Crime and our Town Centres

My constituency of Northampton South is equally split between rural and urban areas and I am fortunate that it covers Northampton town centre, based around Abington Street and the Market Square.

My memories of the town centre of fifty years ago was of a bustling, thriving business hub populated by hundreds of shops covering a massive range of goods and services, mostly owned by independent retailers. Sadly that situation has changed and whilst a number of very good independent retailers operate around the town centre, Abington Street itself, which is the spine, is now populated by national and international retail outlets, has become fully pedestrianised and like a number of other streets around it suffers the ravages of a 24 hour drinking culture, which has made a journey to the town centre at night an unpleasant experience at best and a potentially hazardous one at worst.

That change is one of the major motivating reasons why I agreed to head up a Parliamentary Commission into Small Shops in the High Street to see how we can reinvigorate our town centres and create the thriving community they once were.

Over the past two months the Commission members have sifted through over fifty written submissions from national organisations through local trade northampton_town_centrebodies to individual independent retailers and one of the areas of concern that emerges most strongly is that of crime. People are put off from visiting town centres because of anti-social behaviour, businesses are suffering from burglaries and wilful damage and staff are experiencing increased levels of verbal abuse.

But equally importantly there is an increasing feeling amongst both retailers and the general public at large that business crime does not warrant the level of serious attention from Police sources up and down the country, thanks to the level of central targeting which encourage them to concentrate on other areas of criminal activity.

Indeed, when the business community in the East Midlands wanted a definition of business crime, the Association of Chief Police Officers decided it was impossible to define it in an acceptable way. At present there is no differential in national statistics between a commercial burglary and the pilfering of a rake from a garden shed. National bodies argue there is a good case for a new, separate crime category of commercial burglary, to allow us to see the real extent of the problem but sadly to date the Government has refused to create that category.

Yet business crime is a huge area of concern. The Federation of Small Business has claimed that business crime makes up 20% of recorded crime in the UK. Tellingly they labelled it the ‘forgotten fifth.’ In total the average cost of retail crime since 2000 totals a massive £2.24bn.

Anti-social behaviour costs the tax payer £3.4 billion a year and the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, one of the most influential bodies in the House of Commons, has claimed that towns are now ‘no-go’ areas with drunken yobs behaving ‘like occupying armies.’

Boots say that 70% of all urban crime takes place in town centres and we now know that even the Home Secretary needs a bodyguard to get a kebab in the afternoon.

That problem costs businesses at all levels, but it especially impacts upon the smaller stores. Bills for repairs and stock replacement are proportionally higher and together with insurance payments pose a proportionally heavier burden.

It is also recognised that increases in retail crime are often an early symptom of a declining town centre and the sad descending spiral sets in, which discourages people from visiting our traditional community hubs, leading to decreased footfall which in itself leads on to further evacuation of independent retailers from our town centres. Thus firms that are forced to close down or relocate become a major contributing factor to the decline of town centres and wider communities and the whole sad cycle becomes incredibly difficult to reverse.

The Commission is still in its early stages but some of the more important recommendations are already becoming apparent.

There is a big difference between public spaces such as the High Street, under the control of Local Authorities, police, users and businesses, and private space, such as out-of-town and edge-of-town shopping areas, where anti-social behaviour is less apparent, parking is free and crime more easy to control. The harsh truth is that if we are to maintain thriving town centres and small town high streets we have to begin to try to place a more favourable set of conditions on the High Street, That means controlling anti-social behaviour, cutting crime and providing adequate and cheap, if not free, parking, situated no more than five minutes from the majority of shops.

It is estimated that the retail industry is spending in the region of £723m annually on crime prevention in the form of CCTV, alarm systems and guards. But the key to real success is the overall coordination of all these measures.

Retail Crime Partnerships provide such coordination. They have been established in around 200 towns and cities in the UK. Such a partnership in Northampton has produced a 30% reduction in retail crime in the town centre. At the same time, Barclaycard, the scheme sponsors, reported a 31% reduction in fraud on their credit cards. If access to crime targets can be denied, crime can be reduced across a broad spectrum of offences, making a significant contribution to the local community safety strategy.

It is clear that partnership and information sharing works. Two initiatives in recent times, Action Against Business Crime (AABC) and Business Improvement Districts (BID’s), have both done much to help areas reduce crime rates. There are more than 200 AABC schemes across the country but despite their positive impact there are threats to their funding.

It may be that BIDs have more of a future in tackling crime. They are jointly funded between local authorities and retailers and have demonstrated increased turnover and footfall by improving shopper confidence. A BID is a geographically defined area of a town where ratepayers have voted to all contribute to the local environment.

The big advantage that High Streets have is that they are a venue for the community and that is something a supermarket never can be. The High Street is a kind of neighbourhood – a geographical place. So let’s build on that.