The Breakfast programme on BBC1 this morning had a report on the impact of the recession on Britain’s high street shops. The reporter was in Rotherham in front of a row of boarded-up shop fronts covered in graffiti, but he also showed a couple of short pieces on Oxford’s Little Clarendon Street. The struggles of independent traders in this street have been covered recently in the local press and on TV local news. Several shops including Habibi and Inspires have closed since Christmas, and more are about to follow or are worried they will be forced to.
The BBC showed an interview with Sue Rosser, the owner of Lacy’s, which has just closed after 25 years. In the interview and in other comments several reasons for the decline of independent retailers were given: consumers have less spending money and are worried about the future, poor weather before Christmas hitting sales at a time which is crucial for many small traders, business rates, the growth of out-of-town shopping centres – Bicester Village was specifically mentioned in the case of Little Clarendon Street.
All these are surely valid reasons but I was surprised that, unless I missed it, neither the reporter nor the interviewee mentioned shop rents. When I spoke to Habibi’s owner he told me the rent increase imposed by his landlord was the final straw. Reports in the Oxford Times confirm high rents as being a major factor affecting traders. It was the same story in the town where I lived before moving to Oxford. A thriving high street with many independent traders gradually changed as more and more shops closed because they couldn’t afford higher rents. The shops were left empty: some were eventually replaced by retail and coffee chains.
I tried to understand how it could make sense for a landlord to choose to let property stand empty. I came up with one answer, but whether it’s right I don’t know. In my previous home town a significant proportion of the high street was owned by one local developer. It occurred to me that if he was prepared to play a long game it could be in his interests to see the high street become run down, even if it meant taking a short-term hit on income. When enough property was empty and the high street beginning to look derelict, that would be the time to move in with development proposals which would be viewed much more favourably than if the area was thriving. In other words, it could make sense for him to drive people out of business in order to line his own pockets.
As I’ve said, I don’t know if this is true or if it makes sense. And there may be other factors – something to do with local rates on empty property, perhaps. But if there is anything in it, is the situation in Little Clarendon Street similar, and are we going to see redevelopment proposals for this street in the next few years?
Oxford Times links: