Through our conversations with the community, it has become apparent that there is a want to support existing and encourage new local businesses to establish on the high street. In Chipping Barnet, there is an entrepreneurial spirit within the community that wants to start new ventures and businesses that respond to local needs. The community plan prioritises the creation of an entrepreneurial town centre that supports existing and new diverse ventures to start and grow and calls for a collaborative business community that champions the physical quality and upkeep of the town centre.
Why it is important
Nationally a decline in traditional retailers can be seen, due to changing consumer habits with online shopping alongside cultural trends towards more social and experience-based activities. In town centres like Chipping Barnet, with a high portion of national chain retailers, there is an ongoing risk of losing anchor tenants as they continue to close nationwide. The societal and economic impact of COVID-19 has brought sudden change and accelerated many former trends. From the vulnerability of anchor shops and restaurants to new opportunities presented through travel and workspace shifts as a result of home-working, to the logistics of increased demand for home delivery and a renewed focus on local supply chains. Current policy both nationally and borough level focuses on adaptability and diversification of the High Street so they become more than just retail centres. It calls for diversification, to incorporate community uses, workspace, new and flexible retail models, arts and culture, and uses that support the evening economy.
With home working expected to continue for the foreseeable future as a result of COVID-19, the need for large central London offices is likely to diminish, presenting unique opportunities for local town centres like Chipping Barnet, with a large professional workforce population, to engage in the high street. An assessment undertaken by Centre for Cities has shown a correlation between the provision of employment space and the decline in the vacancy of retail units on high streets. They demonstrate the importance of attracting high-skilled employment into town centres to bring daytime spending to the high street which benefits and helps the retail, leisure, and evening economy to grow.
Local businesses need support to develop resilience
We need to engage landlords to activate vacant units
“I love Barnet and want to keep it alive”
Local & independent shops are valued
Support the development of a unique and local high street offer
Chipping Barnet has aspirations of living up to its historic market town status. There is a want to continue to be able to shop locally. Currently, the town centre has a twice weekly market and monthly teenage market, and diverse mix of specialist shops with a wide range of products and services including musical instruments, specialist art materials, outdoor clothing and footwear, books, stationery, and office supplies, clothing, delicatessen items, gifts, and cards. However, perception locally is that the high street offer continues to deplete, whilst failing to attract new businesses to replace them.
While the issues of accessibility will vary by business and vacant unit, the common issue of affordability, due to the combined impact of rent, business rates, and other overheads, makes high street units unaffordable particularly for start-up businesses. The size of units can be prohibitive as many businesses may not require an entire unit from the outset, and may benefit from sharing. Lease models can further increase risk for new ventures, who could benefit from more flexible lease terms which allow businesses to fail and shrink without being tied to an expensive and long lease.
Historically several community-led pop-up shops have traded successfully, using meanwhile activation of empty units in the Spires and along the high street. Though successful, with one of the businesses now having a unit in the town, the limited time of these initiatives proved challenging for other ventures to then move onto more permanent space on the high street.
There is a need to identify long-term solutions to help incubate local retailers in the high street. Firstly, there is an opportunity to integrate an incubator and business support into the Street Market offer to support traders (where appropriate) to grow onto permanent high street space. Secondly, there is an opportunity to create a Chipping Barnet Community Incubator Shop to support budding retailers to trial products and receive support to develop their business model so they can successfully move on to fill vacant units on the high street.
Create affordable and flexible workspace to adapt to new work patterns
Barnet ranks in London’s top 5 boroughs of people working from home, with 20% of residents working flexibly (Working Lives Report 2017). Chipping Barnet reflects the characteristics that are common amongst high ranking locations – more affluent areas with residents financially secure enough to change work patterns, freelance, or combine family with running a business. Meanwhile, 51.3% of Barnet’s businesses don’t survive past 3 years, and anecdotal evidence from local entrepreneurs who have trialed their ventures in Chipping Barnet, have expressed the difficulty of remaining profitable amongst high rents and rates.
In Chipping Barnet, there is local interest for flexible co-working space with attempts from community groups in recent years to accommodate shared workspace and co-working within the town centre to meet latent demand. However, suitable premises to support these initiatives were not found. With demand evident, there is an opportunity for the council to engage with experienced workspace operators and support them to access appropriate spaces on the high street. These spaces should look to collaborate with Barnet and Southgate College, Barnet Hospital, and Middlesex University to help retain emerging talent within the borough.
Establish a coordinated voice for the high street business community
In Chipping Barnet presently, there is no collective business voice for the high street. There is a need for the local business community to coordinate a High Street Traders Association to champion the business community in Chipping Barnet. Such a group is key to identify ongoing opportunities in the town centre to:
- support existing and new local business to grow and thrive
- engage local landlords to support the town centre to remain a commercially viable place to run a business
- help develop a coordinated town centre identity
- run a programme of activities/events to make the high street an attractive place to visit and drive footfall to their businesses.
Key bodies such as the Spires management team are critical in helping establish such a group. It would be essential for this group to ensure representation within the existing town centre governance.
The increasing numbers of vacant units and the time they remain vacant has raised concerns locally that some landlords are holding out for unaffordable rental incomes and need to do more to promote their properties.
Conversations with local businesses revealed that for those occupied, several have a good relationship with understanding landlords who appreciate the current difficult trading conditions. However, others communicated that they experience ongoing rental increases that place continual uncertainty that may force them to close or relocate elsewhere.
There is an ongoing need for the business community and the council to engage with landowners to ensure vacant commercial stock remains accessible, and Chipping Barnet remains a viable place for new businesses to set up. Developing a collective business voice, explained above, will be vital to continue to lobby for this.