Another twist in Desborough’s Lawrence factory saga

For two decades the future of a derelict Victorian factory has been a passionate topic of discussion and just as it looked like there could be a solution, proposals are on hold again

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By Sarah Ward

You can catch a glimpse of the former Lawrence’s boot and shoe factory as you drive on the A6 through Desborough towards Market harborough.

Once a buzzing workplace that employed hundreds of the town’s folk, it has stood derelict since the 1990s, but is not forgotten about.

Rather there has been much talk of what should happen with the factory, but none of the conversations have led to any decisive action for almost two decades.

Purchased by the former Kettering Borough Council back in 2005 with a grant received from central government the building has faced setback after setback.

The borough council originally tried to develop the site for housing but could not find a backer and a plan to build a Tesco supermarket on the site fell down in the 2014.

The factory, which was built in 1837 and was originally used for silk manufacturing, also has the added complications of having a long standing covenant (imposed by the COOP which restricts use as a supermarket, this covenant would need to be overturned) and it is also part of the town’s conservation area, meaning there would be certain parameters on development.

In 2017 the borough council agreed to enter talks with Desborough Community Development Trust (DCDT) about leasing the factory to the charity, which would then develop it into a community hub. Alongside this the authority would then plan to build social housing on the adjacent land. 

But DCDT said after carrying out a feasibility study, a conversion of the former factory would only be financially viable if the authority let it take forward a proposal for the whole site and work with a developer to build rented housing on the site. It was estimated the whole scheme would cost £6m (£3.2m for the housing and £2.6m for the factory conversion). This plan never came to fruition and today DCDT does not have a financial backer.

In a report in June 2018 the council detailed expressions of interest from other parties in developing the site, including a couple of supermarkets.

It said:

“In summary, there is a pressing need to determine the future of the site and the factory building. There is now a plethora of interests, which are difficult to easily compare. There is, however, consensus that the site cannot be sensibly divided into two development schemes as originally considered.

“What has been very clear from all the expressions of interest is that, during any preparatory work that they have undertaken, they all conclude that splitting the site is not a viable option, either with or without the retention of the factory.” 

Three months later in October 2018 the executive agreed to identify the site for council housing.

Fast forward to May of this year and the new unitary council (which replaced the borough council in April) carried out a public consultation and put forward the latest development plan - which would be 43 one to five bedroom affordable homes - at a cost of about £10.5m (an average of £239,000 per property). This would be funded with Right to Buy receipts (the money from sold off council homes) and the rest borrowed - with the debt repaid out of rents.

The authority said a planning application would be put in this July - but the deadline has come and gone and an application has not been submitted.

Desborough councillor David Howes, who is also a member of the unitary authority’s executive, said in a social media post last month that he has asked the council to put the matter on hold in the wake of ALDI expressing interest in the site.

He said no decision had been made but the housing scheme was on hold. 

And to put another spanner in the works in recent weeks Aldi’s competitor Sainsburys has put in a planning application for a store in the town (on the Grange estate).

So just what happens next is anyone’s guess and the long running supermarket or housing merry-go-round continues.

We spoke to the main parties involved to get their views

Cllr Tim Healy, Desborough Town Council

The Labour-led town council’s view is that a supermarket should be built on the site. Cllr Tim Healey says that many in the town are in favour of that option.

He said:

“We think the town would be better served by a retail outlet (on the Lawrence site) and by and large we support the idea of an Aldi. Over 12,000 people live in Desborough now - the town has mushroomed and it could support two supermarkets. We have a couple of small COOP shops but they are expensive and the stock is limited - many people in Desborough go out of town for their weekly food shop.

“At our last meeting we had a fire brigade representative there who said the Lawrence’s site was in a dangerous state and that parts of it are booby-trapped and unsafe.”

Ian Anderson, chairman of Desborough Community Development Trust 

DCDT says it would support the social housing plan as the ‘least worst’ proposal for the site but would not support any plan that would involve knocking down the derelict building.

“It is a key heritage site within the town and to knock it down would not make any sense at all,” says Ian Anderson.

“The council’s 43 homes plan keeps the building - they would be required to keep it as they don’t have permission to knock it down. Heritage England have said they would strongly oppose knocking down the building.

“We would hope to see it developed for mixed use retail.

“We haven't got an action plan, but we would support any third parties that would want to do something.”

He said developing the factory would probably take some investment from the local authority - which has never been forthcoming. He said the former Kettering Borough Council had not committed any funds towards the regeneration of the town - which is rapidly growing in size.

“We are getting all the houses but none of the infrastructure,” he said. “The 106 money all goes into Kettering borough.”

Cllr David Howes, Conservative 

“If you did a straw poll in Desborough then 95 per cent of people would say they want the Lawrence site as retail. But to deliver that you have to have a retailer. For the last 20 years there has been no one interested other than Tesco. Now Aldi has popped up and I think it would be prudent to continue those conversations.”

The councillor did however say the right to buy receipts timeline (money has to be spent within a certain time or it goes to the treasury rather than being used for new council housing) is an issue and if the social housing plan was scrapped in favour of a retail scheme then alternative sites for council homes would need to be found. He also said there would need to be a time limit on the negotiations with Aldi.

“The worst thing that could happen, is we end up without a retailer and we have to give the money (right to buy receipts) back”.

North Northamptonshire Council 

“The delay is due to the new council and the new executive reviewing and discussing the housing pipeline for the whole area.

“NNC has not received any external funding for this project, any funding is from Right to Buy receipts and capital borrowing against the Housing Revenue Account.”

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