in Shaftesbury

It is impossible to deny that Lavender Hill is struggling, especially the eastern end as the road approaches Lambeth. Old commercial agent signs blight the buildings, it has a high vacancy rate (markedly high when compared to the traditionally very low vacancy rate in the borough) and even some of the occupied units have a high turnover of tenants who try, and fail, to make a go of it there. Some of the shops, I suspect, have been vacant so long most people would struggle to have a memory of what was there before the doors closed for the last time.

The fate of our high streets is an issue that bubbles around in the national press. Recently Martin Vander Weyer wrote an optimistic piece concluding it is too soon to write off the high street in The Telegraph. Mary Portas has been criticising the coalition government of failing our high streets. Bill Grimsey’s review for the Labour Party proposes a rebalancing, using business taxes from more affluent areas to support less affluent areas.

It is, perhaps, a typical case of calls that “something must be done,” but not much consensus, and possibly not that much will, to do what is necessary.

I remain optimistic that Lavender Hill can survive and thrive. So often it seems to be on a tipping point, with new businesses opening and starting to create a destination, only for some bad news elsewhere just to take the edge off the good. But when several excellent shops, bars and restaurants do survive, and there is an affluent demographic living in the immediate area, it’s just not plausible to say the road has no potential.

So what can be done for Lavender Hill? And that’s a question I pose, rather than one to which I think I have an answer.

I can make plenty of suggestions. Perhaps the best change would be a reform of business rates. This would make a huge difference to traders on Lavender Hill, and elsewhere, who are often crippled by a system that just doesn’t work in the modern world. Or changes to planning law, so a more dynamic framework can be put in place and the gradual creep of residential halted. But that sort of reform is probably out of the scope of a local councillor, and there are plenty of people already calling for those reforms.

However, there are plenty of things that can be done locally. Dealing with the pox of agents’ signage would change the feel of the road. I think parking can be improved, as can the general environment (just look at how different St John’s Hill feels, which has similarly wide pavements and a mix of bars, restaurants, shops and homes to Lavender Hill). It would be useful for Lavender Hill to have a stronger collective identity (everyone knows what Northcote Road is about, even if they may not like it).

Lavender Hill will, barring a U-turn, be losing council support this year or next, and I’m keen to dedicate time as a born-again ward councillor trying to support it. But what do you want to see on Lavender Hill? Is there anything that puts you off? What would attract you to the road?

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  1. An interesting post, and one that’s made me think. I’ve been living near Lavender Hill for some years, and had a few thoughts about it over those years, but never really brought those thoughts together.

    On the plus side, Lavender Hill has quite a lot going for it, and clearly *can* be saved. It has a very wealthy and seemingly recession-proof catchment area (and it’s getting wealthier). It’s not plagued by crime (though there is a bit of an issue with street drinkers – see below). There aren’t any major eyesores on the road itself (and even the shambolic Rileys building, off the eastern end, is about to be restored as a large hotel, which should help attract some trade to the restaurants). Most of it is blessed with generous, wide pavements and terraces in front of the businesses, which some of them have used to good effect as seating areas. It has four elegant feature buildings (Arding & Hobbs, Battersea Library, Battersea Arts Centre, and the Church of the Ascension), and some views to central London. As a major bus transport route, with Clapham Junction at the western end and two increasingly well-served & used stations not too far from the eastern end, there’s a good supply of trade. And it’s even got a film named after it (albeit not, as far as I could tell, actually filmed on it). All this means it’s easily in a place to mop up businesses priced out of the other streets.

    And there’s a strong case that it *should* be saved. I reckon it hosts about 200 shops & restaurants (even without including the overflow onto Queenstown Road & Wandsworth Road). On my reckoning about 75-80 percent of them are independents, and a good fraction of those started out on Lavender Hill. It’s also a major feature of the area – one of the most travelled streets in Wandsworth, and something of a gateway for the Borough as a whole.

