ALNWICK in the late 1990s was typical of many rural market towns. Despite obvious assets such as the castle and the town’s attractive environment, the local economy was static, rents were low, occupancy rates poor, and outside investment limited. Modern housing in the area was in short supply and national operators unwilling to invest.
Ten years on this is no longer the case, with several factors providing the catalyst for regeneration and change.
Firstly, significant investment in the Alnwick Garden project has drawn increasing numbers of visitors to Alnwick. Coupled with the attractions of the castle itself, the town is rapidly developing into a world class tourist destination.
Secondly, in the booming housing market Alnwick has come to the notice of national housebuilders, and when the town was voted “Best place to live in Britain” by Country Life magazine, the subsequent interest helped further raise the town’s profile as a good place to live and work, bringing added investment and increased spending power to the local economy.
Consequently Alnwick is now starting to flourish, with all sectors of the commercial property market benefiting.
The retail position has changed dramatically over the past 12 months.
Planning permission was granted in 2006 for a new 46,000 sq ft non-food and 35,000 sq ft food retail development on the Willowburn site to the south of the town and owned by Northumberland Estates.
Following a long battle for planning, currently under construction and due to open this summer is a Homebase and an Argos store, while a contract to construct a new Sainsbury’s store is being awarded to Mansells, and is due for completion in March 2008.
The council were brave enough to back local demand for a new supermarket, encouraging a sea change in retail development for the town.
Arguments against this development centred on whether it would draw shoppers away from the town centre, but this had to be balanced against the loss of trade to other centres.
A flourishing tourism industry has not only served to boost employment prospects for the town, but Alnwick is being forced to raise its game in terms of visitor accommodation, eateries and other such services.
Northumberland Estates is currently seeking planning for a 54-bedroom hotel and brassiere south of the town in a joint venture with the Sir John Fitzgerald chain of high quality pubs and restaurants.
Discussions with Edinburgh Woollen Mill over a proposed visitor centre, coupled with further retail developments including a garden centre on the same site, would, we believe provide a further boost in this direction.
At the same time, increased labour mobility, an attractive work environment, competitive rents, and good housing have fuelled heightened interest in the office sector.
Under development by Northumberland Estates in conjunction with City & Northern, is 27,000 sq ft of high quality office units at Cawledge Park on the edge of the town, adjacent to the A1.
Letting through joint agents Kings Sturge and George F White, the first phase of this development will see 12 new units made available on a lease or purchase basis, an idea which is new to this area. Due for completion in December, investors are already showing interest.
On the southern outskirts, the Lionheart Business Park has also experienced rapid growth of late. Recent expansion of the infrastructure by Northumberland Estates in conjunction with Northumberland Strategic Partnership has opened a further five hectares of serviced land, with the first of the newly constructed premises taken by local manufacturer, William Hacket Chains. Further expansion plans include 42,000 sq ft of small scale business units and new premises for a firm of agricultural suppliers.
As we see it the signs are good for the continued revitalisation of Alnwick and local statistics reinforce this idea. Between 1995 and 2005 the number of VAT businesses present in Alnwick District grew from 1,105 to 1,205, a significant growth, whilst the number of jobs in the District rose from 13,000 in 2000, to 15,000 this year.
If market towns such as Alnwick are to thrive and drive rural regeneration, they must look to their assets, be ambitious and broaden their appeal to a wider economy.