The river Nene – the slowest-flowing river in England, and its tenth-longest – meanders through Northamptonshire past water meadows and dozens of former gravel pits, long ago flooded and now a nationally important habitat for wetland birds. Northamptonshire’s an underrated county, the Nene is its under-rated river, and one of its most verdant stretches is between Irthlingborough and Wellingborough.
Canal boats chug by; several are moored nearby. Before long you’re out of earshot of the A45 (the main road between Northampton and Peterborough, which runs parallel to the river), and out of eyeshot of nearby warehouses. You travel back in time: the Nene was made navigable back in the 1730s and apart from the occasional flood defence and modern road bridge, it has remained remarkably unspoilt since.
But this tranquillity won’t last much longer. Here at Rushden Lakes a huge out-of-town shopping centre is under construction, two miles from Rushden itself and nowhere near a railway station, with the tills due to start ringing in July 2017. As well as ruining the tranquillity of this valley Rushden Lakes threatens to suck the remaining life out of three nearby towns: Rushden itself, Kettering and Wellingborough. Even Northampton, the county town 15 miles away, is worried.
We’re supposed to have moved on from them in the nineties and noughties: “sheds on the bypass” with thousands of square metres of retail, little or no public transport and acres of car parking, blotting the landscape and sucking life out of town centres nearby.
Back in 1994 – when John Major was still in Number Ten – Tory environment secretary John Gummer introduced new restrictions on out-of-town shopping, following a backlash against a rash of centres opened in the Thatcher years. The guidance contained the so-called “sequential test”: from then on anyone proposing a new shopping development had to look at town centre sites first, then the edge of town centres, and then out-of-town locations as a last resort. And out-of-town shopping centres should not get planning permission at all if they harm the vitality and viability of nearby towns.
The guidance was allegedly watered down by New Labour in 2005 but survived and was supposedly strengthened by the coalition government’s new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012, with a new presumption in favour of sustainable development and enhanced protection for the green belt. Even the Guardian, generally hostile to the coalition from the start, praised Planning minister Greg Clark’s “biggest shakeup of the planning system for more than half a century” which would “signal [the] end of [the] road for out-of-town shopping centres”.
It’s thus often assumed that out-of-town shopping had its last hurrah in the late nineties, when a few giant malls that had won approval just before the change in the rules (Bluewater in Kent, the Trafford Centre near Manchester, and Cribbs Causeway near Bristol) were built. Since 2000, most high-profile retail developments in Britain – the rebuilding of Manchester’s shopping district following the IRA bomb of 1996, Liverpool One, the restoration of Leeds’ Victorian arcades, One New Change and the two Westfields in London, Selfridges in Birmingham and the new Grand Central mall nearby – have been in city centres or suburbs with excellent public transport connections.
Older out-of-town shopping centres of the 80s and early 90s like Gateshead’s Metrocentre, Sheffield’s Meadowhall, Merry Hill near Dudley and Lakeside near Thurrock have all prospered of course, but they are increasingly seen as functional places, necessary evils that are convenient to shop in but never as chic and hip as a city centre. Many smaller out-of-town supermarkets and retail parks have been built since 2000 as well, but many had got planning permission before the 1994 rule change. And no big new out-of-town shopping centres have won planning permission.
Unexpectedly, Rushden Lakes has the backing of the local Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust. Only 31 of the site’s 222 acres are being built on, with the Wildlife Trust managing the other 191. Planning gain money will help to pay for a set of flooded gravel pits to be restored and combined with existing lakes nearby to create a giant new 660-acre Nene Wetlands reserve teeming with herons, otters, butterflies and bats, and a new visitor centre.
The Wildlife Trust couldn’t be more thrilled that the shopping centre will bring it a steady stream of visitors and potential donors, and sees Rushden Lakes as a nature reserve first, shopping centre second. The Crown Estate, which took over from LXB as developer in 2015, has promised that “Rushden Lakes will be the first in a new generation of shopping parks, setting an entirely new standard for the retail and leisure experience.” Rushden Lakes has been proudly billed as a “naturally different”, “new generation” shopping centre, with LXB’s Tim Walton even boasting that it will “set a template for the way development can directly benefit wildlife”.
