Challenging and strange times, and uncertain and worrying prospects for local businesses. As a result our annual look at the condition of the high street somewhat fails to capture the reality of the moment – with fewer changes than usual and the sense that many traders are simply hanging on in there. We wish them the best. The town centre is in a phoney war, and the next year may well be the reckoning.
A story of closures and openings continues of course, and we learned recently of the impending retirement of perhaps the most famous Crouch End town centre trader of all, Paul Saxton, paper seller. The final edition in February.
Images credit: Mark Afford
If anything, 2019’s developing trend of decline continued, typified by the accelerating drift to online shopping. No longer confined to retail of course, with fleets of just eat and deliveroo mopeds buzzing around.
There are currently 27 vacant units, up from 24 last year (but up from 11 two years ago). The Broadway is particularly badly hit with a line of boarded-up shops: six were vacant at the beginning of the year, and with the impending closure of Nationwide the number will soon be eight – some of these units have been vacant for two years. The food and beverage sector, which saw its first decline in years in 2019, continued to flatline.
Crouch End is a largish district centre, with 300 retail units and around 40,000 m2 of floorspace.
The number of chain stores, often the anchors for a town centre, remains low. Currently, there are 59 multiples operating from Crouch End, though many of these are charity shops, pubs, or medium sized operations (such as estate agents). If you count only household names, the number is a scant 25:
Waitrose, Co-op, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Waterstones, Greggs, Superdrug, Barclays, NatWest, TSB, EE, Boots, Halifax, Virgin Active, Costa Coffee, Harris + Hoole, Oliver Bonas, Specsavers, Snappy Snaps, Ladbrokes, Pizza Hut, Dominos, Gail’s Bakery, Picturehouse (still here?), and JoJo Maman Bébé.
Just 5 are comparison shopping. Worth crossing town for?
Meanwhile, 2021-22 will see the delivery of an extra 7,000 m2 of floorspace (largely the Town Hall scheme and along Tottenham Lane). Will it be viable?
Perhaps the biggest change, in planning terms at least, was the complete overhaul of the use-class system, with a new class E covering virtually every business in a town centre. So, no more applications for change of use. We blogged about it here.
Comings and goings
Openings: we welcomed Lo-Fi, Sourdough Sophia, Kido Nursery, Fridge of Plenty, Butternut Bikes, Merlot Garden, Twelve Ounce Bottleshop, Florist Café, Empire Grooming Lounge, and Halo Beauty Retreat.
And bid farewell to: Scarecrow, Monkey Nuts, Of Special Interest, Hot Pepper Jelly, Oddbins, Roxanne, In Theory, Percy Ingles, Black Katz, Crouch End Hill Dry Cleaners, Robert Harrison Property, Giovanni’s Room, and Explore Learning.
Picturehouse Cinema, Chicken Shop, Moors Bar, and Liberty Property are worryingly yet to emerge from earlier lockdowns (and Nickel, House of Books, Junk & Disorderly, and Pilates Place, all moved house).
In the last two years we’ve seen 43 businesses close, and 25 businesses open. A worryingly high turnover. Support your local shops folks.
Longer term trends
Our detailed survey goes back a dozen years to 2008 – just before the financial crash and austerity took hold. Not all that distant a past but the changes are visible: we had a Woolworths rather than Waitrose, a Budgens not a Co-op, and All Bar One rather than Superdrug. The Arthouse was the Music Palace, and Rosebery House was a scruffy office block rather than the Picturehouse. A world of KFC, Prospero’s Books, Rock Around the Clock, the World Café, and Blockbuster Video.
So what, you may well ask, things change, right? They certainly do. In fact, out of the 288 retail units that made up the town centre in 2008, 164 have changed – a whopping 57% of premises.
The changes to floorspace tell the clearest story. Obviously, the vacancy rate has doubled, but it is perhaps surprising that the food and beverage sector is static (the apparent drop attributable to recent Covid closures), as is the services sector, despite all those beauty parlours. Meanwhile, convenience shopping is up, which underscores the role of the town centre as resource for the local community.
However, Crouch End is plainly no longer a convincing destination for comparison shopping. Online shopping is ascendant, and numbers are dropping, fast. For example, in 2020 there are 6 womenswear/menswear outlets. But in 2008 there were 19: Leila, Broadway, Roxanne, Verso, Saphari, Powder, Under Grace, Lucy Backhouse, In Theory, Baby Ceylon, Sherriff, Me Me, Factory Outlet, Scarecrow, Mirror Mirror, Rhōda, Change of Heart, Tailor at the Tannery, Cult Clothing. For many years, the survival of a core of comparison shopping has been viewed as essential to town centre sustainability. It seems we’re about to find out how true that is.
And the largest growth? Leisure. Up now to 20% of floorspace, with the Hornsey Town Hall arts centre still to come. It seems the Crouch End USP of the food and beverage sector is morphing into a wider leisure offer.
Alas, problem areas like the central stretch of Tottenham Lane are worsening. For example, retail uses that are officially identified as detrimental, such as bookies, fast food takeaways, charity shops, nail bars, etc. now account for 16 units (30%) between the clock tower and the Queens. In 2008 it was 10 (18%).
Lessons? The strength of Crouch End is an entrepreneurial spirit that allows things to evolve. Weaknesses? For sure, the lack of footfall, – somehow we need to widen the catchment area and encourage current visitors to hang around. The threat is obvious, and online, and the opportunity for improvement? – perhaps, (a) improved public realm, (b) better communications, and (c) a greater pull/visitor attraction. One out of three may have to do.
As a rule we close the report with positive news, though somehow forced optimism doesn’t feel quite right given the circumstances. Nevertheless, the Hornsey Town Hall project should complete before long, with the Square re-opening for summer 2021, and the arts centre in March/April 2022. This will help.
Meanwhile, there are frequent assertions in the media that the emergency will accelerate pre-existing trends. Predictions of a renaissance for suburban centres are being made: a new reality of increased local economic activity bolstered by home working and dispersed and ad hoc office development. It is too early to tell of course, but the argument for a more mixed and more local economy is well taken. And perhaps Crouch End is well placed? The ongoing survey already identifies a town centre reliant on hyper-local convenience consumption, backed with a growing leisure and services sector.
Policies should reflect these realities, identifying the local USP, and seek to anticipate trends, such as the expansion of the local office and co-working sector. Threats, such as permitted development and wholesale conversions of shopfronts to residential must be tightly controlled. Whatever changes are afoot, the town centre remains the heart of Crouch End and its wellbeing a priority for neighbourhood planning.