Fears over new school’s impact on town centre

Progress on the new Duchess's Community High School building, which is due to open in September 2016.
Progress on the new Duchess's Community High School building, which is due to open in September 2016.

Concerns that relocating the high school could cost the centre of Alnwick £250,000 in lost revenue has sparked a business group into action.

Alnwick Chamber of Trade (Act) has sent out a questionnaire to its members to try to get a more detailed picture of the impact of the move of the Duchess’s Community High School to Greensfield, to the south of the town, from next September.

Act chairman, Carlo Biagioni, said: “It’s not just one or two businesses which are going to be affected, it’s going to be at least a dozen.”

Mr Biagioni’s fish and chip shop, Carlo’s, takes around £20,000 a year from high-school pupils. He estimates that the relocation could result in £250,000 of lost revenue for town-centre businesses.

“Even the big boys are going to feel it, like Greggs and Costa, not just the smaller independents,” he added.

If the potential impact is as severe as he fears, Mr Biagioni wants to have an ongoing dialogue with the local authority, relating to two main issues.

He said: “If, after this questionnaire, we have got quite a few people who are going to be really affected, the plan is to go to speak to Northumberland County Council.

“It’s in the county council’s interest to have a dialogue and speak to the businesses, because it’s us who pay the business rates and it’s in the council’s interest to have a viable town centre.

“We would like to see if they could redevelop the current school site as soon as possible for housing as that would compensate somewhat for the relocation of the school.”

Mr Biagioni’s other concern is the discrepancy between business rates in the out-of-town areas, such as at Willowburn Avenue, and the town centre.

Mr Biagioni said that out-of-town business rates are much cheaper compared to the town centre, which made sense some years ago when the town centre was the main place to be, but should no longer apply. However, the school move allows Act to make its case more forcefully to the county council.

“We had to fight for free parking in the town, but the out-of-town areas have always had free parking,” Mr Biagioni added.

The business-rate issue comes at an opportune moment following the Chancellor’s announcement last month that he will allow councils to retain all the money they raise from business rates, decide how to spend the revenue and to lower rates to attract new business.

George Osborne reiterated this pledge in yesterday’s Spending Review, saying: “By the end of the parliament, local government will keep all of the revenue from business rates. We’ll give councils the power to cut rates and make their area more attractive to business.”

The questionnaire is due to be returned by Monday. Non-Act members are also welcome to have their say. Email cbiagioni1@gmail.com

Meanwhile, Mr Biagioni said that Carlo’s had been impacted by McDonald’s opening at Cawledge, with sales down 10 per cent year on year. He added that others had been affected slightly, but hoped that when the novelty wears off, business will get back to normal.

On the other hand, a couple of café owners told the Gazette that they had not really noticed an impact, suggesting that they serve different markets.