Amidst all this hyperbole it’s easy to overlook just how big the scheme is. Technically Rushden Lakes is a retail park, not a shopping mall, as there’s only a huge car park between the hotel, restaurants and four big “terraces” of retail units, not a covered concourse. But it’s just been announced that Rushden Lakes will now become even bigger, with a garden centre due to be replaced by a 12-screen cinema, bowling alley, climbing wall and yet more restaurants (amounting to a net 5,000 sq m of extra commercial space, much to the fury of Northampton Borough Council).
From being a medium-sized, 42,000 sq m shopping centre, Rushden Lakes has been gradually expanded into a 50,000-plus sq m monster. Admittedly Rushden Lakes will be less than half the size of the top ten shopping centres in the UK (the Metrocentre, Trafford Centre, Westfield Stratford City, Bluewater, Liverpool One, Westfield London, Merry Hill, Meadowhall, Manchester Arndale and Lakeside). But if you combine Rushden Lakes with existing stores just across the A45 – including a 5,000 sq m Waitrose Food & Home, a 4,000 sq m Wickes and a Lidl – the total retail commercial floorspace (almost 80,000 sq m) will be only slightly less than Cribbs Causeway (92,000 sq m) and Brent Cross (82,000 sq m), both of which are considered to be huge shopping malls. Just two miles north up the A45, another 15,000 sq m of shops, cinemas and restaurants on yet another out-of-town site (the derelict Nene Park football stadium) has just been refused by East Northants council. But if Nene Park is allowed on appeal it would make this collection of sheds outside Rushden one of the largest retail centres anywhere in the Midlands. Who says out-of-town shopping is dead?
Don’t believe the spin. Apart from the lakeside location and some welcome investment in a nature reserve, in all other respects Rushden Lakes will be a throwback to the past – a collection of boring metal sheds around a big car park – rather than a beacon of sustainability.
So if there has been a presumption in British planning against out-of-town shopping centres for more than 20 years how on earth did Rushden Lakes get planning permission? East Northamptonshire Council granted outline approval back in October 2012, but given its size the application was “called in” and handed over to a planning inspector in 2013. He held a public enquiry and later recommended approval to the secretary of state, who duly granted it in June 2014.
As always, to find out why you have to dig deep into the Planning inspector’s lengthy report, and the secretary of state’s (then Eric Pickles’) rubber stamping of it (not the most scintillating of activities, but I’ve done it for you). In a nutshell, Pickles concluded that while the site is out-of-centre, the sequential test was satisfied as no “suitable [town centre] sites were available.” The key argument that made up Pickles’ mind was that “the whole scheme could not realistically be moved to another location”: in other words there was not an empty site in Wellingborough, Kettering or another nearby town centre that could accommodate so much retail floorspace.
The loophole that now allows out-of-town shopping centres to pass the sequential test is clear: propose something so big that there’s no chance it could be squeezed into a nearby town centre and you get the thumbs up. Rather than ponder whether the development could be “disaggregated” and accommodated on smaller sites in Kettering, Corby, Wellingborough or Rushden town centres, the secretary of state simply considered whether there was anywhere else Rushden Lakes as a whole could go. Far from strengthening the presumption against out-of-town shopping centres, the Rushden Lakes decision shows that the NPPF has weakened it, as developers are now no longer asked why an out-of-town proposal can’t be “disaggregated” and spread across separate town-centre sites.
Two other important factors were in play. First, despite all those adjacent nature reserves the Rushden Lakes site is not in the green belt, a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty. It certainly isn’t a town centre site or even an edge-of-centre one, but it’s certainly not a greenfield site either. The site was used for gravel extraction from the 1950s and was later used as an artificial ski slope. Planning permission was granted in the 1990s for go-karting and concrete manufacturing, and for a business park in 2002, so the site has long been vulnerable to retail development.
