As we City residents know, one of the greatest pleasures about shopping in London is not fighting the gauntlet of Oxford Street and elbowing one’s way into stores that can be found in the average British high street. It is turning a corner and finding seemingly hidden backstreets with quirky shops, uncovering unique wares and seeking out specialist stores that stock objects that can be found nowhere else in the world.
A bibliophile will tell you that just off Charing Cross Road can be found a tranquil side street with Victorian shop fronts that will take you back to Dickensian London in an instant. Cecil Court, which dates back to the seventeenth century, hosts the largest concentration of antiquarian book, map and print sellers, gallery owners and antique dealers in the West End. It adds to the charm of our nation’s tourist hub and brings a unique offering to residents and visitors alike. Whether you buy or not, the enjoyment of browsing the shops, soaking in the history and learning a little bit about the ancient trades that have built London over the centuries makes the tenants of Cecil Court earn their keep.
But this valued thoroughfare is in danger.
Two shops in Cecil Court have gone out of business already this year and two antiquarian map sellers have also been lost from central London. Along with other businesses, Cecil Court traders have received transitional business rate relief over the past four years. But this has now ceased, resulting in an increase of approximately 35 per cent which will rise to 75 per cent.
Until a recent u turn, the Chancellor had planned to increase business rates by 5 per cent after pegging increases to RPI inflation back in September, before the recession had begun to bite and before RPI had tumbled to zero. The Chancellor will now implement a 2 per cent rise this year, allowing payments for the remaining 3 per cent to be spread between 2010 and 2012.
But for the shopkeepers of Cecil Court, struggling with the cold winds of recession already, any increase will wipe out their tiny profit margin. As Tim Bryars, Secretary of the Cecil Court Association said, ‘For some years transitional rate relief softened, masked even, what the full impact of the policy of exaggerated business rates would be. We grumbled at small rises, from 5-15%, but absorbed them. Then, with no limit this year, my bill rocketed. In 2009-2009 I paid a total of £4325.72; this year I’m paying £7696. My rateable value, based loosely on rent, is £16000 and the multiplier is 0.481 – in other words nearly half of my rent again.’
Shopkeepers are now pressing for increased business rate relief to ensure that small businesses can stay alive and I have helped in the campaign by making strong representations to the Chancellor and raising the profile of this issue on BBC London.
I was a small businessman myself before I entered parliament and can understand the commercial arguments against the unique booksellers of Cecil Court. But to many they do not provide merely a variety of shopping outlets. They give value far beyond that by contributing to our tourist offering and keeping alive the historical tales that London’s streets have to tell. Wouldn’t it be a shame if Cecil Court became yet another alleyway of chain coffee shops and fast food outlets? For bibliophiles, history wonks and London lovers alike, we must keep our specialist streets alive.