Thursday, 28 May 2020

Planning for the future of our local High Street - How to transform Mill Hill Broadway - Updated

Image result for Mill HilL Broadway Mill Hill
The Broadway
I wrote this blog in August 2018 originally. I wanted to voice my concerns about what was happening in Mill Hill Broadway. I thought I should revisit it, in light of the current COVID19 crisis.

Mill Hill Broadway has always been a central part of my life. As a small child, there were four shops I loved. These were Callis's bike shop (on the site that is now M&S), Kentfields Toy Store (now a Barber), Woolworths (Now Icelands) and H.A Blunt and Sons (AKA The Model Shop and now Cosways). There were three butchers, three greengrocers and two fishmongers. Times have changed a bit, I suspect that they are going to change a whole lot more in the next ten years. Will our High Streets be recognisable? Is there even a future for the small High street? Is it worth fighting for?

First of all lets consider why High streets change. Generally the properties are owned by Landlords. They want to make as much money as possible from their assets. If Cosways Estate Agents will pay a higher rent than the model shop, then any sane businessman would be quite happy to see them take over the lease. As a Landlord of commercial properties, I fully understand that the first priority is to get a return on your investment. Tenants sign leases for periods often between five and twenty years with rent reviews built in. If property prices in an area double in that time, then the rental values will follow suit. If you are renting a shop in Mill Hill Broadway for £50,000 a year and making a profit of £50,000 and you get a rent review which doubles your rent, overnight your business is making nothing. On top of that there have been big rises in business rates for many High St businesses. The government has not recognised that a) Thriving High Streets are good for the nation and b) Most of the businesses in them are currently struggling. It is clear to anyone with any knowledge of retailing (I run a shop as one of my businesses), that the goverment needs to overhall the way it taxes business, both small and large. The percentage of tax that the countries largest retailer, Amazon pays in relation to independent High Street businesses is obscenely unfair. Small businesses do not want special treatment, but asking for a level playing field is not unreasonable. Not only can Amazon use their huge buying power to leverage massive bulk discounts, they pay miniscule taxes on what they sell. Sadly very few of us would want to pay a higher price because we would like to retain our High Street stores. The government has been forced to recognise the reality of the problems in certain areas of the High Street as a result of the COVID crisis. As the hospitality sector has become vital to the wellbeing of trade, generous grants have been put into place to help small shops. Furthermore, many have had their business rates cancelled for the year. Whilst this has bought some firms breathing space, many are worried that when rates start again. I am not criticising Rishi Sunak. He was faced with a massive short term crisis and he had to respond quickly. What we do need is a strategy to build on this breathing space. For our communities, this will be a key to making sure there is a recovery. Whilst his scope for helping may be limited due to the huge spending he's had to make, I still believe it will be sensible to try and help start ups and small businesses. When I originally wrote this blogs we were seeing a buoyant property market and big rent increases. Whatever the outcome of the covid19, I doubt any aspect of it will inflate property prices and I think any business renewing their lease in the next couple of years is likely to get a very good deal. We may also see some businesses actually being able to afford to buy freeholds. I'd urge anyone who can to seriously consider this. The depressed property market will provide an almost unique opportunity.

One byproduct of the rise of the internet retailers is the huge proliferation of delivery van on our streets. I'd be interested in comparing the carbon footprint of a pound of sausages bought from Boucheire Gerard (our local butcher in the Mill Hill) with one ordered from an on line retailer. Interestingly the COVID crisis, where people couldn't get their online sausages, gave Gerard a huge boost to trade. I hope that people remember where they could get their sausage and eggs when things return to normal.

There are many aspects of the move to online retailing which are detriminetal to our quality of life and pollution and traffic are certainly things that should be taken into consideration when working out a more equitable taxation policy. This may even encourage the likes of Amazon to consider cycle couriers as a first choice in urban areas. There is talk of a huge distribution depot in Mill Hill on the Pentavia site. This means that Mill Hill, Burnt Oak and Colindale have suddenly become a great place to run cycle based distribution. I sincerely hope Barnet Council use the opportunity to make safe cycling a priority. That would be a real win-win.

