Shopkeepers Showing Grit
Parking charges, big chains and the internet all threaten local shops. Frank le Duc reports.
Napoleon called us a nation of shopkeepers. It’s something that we have long taken pride in. The recession, though, is thinning out their ranks. Small traders have suffered. But there’s been a chain store massacre too, taking out the likes of Woolworths, Borders, Virgin, Habitat and Sussex Stationers. The number of empty shops has risen. Meanwhile, Tesco and Sainsbury’s continue to spearhead the march of the multiples. Their success threatens a wider variety of independents as they broaden the range of goods that they sell.
Locally, businesses and customers have expressed growing concerns about the advance of big brands sucking Brighton and Hove into “clone town Britain”. The Conservatives started looking at the issue when they ran the council. Now the issue has become more urgent. It is recognised as a pressing problem by members of all parties and none.
The council has even set up a “scrutiny panel” to listen to traders and ask what can be done. It is being chaired by the opposition Labour group leader Councillor Gill Mitchell.
The common themes will surprise few people but there is no unanimous view on the solution. Even Mary Portas, the retail guru and TV presenter, struggled to achieve a consensus with her report to the government before Christmas. But since the council announced its latest look at the issue, the biggest gripes have revolved around:
• Supermarkets and big chains
• Business rates
• Landlords, rents and upward-only reviews
• Parking charges and enforcement
• Other charges
• Park and ride
• Empty shops
• City centre management
• Too little information for visitors
Peter Allinson, vice-chairman of the North Laine Traders Association, believes that a better welcome for visitors is crucial to sustaining Brighton’s unique mix of shops. Mr Allinson, who runs Temptation café in Gardner Street, said: “It depends on people finding and exploring all parts of the city so they want to return and value the shopping facilities we have. Key to this is the station gateway and the signage within the city directing visitors to the main shopping districts. Traders need the council to act with us to achieve this.
“There are many barriers to trade within the city caused by the additional costs imposed by council services that businesses have to manage. And there is a disconnect between the rates paid and the value for money perceived by the traders.
“A key threat to small retailers is the precedents that are set by large retailers accepting rents that are higher than the average for the street. This can cause all rents to rise and the council could act to ensure that this is not happening on a wider scale than individual traders.
Gavin Stewart, the manager of the Business Improvement District, speaks regularly with more than 500 city centre traders in his role. He said: “The biggest issue coming back from the businesses is car parking and accessibility to the city. I know it’s contentious but retailers believe the parking regulations and parking charges are putting people off coming into Brighton. We’re losing trade to Worthing, to Crawley, to Croydon.
“We need to look at the issue of park and ride. From the business perspective it’s the one thing that keeps coming up time and time again. We need to increase footfall and spend – and lower overheads. Businesses would like to see the creation of rent registers so individual traders know they’re not paying too much. And there needs to be more transparency about what business rates actually pay for.”
Mr Stewart added that Mary Portas had called for dedicated “town centre teams” to include businesses, residents and landlords. He added: “One thing that we’ve lost recently in the city is town centre management.”
He said that the issue of markets was more divisive. Preston Street traders were desperate for a food festival, he said. And in Portland Road some want a market. But in Sydney Street the prospect of a market prompted vocal opposition. In George Street, Hove, there are strong feelings in favour and against. It came down to whether traders expected competition from outsiders or stalls that were complementary.
Alex Mojee Bell, from the Red Bed Co. in Portland Road, Hove, said that small businesses faced two problems from bigger rivals. One was pricing as bigger firms have better buying power. She said: “We buy a particular bed for £131 plus VAT. We have seen the same bed advertised with a bigger chain store for £139 including VAT.” Her business partner Emma Harley-Jones pointed out that online price competition was keen too, adding: “Sometimes people see a bed they like on the internet and come into the shop and try it before buying it on the internet.”