    But you’re right, something is definitely not quite working on some parts of Lavender Hill. It’s by no means uniform picture along the road: the western end’s doing fine – healthy rents, loads of footfall. Then from the junction with Elspeth Road to Longbeach Road it feels bleak and empty – wide open spaces, no trees, slightly dreary buildings with nothing on the ground floor – precious little to draw anyone further along the road. Then there’s a surprisingly successful section with a healthy occupancy & low turnover of tenants from Longbeach Road to Tipthorpe Road – backed by landlords who seem to invest in the properties. And then there’s the eastern end, where it really gets complicated – plenty of bustling restaurants and thriving shops, but also plenty of premises that have been empty for donkey’s years, and businesses that really struggle.

    So what’s to be done? To start the discussion here are some ad hoc thoughts, running from west (Clapham Junction) to east…

    CLAPHAM JUNCTION TO ELSPETH ROAD

    * Not much to worry about at first – this is smart and busy. But what’s with the strange wrecked signs, littered with live-looking wires, on the wall to the left of Headmasters (#260)?
    * Does anyone know why the garden of Big Fat Panda is becoming a jungle – might they be encouraged to at least tidy it up (if not actually use for seating, like the previous restaurant there did)?
    * The section in front of Asda’s looking a lot better since the streetscape works – but a local pigeon feeding issue means the seating area is always very mucky. What kind of person wakes up and thinks “I know, I’ll dump 40 kilos of bread on some poor street corner every day for the next ten years”? Not an easy one to fix and I know this is frustrating for the Council – though a steep litter fine for dumping bread might be a start. A few climbing plants on the end façade of the post office might not go amiss too.
    * The Post Office is the first ‘inactive’ shopfront, and at a point where there are the most people who could be drawn further along the road. Though it seems to have a secondary shopfront within its building to the left of the main office, by the bus stop – but instead of letting it to a third party, it’s full of junk storage. Given their increasingly commercial angle, could the Post Office be encouraged to put this to better use?
    * The street lamp replacement a few years back really brightened up the next section – the white lighting feels bright and safe at night. But why did just one of the old orange ones, outside the Golden Pie (#188), never get replaced? Quite visible at night – were the installers doing it on Friday afternoon, or did someone buy a couple of nice shiny new lamp posts off the back of a lorry?
    * Meanwhile the pavement on the south side (sugar cane bar) is a shambolic mess – strangely narrow at the bus stop, with holes and puddles everywhere. If you’re heading east, and have come off the nice new section, it’s as it it’s trying to say “that’s all folks – you’re heading out of the town centre now, turn back before the going gets tough…”. Granted the new granite paving is costly, but it’s bizarre that most of the quiet pavements in the Shaftesbury Estate (and indeed roads around the borough) are paved to a better standard than this major thoroughfare is – could something of intermediate quality be used here, and maybe a foot added to the width? The north side is in a slightly better stat- but again a repaving could help here.
    * Could Parisienne be offered use of part of the green space for an extended outdoor terrace? They’re a well established & popular cafe, and it might add a bit of life to the junction area (and hide the messy gas meters).

    ELSPETH ROAD TO LONGBEACH ROAD

    * This part’s frankly a bit dull and has gaps between shops – the crowds of the western section fade away here and never make it further. To attract walking trade – at least for people to travel down from time to time and find what’s on offer – visual interest matters here.
    * Elspeth Road junction is a big ‘barrier’ – and a hard one to deal with. There’ll always be a big road crossing – maybe the key here is making the other side of the junction as welcoming as possible – a few more trees on the south side, maybe decluttering the area round BAC a little on the north side.
    * That said, there’s no harm in pushing TfL for a diagonal crossing here (many people do so in practice, and the lights are already timed with an all-red phase to allow for one) – the key being to make the crossing less of a barrier.
    * BAC is a strong feature and draw in an otherwise quiet section of the road with little interest other than estate agents – and a useful asset to market the road as a whole. It’s a great building and it’s helped by an enthusiastic team who are going places and developing its offer – anything to pull the trade from the other side of the road down to the rather decent bar would be a good thing. Day and night, we should help the BAC team make as much as possible of the building – light it up, pedestrianise the area around it, really work with it…. The area around BAC could really do with repaving too.
    * Could some feature trees be planted in the really bleak section of pavement opposite side of the road to BAC? Could the paving outside BAC be upgraded to the standard of the rest of the town centre to better serve its status as a local landmark?
    * The small raised open space immediately east of BAC is a lost opportunity – maybe you’ll spot the odd feature drunk (equipped with can of White Star), but the more usual fare is bleakness and desolation. This is somewhere that could see some creative potential – or if all else fails, some planting in the area in front of the somewhat featureless apartment block next door could help.
    * One of the shops immediately opposite BAC is currently offices on al floors, but it feels a bit of a waste with such a generous pavement.

