Tag Archives: Business

There goes the neighbourhood

photo 2[1]Mr Patel closed his newsagents a few months ago. Shortly after that, the 75 year old  hardware business further up the road shut its doors. Its neighbour, once a bathroom and kitchen design shop is now a giant pound store.

Yesterday Impulse Flowers, a local fixture for the past 28 years, lowered the shutters for the last time. The electric lighting show room across the road from the florist had already gone – due to “redevelopment” says the notice stuck on its window.

Next door, the manager of its sister store, selling light bulbs of every shape and size, stands in the doorway and surveys the changes on Holloway Road. “Look at it,” she says, pointing to a building once occupied by a fabric and wool shop. “It’s all restaurants and cafes now.”

And small supermarkets, some of them mini-versions of the big chains. Rumour has it, that’s what’s moving in where the light-bulb lady now stands. Or maybe it’ll be another branch of Costa, the ubiquitous coffee chain that already has at least three outlets on Holloway Road.

It’s not that the owners of the older shops want to go. “I think it’s more to do with landlords, their price increases,” says Frank, owner of Impulse Flowers, who’s finally off after losing a battle against yet another big rent hike. “They feel they need to modernise and they want to get trendy coffee shops and supermarkets in the high street.”

Frank outside Impulse Flowers which closes in March.

Frank outside Impulse Flowers which closes in March.

Frank says the rot set in when a supermarket chain opened a small, local store in the neighbourhood. The chain was happy to pay what he calls, “an enormous amount” in rent. Now, the landlords are telling the little guys they should pay the same, “and we’re just not in a position to do so,” Frank says. “We can’t compete.”

(It turns out, the supermarket chains might not be able to either. According to a recent report, it’s charity shops followed by coffee chains that are filling in the holes in the high street. When the holes are filled that is.)

Of course, one could argue (as former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy did)  that all this represents progress.  Consumers are buying cheaper goods at places that are more convenient to them.

But the changes have a much wider impact – and not just on the individuals now shutting up shop. An entire community of businesses within five minutes walk from my home is being wiped out.

“It’s a bit quiet,” says Tim at the barbershop he’s run for the past 16 years. Tim’s a refugee from Kosovo who says he was made to feel welcome in the area as soon he arrived. Business was good at the beginning he says. Now though, it’s much harder “because circumstances change on Holloway Road.”

Tim’s referring to closings all around him. “The small businesses here, we used to go to them and buy things,” he says, “and they’d come for a haircut here.”

But don’t workers at supermarkets and coffee shops need haircuts too? Tim shakes his head. It’s different he says. “We don’t know them. They’re very rare customers.”

Mr Patel outside his cafe. His newsagents next door is now closed.

Mr Patel outside his cafe. His newsagents next door is now closed.

“It’s bad for the local community,” says Mr Patel, who’s stopped by Tim’s – not for a haircut but just for a chat, proving the barber’s point about the relationships between the small businesses in the area.

Mr Patel’s newsagents did well when he opened it in 1976. In recent years though, “the time and effort we put in, the returns just weren’t there,” he says.

“It was like a community shop,” Mr Patel goes on, explaining why, at any time of day one could find locals leaning on the counter chatting to the newsagent or his wife. “People were coming in for help and the whole family was there to provide it,” says the former shopkeeper. But with rapidly rising rents and high business rates, it couldn’t last. The newsagents closed – though Mr Patel hung on to the café next door.

That small high street businesses are suffering is well known. In the first half of last year, shops in the UK closed at a staggering 16 per day. Bad for them of course. But what isn’t talked about enough is the impact this has on a sense of community that affects all of us.

I want to live near a road where the Ugandan Asian former newsagent drops in to chat to the Kosovan barber who’s cutting the hair of a young man who works in the DIY store across the road. I like the fact the Dutch-born flower seller with whom I discuss politics and Arsenal, knows exactly what’s going on with the light-bulb lady and the other shops in her parade.photo 4

This is our community but it’s falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do to stop it. Islington Council has a Core Strategy which sets out its “strategic vision for the borough up to 2025”.

Published in 2011, it says the aim is to “promote a mix of retail opportunities” on the main roads of the area and “to provide a better range of shops.” Nice idea but it’s not happening. (Some of the dying businesses say the council’s own parking enforcements share part of the blame). In fact, it’s the opposite and as with so many other high streets in the UK, our wonderfully diverse, friendly, connected neighbourhood is disappearing before our eyes.


