Cllr Joanna Biddolph, leader of the Conservative councillors in Chiswick, has published her vision for how she would like Chiswick to be in the future.
She set up the Chiswick Shops Task Force two years ago (July 2018) to come up with ideas to solve what councillors described as the ‘crisis’ facing local shops, warning that Chiswick High Rd could become a ‘ghost town’ unless urgent action was taken.
Two years on, with the local economy under siege from from the double whammy of Brexit uncertainty and Covid-19, the task force has published its first report, entitled Ensuring a thriving retail economy in Chiswick.
The report highlights the threats faced by the retail industry in Chiswick and aims to offer practical solutions to improve the sector and, by extension, the community as a whole. The focus of the report is on maintaining the individuality and culture of Chiswick through supporting independent businesses.
Some of the suggestions outlined in the report would be within the gift of LB Hounslow and LB Ealing to implement, since Chiswick sits mainly in Hounslow but also partly in Ealing. But the key proposals are outside the remit of the majority Labour councils, pertaining to policy controlled by the Mayor of London’s office or central government.
Cllr Biddolph described some of the ambitious proposals as ‘controversial’ but said that the task force is ‘committed to discussing these ideas’.
She told The Chiswick Calendar that the report is ‘about making sure that we are doing all we can to ensure our shops survive … If we lose them all, there will be no Chiswick.’
The report outlines key problems faced by both retailers and residents – with high rent, business rates and ‘onerous and insensitive’ bureaucracy being some of the main issues.
Rents in Chiswick higher than Kensington
The report contends that Chiswick businesses pay disproportionately high rent, using Kensington for comparison. It states:
‘While we are glad to live in a desirable area and to benefit from generally buoyant house values, ranking Chiswick above Kensington is a step too far. Rents in Chiswick should be significantly lower than rents in Kensington.’
A ‘compare the market’ approach is suggested to tackle this. It also encourages local councils to set an example as responsible retail landlords by setting attractive and affordable rent rates for independent businesses.
The report also calls for landlords to be more flexible in their offerings and would like the Government to encourage more short-term options for local pop-ups, an issue which could be resolved, the report states, by scrapping the business rate exemption for vacant properties. The report suggests the exemption encourages landlords to strip properties of all their utilities, which deters small businesses from renting them on a short-term basis.
The report also bids the Government to ‘tear up the business rates system’ and asks for a fairer, cost-sensitive system that would support independent businesses.
When speaking to The Chiswick Calendar, Cllr. Biddolph stressed the importance of not simply swapping the current system of rates for ‘rates lite’ and said that she would like the government to be ‘really radical’ in its approach to reforming the system.
Report aims to tackle crime and improve the ambience of Chiswick streets
With regard to the residents of Chiswick, the report outlines several key issues facing them, which, by extension, have detrimental impacts on the retail sector. It aims to make shopping and socialising in Chiswick ‘safe and welcoming’.
‘Chiswick has been targeted by gangs and individuals who come here for what they perceive to be richer pickings than elsewhere. There have been too many incidents of mugging, knife crime, robbers on mopeds and baseball bat break-ins of shops.’
It goes on to state that ‘drug dealing is everywhere, fuelled by crime’.
To tackle this, the report proposes increased CCTV in crime hotspots and stores, calling for the Government to provide grants to retailers to support this; communication between police and traders; the revival of the Shopwatch system, which encourages communication between shop owners regarding theft, and increased street lighting. It also says local people should be aware that there are still some Chiswick police working at Chiswick police station, which, the report says, has often been overlooked since the closure of the reporting desk there.
The report criticises the ambience of Chiswick’s streets:
‘Walking with friends from outside the area is embarrassing, stepping over or past heaps of sacks and cardboard.’
The report proposes increased maintenance of roads and planted areas, increased street cleaning, Government grants to improve shop fronts, more public seating areas and the restriction of further advertisement in the area, especially advertisements that promote non-local events.
The importance of Chiswick’s character and diversity is also emphasised by the report. It calls for the installation of street furniture that demonstrates ‘sensitivity to local culture’ – such as banners, bunting, imaginative lighting and planters.
Improved transport links and parking facilities
Transport is another key issue flagged up by the report. It highlights the importance of transport to local industry, calling for improvements to links to and within the Chiswick area. It argues that this will make Chiswick’s high street more accessible and appealing for shoppers and reduce the attraction of other shopping areas, such as Westfield, which draws in shoppers with its parking facilities.
The report details opposition to the proposed Cycle Superhighway 9, describing it as a fast through-route and claiming that it will not drive business to the area. But it does outline policies that would promote other cycling and pedestrian traffic, such as increased cycle parking near shops. It also looks to promote more affordable car parking facilities for both shoppers and retailers. This, the report states, is particularly important in light of COVID-19, as shoppers are increasingly reluctant to use public transport.
Despite this, the Chiswick Shops Task Force also calls for improved public transport links, for example that TfL should allow the Piccadilly line to stop at Turnham Green.
Cllr. Biddolph stressed the importance of people safely returning to normal life as lockdown eases and praised the ‘extraordinary steps’ that local businesses have taken to make their premises Covid-secure.
“If we want Chiswick to remain a desirable place to live, not just for us, but for people coming after us, we need to support our local trade. If anybody can go out and support them I would urge them to do so – but obviously with caution.”
While the report primarily focuses on independent businesses, it does acknowledge the benefit that larger chain stores bring to the community and seeks to promote collaboration between chains and independent retailers. It calls for larger chains to support local businesses, in order to extend the multiplier throughout the community. For example, it suggests that Sainsbury’s could extend its free parking time limit to allow shoppers to browse other stores and cafes in the area.
Read More Stories on The Chiswick Calendar