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DonwilliamsCllr Don Williams, a Conservative opposition councillor in Camden, takes Heath Street and Hampstead High Street in his borough as a case study

Like other most parts of the country, there is a difficult problem with the vibrancy of high streets in the London Borough of Camden. Businesses, concerned residents and councillors across the political
spectrum have approached Officers and Cabinet Members seeking some remedy but to date no satisfactory answers have been provided.

Moreover, the recent actions of Camden as a landlord cast doubt on its commitment to maintaining vibrant high streets, to support local businesses and employment, and, to have diversity of shopping. Its policy of cancelling concessionary rents to local businesses, having upward only rent reviews and giving Officers no flexibility to lower rents if market conditions require this, has only exacerbated the problems.  Additionally, inflexible parking arrangements are compounding the situation by lowering custom. The result is that
arrears are piling up and businesses are very worried or closing.

It is true that the trading environment is difficult but there is no need for the Council to make matters worse.

More and more businesses are shutting their doors for good on the iconic high streets of Heath Street and Hampstead High Street in Hampstead. The latest casualties are Health Food Shop, which was in business for 26 years, and YOGOURTY. Also, there are now five empty shops on Heath Street – a short high street in the heart of fashionable Hampstead village.

And then there is the case of Pure Fruit – a small local green grocer in business for the past 30 years. Camden's actions were the following:

– In May 2010, it withdrew, unilaterally, the concessionary rent arrangement of £4,000 which was in place for over 30 years.

– The withdrawal of the rent concession meant the shop's rent increased from £20,000 pa to £24,000 pa in 2010 – an inflation beating 20% increase!

– Later in 2010, Camden wished to review the rent further. It wanted to further increase the rent to £31,000 – a further 29% hike!

– After complaints, it settled the rent at £27,000 – a 12.5% hike on the new rent of £24,000.

Thus in 12 months, Pure Fruit experienced a 35% rent increase. Breath-taking!

Pure Fruit, which has stated that it cannot meet this new rental rate of £27,000, is about to close – like so many of our local businesses on Camden's high streets. An urgent re-think is needed on these exorbitant rent increases in order to save another local Hampstead business from going under.

Camden Conservatives believe that Councils have a role to play on our high streets encouraging full occupancy, the appropriate mix of businesses and offering reasonable protection to local initiatives.

We call on the Labour run administration to:

1. Put off rent reviews and rental increases, on our high street, until there is a sustained upturn in the economy.

2. Initiate a review of our high streets, involving other landlords, businesses and the community, to examine the effects of the present level of rents on our local businesses. They may include the appointment of local high street champions or tsars.

3. Set up an easily accessible and publicly available register of landlords in our high streets.

4. Consider reducing rents for struggling local traders, in Camden properties, whose main business problem is high rents.

5. Give Officers the flexibility to lower rents to existing tenants on our high streets where occupancy levels are low or markets rates have fallen substantially.

Generally, most people wouldn’t be against charging market rents in a healthy economy but this is the wrong time for Camden to be making big disruptive changes to high street rents by getting rid of historic concessions during this Labour-induced debt recession. The Council should be much more concerned about encouraging full occupancy and the appropriate mix of businesses, like its Unitary Development Plan states. Westminster protects its petrol stations. Camden could encourage its mix of local businesses, at least until the economy gets healthier.

6 comments for: Bringing the high street back to life