Better keep it a little bit shit?

In three and a half years, my local shopping parade has gained an Italian restaurant, a Persian cafe, a fancy wine shop, a retro furniture shop-cum-cafe, and most recently a microbrewery pop-up bar.

I love them, and the transition town market up the hill, and all the other nice changes to my new area. I am part of the gentrifying forces that are pricing me out of the area.

I arrived in Crystal Palace as a refugee from rising rents in East Dulwich. So it was all so familiar, being shown around Herne Hill by Giles, the Chair of the Herne Hill Forum. I was visiting with Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the London Assembly, to discuss rent increases and how she could help.

Years of hard work by local residents and traders have hugely improved Herne Hill. The junction project, including a pedestrianised area by the station, opened up a space for a regular street market. Shop vacancy rates fell close to zero. Lovely banners designed by a local artist appeared on lamp posts, showing off the area’s attractions.

Herne Hill’s lovely local banners

Meanwhile, landlords like the Dulwich Estates and Network Rail declined to lift a finger. A lively local pub was left closed by Dulwich Estates for years after floods ruined it. The latter let retail units rot, failing to fix problems like leaks in a timely manner.

When they twigged that the area had improved so much, they decided to cash in.

Dulwich Estates hiked the rents on independent local shops like Just Williams toy shop, now closed. They let the pub to chain Fullers, and aim to replace the popular music venue on the first floor with a hotel.

Network Rail kicked out traders to refurbish their units, and say they can return if they’ll stomach a rent hike to full market rates. Some businesses have thrown in the towel and closed. Others are very happy in refurbished units nearby, but still frustrated by basic communication issues. You can see some of their closed shops in the image at the top of this article.

What will happen to the businesses in nearby Network Rail railway arches, as yet untouched, including a brewery, maker space, welders and car garages?

Jenny with workers from Canopy Beer Co in Herne Hill

Local businesses and residents took all the risks, and in time the landlords take all the benefit, driving those businesses (and many residents) out in the process.

Over the past few years I’ve seen similar sad stories all over London. The carpenters and brewers and scaffold yards in Hackney Wick; the small sculpture foundry and photography studio and climbing wall and bridge club in Parsons Green; the bespoke manufacturers and MOT garages and hairdressers in Peckham; the large aviation foundry and warehousing and cash-and-carries in Charlton; all being driven out by the mad rush to build housing, and to capitalise on the rising value of these areas.

Just up the road from me, the local authority, Croydon, wants to earmark an area in Crystal Palace for redevelopment. Slightly ramshackle sheds and yards make developers rub their hands with glee, oblivious to the economic and social value that local communities and businesses can create in those forgotten spaces.

This is the area where the local transition town market lives. They’ve transformed it, along with a local cafe, some artists studios and some established antiques businesses. It’s now “up and coming”.

The Crystal Palace Transition Town Food Market

I was talking with a friend, one of two brilliant women who run the transition town market, about this on Wednesday. She’s worried that all her work will just accelerate the process of gentrification. It’s not that she opposes improvements to the area – she has been a driving force behind some of them.

With my planning hat on, I can see the sense of building homes on the low-slung Sainsburys, and reconfiguring some of the buildings to get flats on top without losing the commercial space below.

But our dysfunctional land and property market ensure that improvements are followed by rising rents and further redevelopment. We hear often that residents forced away as rents and house prices rise. But so too are businesses. All too often, the residents and business owners that make the area exciting in the first place are the first to be driven out.

It makes a lot of people wonder: would it be better to keep the area a little bit shit?

If, like me, you want the answer to be “no!” then we really need to change the way our economic and housing policies are unfolding in London. That can begin with the elections for the Mayor and London Assembly in May.

The Green Party’s manifesto will feature community leadership and ownership strongly. It’s something in mine and Sian Berry’s bones. Just imagine – if the local communities in Crystal Palace and Herne Hill owned the land in their town centres in a Community Land Trust, we could determine our own future; a sustainable business plan in every sense, with fair rents to meet costs, and a chance to really promote local employment, ethical producers and more besides.


  1. Lee Newham said:

    I think all areas should look proud of themselves. The issue isn’t the new businesses, people taking a risk, doing something they love, the cafes etc. The majority of high streets in London look ‘a little bit shit’ to be honest with you. They are shabby, dirty places that often look unloved (even if they are) to the point that anywhere that looks remotely looked after is called ‘posh’ or ‘gentrified’.

    The issue isn’t the cafe, the shops etc. it’s the landlords, the market, investors and all those people who care little for community and what makes places special but want to milk them for all their worth.

    That’s where strong community/big/trader groups are important, to push back against landlords, work with local and national government to ensure that what people worked hard to establish isn’t ruined by corporate greedy corporates and developers and the likes of the Dulwich Estate and various colleges who clearly have little regard for anything or anyone outside their own castle walls.

    12th February 2016
  2. Marcus Boyle said:

    Take a look at Sydenham. There are no fancy shops, just loads of useful ones (as well as takeaways galore). There was a recent overhaul of the pavements and street furniture. Small improvements that make a big difference.

    12th February 2016
    • lee newham said:

      They spent £3.5 million on Sydenham high street. Now the pavements are dirty and stained again, the ‘pocket parks’ are pretty much empty and unused except for a stall peddling Sky Tv and Talk Talk, and the occasional underwhelming market. Many shops are struggling in Sydenham. I’d say the 3.5 million was badly spent and made little difference in the long run, plus the street furniture is awful (as is the horrible toilet building). Footfall hasn’t really increased. The new ‘spaces’ not much used, especially outside the station (it was supposed to have a piano like Forest Hill, but like most things that didn’t happen either).

