Birmingham had been the council to watch on chuggers: they were hoping to introduce a by-law that would enable them to ban chugging in the city centre. Unfortunately the government has refused them permission.

Councils are generally powerless when it comes to dealing with chuggers. When I was attempting to get a solution the response from the charities minister, requesting that he simply activate an already existing law that would allow councils to licence chugging was a flat no. Instead, he suggested, we should enter a voluntary agreement with the Public Fundraising Regulatory Assocation, the chugging trade body.

However, our contact with the PFRA revealed they thought a voluntary agreement meant they would volunteer to chug when and where they wanted, and the council would agree to it. I found that an impossible stance, when businesses here report chuggers’ aggressive tactics causing loss in trade, as they did in Birmingham, I was not prepared for the council to be put in the position of effectively sanctioning loss of trade in certain areas.

Birmingham found “96% per cent of visitors to Birmingham said they had suffered unsolicited approaches by ‘chuggers’ and 84% said this would put them off walking around the city centre.” I simply do not see how any council can pretend to support business or high streets allowing that to happen, and Birmingham deserve credit for finding a creative way to deal with it.

What is deeply disappointing that the local government minister, despite agreeing that “chugging techniques are deeply unpleasant” has decided that local government shouldn’t have the power to do anything about it. It makes you wonder what happened to localism.

Presenting the cheque to launch the Business Loan Fund
Presenting the cheque to launch the Business Loan Fund

Wandsworth Enterprise Week has now been and gone and, I think, can be called a success. Over the course of the week hundreds of businesses, and potential business owners, attended the various themed events that had been put on by the council’s fabulous economic development team.

While I often joke that my rôle is merely to take the credit for the hard work of others, I think I can take some credit for starting the process a year ago when stood at the back of the 2013 Wandsworth Business Forum and deciding that the format of a stand-alone forum had become a little stale (although feedback for the event had always been positive). But a conversation on the fringes of an event is nothing compared to the inspiration and hard work of the economic development staff and town centre managers who put last week’s programme together. I’ve made a point of telling anyone (and there have been many) who complimented the events that the credit does not belong to me.

What is particularly pleasing are the comments from those businesses operating in several boroughs that Wandsworth has ‘got it’ and really is a business borough. We cannot do everything, and I know we don’t always get it right for businesses. Inevitably a council has to have a focus on residents, that is our statutory responsibility. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help businesses.

We are about to start offering business rate relief for small businesses that are either retailers, service providers or sell food or drink. The council estimates about 3,000 businesses will be eligible for the relief over the next two years and they will be invited to apply later this year.

It was also a pleasure to formally launch, in conjunction with GLE, the Business Loan Fund. And not just because it gave me a chance to hand over a novelty sized cheque. The fund, which will be £800,000 in total, will offer finance to those businesses that struggle to approvals for loans from traditional sources. More details are available from GLE Business Loans or by emailing

Nick Temple, from Social Enterprise UK, presenting at the Wandsworth Enterprise Week.
Nick Temple, from Social Enterprise UK.

I started this morning off ‘launching’ the Wandsworth Enterprise Week at the first event, a session on social enterprise.

The week is an enhancement of the council’s previous annual business forum. While that even was always popular (attendance always in the hundreds) and always well-received (indeed, I always thought the evaluation forms we received were probably a bit too ambitious) it missed something. The nature of a single set-piece event in a dynamic borough like Wandsworth meant it was trying to do too much. Certainly they would have inspiring and informative speakers, but inspiring and informative isn’t the same as relevant.

This year, by having an entire week of events it means we can have more focus on specific topics, invite more relevant speakers and provide more value to attendees.

Holding the business rôle on Wandsworth has been a privilege, but always slightly humbling, because for all my admiration for those running businesses I’ve always been a little too risk averse—and perhaps a little too lazy—to join them. But if you don’t suffer those faults then take a look at the Wandsworth Enterprise Week website and see if there’s anything that takes your fancy.

The Cleethorpes coast at the Greenwich Meridian line
The Cleethorpes coast, perhaps not as inspiring as some EasyJet destinations

It is one of those coincidences that as I was visiting family, thinking about the decline of my coastal home town the Centre for Social Justice was publishing its report Turning the Tide on the decline of coastal towns. I only came across it a few days ago, but it makes interesting reading and reflects a lot of my thoughts about the problems these towns face. (Today’s publication by the Office of National Statistics on deprivation in seaside resorts further illustrates the problem.)

There are huge differences between Wandsworth and the areas featured in the CSJ report (and indeed my home town), not least that we benefit from the opportunities that accrue from being in inner London. While not being complacent about the challenges faced here, it’s worth remembering that the areas we considered the most deprived in Wandsworth would be seen as fairly average in many of these places. However, as the report opens “cities have come to embody how we view modern deprivation and poverty. Yet some of the most pronounced disadvantage in our country exists away from the big cities.”

The report covers five coastal areas: Rhyl, Margate, Clacton-on-Sea1, Blackpool and Yarmouth. Yet they share a similar story highlighted in the case stories. They were all popular tourist destinations for much of the 20th century (in 1920 more than 1-in-10 of the English and Welsh population visited Blackpool) but cheap travel killed off the tourist industry in each.

What was left was a lot of cheap accommodation and bed-space, which started a vicious cycle. The cheap accommodation became a magnet for those with few other opportunities, several of the towns, for example, found themselves being advertised to prisoners on release. This began a cycle, with increasing numbers of people reliant on benefits moving in, property values dropped further still creating a cycle which resulted in a populations that had disproportionate high levels of ex-offenders and benefit claimants combined with disproportionately low aspirations and economic opportunities.

The problem for them is not affordable housing, it’s that housing is too affordable.

It’s exactly the idea I heard being proposed when I was up north, and exactly the idea I found bizarre. When there’s no shortage of residential property, why build even more in your most deprived area?

Where the report is lacking, however, is any sense of what successful coastal resorts have done to prevent such a dramatic decline. It acknowledges places like Brighton and its ‘Silicon Beach’ or Bournemouth and its financial sector, but doesn’t attempt to reflect on what made them attractive investments. It might just have been luck, geography would have played a part, but there would also be something else at play.

It’s easy to speculate that Brighton’s culture helped encourage the digital and creative sector to locate there. It’s harder to see Bournemouth’s attraction to the financial sector2. However, in both cases I suspect there was a strong element of the local authority creating a strong identity and business case–whether by design or not–that encouraged businesses to locate there.

It’s the vision thing. And just as it seems absent in Grimsby, it appears absent in each of the five areas in the CSJ case studies. The English tourist may still want to eat, drink and behave in exactly the same way on holiday as they do at home. But they want to do it with more sun and higher temperatures than this country can offer. These towns must know they can’t fight the climate and win, but they still haven’t identified the fights they can win.

The CSJ’s report focuses, unsurprisingly, more on the lessons of process that can be learned: how the benefits system might enable people to climb out of deprivation, how education opportunities can create aspiration, and how social reform can create stability and resilience in communities. Yet there are wider lessons that are applicable anywhere, the importance of a mixed community is one, as is a vibrant, and varied, property market.

Above all there has to be leadership and a sense of direction, creating a financial centre in Bournemouth must have seemed crazy, but it took someone to take the first step in that direction (I remember the idea of a diplomatic quarter in Nine Elms seemed fairly barmy once), because if the local leadership can’t offer a sense of purpose and aspiration, it’s hardly surprising the people living there don’t have one either.

  1. Jaywick in Clacton-on-Sea has the dubious honour of pipping East Marsh in Grimsby to the post to be the country’s most deprived area in 2010. 
  2. I worked in the back office for what was then Chase Manhattan bank when I first moved to London. It was a constant fear among colleagues that we might be considered ‘back office enough’ to be relocated to their Bournemouth offices. 

Shuttered shops in Freeman Street, Grimsby
Welcome to Grimsby

Nick Boles recent suggestion that empty retail be more easily converted into residential property left me somewhat conflicted: part of me felt he was right, local authorities should be able to do what they want with their local plans. Yet a bigger part of me couldn’t help thinking our town centres and high streets need protecting and developing, they need champions not quitters.

Admittedly my feelings were coloured by the fact I was visiting my family in the Grimsby area when I heard it, going through the predictable bout of depression I experience upon seeing how my home town has declined. Feeling, as I always do, a strong sense that the local council has brought about a lot of that decline with planning policies that lack vision or purpose.

Like so many areas, the town had its historic heart ripped out during that awful period of the fifties and sixties when the artifices of Victorian success were demolished in favour of modern brutalist architecture. Grimsby compounded this in eighties and nineties by developing the brutalist town centre into a more modern covered mall, but one which had blank walls around the outside, as if to emphasise how it had turned its back on the old working buildings that overlooked it across a small river and the docks.

If destroying the old wasn’t enough, even the relatively modern now gets a kicking, with the town’s second huge Tesco Extra allowed to open just a few minutes from a main shopping mall that now seems to have died a little more each time I visit: its death throes marked by each addition of a discount store.

Listening to the local radio the council’s leader took the opportunity to criticise the government which had, a few years ago, rejected plans to turn a major portion of one of the traditional shopping streets into residential property. In doing so he made me think that, perhaps, the government was right to protect the area from the plans of local politicians.