I was speaking to a friend who works in civil engineering who told me that there has been a marked increase in wear and tear on local roads in recent years. As delivery vans and lorries are significantly heavier than private cars, could the boom in online deliveries be contributing to the pothole epidemic we're seeing? If it is, then this is in effect another hidden subsidy that taxpayers are giving on line retailers.

There is little doubt that many of us like buying goods online. For many things, it is the easiest and most sensible way. For me, as a record collector, it has meant that albums I spent years scouring the second hand vinyl stores of London for, have now been easily and conveneiently been bought from dealers in the USA etc. I can't remember the last time we bought a kettle or toaster from a shop. For shops to survive selling such items, they have to have an amazing story to tell in this day and age. There is fantastic kitchenware shop in West Hampstead, if they were in Mill Hill, I would have bought many of the items in the window, but as we only go past it on a night out, sadly I've never actually set foot inside. But this type of niche shop to me is the future for High Street retailing. I suspect that to survive, you have to convince people to buy items they didn't know they want when they left the house.

A good example of this are Gerard's butchers, as I previously mentioned,  in Daws Lane. They sell the most amazing Chorizo sausages. I wasn't even aware of the existence of such delicious treats when I first saw them in the shop. They also do some amazing mustards and pickles. This has caused some friction between my wife and myself, as I insist on buying them in the shop (as I believe the shop deserves rewarding for introducing me to such delights), she insists on buying the on line (as they are cheaper). My arguments that we wouldn't know of them if Gerard wasn't there falls on deaf ears and meets with a response of  the look given to an unfortunate imbecile. But Gerard has a loyal band of customers who do value his services.

Image result for Mill Hill wines Mill Hill
Mill Hill Wines - Regular Tastings
When Matthew Offord was first standing as MP for Hendon, he told a local resident in Mill Hill that he wanted the Broadway to be the type of High Street that an independent cheesemonger would want to open up. Although this lead to much mirth (not least from me), I actually totally agree with Matthew. I would love to see such a shop and I think that it would thrive, if run properly. Mill Hill wines in an example of such a model. They have an amazing selection of products (all there to tempt the impusle buyer). They have regular tastings. They have expert knowledge. I have developed a love of fine wines, very much thanks to them. I think that what the High Street really needs is a  "food quarter", If Matthew Offords cheese shop was next to Mill Hill wines, with Gerards  butcher from Daws Lane, Elias Fish were all in a row next to each other, with some sort of loyalty card system, I think you'd have a very viable and thriving Mill Hill food quarter. I'd also love to see a high class delicatesant, a top quality baker and a health food shop present. The new store next to Costa has an amazing range of fruit and veg as well as a whole range of middle eastern and european foods. The trouble is that there is no attempt to form a "centre of gravity" in the Broadway for the food retailers. It is my belief that until such retailers start working together, they will be fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. I believe that both Cooksleys and Gerards butchers could thrive in the same parade as they are both excellent and would provide a strong attraction to locals who are seeking quality foods.

The next thing to consider is the restaurant offering of Mill Hill. Given the high turnover of restaurants in the Broadway, we again should have a look at what might be done to make this work better. The very best will always just work. Look at The Good Earth. It has been there for decades and is always busy. As for the newcomers, Bobs seem to have cracked the burger and beer niche pretty well. As a long term resident, the message is that if you want to succeed in Mill Hill, you have to be very good at your niche. Last year, an independent Italian restaurant opened in the Broadway. I assumed they would rake it in. They failed, as they were completely clueless as to how to run a restaurant. Perhaps their biggest sin was not to have a proper wine list. I'd love to see such establishments thrive, but they have to be well run. I'd also like to see the restaurants working with the food sector, so that they say "Wines selected by Mill HillWines, meat provided by Gerards/Cooksley, Fish by Elias". I love food and drink and if I have an excellent cut of steak, I might want to cook it myself the next day. What amuses me is that the restaurants in Mill Hill sometimes see each other as the enemy. The opposite is true. The more good restaurants you have in a High St, the more of a destination it becomes. When the Broadway had two Indian restaurants, we ate far more curries. I love the Mill Hill Tandoori, but it was nice to also have the option of the excellent cooking of Romel at the Day of The Raj. Variety was the spice of life. I'd love to see the restaurants get together to operate some sort of joint loyalty scheme and do co-marketing to get people to come to Mill Hill. I do however think we need two or three more top class restaurants to really make that work.

