The highs and lows of our high-streets

Tuesday 14th January 2020 08:05 EST

A report published by the British Retail Consortium has declared 2019 to be the worst year on record for retail businesses; and with good measure. In the recent past, several major retail brands have been closing down with a momentum that only makes one wonder. Bat an eye, and your lively high-end street is not itself anymore. Mothercare closed 79 of its last surviving lot of stores. Jewellery brand Links of London is set to close 15. British multinational retailer and clothing giant Debenhams is gasping for air and will pull down the shutters on 22 shops by the end of January. Bejam, a frozen food retailer that many South Asians have fond memories of, is now just that; a memory. Let us not forget Beales, which has already warned of being at the risk of collapsing.

The closures of these stores not only create a bout of unemployment, but come with severe consequences. There was a time when the high streets flourished with their thriving and complimentary retail shops. Now, these very stores in the major cities and towns of the UK, lie vacant or converted into charity stores. The once regularly frequented FMCG shops are now being replaced by eateries, fronts for gambling. What a disaster!

In other news, it is reported that Altrincham in Greater Manchester has succeeded in reviving its high street with an imaginative regeneration of its traditional market. The government plans to spend £3.6mn to boost over a 100 places with such initiatives. We all accept that the high streets ought to be nurtured and not abandoned.

There is no one source to pin the blame for the downfall of these streets, and especially FMCG outlets. One can blame Brexit and its affiliated political uncertainties. But the fall of these businesses began much before. Some say it is a natural phenomenon. At the same time, retailers like NEXT are reported to have shut off the downhill trend. There are also complaints from some retailers about the business rates or local council vehicle parking policies which result in pushing customers away. These may not be totally unfounded.

I owe a lot to my shopkeeping days, and cherish happy experiences. In 1968, We acquired our second shop in Burnt Oak, north-west London. It was a run-down green grocery store. We were able to convert it to a general store selling groceries, and later on Indian spices, pickles and much more. The business eventually converted into a small property portfolio. Let me tell you, there are many who have the same story as mine in this case.

Today, Asians, especially of Indian and East African backgrounds are acknowledged and respected as successful entrepreneurs. Now, there are several cash and carry, pharma distribution, care home and property groups, whose founders were once shopkeepers. They were also able to use shops as a ladder to financial success. Many Ugandan Asians who were forced to leave everything behind and driven out of their country by Idi Amin came to the UK and settled as shopkeepers.By 2002 it was estimated that Ugandan Asians had created 30,000 jobs in Leicester, which was one of the main cities where they settled in the early 1970s.

It was then that Margaret Thatcher had said that, “a new resilience derived from diversity can only strengthen Britain”.

50 years ago, the council housing estates were served very well, predominantly by East African Asians where the residents would frequent such shops. Sometimes to shop, sometimes to just talk – they were old and socially deprived. It was a genuinely developing community cohesion. There were other benefits too.

Most shopkeepers were able to live in or near the premises. While husbands and wives ran the stores together, their children study in nearby schools. The young ones were able to greet their parents who would be well-aware of their whereabouts. Such children grow up to be good students. They were looked after well, supervised well. Those generations grew up to be successful business owners we see today.

One of the most important disadvantage of the closure of shops, I believe, is the rise of youth vandalism. Back in the day, these retail stores would hire young boys and girls for part-time jobs of distributing newspapers, filling the shelves, in the mornings or during the weekends. With the culture of young children doing errands completely removed, and the stores dying down, the youth has sought to sell drugs and other nefarious substances to make pocket money.

In Leicester, Manchester and many towns and cities, the rundown areas, were marked for state-mandated regeneration were unable to get money from the government in the 1960s. Take Belgrave Road in Leicester for example. The East African people migrated to the UK in the 60s and in just 10-15 years, the road became a thriving high street. Rev Middleton, leader of Leicester City Council in 1968, had no hesitation to thank Indian businesses. It is our community that made Belgrave Road a cash cow for the city council.

This was repeated elsewhere too. Shopkeeper's children have become big entrepreneurs in various ways. In the late 1980s the Rockmans and Mars conducted a survey in the M25 area of greater London, where they found that some 70 per cent FMCG shops were run by Asians of Indian-origin and most of them had newsagent businesses within the shops amoung up to 40,000 businesses in total.

At that time, with the advent of Rupert Murdoch print media experienced tremendous transformation. In London area some four or five newspaper distributors which served thousands of shops. They would supply to small shops as well as big players and somehow the fees applied to independent news agents predominantly of Asian backgrounds.

During the time, a meeting was held at Karma Yoga House where nearly hundred of news agents were present including Virendra Patel, Vinod Nakarja, Shakti Shah and several others. The main agenda of the meeting was a unanimous belief that big wholesalers do not care for the problems of small newsagents about supply of newspapers, accounts queries and other issues. There was and there is a national organisation claiming to represent the independent news trade but at the meeting it was decided to launch a Newsagents Action Group (NAG). While it began well, power and influence of other organisations ensured that the unity among Asian news retailers was destroyed very soon.

Today, similar problems perhaps are affecting the pharmacy business and other activities. It is a fact that the government and the national media listened to much powerful groups and neglected the small players.

At one stage in the late 80s, BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce) was once a very successful enterprise. It was begun by a Pakistani banker backed by the Abu Dhabi government. But there were so many omissions that the government eventually closed it down.

But in its aftermath, private Indian banks like Mount Bank, Meghraj Banks, and some others, did not survive. To look back, they were very well managed and funded. Businesses by minorities are prominent. In some way to acquire understanding and decide whether to help them survive, we need to understand the loss is not only theirs, it is of the country as such.

British Asians, especially of Indian background are now well within the mainstream of British trade and commerce. We are grateful to the pioneers whose second and third generations are only flourishing.  There was a time when England was called the 'Nation of Shopkeepers', and Asians were called 'Corner Shopwalas'. Gone are the days when people joked if man went to the moon, there may be a corner shop run by a Patel there.

Shopkeepers are the thread and it is up to us as a nation, to make a beautiful necklace out of it.

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