The below is my attempt to put pen to paper some questions that have been going through my mind a lot lately. They’ve been going through my mind because I’ve been talking about them with people – in real life and on social networking sites and I’m yet to get any answers, so they are just that: questions. Some of the questions I am asking are based on assumptions. I flatter myself that they’re fairly reasonable assumptions, widely held or based on some evidence at the very least but I am quite happy to have these assumptions questioned too.
I start with this disclaimer and I will do my damndest to point out the assumptions I have made for two reasons. Firstly, I am not a journalist* – I have not researched what I am about to say, other than asking people who I thought might be able to provide some answers what they thought – these are my thoughts, my questions, my assumptions and, as a result, form a loose hypothesis at best. They are not in any way fact and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that I was presenting a closed book. Secondly, because this is a hypothesis I would like someone to question my reasoning – I am keenly aware that the thoughts below are heavily weighted by my own liberal bias and that I am not a small business owner and I don’t have the full picture. I don’t even have a fraction of the picture. I am writing this because I have not had any conclusive answers to my questions and I want to know more. If you know more, or you think you can find someone who can find out more, I would be delighted to hear from you or them, either in the comments section below or via email.
I write a blog about Levenshulme, a district of South Manchester. If you want to know some of my personal reasons why I do that thenyou can read this, or you can just read the blog itself and draw your own conclusions about why it’s a place I’m passionate about. In brief, Levenshulme, is an area of massive social deprivation with a lot of problems but it is also blessed with an incredibly creative and politicised community of intelligent, well meaning people.
That community is growing and Levenshulme is starting to gain a reputation as a creative community hub and increasingly people are starting to think about ways that Levenshulme could be improved. The blog I write is essentially non-political and I have made a deliberate decision to steer it in the direction of being as politically neutral as possible (I bend this occasionally when I think something important needs documenting or publicising but I try to avoid it if I possibly can**) and for that reason this post is not on there. This is a blog post about Levenshulme - although I get the impression it could be about many places in the UK but this is the one that I live in and am most concerned about – and some of the hard decisions I think we as a community need to address as that population continues to grow. This is, it is at heart, a political (with a small p) post.
As of today, the stretch of road a 1.2 miles long which makes up Levenshulme’s high street (A6 between the two “Welcome to Levenshulme” signs) has 31 fast food takeaways (I have not counted anything which calls itself a restaurant but will concede that it’s a pretty fine line in both directions). More are rumoured to be opening in the coming weeks. Assumption number one coming up: that is a high number of takeaways for a single district. I’ve not researched this – I’m sure someone out there would be able to tell me if I’m right on a takeaway per head of population basis or similar – but certainly the perception amongst the people I talk to and see talking on Facebook and similar is that that is high and that is – assumption number two - a problem.
Here’s another assumption: commercial rents in Levenshulme are higher than average. That’s one I have tried to do a little research into (because I know people who know things and they tell me stuff and tell me where to look – basically the laziest form of research) and, sadly, been unable to reach a conclusion. It’s hard to establish a baseline – hardly any of the units for rent in Levenshulme are advertised publicly and of those there are currently none which are comparable in size and position to those in the areas we might want to measure against. If you can find any then please do let me know. I spoke to a local agent and who said that retail units in Levenshulme rent for a little higher than Longsight or Gorton, a little less than Chorlton and a lot less than the city centre. That seems reasonable, although out of step with what existing traders have said. So assumption number three comes with a coda: Levenshulme commercial rents are probably higher than average but it’s hard to establish that as fact.
Some other assumptions I think we will have to live with for now are:
- Takeaways sell a reasonably cheap product at a low profit margin
- Takeaways cost a relatively high amount of money to run in terms of staff (on low wages but working long hours)
- When lots of businesses are competing for the same market (lovers of fast food) in a small geographical area turnover in those businesses will be lower than when they are the single supplier.
So it’s pretty obvious how all that comes together – lots of takeaways are blighting Levenshulme high street despite the fact that they are surely making hardly any money. That’s the issue that dominates most of the conversations I am privy to about our high street. There are other businesses models that people ask essentially the same question about (mobile phone unlocking services or internet cafes, for instance) and other issues (waste disposal, unkempt shop fronts) and I know people feel plenty of passion about them but this is the one that has struck me and made me want to ask a question.