The second, more significant factor was the lack of opposition from local residents and the politicians who represent them. The site is right on the boundary of two districts – East Northamptonshire and Wellingborough – and both their councils, and Wellingborough’s chamber of commerce, lined up to support Rushden Lakes. Cllr Steven North, Leader of East Northants, thinks that Rushden Lakes “will complement rather than compete with the High Street, and many local retailers are keen to see this happen as it will bring more people to Rushden than ever before”. But his own council’s regeneration strategy for Rushden says the exact opposite: “competition from large shopping centres… has reduced the demand for goods from the High Street, thereby reducing vital footfall from shoppers.”
The chamber of commerce’s argument is that Wellingborough’s days as a comparison shopping centre are numbered, so comparison shopping in a huge out-of-town shopping centre a few miles down the road is better than no shops at all. The chamber makes positive noises about “convenience retail-led regeneration for the town Centre” and “encourag[ing] and sustain[ing] local independent retailers” but seems to pin all its hopes on a new Asda on an under-used car park on the edge of Wellingborough town centre. For such a large place with a proud history as a monastic market town and a centre of shoe-making, the lack of imagination from Wellingborough’s advocates is depressing indeed. Instead it was left to more distant councils – Corby, Kettering, Northampton and Bedford – to point out that the emperor had no clothes, and to argue in vain that if there is a need for additional retail floorspace, it should be built in Rushden itself or another ailing town centre.
Local Tory MP Peter Bone (whose Wellingborough constituency covers the Rushden Lakes site) is also all for it. At least Bone (a clever, and devoutly Eurosceptic, maverick) admits that the centre will be of regional, not just local, importance. But his enthusiasm is undimmed; presumably anyone who complains about the harm to town centres is like those unreliable “experts” who warned of the costs of Brexit.
It’s more difficult to understand the enthusiasm of Andy Sawford (Labour MP for Corby and East Northants until he lost his seat in 2015), an otherwise sensible MP who chose to ignore the objections from Corby, the only Labour council in his constituency. It’s sad he didn’t feel he could speak out against a development that will increase car use, damage town centres and run a coach and horses through decades of planning policy. Instead he was put on the defensive by his Tory challenger Tom Pursglove, who accused him of not being supportive enough of Rushden Lakes in the run-up to the election. Since his victory Pursglove has said that the Tories “secured” Rushden Lakes, but that they will also “continue to work to ensure that this development brings benefits to our existing High Streets… the life blood of our communities.” Make sense of that if you can.
The consensus is that the area lacks big department stores unless you want to go to Peterborough or Milton Keynes, and that the new centre will only help revitalise Rushden and other towns nearby. Unbelievably, only thirty comments were sent to the secretary of state once he called in the planning application – 23 in favour and just seven against. As this Youtube video made by a local resident shows, the only vociferous opponent in Rushden appears to be a mobile beautician whose main concern is about more traffic delaying her journeys to clients, not the adverse impact on her local town centre. All the other vox pop interviews she did on Rushden High Street yielded undiluted enthusiasm.
The local media has done nothing to call out this humbug, and if anything is even more jubilant. The Northamptonshire Telegraph simply reprints Crown Estate and LXB press releases about “More Restaurants, Shops and Cinemas”, and allows their architects, HPW, to blow their own trumpets in fawning interviews. The Reporter, a local freesheet, even hails Rushden Lakes as “The goose that lays the golden eggs – and keeps on laying them” because of the business rates its tenants will pay.
Rushden’s rivalry with Corby, twenty miles away, is another factor. A Yes2RushdenLakes Facebook page, supposedly set up by locals in 2013, argues that “When the Steel Industry died, Corby received massive infusions of State and EU aid to regenerate the Town. Rushden and its hinterland were equally dependent on a single industry, the shoe industry. (Once, they made over half the shoes in the world!) When that industry died in the 80s/90s, nobody and nothing came to their rescue (unlike Corby!)” Yes2RushdenLakes’ other arguments in favour – the new hotel that German town-twinning delegations can stay in, an extra lane on a roundabout, and a new footbridge over the A45 – sound like barrel-scraping and you have to wonder whether this grassroots campaign is just astroturf laid down by the developer.
For all its supporters, the promise of hundreds of new jobs at Rushden Lakes is the clincher: LXB has engaged the well-respected Volterra Partners to produce an economic report arguing that Rushden Lakes will create 1,700 new jobs directly and indirectly. But this part of the East Midlands has no shortage of low-paid retail jobs: just 2.1% of people in the Wellingborough constituency claim unemployment benefits, below the national average of 2.4%. What’s more, nearly a third of residents already work in retail, wholesale and related sectors like vehicle repair, transportation and storage.
What the area lacks is better-paid jobs to keep bright school leavers and graduates in the area, and attract new talent. Northants is now part of the oddly-named “England’s Economic Heartland” (EEH) strategic alliance, stretching from Oxfordshire to Cambridgeshire and covering Bucks, Beds and Northants in between. “We are the beating heart of the UK’s global competitiveness, particularly in science and technology innovation,” the partnership claims.
Midway between Oxford and Cambridge and just an hour from London, Rushden Lakes would be a great place for a tech campus, offering less hassle, lower rents and much lower housing costs than any of these overheated alternatives. But few people in Northants have read the EEH memo: too many of its politicians are stuck in a 1990s time warp in which the only way to regenerate an area and “put it on the map” is yet more out-of-town, big-box retail.
And there’s widespread evidence (such as this report by the Centre for Cities) that rather than create new jobs, out-of-town shopping centres simply replace shops and jobs in town centres, leading to little or no overall increase in employment. It’s often argued that Rushden Lakes will simply mean that local people don’t have to drive to Milton Keynes, Peterborough or Northampton to find a big department store: but most of the confirmed tenants of Rushden Lakes (Marks and Spencer, H&M, Primark, River Island, New Look and Clarks) already have shops in Kettering, Wellingborough and Corby (or even all three). Their new stores at Rushden Lakes will compete with these smaller towns, not just bigger places like Milton Keynes, Peterborough and Northampton. And with local councils in Northamptonshire trying to argue for less new housing, it’s difficult to see where new shoppers will come from, and how Rushden Lakes can prosper without harming existing town centres.
Even the applicants admit that 90% of Rushden Lakes’ shoppers will drive there. Its vast car park has already increased in size from 1,300 to 1,800 bays while still on the drawing board. Imminent work to improve the two nearest roundabouts on the A45 has been hailed as a magic bullet to resolve all traffic problems: but given that the A45 is already often gridlocked in rush hours it’s not clear that an extra lane or two will be enough to deal with all the extra traffic.
Some of the big shopping centres of the 80s and 90s have long had railway stations (Metrocentre and Meadowhall), or are due to get tram links soon (Trafford Centre and Merry Hill). But the only public transport at Rushden Lakes will be a measly bus service (one bus every half-hour). Rushden is one of Britain’s largest towns without a railway station (vague plans for a new Rushden Parkway station at Irchester, a mile south of Rushden Lakes, have never got off the drawing board and weren’t even mentioned at the planning enquiry).
And what about the claim that Rushden Lakes will complement local high streets rather than compete with them? LXB itself admits that its “catchment area is large with over 100,000 people living within a 10 minute drive time and over 600,000 within a 30 minute drive time”. Cities more than 30 minutes away like Leicester, Cambridge, Peterborough and Milton Keynes may have little to worry about. But closer towns – Bedford, Northampton, Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough and Rushden itself – should brace themselves. Locally it’s seen as no coincidence that Legal and General, owners of the 1970s Grosvenor Shopping Centre in the centre of Northampton, have repeatedly postponed the centre’s redevelopment. Nearby, the demolition of the Greyfriars Bus Station has created a huge hole which no developer has yet stepped forward to fill. Northampton’s main department store, House of Fraser, closed in 2014 and has been replaced by the more downmarket Primark and Next (funnily enough, a 6,000 sq m House of Fraser is now promised at Rushden Lakes).
Closer towns are already struggling, and will only struggle more once Rushden Lakes opens. Corby – whose town centre has a new cinema, library and Olympic swimming pool alongside the Willow Place shopping centre with an H&M, Dorothy Perkins and River Island – may be far enough away to avoid damage. But Kettering (whose population is nearly 70,000) has already lost a quarter of its retail market share between 2005 and 2010. The town has just lost its WH Smith and must now be the largest town in the UK without one. Its Marks & Spencer must now be vulnerable: M&S has announced 60 imminent store closures and though it won’t yet say where the axe will fall, Kettering’s medium-sized store, less than 10 miles from the giant new M&S due to open at Rushden Lakes next year, may be on borrowed time. Kettering has a lot going for it – a hilltop site, lots of Victorian streets and a hinterland of well-off villages – but its town centre is girdled by car parks and its public spaces are grim and soulless.
Wellingborough has a small 1970s indoor shopping centre (the Swansgate) where many of its oldest streets used to be. But it does have some surviving historic streets and a fine market place, and at least the Swansgate has lots of natural light and few empty shops: with some imagination the town could be revitalised. But rather than reverse Wellingborough’s fortunes, both the town’s council and its chamber of commerce only seem to want to damn them further.
Rushden itself has a surprisingly pleasant, and recently re-paved, High Street for a town of its size with several mid-market staples (WH Smith, Boots, Argos, Peacocks, Store Twenty-One and a big Asda) and a vibrant range of independent shops (such as Osbournes, which has sold toys on the High Street since the 1950s). But there are already lots of empty shops at the northern end of the street and I hope the rot does not spread to the southern end once Rushden Lakes opens just two miles away. In 2010, before plans for Rushden lakes were unveiled, the Prince’s Foundation (Prince’s Charles’ Architecture hobbyhorse) came up with a new regeneration strategy to “recognise and elevate Rushden’s industrial heritage”: I only hope it turns out to be a stimulant, not an epitaph.
Of course it’s possible for towns and cities to survive the opening of huge out-of-centre centres nearby. After the opening of Cribbs Causeway in the late 90s, and John Lewis’s decision to move there from Bristol’s Broadmead complex, the city fought back. Bristol is the UK’s eighth largest city and its status as a shopping Mecca has survived: eventually the empty John Lewis premises were taken on by Bentalls. But a study by the Royal Town Planning Institute has found that many smaller high streets in north Bristol were adversely affected.
And Bristol’s renaissance seems to be the exception, not the rule. In north Kent, the opening of Bluewater in 1999 has caused no end of problems for its closest neighbours, Gravesend and Dartford, ever since. Both town centres have lost their Marks and Spencers since Bluewater opened, and Dartford’s lost its Waitrose. Gravesend has had some success reinventing itself as a historic and cultural centre (Pocahontas is buried there) rather than just a shopping one. But much of central Dartford has been boarded up and blighted for the last decade by proposals for a giant Tesco store – only for Tesco to suddenly pull out in 2015, with a new plan yet to take its place. It’s difficult to argue that Bluewater has been anything other than a disaster for both towns.
I hope that Rushden Lakes won’t turn out to be so harmful. And I freely admit that I’ll probably shop there myself sometimes. The main thrust of planning policy is still to encourage big new retail developments in city centres, and Rushden Lakes won’t change that assumption overnight. But this site, right at the heart of middle England, has shown how one of Britain’s best-intentioned, and supposedly robust, planning policies has an Achilles heel.
If such a vast shopping centre was proposed for the outskirts of Oxford, Cambridge or Stratford-upon-Avon there would, of course, be an outcry: these towns are all populated by newspaper columnists, middle-class do-gooders and environmentalists who would howl with protest. Rushden Lakes is within 60 miles of all these places: not very far, but far enough to be out of sight, out of mind.
Northamptonshire, as this blog has already recorded, is a county that is too often overlooked. The towns that might be blighted – Rushden, Kettering and Wellingborough in particular – are unfashionable places where few newspaper columnists, middle-class do-gooders and environmentalists live. They’re either ignored or the butt of silly-season jokes (Lindsey Lohan’s empty offer to switch on Kettering’s Christmas Lights being just the latest example). The countryside that Rushden Lakes lies in is neither a national park, nor an area of outstanding natural beauty. But that such a huge out-of-town shopping centre can be under construction in 2016 sets a bad precedent for everywhere.