As he chronicled the life of a south London high street, photographer Jim Grover was surprised by the frightening change that higher business rates may herald.
Clapham High Street first appears on a map dated 1745.
In the 19th century the South London suburb of Clapham grew in prosperity; so too did its High Street which, by the early 20th century, was notable for its wide range of shops and entertainment opportunities.
Fast forward to 2017 and ‘shops’ now only comprise 31 of the 123 retail and leisure premises, ranging from the 32,500 square feet Sainsbury’s superstore to a small kebab shop with a frontage of less than three metres, and with everything in between.
Ten are still run by independent traders who have been on the High Street for at least 30 years; an incredible achievement given the profound changes and challenges that they have had to navigate over the decades.
In some ways the High Street’s make up is like many others in the UK, but in others, it is very different.
A distinctive feature is its vibrant weekend night time economy, which attracts young clubbers from all over London.
The reality is that this healthy leisure segment (52 of the High Street’s premises, 30 of which are licensed) contributes to its vacancy rate being around 7%, well below the UK average of around 11%.
It also creates almost 800 of the High Street’s 1,550 full and part-time jobs.
The strength and growth of this leisure segment inevitably polarises local opinion given some of its consequences (‘Magaluf’ is how one person described the High Street to me).
It was this stark contrast between weekday and weekend night time that inspired me to cast this High Street as the ‘star’ in my latest photo-essay 48 Hours on Clapham High Street; a social documentary capturing its characters, its daily life and its many users and workers.
I photographed one side of the street in colour in the daytime and the other side at night in black and white. A unique juxtaposition.
My intention wasn’t ever to focus on ‘the death of the high street’, a subject which has already been covered extensively.
But my photo-essay and upcoming exhibition this April overlapped with the business rates revaluation, and the vociferous debate it has triggered.
I felt inevitably drawn into seeking to understand what this means for this high street.
And it’s frightening… both for traders and thus users. Over the last two years, there have been 18 casualties including a florist, pet shop, book shop and bread shop… shops that provide something of a heart for any high street.
And it’s hard to see how this casualty count won’t now escalate, accompanied by a further shift away from traditional high street retailing, further changing the face and feel of the street.
Of course the business rates revaluation has resulted in ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ although London, in total, was always recognised to be especially hard hit.
A government consultation paper showed that retail rates bills are expected to increase by an estimated 14% in London, as compared to -5% for England in total.
But what do all the headline numbers and statistics that are currently being bandied around mean for individual high-street traders?
I set out to discover for myself by analysing the rates revaluation for 121 of the High Street outlets, using information provided by the Government’s Valuation Office Agency.
A very few escape relatively unscathed, at least in terms of the increases. Six premises will see their rateable values increase by at least 90%, including a branch of Nando’s and a cycle shop.
Sixty-eight of the premises (56%) will see their rateable value increase by at least 40%, and the median rateable value increase across the High Street universe is +44%.
That is an enormous and terrifying change for any high street operator, on top of the challenges they are already wrestling with, including a tough pricing environment and the growth of online.
Of course, there are transitional schemes in place to soften the initial blow when it comes to the actual annual rates bills.
Here in Clapham what this means is that, under the current proposals, around 50 premises can expect to have their 2017/18 rates bill capped with a +12.5% increase.
But under the current proposals, in 2018/19 they will typically face a further increase in their rates bill of +17.5%, a two-year rates increase of 32%.
But even absorbing a 12.5% increase is a tough ask. The median 2016/17 rates bill in Clapham High Street was estimated to be around £13,000; a 12.5% increase is equivalent to an increase in the rates bill in the first year of around £1,600 (and a further £2,500 increase in year two).
Translate that back into the required significant additional sales required to create the additional profit just to cover the increase alone, and you are left with some very challenged high-street traders.
And this just relates to the additional rates burdens; if you rent your property this may just be the beginning of your challenges (a fast-food operator is currently confronted with a rent demand that would require him to sell over 4,000 more kebabs a year just to cover the increase in his rent bill).
These are very challenging times for Clapham High Street; without ‘a give’ somewhere (and it’s not easy to see where that will come from) more casualties are inevitable and the high street will move further away from its roots.
- Jim Grover was previously group strategy director of Diageo PLC.
- 48 Hours on Clapham High Street will be exhibited at Omnibus, Clapham’s multi-arts venue, from April 3-30. More details at www.48hoursonclaphamhighstreet.com