We all know how it works in London. Cheap, previously undesirable areas have always been magnets for small businesses. The rent is low, the crowd is creative and the potential is endless. But what happens when that area becomes a victim of its own success?
You only have to look to the borough of Hackney, in East London, to see the most extreme example of this in action. For a neighbourhood that used to be known more for its gun crime than its grass-fed organic beef burgers served out of a 1950's ambulance (don't ask), Hackney has undergone a Hollywood-style transformation. But at what price? You'll be pushed to find a pub that still plays Sky Sports or a café that prefers filter to freshly ground. My local pub in E8 is now owned by the company behind Pizza Express and describes itself a gin distillery slash wood-fired pizzeria slash daytime hot-desking space. It's £20 for two drinks. I went there twice and vowed to never go again.
So, things have changed. Things keep changing. The borough has been a haven for independent businesses and plenty continue to thrive. This has meant that Hackney is a generally lovely place to live. I should know; I live here, and the fact my neighbourhood is practically powered by small start-ups doing good things is a huge factor in why I continue to enjoy calling Hackney my home.
But this could all be over. The government's recent business rates rise has hit the borough the hardest - in fact, Hackney's traders are going to be the most severely affected in the whole of London. The reason? The government has revalued official business rates based on the value of property in the area. So, in desirable, house-price-exploding Hackney, it comes to no surprise that the proposed increase stands at 46%. To put it into perspective, that means 370 businesses in the area are looking at a rent jump of anywhere between £10,000-£100,000.
The East End Trades Guild is a community of small, independent businesses and they've just launched a petition against the hike. They even held a crisis talk last week, where local MP Meg Hillier addressed the crowd.
"The sheer severity of the impact on this part of London is unjustifiable if you have any care for the social, cultural or economic fabric of its communities" she said, "It is not right that thousands of businesses could be priced out just because the bricks and mortar around them has double in price."
Arguably, she has a point. Businesses and individuals that played a huge role in making Hackney what it is today are now being punished for their actions. These are the people that created the food scene, pumped the borough full of creative energy and engaged with its residents. They're now faced with a future that involves doing exactly the same thing, in another affordable borough (although it's becoming trickier and trickier to name one). Who's to say they won't be getting priced out of there again in a few years time?
I worked in a restaurant in Hackney for three years and last summer, it closed its doors for good. The pressures were quite simply too high. Rent was expensive and showed no signs of slowing down. Competition was huge compared to when we first opened - every month saw a new, hot opening and suddenly your diners are spoilt for choice.
We were busy, popular and most people knew our name and loved our food. But to keep up with the pace of Hackney would mean running a business that required tills to be ringing nonstop, every second of every day. Ask any independent business owner (particularly in the restaurant industry), and they'd tell you just how much of a reality this is. Even the most successful businesses have quiet periods, but in Hackney, there's no room for quiet.
I can only hope that the rallying together of East London's independents has some sort of impact. If it doesn't, then we're looking at a very different future face of the borough. One with a few more Prets, and a lot less fun.
Sign the petition against the East London business rate hike here.