Shop local: ‘Don’t let east London’s high streets turn into ghost towns’ MPs urge Downing Street
- Credit: Mike Brooke
MPs are backing East End traders fighting for the survival of their businesses during Covid in the run up to Christmas.
They are calling on the government to start a fund to stop high streets becoming ghost towns when the pandemic crisis is finally over.
It comes in the wake of the East End Trades Guild launching a legal fund last month against steep rent increases forcing out businesses even before the Covid emergency, especially those bordering The City with growing encroachment from big commercial interests.
One traditional business in Spitalfields already forced out after 150 years is Gardner’s Bags, now having to move out to Leyton after four generations in Commercial Street run by the same family since 1870.
“Rent increases finally forced me out of Commercial Street,” owner Paul Gardner revealed.
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“Landlords have got to come to their senses and realise that small businesses have been decimated by the Covid emergency. Many will cease trading.”
Small businesses are at the mercy of rocketing rents, zealous parking restrictions discouraging passing trade and the rise of online shopping which is showing “the need to encourage people to shop local”.
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Poplar and Limehouse MP Apsana Begum fired a warning at the government this week about high streets becoming “ghost towns” if shoppers stay away.
She said: “We face the danger of losing once-thriving shops, leaving boarded-up and empty properties in their wake.
“The high street and traditional local shopping centres could be lost forever, unless there is action from the government.”
She wants to see Downing Street start a “save the high street” fund to stop stores closing down and communities being left with empty properties.
It could take the form of community buy-outs of redundant premises or grants for traders on the ropes.
“We mustn’t let the high street disappear,” she adds. “That could turn east London neighbourhoods into ghost towns.”
Traders face legal costs as landlords use court action to recover rent that many of their commercial tenants cannot pay due to government-enforced “non essential” business closures, despite the furlough scheme being extended.
Extending furlough by itself isn’t a lifeline, the business community would tell you.
The trades guild which organises an annual Small Business Saturday at Spitalfields in normal times came up with a hand-designed street guide in 2016 by artist Adam Dant showing shoppers how to dodge the chain stores and support the corner shop.
It was one small step in the right direction, but on a journey that needs all the help our MPs and the East End Trades Guild can muster to avoid the ghost town scenario.
The guild has a good track record winning concessions from Network Rail and TfL, in a campaign with the Guardians of the Arches pressure group when it railed against railway premises rents rising astronomically in 2017 by as much as 300 per cent ahead of the arches privatisation mass sell-off.
Its campaign tactics have made the voice of small business heard in Downing Street with tough lobbying backed by the East End’s MPs and mayor John Biggs who declares that small businesses are “the backbone of the local economy”.
Small businesses are, in the words of Bethnal Green and Bow MP Rushanara Ali, the heart of what makes east London unique.
“The pandemic was always likely to hit small businesses hard,” she says. “But the government’s health and economic strategies have made the situation worse.
“The chancellor has lurched from one cliff edge to another, causing unnecessary anxiety. Extending the furlough scheme was ‘unaffordable’, we were told, only to make a U-turn when the extent of the jobs crisis we are facing became clear.”
Around 50,000 workers were on furlough in Tower Hamlets in August, she points out. It is still unclear how many were made redundant before the chancellor’s last minute furlough extension.
But the one element that is pivotal to keep the East End trading is for people to “shop local”. Without that, many traders could go to the wall and our once unique local high streets turned to ghost towns.