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Shop owners in Stratford and Bethnal Green talk about the state of our high streets

10:23 27 January 2013

Stratford High Street

Stratford High Street

Archant

While new shops have been springing up around a high street in Newham, one of Tower Hamlets’ main thoroughfares continues to struggle.

As members of the London Assembly last week took evidence on what government and councils can do to help declining high streets, we asked shopkeepers what would make a difference.

The shops on Stratford’s Broadway, which include those inside the old shopping centre, may be facing fierce competition from the gleaming new Westfield mall across the road – but on the whole, shop managers report they are doing relatively well in the current economic climate.

And with the old centre recently managing to attract a Costa Coffee shop to its centre square, along with major retailers such as Sports Direct and the Tiger variety store chain, the 1970s mall which survived the bulldozers seems capable of staying in business for the foreseeable future.

Centre manager Andrew Norton explained: “The Olympics helped put Stratford on the map. The footfall has also increased since Westfield opened and our retailers recognise that. We complement rather than compete with each other.

“We offer value and convenience for local people and competitive rents, whereas they attract more people from further afield.”

Newham Council points out that it and its partners have invested almost £26million in Stratford town centre.

In contrast, shop managers in Bethnal Green Road struggle to think of any new stores that have sprung up.

And Maria Pellicci, who has cooked up hearty Italian food at the Pellicci café since 1961, can tell you how the street used to be dotted with several family butchers, bakers, and shops selling men’s suits or radios.

Today her son Nevio says there is too little variety and too many pound stores and betting shops.

But the street’s last butcher is confident that planned improvements could help shops capitalise on an recent influx of young professionals to the area.

One thing that both shop keepers in Bethnal Green Road and Stratford agree on is that cheaper or free parking, combined with more affordable rents, are key to attracting more independent quality shops.

Responding to complaints that the two hours’ free parking on Bethnal Green is not being publicised, a Tower Hamlets Council spokesman said it was limited by regulations as to what can be put on road signs.

In Stratford Apple Jacks Health Shop has seen the area in around the Broadway and inside the old shopping centre transformed from a “dump” into a popular shopping destination.

Co-director Robert Stevenson, whose store has been inside Stratford Shopping Centre for 25 years, puts the improvements down to overall re-development of the area rather than any Olympic effect.

He said: “Before it was just a dump and not a great place to hang out after dark. What they have done to the centre and the surrounding area is great.

“It’s much cleaner, neater, brighter and safer. Security inside the centre is much better and there are more police on the street.”

He said that since Westfield opened, more people have also been trickling in.

And with his shop’s sales up four per cent on last year Robert is positive that Stratford is a good location.

But he would like to see more affordable rents and competitive parking charges to attract more shoppers and independent retailers.

He said: “It has always been mainly chain shops in here. But there are only around three of the original 10 independent shops inside the centre left.

“More reasonable rents would help attract smaller shops. We can’t compete with the big stores on price so have to offer quality products and customer service.

“There are always lots of parking spaces left in the car park above the centre. It should be free for at least two hours like it is at Westfield. With is costing £20 a day here, how can we compete?”

For the manager of Travel Zone, a shop selling suitcases and handbags, Stratford is still a good location, despite declining trade.

Sivarupan Sivarajah said: “During the Olympics we had lots of tourists coming in buying travel goods. But after the Games and since Westfield opened things have got worse – a lot of people just go there now.

“But the Olympics put Stratford on the map and it’s a lot nicer and cleaner now. Stratford is a popular area now, so this store still performs better than some of our other London stores.”

But he said a rise in rent is forcing the business to look at an alternative shop units inside the centre.

“It would help if the landlord reduced the rent and the council attracted more customers by offering free parking at the car park upstairs.”

In Bethnal Green Road Butcher Peter Sargent has done his bit to make his shop stand out, with feathered pheasants and a traditional delivery bike on display.

The owner of The Butcher Shop believes Bethnal Green Road is becoming more trendy.

Peter said: “There are no longer many families living round here. But in the past two years we have had a lot of new customers who are young professionals moving into the area.

“So I’m confident the area is becoming more gentrified and I think the Shoreditch effect is slowly spreading.

“We need a supermarket such as Tesco but the people shopping at Asda and Island are not likely to come in here, it’s the people looking for quality and something different.”

Peter, who has been critical of the council in the past, praised the town hall for recently sprucing up Derbyshire Street, off Bethnal Green Road.

He said: “They’ve done a good job lowering the pavement so it blends in with the road and will be planting trees.”

But Peter said more is needed to attract quality independent shops.

He said: “For young people starting out, finding £300-400 a week in rent, plus money for business rates, electricity and gas and maybe a delivery van is almost impossible in the current climate.

“I also hear that a lot of cheap shops along here are in trouble. Subsidies for rents and lower business rates would help.” cs put Stratford on the map and it’s a lot nicer and cleaner now. Stratford is a popular area now, so this store still performs better than some of our other London stores.”

But he said a rise in rent is forcing the business to look at an alternative shop units inside the centre.

“It would help if the landlord reduced the rent and the council attracted more customers by offering free parking at the car park upstairs.”

The flow of customers at the famous Pellicci café in Bethnal Green Road is “steady” but trade is held back by parking charges.

So say members of the Italian family who have run the café for more than 100 years.

Co-manager Nevio Pellicci, 36, said: “We are lucky because we are so established and the flow of customers is steady.

“People who are just stopping to buy a coffee or sandwich don’t want to pay £3.50 an hour to park.

“If the council spent as much time and money on helping shops as they do on enforcing parking regulations, that would be a start. They are quick to slap a £60 fine on customers or us if we leave a rubbish bag out at the wrong time. But when we have a dispute over a fine, it is like a miltary operation.

“If they really want to help shops, they need to offer free or cheap parking.”

Nevio also urged the council to clamp down on betting shops and encourage more variety of shops.

He said: “One or two pound shops are ok but so many of them should not get planning permission.”

The G Kelly pie and mash shop in Bethnal Green Road has existed for more than 90 years, but sales at the Bethnal Green Road family business have been falling for eight years.

Manager Theresa Wakeman said: “It’s quiet. Parking has a lot to to with it. People either can’t park or find it too expensive at £3.50 an hour.”

Theresa also thinks the high street needs more variety and quality of shops.

She said: “Tesco is the only shop that a lot of people come here for.”

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