'We Are Being Punished For Making Our Area Better': Community Crisis Is A Microcosm For The City

By Peter Watts Last edited 102 months ago

Last Updated 24 January 2016

'We Are Being Punished For Making Our Area Better': Community Crisis Is A Microcosm For The City

Public school forces toyshop to close. Even in London, where stories of rapacious landowners are commonplace, there’s something striking about the latest developments in Herne Hill.

It goes something like this: Just Williams, a locally founded, family-run, independent toyshop on Half Moon Lane, closes on Saturday (January 23) after the landlord raised its rent by 70%.

But this is no ordinary landlord.

Dulwich Estate is a charity that looks after the commercial interests of the powerful public schools down the road in Dulwich — Dulwich College, Alleyn’s and JAGS — institutions founded to educate the poor but now concerned with the children of the wealthy.

Many of these children are Just Williams customers but it is for their supposed benefit that the toy shop is being closed. Other retailers believe they will be next.

A demonstration of local schoolchildren carrying placards decrying the “toy shop killer” will take place on Saturday January 30.

Herne Hill is seething.

“Herne Hill has changed dramatically since I moved here 20 years ago,” says Giles Gibson, who runs the Herne Hill Forum and posted a recent “call-to-arms” on the website. “The effect on commercial property prices is encouraging landlords to cash in even though they have done nothing to contribute to the area. I’m intrigued as to how we got to a situation where landlords gain despite not having done anything for the process of improvement.”

The problems in Herne Hill are varied but show something of the struggle for Londoners to maintain a sense of community in the face of outside pressures — namely landlords, who often seem to get away scot free despite having a great deal more to do with the city’s problems than the much derided “hipsters” who cop easy blame.

Half Moon Lane was hit by a flood in August 2013; most shops closed and some never reopened. Retailers say turnover has decreased by up to 30%, something not helped by the continuing closure of the landmark pub, the listed Half Moon, shuttered by its landlord — Dulwich Estate (the pub should finally reopen later this year). Now comes the dreaded rent review.

“If they raise our rent, is it worth staying?” says one business owner. “It’s already challenging, especially after the flood. We’ve never recovered. We may just have to find a new site, unlike them we can’t just double our prices. They can replace us with chains but even Pizza Express doesn’t have the footfall they expected. It’s simply not that busy here.”

Another retailer says similar. “Even if we were back on our feet, it’s outrageous. What was the justification for this sort of increase? Footfall is worse, costs have gone up, what’s the basis?”

Part of what makes Herne Hill so appealing is the fact so many shops are independents, who bring with them a passion to get things right and a consideration for the community in which they are based. It’s something local estate agents like to crow about in their publicity material.

“We all know each other, we have a community,” says a retailer. “Landlords are destroying something that has taken 15 years to build. Replace us with Costa and you have none of the personality or character left.”

Further pressure comes round the station on Railton Road, where Network Rail is refurbishing several units. One retailer is refusing to move, unhappy with their settlement having recently redecorated, while another, a butcher that has been in Herne Hill for decades, has retired.

A baker, greengrocer and furniture dealer — yes, Herne Hill really is that bucolic — have relocated nearby, with the promise they will be given first refusal on the renovated arches if they can afford the hugely increased rents.

And if they can’t?

“We invited Network Rail to a public meeting in the church and made them promise, swearing on the bible, that they would not rent to chains,” says Gibson, who points out that while Network Rail have a duty to get the best return for their property they also have a “social responsibility to the area where their customers live and work. They have a duty of care beyond the railway.”

Quite who will be in situ when the units reopen remains to be seen. At the moment they sit empty, impacting further on the area’s footfall.

For Vicky Brown, owner of Just Williams, it began a year ago when she opened negotiations with Dulwich Estate. She made an offer but says she then didn’t hear anything until the landlord had found a tenant for a neighbouring vacant premises — a restaurant that hadn’t recovered from the flood.

The new occupiers — said to be a hairdresser — were paying significantly more and a new market rate was set for everybody, starting with Just Williams.

“They don’t understand why I feel it’s such an injustice,” says Brown. “I’ve been here 11 years. This is where it started. When we moved in, most of this parade was empty. Their party line is they have an obligation to get the most money for their charity as they can, and will take nothing else into consideration even though the flood and empty pub has had an effect on all of us. We made it a more appealing area, and then this happens.”

A local fightback has begun. MP Helen Hayes has said she will ask Dulwich Estate to start the review process again, while local residents are writing to the charity commission to complain — but Brown but has little optimism. “Dulwich Estate don’t step down.”

Agreement on this is universal. “They’re like something from the 1950s, treating this like their fiefdom,” says one local. A business owner says: “They are very difficult to deal with, they don’t communicate, they don’t negotiate.”

For this article, we contacted Dulwich Estate three times asking for their side of the story. The first time we were told they were closed as it was lunchtime, which would be quaint in any other circumstances. They never responded.

Gibson struggles to make sense of it. Community groups have worked tirelessly to transform the image of Herne Hill. They fought for the pedestrianisation of the station area, set up a market, installed a public piano and organise annual music and film events as well as parties at Halloween and Christmas.

Clever branding in the form of banners and street art reinforce the sense of identity, something confirmed by a huge map by the station locating all the retailers. It’s an impressive feat of community engineering but it comes at a cost.

“It’s almost like we are punished for making our area better, and that isn’t a virtuous circle,” says Gibson, acknowledging his role may move from promoting local businesses to firefighting major institutions. “When we pedestrianised the station area, the shops said their rents would go up — and they were right. I remember a public meeting and I was doing the annual report. Somebody said, 'it’s wonderful what you’ve done but the only problem is I can’t afford to live here anymore'.

"You can’t buy the community we have here, you have to build it up slowly and carefully. Now that’s under severe threat. It’s a London-wide issue, we are not alone. Landlords are going 'ker-ching' all over the city, without having done anything to earn it. It’s affecting the economy and sustainability of neighbourhoods.”

This is the crux of the problem. Why should traders and residents make their community better if a landlord — in this case a charity representing some posh schools, but it could be Network Rail, a business in Surrey or an MP — can simply raise their rents by 70% and destroy all that hard work at a stroke? This is the Big Society that ate itself.

In the tunnel that links the two areas of Herne Hill — the arches by the station and the shops on Half Moon Lane — the community group has installed a series of photographs of local retailers, with quotes praising the area. It’s a nifty bit of free advertising that again serves to give Herne Hill a sense of cohesion. The portrait of Vicky Brown at Just Williams has already been removed. How many more will follow?

Save Our Toy Shop protest march takes place on Saturday, January 30, at 3.30pm, going from Herne Hill Station on Railton Road, SE24, to Just Williams on Half Moon Lane.