    LONGBEACH ROAD TO TIPTHORPE ROAD
    * I feel a bit more confident about this section. It’s developing cafes and restaurants, as well as some specialist shops that seem to pass the test of time. There’s not a huge scope to change the mix of business here (though I’d love a decent bakery…) – I’d suggest that the effort here needs to go to helping these businesses succeed.
    * A lot of that is down to the attractiveness of the environment – i.e. making it look nicer and less traficky. The pavement itself is in reasonable condition, and the buildings are for the most part elegant enough (albeit a bit cluttered in some cases with letting agent boards). We could do with a real effort to plant more trees on both sides of the road – this is a very notable difference when comparing it with St Johns Hill, which has otherwise similar levels of traffic but feels a much more relaxed environment. They’ll need to be tough trees and protected with plenty of posts at first, but in the long term this could be a very good value investment.
    * Lighting could also be a lot better on this stretch of the road in the evening – replacing whole lamp posts costs an arm and a leg, but maybe we could replace just the fittings to get a quality of light that’s more akin to the section to the west of Elspeth Road? These things make a difference when people are considering where to go in the evening – if the street looks bright and active the passing trade notices…
    * Is there scope for a policy that presumes approval for pavement seating up to maybe 9pm? This works well for these businesses (Il Molino, The Lavender, etc), it helps the attractiveness of the street as a whole, and it’s something other streets struggle to offer.
    * One concern is the tendency of developers to split off the back of units to make small flats, leaving tiny shop units that are never really going to be viable. The most successful businesses here have reasonably large units – otherwise the street becomes a parade of nail bard and taxi offices. When these proposals arise, planning officers have been quite good at suggesting plans that preserve sensible areas for trade (e.g. incorporating basements into the retail units) – but should this section become a protected retail frontage – and should there be guidelines on minimum viable retail areas?
    * Thinking more broadly – before the funding for the street runs out, is it worth encouraging Google to come and visit the interiors of these businesses en masse for street view photography? And feeding in the names and details of all the businesses along the road? They do this as a free service at the moment (a scattering are already listed), and it helps businesses secure a bit of online visibility, for much less than the cost of an actively managed street directory website and on a far more used platform (see, for example, the way Southside Shopping Centre has gone online on Google maps recently, or the area around Clapham Common tube).