The second problem threatened the very survival of their business. Alex Mojee Bell said: “Existing firms have tried to squash us out of business by boycotting our suppliers. There is only a limited number of suppliers we can buy from.” She also called for the council to bring in a parking disc scheme as used in many other towns. Shoppers use the disc to show the time when they park and have one or two hours of free parking. She said that overzealous parking enforcement was driving customers away.
Martin Searle, from the Federation of Small Businesses, echoed many of the themes, and said: “Falmer and the Marina offer excellent opportunities for park and ride.” He said that the council had a role in licensing, health and safety, environmental health and trading standards. He urged the council to be more supportive and geared to business development and less on policing and enforcement. He said: “The spirit should be one of entrepreneurship not bureaucracy.”
The Local Data Company (LDC), which monitors empty shops, has issued a national alert about the decline of the high street. But Brighton and Hove shows up as an exception. Matthew Hopkinson, from LDC, said: “Brighton and Hove has a very strong mix of retail and leisure outlets which reflects its place as a popular residential destination as well as a big visitor attraction. In many ways this makes it unique and in a luckier position than some other seaside locations. For its size it has a very strong independent offer which in many ways is a key part of its attraction.
“The net result is that it has a below average vacancy rate for a centre of its size and is likely to remain a vibrant and attractive centre to shoppers be they inhabitants or visitors.” The hard numbers, he said, showed an 11.5 per cent vacancy rate compared with a national average of 14.5 per cent. The town centre rate is just over 6 per cent in Brighton and 3.9 per cent in Hove.
Phil Graves, managing director of Graves Jenkins, said: “I don’t think Brighton does have a retail problem but that’s not to say we should be complacent. We’ve got a very low vacancy rate. If you have empty commercial premises, give me a call. People also need to work smarter and embrace change. The internet isn’t going to go away.”
Tony Mernagh, chief executive of the Business Forum, is due to give evidence to the council’s Retail Scrutiny Panel this evening. He said: “Weekend intra-city transport links are often disrupted and the absence of a park and ride facility deters some shoppers. Parking provision and parking rates will also be a key element for some consumers when planning their shopping trips and it is essential that the city is able to offer a balanced range of facilities.
“Small retailers are reluctant to get professional representation for rent reviews and are consequently at the mercy of their landlords. Many do not understand the review process and are unaware that a proposed rent increase at review has to be supported by evidence from similar properties in the immediate area. The blind acceptance of the landlord’s demand sets a precedent for future reviews often leading to a series of increases that effectively price smaller players out of the market. Because they are based on rental values this also leads to an increase in business rates.”
One view is that tenants are happy to ask for rent reductions in tough times but don’t offer to pay more when times are good. Few landlords expect a sympathetic hearing though.
Mr Mernagh wants more small traders to adopt the “clicks and mortar” approach of an internet presence to complement their bricks and mortar shops. He said that festivals and events were of paramount importance as “consumers expect much more from the ‘shopping experience’ that just shopping”. He said that some events attracted shoppers and spending while others deterred them so the council should be selective and manage locations and routes with care.
He was one of many to touch on the planning laws – in particular the Use Classes Order which regulates the types of businesses permitted to trade from premises. Some want more flexibility although Phil Graves cautioned against a short-term kneejerk response and urged a strategic long-term approach.
Mr Mernagh added: “For better or worse, car parking is a key element in the retail mix. In times of austerity when funding for local authorities is under pressure it may be tempting to increase parking rates to raise revenue. There may be scope to do so without damaging the fragile retail sector but increases should be modelled beforehand so that the impact can be assessed.”
It would be easy to dismiss some among the business community as doom-mongers and nay-sayers but that would mean dismissing the valid concerns of traders operating in many cases on tight margins and struggling to survive in a city where footfall has fallen by almost 10 per cent over a few years. Innovation is crucial and many of those who addressed the scrutiny panel came up with constructive ideas.
Most acknowledged the way that structural change – the rise of internet shopping – had coincided with cyclical change, ie, the recession. There was a sense of confidence that those who survive the coming year will have done so without being complacent and because they have a strong core business. But they all had in common the belief that the council can do more to help.