Growing up in the 60s and the 70s my guess is that most young people in normal working class communities like the ones Gerardine and I came from in North East Lancashire had the belief that if they rolled their sleeves up, then there was a more than fair chance that they would "do better" than their parents. As well as giving a feel good factor to whole communities, (what parents and grandparents don't want to see the next generations making a success of their lives?) this belief gave us the confidence to have a go at starting our first business. We were empowered not by the bank of mum and dad but by market stalls in prime positions for £6 a day and by shops at truly affordable rents.
Our first six-day-a-week shop was on Kensington High St in Kensington Market and for £10 a week we got 250 square feet of prime retail, we were not required to sign long leases nor did we need bank guarantees. We, like 100s of young entrepreneurs before and after us in the 70s, 80s and early 90s simply had an affordable way of determining if our ideas cut it. Gerardine's self-made clothing collection definitely did cut it and we soon went on to open stores in Soho and on Neal Street in Covent Garden where we balked at a weekly rental of £65 (the same store now will be in excess of £3500 per week).
This ability to "have a go" at rents that were within reach of just about anyone, created success stories and inspiration to thousands of young people who felt that "breaking out" from their humble beginnings was totally tangible. When you take these chances away from a generation then you diminish the empowerment. Whilst the internet obviously creates opportunities I know that we couldn't have learned as quickly as we did without having daily face to face contact with our customers and online business does not on the whole involve this kind of human interaction. Whilst more retail properties are now owned by pension funds and institutions whose primary role is to create shareholder value, we owe it to today's and tomorrow's new generations to make available physical retail environments that create similar opportunities to the ones Gerardine and I had in abundance.
So what can be done?
For starters could retail landlords be prevented from valuing their empty properties for more than say six months at the value their erstwhile tenants (such as Blockbuster, Jessops, Woolworths and BHS) paid? This could free up properties to the market at lower rents (and give investors and pension holders a truer reflection of their investments and possibly ultimately encourage the institutions to invest in alternative parts of the economy releasing their sometimes damaging grip on our high streets).
Secondly can councils be given the power (backed up by national planning laws) to restrict betting shops and pay day lenders to say one every square mile or so and prevent their proliferation? Surely the argument that these retailers create employment is trumped by the fact that they encourage vulnerable people to gamble what they can ill afford to risk. The "supporting sport" argument is also not valid as 83% of betting shop retail income is from highly addictive "roulette slots" which is hardly sports related. Seeing streets looking like this is miserable.....at least a street with empty shops says "opportunity "rather than "exploitation".
Thirdly could councils be given more power to decide if they want to temporarily waive business rates for start-ups in the properties they own? That would truly help entrepreneurs to have a go. I understand that this causes unrest from existing retailers who do have to pay their rates but if we really want to be a society that encourages social mobility and one that empowers new generations then we have to chip away at the status quo and make decisions that won't please everyone.