Instinctively his idea seemed wrong. Taking what was once a major shopping road and market (as a child I took part in twice-weekly expeditions with my mother and grandmother to hunt for fruit, vegetables and meat) in what is one of the most deprived areas in the country where a little over half the residents are dependent on benefits1 their plan was sacrifice employment space in favour of housing in an area that has no housing shortage.

Thinking there must be more to the plans I looked them up, but my investigations found little else. They have pretty pictures of how they might look–still featuring vacant units–but it all seems rather predicated on an idea that if you build it, they will come. Indeed, one of the plans accepts that they might not want to come (PDF), so suggests some of the demolished buildings could just become park until the demand was there.

Good buildings make a difference but without any vision I fail to see how what difference nice buildings in a consolidated retail area would make. Unless the goal is to create a slightly smaller high street to fail.

It’s not like it’s hard to come up with a vision. The road is just a short distance from the town’s docks and all the history they offer (the town’s small fishing museum is rather good, and a definite hit with my children), so there is heritage there. Along that the town has always marketed itself as ‘Europe’s Food Town’ yet has no discernible restaurant offer. Why not capitalise on this? In an urban area of 150,000 people there must be some demand for eating out, but Trip Advisor’s recommendations are mainly out-of-town pubs and mid-range, family friendly, restaurant chains I’ve come to love as a father (be it Nando’s, Pizza Express or Byron) are conspicuous by their absence in such a large town

I recognise that even my combined hometown nostalgia, continued reading of the Grimsby Evening Telegraph and frustrating support of GTFC does not equate to expertise of the social and economic needs of the town. That said, every time I visit I cannot help feeling it is a place let down by a lack of imagination and sense of place from those in charge.

Only time will tell if I’m right about Grimsby and, for that matter, if I’m right about Wandsworth. But when you allow new buildings to turn their back on your architectural assets, create overwhelming competition a short dawdle from your main retail centre, or even remove employment space from one of the country’s most deprived areas it’s hard to see how time can ever be your friend.

  1. By comparison Latchmere and Roehampton wards in Wandsworth, which are currently the focus of significant work to tackle deprivation have benefit claimant rates of 19.7% and 20.0% according to the most recent Office of National Statistics figures. The relevant figure for the East Marsh ward in North East Lincolnshire (which covers more than the estates) is 41.8%. 

Wandsworth's town centres
Wandsworth’s town centres (taken from town centres website)

I remain a fan of the Portas Report (PDF). An unfashionable position in a time when it is often belittled and the process appears to have descended into an argument between Mary Portas and the government that commissioned the report.

But questions about the selection of pilots or Portas’ (or her television production company’s) motivation aside the report contains a lot that is good—even though not much is new—and part of the process, much to our surprise, involved giving Wandsworth £100,000.

But the windfall immediately raised the question of what we do with it. Dividing it between our town centres would only give each £20,000, which would not go far, thus was born the idea of a visioning and positioning exercise. While not tangible, it potentially has benefits far beyond £20,000 per town centre.

We are in the middle of the visioning exercise now, with consultations and focus groups already undertaken in each town centre, helping them create their vision and set out their stall in an increasingly competitive age.

The current stage involves as public consultation, via the Wandsworth Town Centres website to establish what local residents think of their town centres and what they want to see it offer.

It has certainly been an interesting exercise. I took part as a local councillor in one of the Clapham Junction focus groups and was surprised at how much people had in common. The focus group I attended, for example, was very much (just one exception) hostile to the use of Clapham to define the area. However, and what surprised me most, was a shared sense—even by those ‘representing’ the road—that the town centre can seem Northcote Road centric and more needs to be done to develop, promote and support other key roads in the centre like Battersea Rise, Lavender Hill and St John’s Road to create a broader and more balanced offer.

Wandsworth rightly has pride in its diverse, and generally strong, town centres, but in a competitive environment we need to make sure they are playing to their strengths and serving their local area not only as retail centres, but also as centres that reflect their communities. Taking five minutes to complete the online survey helps us do that.

For a long time it felt like my job on the council was explaining the council’s parking policy to business. I should add that my job on the council has never involved any responsibility for parking whatsoever (long may that continue) but it is inevitable when talking to businesses that they will raise the impact of parking on their business: it’s impossible to have the council’s economic development role without a good understanding of the dynamics of the council’s parking.

So it is a refreshing change, if not outright relief, to be able to talk about the council’s six-month pilot of reduced parking fees in Tooting. The scheme will see half price (well, £1.10 and not £2.30 per hour) parking in seven roads near Tooting Broadway. The roads currently have spare capacity and the town centre is one that we know does have shoppers travelling significant distances to visit.

