Trebled rents threaten shops’ futures

March 9th, 2011 | by Ben Edwards

You do not have to walk far along Well Street market to see that it is one of the most deprived areas in London.

Boarded-up shops have become commonplace on Well Street. Photo: Ben Edwards.

Shops stand empty, their steel grey shutters permanently pulled down.

Faded ‘for sale’ signs hang limply over worn out storefronts.

Instead of the once thriving market where Tesco founder Jack Cohen set up his first stall, a lone man stands with his hands in his pockets selling second-hand furniture from the back of an old van.

In the last few months, another three shops have closed their doors for good.

But this is not just because business in historic Well Street has fallen on hard times, it is because the landlord – a charity set up nearly 400 years ago to help the poor and disadvantaged in East London – has decided to increase rents by 200 per cent.

Up to 25 independent shopkeepers could now face eviction if they do not meet the charity’s demands.

St John Hackney Joint Estates Charity, which has ties with the Church of England, said it was simply bringing its rents in line with market rates.

But councillor Ian Rathbone said the decision to raise rents would cause more shops to go bust and risk ripping the heart out of the local community.

He said: “Some people who are paying £6,000 a year are now being asked to pay £18,000 – that’s such a huge hike when your margins are already being squeezed the whole time.

“This is a poor area so these shopkeepers are not making huge sums of money, but it’s enough to keep them going. If they’ve got to pay a huge rent then it’s going to put them out of business.

“This place is a family street with a great community spirit. People fear that will be destroyed if the landlords start charging extortionate rents.”

Noorjehan Baiyat has been running Trust Shoes, a shoe shop, with her family for 12 years.

Last week she was served with a seven-day eviction notice ordering her to leave if they refuse to sign the new lease.

She said: “We only just keep ourselves going because it’s a family business and we all work here. We can’t afford to pay £18,000 a year for rent.

“They think we should be earning extra money by renting out the flat upstairs, but we need that for storage.

“I’ve seen so many shops come and go on this street because of how difficult it is to do business here. The charity should be helping us all out, not kicking us out.”

As well as increasing rents, the charity has also served a series of dilapidation orders – demanding that shopkeepers pay for repairs despite the charity previously promising to fund it seven years ago.

George Edwards, owner of health food shop Wholemeal, has worked in Well Street for nearly 30 years and says the charity has let down the community.

He said: “We’ve served this community very well over the years. It’s out of order what the charity is doing.

“We can’t afford to pay £40,000 repair bills, it will finish us all off.”

Mr Edwards said the charity’s new agents Lamberts were behaving like “bully boys”.

In a letter to the charity, Mr Rathbone accused the agents of harassing local businesses and causing unnecessary stress.

More than 5,000 residents have signed a petition protesting against the charity’s actions

But Geoff Taylor, chairman of the charity, said it was prepared to negotiate with the shopkeepers.

He said: “As we’ve kept saying all along, the £18,000 figure is an invitation for them to come back to us with a professional adviser and negotiate a fair price.

“Putting up rents to a level that nobody can afford is a mug’s game. But our agents who are experts on the local property market tell us this is a reasonable rent.”

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