Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Action needed to save small shops

Since the 1960s, there has been a massive shift from shopping a local, specialised independent shops, such as green grocers and butchers, to purchasing at larger conglomerates.

A new report from the Greater London Assembly Planning and Housing Committee warns that if these habits continue, we could see the total eradication of small shops as early as 2015. The numbers reflect this:  London lost more than 7,000 individual or family-owned shops in the period 2001 to 2007.

This is problematic for many reasons, besides the sense of community and local cohesion they lend; local stores provide a wider social and economic role and one that is central to a sustainable neighbourhood. For example, over 50% of the turnover of independent retailers goes back into the local community, compared to just 5% per cent from supermarkets. They also meet the needs of the disadvantaged, socially excluded and elderly, particularly those with a lack of mobility who cannot access more distant shops.

The main threats to small shops come from the supermarkets and rising rents. The recent shift from retail to service-based vendors also poses a threat. Businesses such as coffee shops, internet cafés,sandwich shops, or beauticians do not require planning permission and are taking over retail spaces.

The report states it is lawful, and perfectly acceptable in planning terms, for local planning authorities to seek to protect and strengthen established shopping centres through specific planning policies. This legitimacy must be recognised, and boroughs must be confident that they can act to protect their small shops. A number of London boroughs are actively looking at measures to protect small shops through the planning system by defining some retail uses as "essential services."

Following a six month investigation, the committee recommends that all boroughs ensure that they have policies to:

*Protect retail uses in neighbourhood parades within walking distance;
*Protect small retail units from adverse impacts from new retail development; and
*Reflect the need for local small shops to be easily accessible via a full range of sustainable modes of transport.

Ultimately, the fate of London’s small shops rests with their ability to persuade Londoners to use them on a regular basis. Many London communities have made use of unique initiatives to encourage local spending, such as the Brixton pound or the Wedge card. There is scope for improvements in policy at all levels – national, London wide, the borough and local levels. If the report’s suggestions can be recognized in the development of London Plan policy, it will go some way to helping support London’s small shops and neighbourhood centres.

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