Guest blog by Cllr Gary Busuttil
I have lived in Chiswick since I moved to London 11 years ago. When I moved here, I instantly fell in love with the place, for its tree lined streets, and for the vibrancy and variety of shops and local businesses along its high street. On reading an article in The Guardian on the 11/09/19 headlined Retailers urge ministers to step in as high street store closures soar, I identified with the problem. I have noticed in the past couple of years that many businesses, some of them who have been here many years, have left the area or suddenly closed, leaving more premises vacant than at any time in the 11 years I have lived in the locality.
Many years ago, there was talk about our dying high streets; this threat was from the growth and popularity of out of town shopping centres. Today, the threat to our high street comes from a whole multitude of factors: the prominence of online shopping, increasing rent and business rates, the squeeze to local government funding and the conversion of commercial premises into residential ones.
According to Centre For Cities, a leading think tank dedicated to improving the performance of UK city economies, “high streets are made up of businesses that serve the local market. When we talk about the state of our high streets, we tend to be talking about the visible health of the wide range of local businesses and services”.
In 2014, before I was elected Councillor for Southfield Ward, a much-loved local store was due to be turned into residential property. Marie’s Store on Cunnington Street is not just used as a place to buy food stuff, it is at the heart of community of which it serves. It provides a notice board which allows local residents to gain employment, to buy and sell unused items and find out about community events, and it acts as a place to collect parcels when people are out. But more importantly it provides a community service that large chain stores, online shopping, or out of town shopping centres cannot emulate: a local “ear” about vulnerable residents and ensuing they are safe and well. This reminded me the importance of attracting and maintaining businesses in our communities, and in many ways this is what local high streets do, all be it on a larger, perhaps slightly less personal scale.
Though some factors are beyond our control, Centre For Cities mentions some of the ways that can help facilitate improving the high street; and that is by improving the public realm. High Streets should be supported to revive their centres and empty spaces with different amenities to attract footfall, such as providing libraries, leisure centres, playgrounds and parkland. Southfield Lib Dem Councillors have recognise this, and over many years, we’ve campaigned to keep such amenities like libraries open, and have used funds provided by the ward forum to improve our parkland, to facilitate footfall to our high streets, as to keep our communities attractive, safe and vibrant.
Cllr Gary Busuttil is a Lib Dem councillor for Southfield ward