Friday 2 November 2018

Saving the local high street - It must start from the ground up

Adapt to survive - Fanning Builders Merchants, Bunns Lane, 1972
Earlier in the week, the Chancellor outlined  a whole raft of measures aimed at saving our shops and high streets. The BBC has written an article summing up how the Chancellor expects the changes to help. They conclude that he's unlikely to be the saviour of the high street. We agree. For the last year, The Barnet Eye has been working on our strategy to rejuvenate Mill Hill Broadway. We are members of the Mill Hill Neighbourhood Forum and are helping them to pull together a plan. This is our plaan, not that of the forum.

We are still working on what we believe can be done, but there are a few lessons that we believe need to be learned. We believe that any strategy needs to start at a grassroots level and needs the goodwill of the customers. The Mill Hill Neighbourhood Forum has worked hard to develop a strategy, but all they can really do is co-ordinate minor changes on a very cosmetic level to perhaps make the trading environment slightly more benign. This is not to denigrate the work of the forum, but they will not be running businesses, they will not be cleaning the streets and they will not be building the new buildings. All they can do is to try and make Mill Hill a place where businesses want to come.

We must start by understanding the demographics of Mill Hill. It is by and large a very middle class ward. Any strategy must reflect the people who shop in Mill Hill. There are a plethora of various Facebook groups related to Mill Hill, including Inside Mill HillMill Hill Families, Mill Hill for Kids, Mill Hill Litter Pickers and You're probably from NW7 if. These have all been started by Mill Hill residents who want to develop a sense of community in the area. All are active and if you live in Mill Hill are interesting in their own way. I happen to believe that this gives Mill Hill an excellent opportunity to make Mill Hill an even better place to live. I've posted on many occasions about how much I love Mill Hill. We have, however, recently seen a some marked losses to our high street. For me one of the biggest was the closure of Cooksleys butcher's.  They sold amazing meat, was where I got my Xmas Turkeys from and are the only place on the Broadway that I could get bones for my doggies. The loss of the banks also makes running a business in the Broadway far less attractive. I am appalled at the lack of understanding that many locals have about the effects of this. Most small retailers have a constant requirement for banking facilities. I have come to the conclusion that the UK High Street banks are simply not fit for purpose when it comes to small business. When we developed our new studio block, we needed to borrow £650,000 of the million cost. We had a cast iron business plan and a demonstrable return of approx 17%. Despite having run our studio business for 35 years, we were told we lacked a track record to justify the scheme. Eventually a broker secured the finance, ironically introducing us to a different department in our own bank, who specialised in such business, having previously been told they didn't do that. We paid £8,000 for an introduction to our own bank. I can't see any justification for anyone claiming that is serving the needs of businesses.  Our other bankers strung us along for 18 months before turning us down. They told us that if we were putting up a building for Tesco's they'd reconsider. They lost our business, which was highly profitable, as a result.

The reason I mention this is because without bank support for innovative business, there is absolutely no chance of regeneration. My view is that Banks should get tax breaks on loans to start up businesses. If they could offset any losses on such loans against tax on profits for less risky businesses, so long as certain criteria were met, it would cause a shift in mindset. I am highly interested in peer to peer financing and crowdfunding. I am seriously considering opening a bar in Mill Hill Broadway next year, subject to the right building becoming available. We secured crowd funding pledges of  £150,000 to support this. I have come to the conclusion that the best way forward would be to be far more ambitious. I would like to secure a crowd funded freehold and provide some high quality, low cost accommodation for staff as part of the offer. I previously detailed my ideas for how the Broadway (and other High Streets) could be regenerated. I believe an absolute key is to get specific areas, a cafe area, a food area, a services area. If Landlords could be persuaded to see the benefits to their portfolio of working together to regenerate the High Street, it would be a win/win.

I have been doing a lot of research into how to make my ideas work. During a recent visit to Melbourne, Australia, I was highly impressed with a pub called the Lincoln. It was awarded Time Out Pub of The Year in Melbourne. It would be amazing in Mill Hill. Their offering was so simple but amazingly effective. The food offering was a simple, limited menu, but all produce was fresh and sounded appetising. What really impressed me was not the food though. It was the bar staff. I happened to mention that my wife would like a G&T. The manager made a massive effort to talk us through all of the various gins on the menu and which tonic worked with each of them. The other barman was knowledgeable about the beers. In Mill Hill, it seems that the pubs simply want low cost teenagers, with zero knowledge or customer skills. As pubs are part of the hospitality industry, I think training is the key. Our experience in Melbourne was that we bought a significantly more expensive G&T and had one more round than we intended. In Australia, the minimum wage is almost double of that in the UK. Staff are recognised as an asset. I happen to think that a pub with well trained, friendly, knowledgeable staff would be far more profitable, even if those staff were paid a handsome premium on salary.

As for the rest of the High Street. I believe that specialism and knowledge is the key to survival. As mentioned in the previous blog on the subject, having soft skills that you don't get on the internet is the way forward. My particular business, selling musical instruments and equipment has suffered massively from the internet. I have to be honest and say that it has been hard adapting. However, we have adapted. Last year we saw a massive increase in profitability of our retailing activities. This was nothing to do with any big master plan, rather an honest review of what we were selling and how we were selling it. Very few retail businesses will survive based on business methods of the late 1990's.

In short, if we are to rebuild the Broadway as a viable and vibrant town centre, we have to do it from the ground up, as a community. I am delighted to say that I've been contacted by the owners of an art gallery that will be opening shortly in Mill Hill. They are keen to use social media to promote their business. Such businesses offer something you can't get on line. If they do well, they will help make the Broadway a destination. I just hope that our community gets behind them. As an artist, I am excited that such a business sees Mill Hill Broadway as the place to open.

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