As for the cafe bar end of the market. There was much gnashing of teeth about Cafe Nero opening in certain quarters. There was a cry of "not another coffee bar". I was a little disappointed with this. Cafe Nero are a very different proposition to Costa. As it was, this never materialised. The talk was that Cafe Nero decided that Mill Hill wasn't good for their brand. The ex HSBC building they were planning to use hopefully will be opening as a cafe bar soon.  Given the trends in High Streets and retail, I think town centres need to embrace the cafe culture, it really is here for the foreseeable future. They are good for the High Street, they make people appreciate that it is worth spending time on them. The Broadway has a thriving cafe culture. When I was kid, there was really no such thing.

Then there is the charity shop sector.  Again there was much nashing of teeth over the , but any reading of the runes shows that charity shops are one aspect of the High Street retail that is more or less immune to the likes of Amazon. We all have junk we want to get rid of and there is an army of people who want to rummage around for bargains. Arguments that there are too many such establishments are simply a denial of the realities of 21st century. The challenge should not be how to rid the High Street of Charity shops, but how to make sure that they are a positive addition. This means that there should be design rules, ensuring they blend in and strict rules about leaving bags of donations outside, forbidding the practice. Charity shops have tax exemptions as well. This means that they are a far less risky proposition for Landlords. I would like to see these rules changed so that other small retailers and start ups get similar deals.

Then there are the nail bars and hair dressers. Every time a new nail bar opens in the Broadway, there is a chorus of "oh no, not another one". Then you notice that they are full all the time. The coffee shops of Mill Hill are often filled with well presented ladies, having a pre or post beauty treatment coffee, so there is a very valid argument to be made that these are good for the High Street. As you can't buy a haircut or a nail job on Amazon, I suspect they are there to stay. Again the challenge is to make them a little more in keeping with the ambience that says "This is a great High Street".

Image result for Rockman Mill Hill
Next up we have the niche non food retailers. I will give a massive shout out to two of them in Mill Hill. Firstly Gary at Rockman Jewellers in the Broadway. If like me, you are a hopeless romantic (hopeless in as much as I always forget to get the wife a present for her birthday and Xmas), Gary is a saviour. He is a shining example of a great retailer. He knows his customers, he gives great advice and he supplies a product that you simply can't gauge on a picture on the internet. Such great retailers will survive, I have no doubt of that. Then there is Raj at Kilworth Audio. He does high end audio visual gear. We always buy our tellies and turntables from him. He is a proper retailer, adapts with the times and gives great service. Such firms will survive. As a community though, we do need to make sure to tell our frinds that such great businesses are there and that they need our custom. I saw Raj in the Broadway and like many business people, surviving with a closed shop is not easy. I hope that when Mill Hill returns to work, we buy a new telly off him.

Image result for A&Y Locksmiths Mill Hill
A&Y Locksmiths
Another side of the non food retail business are the locksmiths and grocers. Locksmiths are pretty much Internet proof. When you need a new key, you have to use them. Mill Hill has an excellent locksmith. They have a whole host of other ironmongery products and also do cheap shoe repairs. Such businesses that hae skills are the real key to a town centre, yet get little recognition in any discussion. Then we have the retailers like the "pound shop". There is a debate about the unsightly display of goods on the pavement. I'm not a fan of unsightly encroachment onto the pavement, but given the current retail climate, I think we have to cut such businesses a bit of slack. In the long term, we need to ensure that new businesses coming onto the Broadway have rules that stop any further proliferation of street clutter.

