Empty shops on Lavender Hill

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?

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.

I went along to a new nursery/office space in Wandsworth this morning (not on any official capacity, but because we’re thinking of using it). The company, Third Door, operate a flexible nursery with attached office space so people who work from home but don’t want to put their child in a regular nursery spot have somewhere they can go for a couple of hours.

A few months ago it would have been a godsend for me, while I was having to wedge huge amounts of work (lots of it on the phone) in between demands to hear about Igglepiggle getting lost and then finding his way back again.

But this isn’t just an infomercial; Third Door brought home to me one of the things I really like about Wandsworth. And that’s the businesses. Some of them are incredibly innovative, like Third Door, but all of them contribute to the success of the local economy and borough as a whole.

I am between portfolios on the council at the moment (legally all executive positions ceased with the new council last Monday and can’t be recreated until the annual council meeting next week) but was incredibly lucky to hold the portfolio I did for the past four years. Much of my blogging has, I think, concentrated on the community safety and crime element, but that is not a reflection of the importance of the council’s economic development role.

There is a strong small business aspect to Wandsworth. Small businesses make up over 9 in 10 of the businesses in Wandsworth and there are an estimated 25,000 self-employed people in the borough. It has, perhaps, been a failing of mine not to spend more time on business related issues in the blog. But while you are out and about, or even surfing the net, keep an eye open for the huge numbers of small businesses, often based above retail parades or operating from a house down your road, that are creating wealth and jobs in the local economy.

And if you are one of those businesses, I hope you are getting the support, help and advice you need from the council’s economic development office. If not, let me know.

I seem to have stopped taking photos this year – so the cup of tea is getting a few outings – not that photos of meetings or a fairly damp and dreary London are any more exciting.

Councillor Awards
I started the week off acting as a judge for the Local Government Information Unit’s first national councillor awards. While I’ve judged a few things in Wandsworth (most recenty the SNT award) this is the first time I’ve been part of a national award’s judging panel.

It was certainly a fascinating, and humbling, experience – and a real privilege to be asked. Seeing what councillors and local government around the country are achieving was an inspiration.

While the winners aren’t announced for a few weeks (they all find out at a conference at the Emirates next month) I can, of course, start acting on that inspiration.

Wandsworth LSP
The Local Strategic Partnership is one of those bodies that exist in every local authority that no-one actually knows about.

The name gives away what it is (or should be) it’s a high level partnership of everyone involved in the local area – the council is an obvious member, but they are joined by the police, local health service, local businesses and charities to help set the overall direction of the area. The partnership in Wandsworth works remarkably well, and has certainly improved enormously since I first joined (that is a function of a change in the partners around the table, rather than my joining).

One interesting point that came up (I think from one of the health service representatives) was the amount of work we can create for local businesses when tendering contracts.

Until fairly recently it would have been illegal to consider bids on anything but price and quality, though this has relaxed recently, but is an issue that I’ve been looking at over the years. One thing I wouldn’t want to do is start putting a price on location. Is being Wandsworth based worth a £1,000 or £10,000? And what happens if a company moved mid-contract?

The key problem, though, is that Wandsworth is predominantly a small business economy and the public sector is forced to be quite restrictive. For example, we require significant financial guarantees and will look through a company’s accounts to ensure the public money we are spending is at as little risk as possible. These have certainly deterred businesses in the past and often a small company just won’t have been in existence long enough to meet these requirements.

But we can improve access for local businesses by advertising the opportunities and providing advice on how to bid and this is something we are starting to improve. We have long been accessible to local businesses (through things like the Wandsworth Business Forum, the next one being on Monday) and are always willing to advise and help a business compete for our contracts.

Nine Elms Opportunity Board
My last meeting of the week was the Nine Elms Opportunity Board. Now that the area is finally starting to develop this is becoming an exciting meeting again (for years its meetings seemed to be just to discuss what wasn’t happening).

The body was initially formed to try and maximise the benefits to local residents of the development of the Power Station site and the report from Job Centre Plus was interesting. Yesterday I highlighted the small drop in Wandsworth’s JSA claims, but apparently the movement in the market is considerably higher than this time last year. So while there were only a few job vacancies being reported at the beginning to 2009 there are plenty being reported and filled this year. Perhaps we can start being a little more confident about the end of the recession.

The Garrett Business Park Business Improvement District (BID) vote was counted yesterday.  One of the powers a BID has is to charge an extra levy on business rates to be invested within the district.

The proposal came about after a lot of hard work from the business association and Angela Graham, one of the local councillors.  Having visited the business park I could see why they wanted the BID to help them invest in the crumbling roads they had to use, so wasn’t surprised when the vote was successful.

However, I was astounded by the margin of victory for the ‘yes’ vote – a 68% turnout with a 90% yes vote.  These are businesses, facing recession, voting for more taxation!

But, of course, what they have actually voted for is the right – for the first time – to see their business rates benefiting them.  Up until now they’ve been paying into the national pot which is unfairly distributed to Labour’s friends in the north.

It’s a fairly common complaint I hear from businesses that business rates keep going up – and I have to explain that although the government makes Wandsworth collect them we don’t get to set them.  It’s a ridiculous situation that really needs to be changed.  Here in Wandsworth we give residents low council tax and excellent services, we should be allowed to offer the same to businesses.