should have been incorporated into the new Northampton but would the town, with declining employment in the boot and shoe and engineering industries, really have been better off without the infrastructure, however limited, brought by a New Town Development Corporation, that surely has helped attract the financial services and distribution facilities that provide employment now. Would the town's cultural and sporting life, which are both pretty good for a town of this size, be as good, if the population were still at its pre expansion level? If I go up the road to Rugby, or down the road to Bedford, I know the answer to both questions.

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Chris Matthews said...

.... [4/4]

The Town Hall, always known as the Guildhall, is still sensational, and arguably a hidden gem, which it undoubtedly wouldn't be, were it sited on the northern side of the Market Square. Indeed, the Victorian burghers who built the Guildhall originally wanted it to be built there but couldn't afford to purchase the land required. Pevsner was glad this never happened, arguing that had this happened, the Market Square would have become merely the Guildhall's forecourt, but I disagree.

Carlsberg Brewery is probably the best example of a modern brewery building in this country. Plagiarising iconic advertising slogans aside, it is unfortunate that this interesting and impressive structure has no meaningful relationship with the pedestrian on the street or on the river bank. Also unfortunate that its construction necessitated the loss of the traditional Victorian brewery buildings of the Phipps and Northampton Brewery Company and as importantly their beers, though a new Phipps micro brewery is soon to open.

As for the best working class housing in England, this was undoubtedly a function of the late mechanisation of the boot and shoe industry, and has meant that Northampton has more surviving terraced housing in the inner areas of the town than many other places; simply because the later construction meant it was better built, dating from the more enlightened end of the Victorian era, and by the time anyone came to think about replacing them, 1960s slum clearance had swung out of fashion, sparing inner Northampton from a tower block and deck access townscape, though it didn't entirely escape this in areas like Spring Boroughs, between the Town Centre and the railway station and where young Wolmersley cut his teeth.

Eastern District twinned with Stasi-land

Weston Favell Centre, the mixed use heart of the Eastern District, with shops, a library, leisure centre and church, is indeed an extraordinary structure; the flying church, the pyramidal church nearby, the vaulted roof; as a child on the weekly big shop at what was then the country's biggest Tesco's, I longed to arrive via the overhead walkways in their gun barrel like tubes, but of course we always arrived by car. Again, lots of interest, mixed use, but still at the end of the day, a big box that tramples over human scale.

Tales of the Riverbank

Doesn't almost every town have a blue asset that's an opportunity area though, following de industrialisation, be it a river, a canal, a dock, a seafront or some combination of any of the above? Northampton is no exception, no more gas works, no more power station, no more cosmetics works, no more tanneries and like so many places, a sea of block paving and parking.

What of Upton, whose Design Code references the best working class housing in England and the middle class suburbs around fine parks referred to earlier. You will indeed find the decorated red brick and welsh slate of old Northampton, not to mention Northamptonshire stone, and even find a block that has lines reminiscent of? Well, a shoe factory! However, the materials palatte could have been more Northampton focused. Entrance is framed by Town Houses. Well fine, but town houses in Northampton aren't generally white render...

The Victoria is recommended for fine ales. Indeed the best working housing in England is now a conservation area and accommodates the town's best boozers; with one or two exceptions, The Charles Bradlaugh, The Lamplighter, The Old England, The Picturedrome offer better drinking emporiums than those found in the town centre...

Regards

Mark