      I’m not sure what ‘fancy shops’ means, but Sydenham has a nice butchers, whole foods shop, the no1 restaurant on Trip Advisor in London (The Italian, Trattoria), a Blue Mountain Cafe (that started in East Dulwich), two gastro pubs, a bistro, some very expensive hair salons, an amazing book shop, A craft ale bar, an upmarket wine shop is about to open…thats without counting Kirkdale which has a Sushi Restaurant, Bar 161, Fig and Pistachio, A cookery Studio, an upmarket tile shop, The Dulwich Antique shop among others.

      The difference is, Sydenham doesn’t FEEL like it has more aspirational shops. There probably aren’t enough of them for the high street to thrive, high streets need a mix. House prices will go up irrespective of the high street for many reasons other than being able to get a nice late. Normally high streets change AFTER the demographic does.

      15th February 2016
  3. Simon Gray said:

    I’d say the real issue, the elephant in the castle, is the fact that so many of you want to – no, insist that you *need* to – live in London. It’s simple market economics – the more people want to live, work, and trade in London, the fewer spaces to live, work, and trade are available, so the higher the cost of doing so.

    London is a vicious spiral sucking all the investment and talent away from the rest of the country – too many of the best jobs are in London, too many of the most talented people who want the best jobs feel the only place to have such jobs is in London. And so the investment and talent has to move there, causing the shortage of property enabling the landlords to charge the obscene rents they charge.

    The real solution to the problem of London is not to be given concessions, subsidies, or other special treatment. It’s for more people to just simply refuse to play the London game – whether you’re wealthy, poor, talented, or just an average worker, just refuse to buy in to the received wisdom that you have to be in London and leave, or not be sucked there in the first place. The city and the rest of the country will be all the better for it.

    12th February 2016
  4. I am going to stick up for ‘greedy’ landlords and say my dad was a property developer at the time of the 2008 crash. It didn’t feel like ‘Local businesses and residents (in my dad’s buildings) took all the risks, and in time the landlords take all the benefit’. It actually felt like my family was holding almost all the risk and as a result my family lost pretty much everything.

    You can blame ‘landlords’. I can just about stomach that. But if you thick holding property is risk free it isn’t. Because it is so expensive you have to borrow. Borrowing is called leverage. That big leaver means that you can make a lot of money, but the down side is you can also take huge, irrecoverable losses.

    The reason the prices are so high ultimately is because the banks are handing out massive leavers to anyone who wants them. Even people who can’t manage a 1K credit card.

    The net result is that the tiny number of banks we have are the majority share holder in most of the homes in the UK. And politicians keep propping up the house prices distorting the market in the process.

    TBH blogs like this that imply property is one way bet only help this ponzi scheme continue.

    I doubt the answer is ‘lets help nice people be the developers’

    I imagine that professional landlords who know the risks are better that subsidies amateurs who don’t.

    My guess is Lab/Con will keep the show rolling and price going up for as long as possible, because the first to pull the break gets a massive recession and electoral defeats for a decade.

    16th February 2016
    • tomchance said:

      Thanks Alex, those are good points.

      I guess the difference is that your dad, and other property developers, are buying properties and taking a commercial risk in improving them. They’re potentially adding something valuable. They’re not landlords, they’re developers.

      I think the level of profit among a lot of the larger developers in London is pretty unacceptable, but in principle making some profit from genuinely improving an area in a way that local people would recognise as an improvement is fine. That throws up the question of whether knocking down the area behind Sainsbury’s / around Haynes Land would be an ‘improvement’ of course!

      But Dulwich Estate and Network Rail already own the property, and if they have any leverage it is because they’ve borrowed against those assets to do other things, not because they needed to borrow to buy them in the first place. For the most part aren’t lifting a finger to improve them. Yet they get to reap huge financial benefits.


      16th February 2016
  5. Tim Lund said:

    “the mad rush to build housing”

    Such an easy thing to say.

    You know perfectly well that if enough new housing had been planned and built in London to stop prices and rents skyrocketing, these local shops would not be being priced out.

    More like the mad determination to oppose any new housing.

    2nd April 2016
    • Lee Newham said:

      New housing will only stop prices rising if what is built is:

      1. Cheaper than surrounding property
      2. Sold to people who need housing instead of investors
      3. Supply outstrips demand.

      Even then, it’s only one part of how to stop house prices rising so much and the biggest issue is to do with land prices.

      If available credit rises, then irrespective of how many properties are built, prices will rise. Prices are set today by factors such as ‘what is the most I can charge for this’. If people can afford inflated property prices by getting hugely into debt, then they will if the credit is there. It’s catch 22.

      The other issue which Tim doesn’t address, but Tom does, is to do with community. The Greens are THE ONLY party looking to encourage self build schemes, like the one in Walter Way in LB of Lewisham, which has created a fantastic community.

      Regarding shop rents, the more property in an are is built, the more footfall in an area, the nicer the area, the more successful the shop, the more shop rents will rise. Tim is totally wrong in saying shops wouldn’t be priced out. Landlords generally don’t charge a fair rent, they charge as much rent as they can get. This often means loyalty isn’t rewarded if Costa can come in with a proven business strategy and push the independents out that made the place desirable, unique and interesting int he first place.

      15th April 2016

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