At first I asked my friends casually and got the answer that I’d half expected, that I’d pretty much assumed myself – there’s something dodgy going on behind the scenes. What? No one knew. No one had any evidence and no one knew how to ask.
So I used the Twitter account of my blog to ask the question – I even asked some local business owners and associations if they knew anything. I asked residents through social networking sites and estate agents in person. I even asked a school friend who works in the planning department of another city and who lives in an area with a similar question hanging over the feasibility of its retail space. ***
No one knew.
No one knew how it was possible but no one had any evidence of anything improper going on. I spoke to people who know the issues, people who I trust, who trust me and in confidence and I got nothing. My school friend told me that it was highly unlikely that any of the possible scenarios I suggested would happen in a high street place when there are plenty of cheaper places for illegal activity to take place far away from prying eyes.
So this is my conclusion: nothing dodgy is happening in the takeaways on Levenshulme high street.
But, after all of that asking, I was still left with my question. Why, if no one can make any money from them, are all these businesses sprouting up on Levenshulme high street?
So here’s my theory – it comes from my liberal heart and it’s based on all the assumptions above and it could be wrong but if it’s right I think it raises much more important questions about the community that Levensulme is going to become and, having come to it I feel like it would be wrong to ignore it. Tell me I’m wrong, tell me I am a wishy-washy liberal and I need to get over it, tell me it’s the natural consequence of economic change – I just think that the very least a politically conscious community should be doing is asking the following questions:
What if the people running these chicken shops aren’t making any money?
What if they are staffed by family members who are paid nothing and at the close of business they have earned far less than minimum wage?
And what if that is the best available option for that – significant and important – part of our community and the people who run these businesses are prepared to take a massive financial risk in order to do what’s best for their families?
And what if they have been left with no other options by an impenetrable benefits system and an education system that is not designed for them to get the best out of?
What if they come from other countries because a below the poverty line existence in Levenshulme is far, far better than their existence in their native countries?
What if other businesses move into our high street that can earn more money and force rent up and make the profits for these businesses even lower, maybe even force them to close and lose their livelihoods?
What happens to our fellow Levenshulme residents then?
I don’t know if I’ve leaped ahead with my thinking. I don’t know if I’ve made too many assumptions in getting there to make my questions even plausible. I certainly don’t want to preach – for the record I don’t like having a high street full of takeaways – I don’t think it looks good physically and I’d much rather have a cool high street with craft shops, grocers and delis but my hypothesis is that if we push that into happening (and, yes, I know that the question of if we even can do that is a whole other megablogpost) we could potentially be undermining the lives of a significant proportion of our community and creating (or deepening, depending on your perspective) a “them and us” culture that goes against one of the main reasons I love Levenshulme.
A little adendum about comments:
I have published some comments below but stupidly forgot to turn off anonymous comments before I posted this. This lead to a few comments that I strongly suspect the commenter would not want to be published under their own name and, similarly, I cannot publish them on a blog which is own and clearly associated with me - I don't know the law on these things but I'm not willing to risk publishing potentially libellous comments about the place where I live. I know many local traders and value their co-operation with my stupid questions. So if your comment is not published that is why - please understand I am not trying to silence anyone, just attempting to stop my own voice from being compromised. I will try and respond to the comments I have published in the fullness of time but for now I must get back to my actual job!
*that’s why there are asterixes (asteri? SEE?!) like this – a real journalist has no need of such things and can properly construct a sentence too.
**There is a well-populated Facebook group for Levenshulme where matters political as well as trivial are discussed sensitively and intelligently. Sometimes there have been issues which I have been made aware of which need to reach outside the confines of Facebook or need a bit of longer form writing that can be linked into the group.
*** I didn’t – you should note with a wry and judgemental eyebrow – ask any of the owners of the takeaways. For all my questions and the worrying conclusion I meet at the end of this piece I am fully aware that I am as much of the problem as anyone else. Possibly more, you might say, since in writing this I put myself in the position of passively levelling accusations of a growing “them and us” culture when I am already subscribing to it.