Another contentious area are the bookmakers that crop up on our High Streets. As these businesses are hugely cash generative, they are a favourite with landlords. I really don't know of anyone who welcomes the opening of new ones. I would like to see them zoned out of the busier areas of the Broadway and other High Streets, possibly with a local limit on the number of them. I have an old fashioned view of their activities and believe they siphon money away from other businesses that add more. For me, bookies are one business that I'd definately say yes when asked if I'd prefer to see an empty shop. I would not ban them completely, but better zoning and limits would make a huge improvement to our High Streets.

A very thorny issue is the issue of banks. I have had countless rather pointless discussions with people who don't run businesses about the flight of banks from the High Street. For people in 9-5 PAYE jobs, they seem like anachronistic dinosaurs. To people like me who run businesses dealing with cash, they are an essential High Street resource. Barclays are the only big four bank left in Mill Hill, but they are closed for Covid and will be closed for good from June 5th.  If you operate a business, having to go to Edgware to pay in money is a huge overhead. I think that the big banks have completely mismanaged their branch networks. The way forward would have been for outlets to be shared resources, with a banking function. What I would say is that if your bank leaves your High Street, leave your bank for one that has remained. Vote with your wallet.

Finally there is the pub. Mill Hill has the Bridge, which is a rather niche operation. It is my regular watering hole and if you want a pint of Carlsberg on a Thursday night with a couple of mates after five a side footie, that you can walk home from it is great. If ever I am going to have any extra marital relationships, I'd conduct them in the Bridge, as it is the one place my wife would not come looking for me with the rolling pin. The Broadway desperately needs another pub (not a replacement pub), if it is to thrive. I'd love to open one a few doors down from Cannons Fish and Chip shop. Generally, they make you wait 10-15 minutes for your take away, so a pub for a crafty pint next door would work extremely well. A pub where I could take my wife without her objecting would be lovely. Somewhere for a quick drink before or after a meal with friends. I'd love somewhere that you could listen to music without jumping on a bus. Not a punk rock venue (great though that would be), just pleasant singer/songwriters and jazz trios etc. I'd like fresh food, nothing fancy, things like good quality sandwiches, burgers and steaks. Going back to the food quarter, it would be a great showcase for Matthew Offords cheese shop.

Finally on the general subject of attracting business to the Broadway. We need a more sympathetic parking regime. Short visits (20 mins or less) should get free parking. Thameslink should work with local retailers to help reinvigourate the Broadway. This could be done with joint promotions, money off meal vouchers for season ticket holders (God knows they deserve it) and a more "Mill Hill feel" about the station with Murals and artwork with local themes. TFL should also consider such schemes in relation to the bus network in Mill Hill. There should also be measures to make the Broadway and surrounding roads more cycle friendly (bike docks on the Broadways), segregated safe cycle spaces where feasable.

 So to summerise, I'd like to see the following written into any area plan for Mill Hill Broadway (or any other High Street).

1. Phasing out of cluttering street displays.
2. Zoning for food quarters and removal of bookies etc (as tenants vacate premises)
3. Stricter rules on signage with display standards
4. Loyalty schemes and joint promotion for town centres.
5. Tax incentives for innovation and start ups ( a points system for business rates, where social advantageous enterprises pay far lower rates than business that are not beneficial)
6. Fairer taxes in relation to online retailers
7. A more cohesive and local orienation for transport providers
8. Measures to make the Broadway more cycle friendly

What is tragic is that several Town centres in the London Borough of Barnet have received grants in the millions for regeneration. Most of this has been completely wasted, when a bit of thought and planning could have delivered regeneration at virtually zero cost.

No comments: