My ode to Stretford Mall

When I had my first baby in 2011, I suddenly found myself with more free time than I’d had for years.  I used this newly acquired time to explore places in Manchester that I had never been to – despite being utterly broke, my mini adventures with my little mute friend were truly happy days.

One of my favourite places to go to back then, when I wanted a change from Chorlton, was to Stretford Mall.  I can hear you laughing, but as someone who can’t really handle the madness of the Trafford Centre (even the Arndale Centre in town is a bit too much for me at times), Stretford offered a more relaxed shopping experience with pretty much all of the shops I regularly needed.  I went there for shops which didn’t have branches in Chorlton, such as Wilkos, Argos and New Look, as well as the excellent discounted bookshop where I bought some of my daughter’s most treasured books, and the discounted branded clothes shop where I got most of my partner’s birthday and Christmas presents.

All these shops, and more, have gone from Stretford Mall in the last 5 years.  I never visited the centre during its hay day and I know that the Mall was waaaay past its best in 2011, but to me it’s recent decline seems so rapid – every time I visit I notice another yet store has gone.  It is one of the starkest examples of what is happening to retail centres up and down the country as shopping habits change and the government continues failing to act on the impact this is having on communities.

It’s hard to believe that when it opened in 1969, Stretford Mall was one of the biggest shopping centres in Britain. This article offers some great history of Stretford Mall, or Stretford Arndale as it was originally called – it’s a great piece, just ignore the bit about Chorlton Precinct – it was written before the CAMhub opened!http://confidentials.com/manchester/stretford-mall-a-portrait-of-a-dying-shopping-centre

I know that the Mall won’t be holding any ‘flower shows, Miss Stretford Pagents and tea dances’ again, but it would be nice to live in a time where all the shop units in Stretford Mall (on both levels!), and all the retail centres like it, were filled and thriving.  It frustrates me greatly that thousands of shop units lie empty because of high rent and rates which make it near-impossible to run a long term sustainable business, especially if you are an indy start up.  It just feels like a wasted opportunity for so many people.

My fear is I believe that by the time my daughter is a teenager, independent businesses on the High Street will be a thing of the past.  But now I am also beginning to wonder if places like Stretford Mall will still exist then as well.  Where will the elderly or disabled people, or the tired new mums go when they can’t face going into town? Where will the ‘community hub’ be then?

Chorlton is not immune to the issues which are affecting Stretford Mall, its just that it has a better reputation therefore people are more willing and eager to set up a business here.  But it is not easy for anyone – things need to change in order for people to be able to run sustainable long term businesses in suburbs and small towns for the health of both the economy and the community.  It should not be as hard as it is to make a small business work on the High Street in any area.   Last year an average of 15 shops a day closed down in the UK, and the number of new openings fell to the lowest level in 5 years, leaving 10% of retail units lying empty.  Analysts predict this situation to worsen over coming years, with the uncertain Brexit effect not helping matters.

I hope that Stretford Mall finds a way to revive itself, just as I hope that when Chorlton precinct is eventually redeveloped it will still be a home to independent businesses.  And I hope that one day the government finally realises that it needs to address the unmanageable business rates issue and make serious changes for the health of the British High Street – and I don’t mean just doing publicity stunts with Mary Portas.

Hopefully one day all towns and cities will be offering opportunities to encourage both shoppers and new traders and the trend of High Street businesses closing down will reverse.  But, given the speed in which the decline has happened, particularly in the last 5 years, things need to happen soon to save the essence -or ‘soul’ – of the UK’s town centres.  The sad fact is that I fear things won’t change and the decline will continue.  I have no idea how long Stretford Mall, and places like it, will last but I’m quite certain things will be very different by the time my daughter is grown up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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OPEN LETTER TO GMPF #1

This is an open letter to GMPF, our business landlord.  It is highly probable that it will be the first of many such letters over the next 18 months.

Dear GMPF,

Ten years ago this month I moved to Chorlton as a bit of a stop gap whilst I figured out what to do with my life.  And, as life has panned out in the unexpected way that it does, I never left and I am now happily settled, raising two children and running a successful business in this strange but loveable suburb.

A heatwave was just kicking in on the day I came here back in 2006 which made the whole exciting move even more full of promise.  We were in a whole new world of beer gardens, open mic nights and roof top BBQs!  I remember going off to explore my new surroundings and stumbling upon the precinct and wondering if I had stepped into a 70’s verion of the Twilight Zone.  And I don’t mean that as a negative – for me it felt special and was somewhere full of untapped potential.  I always knew that it would inevitably be updated at some point, but I could very clearly picture a way to do it and still retain some of its nostalgic charm.

In the time I have lived here, Chorlton precinct has had at least 3 owners to my knowledge.  And over the years, rumours of redevelopment have been ever present.  I remember public consultations and architectural plans aplenty, but then the recession hit and all these plans were, I guess, put on the back burner. 

For me, the timing was perfect.  In 2011 I had my first child which gave me the opportunity to see those shop units in the precinct sitting empty and I began to formulate a long term plan – I knew by then that I wanted a business in Chorlton precinct and I was going to find a way to make it happen, no matter what.

Fast forward to the present day and that goal has been achieved…for now.  I understood when I signed my lease that it expired in 2018 but I didn’t worry because I don’t think I fully appreciated the potential that my business had back then.  I guess I thought I’d be just content to have a shop for a few years and I didn’t really consider too far ahead.  But time is ticking fast and battle mode is setting in.

I now have 3 children – a girl one, a boy one and a shop one.  I unashamedly admit to loving the non-human one just as much as the human ones.  The roots of all 3 are connected to the precinct to some degree and I can’t accept that in less than 2 years it could all be over if all the spaces are allocated to large corporations.  We have all worked hard to create something special in a part of Chorlton which we truly love.  The Chorlton Art Market belongs in the precinct.

My fear is that the redevelopment will see the precinct turned into a soulless identikit plastic mall when I know that it has the potential to be something truly special and something which could be a real gem for Chorlton.  As anyone who has ever lived here will tell you, Chorlton is a beautifully weird place, filled with people with a great sense of social pride and I believe that you, the landlords, have an amazing opportunity to create something that will sit pride of place in your property portfolio.

When the time comes, please consider the fate of my family business – a business which supports over 60 other local people and a business which is loved by an ever-growing customer base.  In a place like Chorlton, with a bit of imagination something ‘different’ has the potential to thrive…but only if the opportunities are there. Please don’t forget about us when you make your plans.

The Trials and Tribulations of Business Rates

Having a shop is lots of fun, and every day is exciting. I think about the shop just about every second of every day, and most nights I dream about it in some form. I even had a biblical vision about the shop. I bloody love it so much.
But…it is also quite frustrating! Due to the nature of our business, and the fact that we are still in the very early stages, there are so many issues that constantly need to be fought or sorted out. Every day brings a new obstacle or mini battle. So for your enjoyment pleasure, here is a list of some of our current woes:

1 – The main frustration of all is bloody business rates – a frustration I imagine most business owners will relate to. Of course its not that I resent paying the rates at all, its just that a) I resent the amount we supposedly have to pay and b) I resent the fact that I have been trying to get my business rates sorted out since October 2014 and it has still not happened. There are weird issues with our unit as it was temporarily doubled in size by some furniture selling cowboys (who didn’t even pay their business rates or utility bills). When we moved in, the entrance to the other unit was blocked off and the one unit became 2 again. This is a fact that it seems the MCC business rates team just can’t seem to handle. To make the situation even more frustrating is that, due to all the cuts to MCC’s budget I would imagine, you can’t actually phone someone in the business rates team – you have to send an email and wait 14 working days for a reponse. I look forward to that court summons so that I can show them the list of unreplied to emails that I have sent.

2 – There are currently 72 traders selling their wares in the CAMhub which is a lot of people to deal with and a lot of characters to keep happy! This not easy at times. My primary goal with the shop is for it to benefit everyone, but I know that these things don’t happen instantly. As I have had to point out to people recently, if it was really easy to put your work in a shop and make a grand overnight, then everyone in the world would be doing it. Nothing good ever comes easy and patience and perserverence does pay off. In my recent experience, it does seem that a lot of people are very quick to give up on things without giving it a proper chance (my Luddite soul attributes this to the rapid pace of social media etc which makes everyone think that everything should happen instantly).

3 – Money is an issue. A very big issue. Sometimes it worries me a lot. And sometimes I feel just about ok about it. I guess this makes me exactly the same as everyone else. But to make this shop work, we need to generate a HUGE amount of money just to cover the essentials, before we can even think about money for ourselves. And there are so many things to think of! The sleepless nights are exacerbated by the fact that the business rates still aren’t sorted and I just want, as I have done for the past 5 months, to get it all straight. All I have ever wanted to do is to just get everything sorted and ‘proper’ but it is made very hard for you to do things the right way.

Anyway…despite my little rant here and my variying levels of daily stress, I am truly happy to have a shop. If I’m being totally honest, I’m beyond happy about it for it is my biggest dream come true. It is a pleasure to go to the CAMhub every day and be surrounded by such beautiful things. And I don’t want it to be easy and straightforward, because, as I have said, nothing worth having ever comes without the hard work. I want to make the inevitable mistakes so that I know not to repeat them and I want to continue learning new things every day to make the shop the very best it can be. And, as I have always said, I know this shop will work out long term and will benefit a huge amount of local people – it will just take a lot more work, which I am very excited about. So many exciting plans on the horizon for the CAMhub!

So, does charity begin at home?

In one sense I am feeling slightly guilty because I am currently shouting out about the negative aspects of charity shops and I am fully aware that this can, on evilfacebook at least, make me seem like a bit of an arse. I am not in any way against charity shops on the whole. Whilst at university, I volunteered at an Oxfam Bookshop (partly cos I wanted to do ‘something good’, but partly because I wanted to try and get some of my expensive course books cheap!). Without charity shops, my daughter would of spent the first couple of years of her life naked and without any of her own books. Her cot, moses basket and pram all came from charity shops. I know first hand how essential they are to a huge proportion of the population.

But…there is another issue going on here. Every highstreet in the UK now has numerous charity shops, and many towns (including my own) has charity businesses with more than one retail premesis. As other vast chains expand from city centres into suburbs and small market towns, our highstreets are very quickly becoming identikit centres, often resembling an airport departure lounge. As independent businesses struggle to compete with online shopping, British Red Cross and British Heart Foundation are poised on the sidelines ready to jump into their graves to sell you a Primark jumper for more than it cost brand new.

One of the many reasons that charity shops are spreading so quickly is because they pay just 20% business rates and so are easily able to pay above the market rental rate, despite having huge incomes. Because of this, charities are able to secure prime town-centre locations which independent and start up businesses could only dream of. (I would like to register my family as a charity and pay 20% of our council tax please. Then, using the money saved, we could move into a penthouse suite in Beetham Tower. That would be nice).

The Welsh government are ahead of the game. In 2013, they recognised the negative impact on socio-ecomonic issues connected to the rapid spread of charity shops and proposed that instead of an 80% reduction, charities should pay half the business rates. If independent/start up businesses were able to do the same, even just for the first 6 or 12 months of trading, then the current state of the highstreet would be markedly different.

I live in a town with a rich and varied cultural history – it is both the birthplace of Dangermouse, as well as the childhood home of the BeeGees amongst many other things. When I first moved here, Dave Lister lived round the corner – Dave Lister! (the 25 year old me was just as excited by this fact as the 12 year old me would of been). It is a town filled with creative people and interesting characters. And so it amazes me that, whilst people are prepared to pay three hundred grand for a 2 bedroomed house, they are willing to sit back and watch their town centre fall into decline and not take direct action. As council tax contributors, we all, in a sense, own our town centres, yet the majority sit back and do nothing to keep hold of what makes our towns our homes . And as a mother, I feel very strongly that I should fight hard to ensure that my daughter will continue to grow up in a place with a strong sense of community.

This is all sounding slightly off message now, but it is all relevant. I accept and understand the need for change, but some of the changes that have developed in the last decade do not benefit social progression. The steady rise of charity shops is just one of many factors which has changed the face of the UK’s highstreets in the 2 decades I have been a direct consumer, but it is only recently that I have really given thought to the consequences of this.

You can read a little more about how this issue is personally affecting me and a whole bunch of amazing folk here: https://www.change.org/p/the-greater-manchester-pension-fund-please-let-cam-stay-where-is-is. Please sign to show your support to people with big dreams. And if you want to hear what I’m trying to say in a much more eloquent way, please listen to the words of the legendary Harvey Andrews: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEgmRLaG-F0

Thank you.

Hard work & Frustration

For over 18 months now, I have been trying to, in a small way, work towards improving our local town centre and providing an opportunity for dozens of local artists. It is a struggle, and it continues to be so, despite exciting promises and glimmers of hope. My goal is not one which I hope will benefit me personally, but also the community and many other individuals. I have, in a way, put my life on hold as I try to make my dreams a reality and it is so much harder than I ever thought it would be.

The government website (https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/improving-high-streets-and-town-centres) states that it supports local markets and helps ‘new market traders starting up businesses’, going on to say that it helps ‘start-up businesses to set up in the high street’. Sadly, I was recently turned down for funding from The High Street Innovation fund, partly, I suspect, because my project is based in Chorlton – a percieved ‘affluent’ area. This is frustrating because, despite its reputation, there are plenty of people like me who live and dream here. We truly want to make something happen, but at times it always seems just out of reach. I have lost count of the amount of times I have been expecting to get recieve funding to make my goals happen, only to be left disappointed.

I will continue to try to make my plan happen until the end of the year. After then, I will admit defeat, knowing that I have tried my very hardest, and hopefully be able to put my experience to use in a paid role. I ask myself quite often; why have I been trying to make this happen for so long? I have worked so hard, for so long and for so little and I really can’t carry on much longer, financially and mentally. A change is gonna come…and I hold on to a tiny glimmer of hope that my plans WILL happen and will be the spark for many great things for our town. I am hoping and keeping everything crossed that this will be the week that we will finally get some good news after putting in 18 months of work towards it.

The story so far…

Back in the hayday of 2011 when my daughter was a newborn and life was better than ever, I took part in a fantastic opportunity run by our local Arts Festival team. For over a year, 50 local artists and crafts people took turns to rent out a previously unoccupied shop unit in our town’s shopping precinct. This meant that every week, a new person or group of people, transformed the shop into something totally different and had the opportunity to sell their work and build up interest in their brand. It really was something very special indeed for our town, and for all of us who sold our wares there.

Eventually, in December 2012, the shop unit was taken on by a more long term tenant so it seemed that the dream had died. But I was inspired by the Chorlton Arts Festival shop, and I vowed that I would make something happen in the precinct again.

By this time my daughter was 18 months old and I was more than eager to get more active in making my own business, Patchwork Papillon, work, as well as trying to get a shop in the precinct again for the benefit of myself and all the amazing creators that I knew. So, for 6 months I did nothing but sew and send emails (and look after my daughter of course!) and eventually in June 2013, I secured an agreement for a short term pop up shop in one of the large empty units. It was, quite simply, a dream come true.

This then lead onto a successful crowdfunding campaign, and the organising of two art markets within the precinct, as well as gaining the support from Manchester City Council Regeneration Team and the Chorlton Traders Association along the way. I felt that the Art Markets made a real difference to the precinct and hopefully even managed to change some of the negative views about the place, even just for a day.

Everything was looking good and full of exciting prospects for my ideas for the precinct, up until January of this year when the development was sold and future precinct plans were put on the sideline. But I’ve never given up because I don’t know how to give up on things that I believe in. Finally, after 9 months of emails, the story can begin again. Exciting times lay ahead, and not only for precinct plans, but for The Chorlton Art Market as well.

Although it has been very tough at times to keep things going, my vision is still one I believe very passionatly in. Sometimes I feel frustrated and it seems that Chorlton isn’t doing itself justice at all and is losing some of the aspects which made it special. But its not just Chorlton – the problem is everywhere. Collectively, people are allowing our country’s town centres to become something which will soon be unrecognisable and it just seems crazy that we are letting this happen. It seems wildly crazy that it is such a massive struggle for business owners to pay their business rates. And its not just a few independent businesses who struggle, it seems to me to be the majority. Something is very wrong there. It is bizarre that more people aren’t more concerned about these issues, or can’t see how rapidly things are changing for the worse. Even if you don’t have a shop (or, like me, dream of having one), a degenerated town centre does nothing for house prices, quality of life or social connectivity so it affects us all.

Something has to change soon. And not just daft half-baked government schemes. Something big. Hopefully, one day, the people at the top who make the big decisions will gain vision and learn to see beyond the profit monster. Maybe they will recognise that sometimes things need to be done differently in order to achieve great things, even on a small scale.