As Britain goes to war with Iraq, London’s shop owners are facing a battle of their own. Rising rents, soaring rates, increasing staff costs and now the congestion charge. Rarely have things looked bleaker for those of us who man Britain’s high streets. And frankly, some of us have almost reached the point of no return.
My bookshop, Politico’s, is located near the Army & Navy department store off Victoria Street. Before 17th February every single parking meter in Central London would be occupied from 8.30am through till 6.30pm. They are all now half empty throughout the whole day. The pleasure of denying the hunting pack of traffic wardens the chance to pounce makes it almost worthwhile, but it is clear evidence that the Congestion Charge is biting – and biting hard into retail takings.
In the first four weeks of the congestion charge my shop’s takings went down by more than 12%, as did the number of customers. I am told that the Army & Navy is reporting falls of up to 20% in trade. The ladies who lunch are obviously lunching elsewhere. Oxford Street stores are even worse off as they cope with the unnecessarily lengthy closure of the Central Line.
Many of us had hoped that the effects of the congestion charge would have worn off by now. But they haven’t. We now face the prospect of having to tear up our budgets and the miserable prospect of a permanent drop in our trade.
For the High Street chains this is a terrifying prospect, but at least they have deep pockets – far deeper than my own or those of other small independent retailers. Napoleon once famously described Britain as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. We are now in danger of having to walk down High Streets totally dominated by High Street chains, with no independent shops at all.
If we wish to have homogenous High Streets which consist only of the likes of Next, Boots, HMV and Dixon’s we are certainly going the right way about it. Within a very short time they are the only ones who will be able to afford to stay unless there is an imminent market correction.
I would dearly love to pile all the blame for this state of affairs on Ken Livingstone, but in the interests of fairness I must apportion the blame a little more widely than that. And the bulk of it goes to Tony Blair and his Ministers.
We should not be surprised that his government treats small business with contempt. After all, not a single Labour Cabinet Minister has ever run a small business (let alone a large one) and only five out of 411 Labour MPs has any business experience to speak of. So perhaps we should forgive them for failing to understand the consequences of their tax policy. Perhaps we should also forgive the naïve creatures for cyphoning money off from efficient Conservative councils like Westminster and Wandsworth and redistributing it to their failing northern cronies. But forgiveness is something I am rapidly running out of.
Many businesses are facing double digit business rate rises and on top of that Gordon Brown has kindly instructed us to pay 10% more national insurance from April. And the cherry on the cake is that our landlords – a government department – are suggesting we might like to pay 42% more rent from June. This would mean that since 1997 our rent has gone up by a whopping 72%.
If it wasn’t so tragic it would be funny.
Yet when we first moved into this shop in early 1997 it had been empty for two years. Opposite us was a Sue Ryder charity shop and two empty shop units. Nowadays the likes of Barclays Bank, a DIY chain and a pub chain have moved into the road and as a consequence the rents have soared.
Many will understand the financial challenges faced by shop owners, but I wonder if our customers realise that I and my staff face regular threats of physical violence or verbal abuse. I am 6 feet two yet I have been physically assaulted on at least four occasions in my own shop. One assailant was sent to jail for two years, where he struck up a relationship with Rose West, but that’s another story.
We receive regular visits from jobsworths at Westminster City Council who tell us in an aggressive way that we are not allowed to display an advertising board outside our own shop as someone may fall over it. I politely explain that following their own logic they should remove the myriad of parking meters and pay and display machines which impede pedestrians. They threaten legal action which they know they won’t take. I remove the board for an hour and when they’ve gone, I put it back. Another needless irritant in the life of a London shopowner.
As a consequence of all these issues I am now seriously considering moving my business out of London. Overnight my overhead costs would be cut by some 80%. Nearly 50% of our turnover is from internet and mail order sales anyway and these are just as easy to fulfil from Kent as from central London. But it would mean five London people lose their jobs and our customers who have loyally supported us for six years would have to browse through political books on the internet rather than in a shop.
So I am now faced with a clear choice. Do I sign up to a lease for another ten years, with all the legal and financial consequences that entails? Should I sell the shop, or should I move it outside London? Answers on a postcard please…