Have landlords wrecked the high street?

3 May|Tom Hodgkinson

Tom Hodgkinson wonders how big a role landlords and councils have played in retail closures

I had to suppress a moment of glee the other day when I cycled past our old shop in Notting Hill and saw that it is vacant once again. We moved out in 2016 when our landlords decided that it was more profitable to rent to an estate agent than to a small independent bookshop offering Latin and ukulele lessons in the evening. Surprise! But after three years it seems that this estate agent has given up. So we’ll see how long the shop stays empty.

I reflected that on a wider level, it is perhaps landlords and their agents who are responsible for the death of the high street. By squeezing tenants, big and small, on rent, they force the poor business owners to overwork and eventually give up, exhausted, having wasted all their savings on an impossible dream. Add in council rates, which are far too high – in our case they were £12,000 a year – and you can see that it’s practically impossible to run a small independent owner-managed shop, lovely idea though it may be. The only ones who can afford the rent are the highly efficient chain operations like Prêt a Manger and McDonalds which can turn over thousands in a day. Forget a shop made for loafing! Takeaway coffee, sandwiches, burgers, small pieces of artisanal chocolate, speed! The result is a boring and half empty high street. The Idler’s vision is for a high street packed with places of learning and conviviality, but will that ever happen? Not when the greed motive is uppermost.

 

SELECTED COMMENTS

These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your views.

Totally agree but would really go one step further beyond agents and landlords to the bigger picture. It has to include the culpability of corporate developers and Local Authorities in the maniacal master-planning and over-development of many parts of central London and how that model is underpinned by overseas investors who may never be actual residents. For me, the trickle-down effect of corporate development and its Faustian Pact with local authorities is what has really hot-housed the London residential and commercial property market. Undermining independent retail and the homogenisation of high streets throughout London for serial franchises enormously undermines community. Where I live, the coffee shop run by a lovely lesbian couple serving good coffee and great organic food, which was a hub for an alternative creative community and displayed local artists’ work, has long gone after a rent review. We now have two Costa Coffees and a Coffee Republic as well as the usual crap tortilla and pizza franchises on one block. Independent retail is slowly being choked out and it’s hard not to see that as indirect social engineering for the maximisation of investment values, rents, rates and council tax.
– Jamie Bourne

I do understand your comments but is it only the money grabbing landlords who are to blame? The buying habits of the consumers have changed radically. The days of popping out to your local shop on a daily basis have long gone. The Internet changed this. Also the use of cars means that parking in the high street is next to impossible. Hence the rise of the out of town shopping areas where there is plenty of parking. Where I live in Orpington, the high street is dominated by charity shops, cafes, Poundstretcher type shops and financial institutions. Recently a new café opened, selling good quality food and vinyl records. It is a lovely place and I hope they survive. So I think it is a far more complex issue than just the landlords.
– David Philip

As a Notting Hiller & local cyclist of nearly 60 years, I totally agree with you about “The Day Today”! In fact, I was only the other day enjoying the sun outside The Westbourne (accompanied by a half of Guinness and tasty chicken liver pate, chutney and toast!) looking over at the empty space and remembering your old gallery. Estate agents, especially in the commercial sector, are the rot of our times… and glad to have seen it go… having just bought this amazing old Indonesian fish trap for my tribal stock [picture attached] from the on the street gallery, Wilson Stephens & Jones, just a few doors down!! Keep it up!
– Clive Loveless

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