From our Chairman

Dick Schumacher:
'Support our High Street'
My 3-year-old son’s current favourite book is called “The High Street”. It’s about a girl named Sally who goes to her high street to buy 10 items ranging from a yellow rose and garden hose to a tin kazoo and a cockatoo. In the end, she finds them all, save for the rose, which she stumbles upon in her local park on the way home.

My son likes the rhymes of the text and the elaborate drawings of each shop, and I enjoy reading it to him.

But I often feel a bit depressed as I do so. Whilst the book is set in the present, I reckon there are precious few high streets in London (or anywhere in the country) that resemble the one in the book, with its independent greengrocer, music shop and hardware store among others.

To a degree, I am at peace with that. It’s how retailing in the U.K., and developed nations in general, mostly is today. It is dominated by chains. Day by day, we all order more online, from Amazon to Asos and Ocado. There is an undeniable convenience to e-commerce that gives it appeal. About 18% of U.K. retailing is now done online. That’s higher than in the U.S., where the figure is about 12%.

But if we don’t do at least some of our shopping on our urban high streets, they will wither and disappear like the ones we’ve probably all seen in country towns when a mall gets built on the ring road. (And that was before one-hour online delivery.)

The St. John’s Wood High Street in particular doesn’t look like the one in my son’s book. As of early in 2018, there are more vacant shops than I can recall at any point in the two decades I’ve lived in the area. It is not looking its best.
 

The Society has been in regular discussions with the largest freeholder on the street, which owns about one third of the buildings, encouraging it to locate a more diverse range of tenants than the High Street has now with family-friendly restaurants of every day affordability that would help draw more footfall.  I do believe that will happen, but it won’t be overnight, especially not in the current retailing climate.

All of us have a role to play in changing this.  To put a twist on the memorable phrase of the environmental movement: Think globally, shop locally.

It’s unrealistic to ask we do that all the time, but not that we do it at least some of the time. That’s how our local butcher and toy store and long-standing clothes shops, to think of just a few, will be able to serve us into the future.

Yes, they may not always be the least expensive. And, no, they may not be able to deliver to your door. But they are our neighbours, and they contribute to the life of our community and give us reasons to pass and greet our friends and acquaintances on the High Street, or any of the smaller shopping clusters in St. John’s Wood. And there is a sensibility and long-term good in that that Jeff Bezos, for all his innovation, won’t ever be able to offer.

This applies to our restaurants and pubs as well. If we don’t patronise them at least some of the time, they also risk vanishing, and leaving our community life diminished.

The Society has worked in recent months to help protect the Clifton pub from licensing conditions that probably would have left it unviable. We are engaging with the new freeholders of the building at Boundary Rd. and Abbey Rd. where the Salt House pub has been to restore a pub or gastro-pub to that site.

More than 1,500 people signed a petition to save the Salt House, and that is an impressive demonstration of solidarity. But as friend who owns several pubs in central London said to me: “I hate petitions. What we need is for people to come out and have a pint every now and again. That’s much more meaningful than signing an online document.”

So I’d encourage us all as the days get longer, to shop and eat and drink here where we live, and to enjoy ourselves in doing so! That’s how we’ll attain a high street closer to the one Sally walks along in my son’s book. 

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