Although few of us would have predicted, this time last year, that coronavirus would still be looming large as went into 2022 – and it’s probably a good job we didn’t know then what we know now – it’s still fair to say there is a positivity and optimism now that gives hope for a better year ahead.
I believe we are in a better position than this time last year. The challenges of 2020 were sudden and dramatic. Then 2021 was more about adapting and finding work-arounds, which on the whole, people did. There’s a resilience in the air now, the vaccines have given us some confidence and there’s a determination to get on with it and keep going.
Business owners, especially, know that the challenges we face – and it’s not just about the pandemic, there needs to a refocus following Brexit, too – are things we have to learn to live with. You have to adapt to survive, particular if you’re running your own business, otherwise you are literally left with nothing.
Looking back, I think the pandemic has changed the way we do a lot of things. Sometimes it’s better to do things the old way. Face-to-face interaction, for instance, is often better in business, it helps build relationships and collaboration. But, at the same time we have learned to use technology that helps cut down on wasted time, travel costs, fuel and the like. As we go forward, it will be about adapting and finding what works for all of us, in different situations, in the long term.
On the whole, I think Northamptonshire has done well. There’s a good mix of businesses and professional services, and it’s a fairly tight-knit business community. Both organisations and individuals have adapted to change incredibly well.
It’s true that the retail barometer shows that some have not done so well, but our town centres were struggling in their old guise long before COVID struck. I think now is the time to focus on what we want our town centres to be and we need to give people a reason to come back into town.
People who would never have dreamt of doing online shopping were driven to make that change during lockdown and buying habits have changed. We can’t rely on retail anymore for a vibrant town, as Northampton has for so long; we have to find other ways.
There’s a massive chance to tap into our culture, which in my opinion, we’ve never done enough of. Northampton has some fantastic places to visit and some excellent cultural offerings. Last year, the council agreed to provide £400,000 in government funding for a major extension of 78 Derngate. A new building for NN Contemporary Arts Centre in Guildhall Road is being renovated, and we want to regenerate the Market Square so it’s somewhere safe, clean and attractive for people to visit. In all, we’ve been able to secure £37m of Government funding, which will deliver £200m of regeneration over the coming months and years.
I’ve never believed in shopping areas being in competition – like any business we need to differentiate our offer to the consumer, not moan about other offers. If people want the mall experience, they have Milton Keynes and Rushden Lakes, if they want a browse round a market and independent shops, they can come to Northampton. It has a lot to offer, but we have to do more to build that offer. It’s about retail you won’t buy online, the things you have to see and feel, something you won’t find anywhere else – ‘experiences’.
If, since the pandemic, people are more conscious of getting plenty of fresh air and enjoying the environment around them, Northampton town centre has cycle ways, parks, the likes of Delapré Abbey just down the road. That’s what we need to try to capitalise on, a new way of spending leisure time.
And talking about the environment, as a council we are working to set up a sustainability strategy. We want this to be something lasting, something that transcends the four-year electoral cycle and will be a strategy for the area that takes us through to our 2030 targets and beyond.
We’re setting up an online platform where people, individuals and businesses, can make commitments to what they are going to do to reduce their carbon footprint for the coming year and beyond. By getting individuals and businesses, large and small, to make pledges, we want it to grow into a platform people think they should be on – to be held accountable for their environmental goals.
So, as we move into 2022, I think there’s a lot of optimism around. Yes, we’ve had a bit of a blip with concerns about the Omicron variant, but generally things are going in the right direction and hopefully we will soon be back on a level playing field.
As a council, we aim to continue to support businesses. There will still be some fall out from COVID, but we have to work on the things we can control and give people the support they need.
We continue to work with the Government to provide COVID grants, and amongst other things the South Northants Job Club has been expanded to cover West Northamptonshire. There’s a whole range of information on the council web pages about the support available or signposting to advice and support from other organisations.
I don’t think 2022 will necessarily be easy, but it will be better. We’ve learned what we need to do, and I think most people think it’s time to get on with it. Here’s to a much better year ahead.
Find out more at www.westnorthants.gov.uk