I’ve always been fairly agnostic about the impact of parking on business. If you look at places like Westfield, or even Southside, it’s clear that people will pay to park in the right destination and in some cases pay a lot. The centres seem to use parking charges as a way of managing demand (encouraging shopping on quieter days, for example) than increasing demand.

There is always a steady flow of research on the impact of parking policy (the most recent I’ve seen was the British Parking Association’s Re-think! Parking on the High Street (PDF). Generally they have tended to conclude parking does not make that much difference in most cases (although it’s probably the edge cases in which we are interested). Sadly, however, the value of their insight to Wandsworth is limited by the comparative rarity of town centres reliant on on-street parking in residential roads rather than large off-street private or public car-parks.

It’s these residential parking areas in Tooting that are the focus of the council’s latest trial of reduced parking fees. What remains to be seen is what effect this will have on shoppers’ habits. Will more people come overall, or will it merely cause a change in their choice of transport or parking spot?

Southside Wandsworth

Once again the Local Data Company are trying to make headlines with their regular report on the state of Britain’s high streets. This time, their story has been a little overwhelmed by the Cabinet reshuffle, Paralympics and the British Retail Consortium’s sales figures. And once again I feel the need to highlight that the Local Data Company could do with some local knowledge. (And I’m sure the process will repeat in six months time.)

Wandsworth is named as one of the ‘worst small centre performers’. For a start, I’d question the classification as ‘small’; Southside alone is over 500,000sq ft. But, most importantly, the LDC still fail to take account of what is happening in Wandsworth. As I mentioned last time:

the large numbers of vacant units are largely a result of a planned redevelopment of the Southside shopping centre.

The shops are not closed because Wandsworth is in “a spiral of decline” as their report might imply, but in preparation for a multi-million pound investment.

Anyone who has used the centre recently can see the work taking place. Most visibly at the moment on the first floor where new restaurants are being created, but work is also commencing on Garratt Lane where more retail space and restaurants is being built.

Fortunately most shoppers recognise the difference between a centre in decline and a centre being developed. If only the Local Development Company could recognise it too.

Adverts for the new app at Clapham Junction

At The Junction – the Clapham Junction iPhone app – was formally launched today. If you passed through Clapham Junction you would, hopefully, have seen the posters that adorned the doors and displays in the station.

The free app contains listings of all the local businesses, so you can find what you’re looking for by category or searching for what’s near to you. It also has guided heritage walks, so you can find out about the areas listings.

It’s been on my phone for a few months while it was developed (I fear I took an unhealthy interest in it, but rather enjoyed insisting on small changes to the user interface!) and I have to say it is remarkably useful. Despite thinking I know the area well it has often highlighted places that I might not otherwise have thought about.

If you have an iPhone you can download it from the App Store. I’d love to know what you think, so please let me have any comments, corrections, additions or deletions.

Wandsworth has done rather well at getting money for its town centres of late. Sometimes without even asking for it.

Tooting and Balham both received cash through the Mayor’s poorly named Outer London Fund (more accurately a ‘Not Benefiting from Crossrail Fund’) and Clapham Junction got a payout from the post-riot High Street Fund.

Our current attempt at getting some cash is through Putney’s bid to be one of the Portas Pilots, which would bring in £100,000 if successful. It might be something of a long shot, there will only be twelve pilots (although the government have announced a further twelve) and there have been lots of applications. To make Putney’s job harder all the applications I’ve seen have come from places that are in a much worse state that Putney.

Putney is fairly healthy by most measures (low vacancy rate, good footfall, attracting investment) but still feels the pressures of competition from online and ‘out-of-town’ shopping – Westfield London is not far away – which will only increase as Wandsworth is developed. It also has some difficult to tackle problems unique to Putney, like the fact Putney High Street is such an incredibly busy road and, as a result, the noise and pollution make it a less attractive leisure destination than it could and should be.

There, is however, a lot to commend Putney as a Portas Pilot. Wandsworth is ahead of game when it comes to Mary Portas’ recommendations. For example, we already have what the Portas Review called Town Teams with our Town Centre Partnerships. While I think these can be improved (with an increased membership drawn from businesses, for example), we’d be able to illustrate the longer term potential of what an established Town Team could do.

Whatever happens with the Putney bid, we’ve also just got another £100,000 from the government’s High Street Innovation Fund. Again, attracting cash without even asking. Since is in part aimed at bringing empty shops into use perhaps I should be grateful for the inaccuracies in the Local Data Company’s reports!

We still need to look at the strings and conditions attached to the money, so it’s too soon to say to what use it might be put. (Similarly, there doesn’t seem to be too much detail about the High Street X Fund, which I think is potentially very exciting.) However, it all helps us protect and improve the town centres that form the hearts of Wandsworth’s community.