    TIPTHORPE ROAD TO CEDARS ROAD & BEYOND

    * This is where it gets difficult. Some businesses deservedly thrive (Caracciolo, Caffe Nero, Get a Grip bike shop, Ichnusa) – but others are here today, gone tomorrow. Some previously impossible-to-let units have thrived (Cult Furniture – which was being mooted for conversion to residential), but others seem never to have been let (the bizarre AJ Fairlee, which was recently cleared of a hoard of junk that filled it floor to ceiling).
    * There are several ways this could evolve. I think that the restaurant units have solid potential (as there is a regular customer base and several established restaurants already here). Retail is bound to be slightly specialist here (Get a Grip is a good example of what seems to work), though I’d expect most shops can pick up some trade from the traffic to Sainsbury’s and Tesco. To work, the street needs to attract businesses other than nail bars and hairdressers.
    * All in all this section looks markedly scruffier than the rest of the road, and feels downmarket – which is an issue for successful traders and landlords alike. It feels very traficky and the pavements are narrow, limiting what can be done with the very eastern end.
    * The agent boards you comment on being all over the place come thick and fast, and seem to never be taken down (technically they’re only allowed two weeks after a property is let). Some properties are littered with rotting wooden battens where they’ve eventually fallen off. Even some open shops at the eastern end look a real mess.
    * The dead end streets on the north side of the road really don’t help either – they look a mess, they seem to attract antisocial behaviour, and they’re poorly paved. Compare these to the ‘side street’ areas at e.g. the Eckstein Road/St John’s road junction, and it’s a different world – suggesting that these do have some potential. We probably can’t lose all the car parking – but can these be laid out in a more intelligent way? If we tidy these up, pave them to pavement level, and let the businesses have the option of using them, they could become an asset rather than a negative. This section needs streetscape improvements more than any other part of Lavender Hill (including the small section that I believe is in Lambeth), and there’s a case for arguing for at least some improvement works if there’s any way they can be afforded.
    * Giant advert hoardings are also still appearing on the ends of some buildings, and do make the street look more “thoroughfare” than “pleasant streetscape” – can local planning guidance prevent proliferation of these? Some have gone – could we get Road down to add some interest to the facades facing the dead ends? (example: http://urbankulturblog.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/roa-2.jpg ) (speaking of which – compare Latchmere Road’s horrible railway bridge to this one – could we open it up for something similar? – http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1153/1347005341_df1e876561_m.jpg )
    * The experiment with tidying up the empty units with temporary cladding was a good one (though most of those units have since been re-let). Some of them could do with a lick of paint too – if someone can contact the landlords to get them to give it the nod (in their benefit after all), maybe rustle up some volunteers?
    * The very eastern end (technically Lavender Place according to the old street signs) especially needs help – it needs trees squeezing in by whatever means possible, it needs the traffic slowing to 20mph, it needs an extra foot adding to the pavement on the north side (maybe carved off the wider southern lane), it needs the northern guard rail removing (as it serves no purpose other than making the pavement even narrower), and it needs good lighting at night.
    * If Caffe Nero could be allowed some (necessarily small) tables on the pavement, it might help the feel of this section.
    * This short section could also benefit from the long-closed businesses being tidied up – is there scope for a limited Leyton-type scheme here? ( http://blogs.walthamforest.gov.uk/mediacentre/files/2012/07/shop-fronts-21.jpg )
    * A pedestrian crossing island at the foot of Wix’s Lane footpath was removed when utility works were undertaken, but was actually quite useful – could this be reinstated to help pedestrian movement across the road?
    * This section has also had an upsurge in the number of tramps and drunks in recent weeks – previously concentrated on the Queenstown Road. One of them has a habit of standing blankly in the doorway of cafes or restaurants for up to an hour, no-one dares go past as he’s frankly creepy – this really can’t help trade. Not sure how to address this but the neighbourhood officers might be able to move them on more regularly.
    * There are again some quick wins – for example, odd parking arrangements in front of the gates regularly block the pavement completely at the way in to the Battersea Business Centre – despite an unofficial-looking area of yellow cross hatching – meaning everyone has to step in to the street.
    * Do we really need all the bollards cluttering up the already narrow section of pavement down from 1st Stop?
    * In the interest of helping the street retain a critical mass, this retail parade as a whole probably also needs some protection, as only a short section is a protected frontage – see for example the current application for determination of whether permission is needed to convert the ‘Life’ unit into a flat (which will not help the successful businesses on either side).

    Apologies – this has ended up as a vastly long brain dump. Are there any ‘miracle solutions’ in here? I doubt it. But all in all I share your general enthusiasm here, and I’m fairly confident the troubles LH is facing can be fixed – with a mix of quick wins, and maybe some progress on longer term underlying issues. The will is there and it has a lot of good and hard-working business owners, and residents who will make the most of its potential. I also think you’re right that the focus needs to be a practical one – the higher level national policy issues are just something we need to accept for now, and instead concentrate on what can actually help this street in practice.

    Above all, hats off for asking the question – it’s a very worthy cause, and do keep us posted with your thoughts.