What’s the Private Sector ever done for us?

IMG_2709I’m all for breaking down the barriers between private and state education.IMG_2709

But I can’t help feeling we in the state sector may have more to teach exclusive fee-paying schools than they have to teach us.

An example? Well, put your science hats on for a moment – as we were asked to do last night, in a hall packed with excited kids and proud parents celebrating science and technology at Gillespie Primary School.

The north London school (full disclosure, I’m vice-chair of governors) is the first in the capital to set up a fully equipped science and “making stuff” space under an innovative programme called Lab_13.

Class teachers use the purpose-built lab for routine science lessons. There’s a kitchen in the corner for cookery club and a space for creating art works on the other side.

But more importantly, there’s a “Scientist in Residence,” employed two-and-a-half days a week to help children explore scientific questions.

Anything goes.Slug

The questions are posted on the lab’s notice board, or a child might come up with something interesting on the fly. Like, how long would it take for a snail to travel a mile?

“How are shadows made?” one group of children wanted to know. “Why is the sky blue?” asked others. Year 3 was interested in making crystals. So Year 4 showed them how, while some children in Year 6  have been looking at how virus’s replicate in the human body.

Which questions are answered is determined in part by the lab’s Management Committee, made up of children elected each year from throughout the school. The children wrote the job ad for the Scientist in Residence and took part in the interviews. The entire project is theirs.

Those shadows for example. The kids didn’t just want a scientific explanation. They wanted to create something artistic at the same time. So they did, projecting light through shapes to create beautiful shadow-pictures on stretched canvasses.

IMG_2706That was just one of the projects shown to the crowd of more than 100 last night. Another linked an interest in astronomy with a love of music. Press a star in a galaxy painted on a cardboard night sky and an electronic piano plays a note. Press two or three, you get a chord.

Then there was the question about the impact a meteor strike would have on the surface of the earth. It’s amazing what you can demonstrate with a home-made catapult, a box of Maltesers and a pile of sand. Or it would be if the catapult hadn’t failed. No matter, as our Scientist in Residence calmly explained, sometimes experiments don’t work. That’s how scientists learn.

All the demonstrations were introduced and explained by the children who, keen to show us that science is also fun, filled the gaps in-between with science jokes. (Question, what’s an astronaut’s favourite key on the computer keyboard? Answer, the space bar!)

The entire evening was entertaining, informative and above all inspiring – for children and adults alike.

So why doesn’t every primary school have a Lab_13?

Well, because it costs quite a bit of to set one up and there’s no money in tight school budgets for even a part time Scientist in Residence. The whole project requires a big fund-raising effort, from kitting out the space to buying in an experts’ time.

Which is where, you might imagine, the private sector comes in.

For some years now, businesses have been bemoaning the state of education. They’ve called for schools to turn out more inquiring minds. Britain’s economy will only thrive if high-tech manufacturing takes off, they say, so where are the children who’ll make that work?

Yet shown those very children and a project aimed at addressing some of the problems they’ve identified, businesses are largely nowhere to be seen.

The CBI was invited to get involved in the early stages. They came to the school, told us we were fantastic and made a film used at the launch of their big flashy report on the future of education.

We never heard from them again. A simple request to connect us with one single company that might want to contribute to the lab went nowhere.

We tried a couple of the giants of the corporate world but got a standard response: we don’t work with individual schools. Even though that school is doing something pioneering and is set to become a hub for science teaching borough-wide.

In the end (with the notable exception of Dixon Glass) the money came in bits and pieces mostly from private foundations and grant making bodies. The Royal Society did their bit, the British Pharmacological Society chipped in.

But the biggest support by far came from the local council. Without their financial contribution, Lab_13 would not have got off the ground.

Now we need funds to keep it going. We’re lucky in having a handful of dedicated parents prepared to fill in forms, send begging letters and bash the phones. We’re hugely grateful to the philanthropic foundations and societies that respond. (An organisation representing local businesses was invited to last night’s event, they didn’t even reply).

Having Lab_13 means children of varied abilities and backgrounds are collaborating brilliantly on science projects. Those from disadvantaged families have access to areas of learning they wouldn’t experience otherwise.

Next up, they’ll be working on a three month investigation into the health benefits of Manuka Honey. Their research will even be peer reviewed.

In the meantime, if you want to know how long it takes a snail to travel a mile, ask a Gillespie child. They’ve already published those results.