The capital city of the nation of shopkeepers is getting worried. Is London beginning to face the same pressures that have stripped many other town and city centres of their life?
Over the next few years, central London\’s shops will face a bit of a rocky road, with growing competition from what might be called \’out-of-town-in-town\’ retail malls: at White City to the west, at Stratford to the East and at the expanded Brent Cross/Cricklewood scheme to the north. Combined with congestion charging, and the homogenisation of retail through \’clone town\’ encroachment by large chains, the threat is particularly acute for smaller and independent shops.
Kensington and Chelsea recently established an independent commission to look at the future of retail within the borough and their report (here) makes some interesting proposals: how can you preserve retail diversity, and the character of neighbourhoods that this creates?
Some of the changes they recommend relate to planning policy, and in particular use classes. If your boredom threshold is low, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph. Land and building uses are categorised by Government, and local authorities uise them to define what activities are allowed on a particular site: retail, offices, housing, industrial uses, etc. \’Retail\’ includes sub-classes for shops, financial and professional services (ie, banks, estate agents and bookies), restaurants and cafes, drinking establishments and hot food takeaways. In general, changes within a particular use class are permitted, but changes between use classes require planning permission.
The K&C Commission suggested putting small shops into a new category, and making mergers of smaller units a matter for planning consideration. They also proposed creating a new class for coffee shops, to prevent local retail being \’Starbucked\’. The report also suggests letting councils take over large shops\’ car parks, to remove their unfair advantage, and even toys with the idea of creating special \’retail conservation areas\’.
Why is this interesting? Firstly, because retail conservation areas could be seen as the next step in the heritage movement. Since the mid 1960s, we have woken up to the value of the every day buildings that surround us (of which more in another post soon), but have paid little attention to their use. A listed factory building or church can be changed into housing as long as it looks the same. Protecting the use of a building, as well its looks, is a pretty radical move, more reminiscent of the way we approach farmland, than buildings in the centre of a city.
It\’s a pretty conservative move too, though not one that would seem strange in New York or Paris. The leadership of Kensington and Chelsea is Conservative, but this feels like a far cry from the laissez-faire world of the market, seeking to protect shops like Rough Trade (a collectivist record shop) from the depradations of capitalism.
Thirdly, like most people, I am deeply hypocritical about shopping. I love smaller shops in theory, but the half-stale produce and limited range soon sends me scuttling to Sainsburys. Perhaps the streets where I live are slightly less replete with specialist sourdough bakeries than the streets of Notting Hill are. Not every small shop is worth saving.
Similarly, when I work in poorer parts of London, they don\’t tend to worry about small retailers. They feel they have too many of them already. They want Starbucks. They want Tescos. They want that holy grail of upwards mobility, Pizza Express. Keeeping good small shops afloat is important, but should we really rely on planning to save us from our own actions?