I’ve lived in Chippenham since 2006 and with the new ward boundaries my house now sits snuggly on the border between Monkton, Hardenhuish, and Hardens & Central Wards. I chose to stand for Hardens & Central ward partly because it covers the town centre area.
As Liam Neeson might say
what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career
So firstly this isn’t a manifesto, and I don’t have a magic wand. However here are some of the skills and experience I have that at least give me a better understanding than most of the challenges facing the high street.
My Retail business experience
It’s very ‘un-British’ to talk your about your achievements, but if I don’t do this how will you know I have experience relevant to revitalising Chippenham High Street post COVID? All of this has been achieved in partnership with my wonderful and creative wife Diana. If the next section all seems a bit me, me, me…. then please skip down the page to ideas for Chippenham Town centre.
Starting and Running our own shop
Matthew with jay rayner
We set up and ran our own shop and cafe for five years in Cirencester. During this time we were featured on the One Show with Jay Rayner, named in both Time Out and Lonely Planet’s Top 5 destinations to eat out in the Cotswolds. Won Small Business of the year, and when our road was closed for four months for road works, ran an innovative PR campaign that saw us beat several PR agencies to PR campaign of the year with a street reopening party. We were regularly visited by multiple- celebrities including former Bond Girls and England Football Captains.
I was even presented a small business award by Dragons’ Den start Theo Paphitis.
Over ten years we’ve opened three pop-up shops in Bath for short spaces of time sometimes taking the keys on a Friday, painting the shop through the night to open on a Monday. The idea each time was for a short planned opening at busy seasonal times.
Selfridges, Harrods, Liberty, Harvey Nichols and John Lewis
We’ve supplied and dealt with buyers from all of the large luxury London Stores, but always on our own terms. If the T&Cs become too onerous we’ve said a fond farewell. We’ve created centre-pieces for Selfridges and John Lewis Oxford Street, and a window display for Liberty London.
I’ve been at trade fairs and markets all over the country from Olympia to Cheltenham Food festival.
I’ve stood at market stalls from Ivy Lane School fete to 10 years at Bath Christmas market as one of the busiest and most popular chalets in the market – often with a ukulele in hand, though i’m not sure if that’s entirely in my favour. The point being to add a bit of theatre to the proceedings. I might look a bit ridiculous but it got me onto ITV West-country News on the opening night!
We now run as a manufacturing business with over 400 independent retailers on our own wholesale mailing list and online sales all over the county. In Chippenham we’ve supplied Allington Farm shop since 2006.
Though we started from home in Chippenham our manufacturing has been based in Corsham since 2009 when we custom built a small ‘factory’ unit there.
I even wrote a book on our retail experiences of setting up and running our own shops, cafe, pop-up shops and market stalls called ‘How to make money selling chocolates’. It might sound a mercenary title given my sustainability views, but it was really the story of our retail experiences, the things we got right and the mistakes we made, to help others wanting to start their own retail business avoid losing their shirt in the process!
Anyway… enough about me..!
So why do so few Independents open in the Town Centre?
We ourselves looked at several locations in Chippenham Town centre when we wanted to open a shop in 2008/9 including Emery Gate shopping centre. It’s often been stated that business rates are the big problem. Whilst that’s true to an extent, with small business rates relief it doesn’t apply to to many small shops, particularly if they aren’t part of a chain and it’s the only shop.
For me the real issue is rental levels. Rental levels at the centre of Chippenham High Street are as expensive as those in prime locations in nearby Bath. When we first looked we thought there must be some mistake, surely that’s to buy the shop?
But as Mark Twain said* –
Get into land, they aren’t making any more of it!
*I think this was Mark Twain, though many quotes are attributed to him!
And that’s the problem. Our retail economy works on an extractive rental model that ties up investment in property making money for investors without them having to actually do anything very much. It’s a terrible model that makes wealth for the few.
Even today the multiple units that are available to lease from 36k – to 50k+ per year are offered on 10 year leases with 5 year upwardly only rent reviews. I’m sure they are negotiable, but who would be mad enough to take on a unit on those terms! Add in minimum wage, pensions payments, full repair and maintenance leases, insurance that won’t cover COVID. It will take a very brave entrepreneur with very deep pockets to take on that challenge.
Alas the only people that did take on those leases were debt fuelled businesses bundled up and sold on to extract every last penny from the pension funds. Oh did I mention pension funds? Because that’s the other side of the coin. As property sits on an investment company’s balance sheet, it’s often owned or part owned by pension funds. Often those funds are happier to see the units sit empty than see their balance sheets devalued.
Investment is a relationship between a shared present and a common future. Is locking that investment in property with profits going to pension funds the best model for society?
So we have exactly the same situation Post-Covid as we didn’t post financial crash 2009. Yet the owners of these properties hardly seem to have moved their positions at all. Perhaps offer the odd unit for charitable use, or an easy in lease. But hardly any difference. And as we saw then politicians are now urging us to go out and spend our savings to keep the economic system on the road.
So why doesn’t the council do something about this?
Well as I myself saw back in 2008/9 the problem is for the most part the council doesn’t own or lease the town’s shops or shopping centres. Consequently there is little it can do to influence rents. It is perhaps surprising that landlords haven’t become more flexible in their approach. In many cases if a building is owned by a pension fund then HMRC rules apply that the rent must be at market level. So unless the market collapses, and it hasn’t because property supply will have to far outstrip demand for that to happen, then we end up stuck in a vicious circle.
What could landlords do differently?
Whilst rent free periods can help a little they’re not really a solution. I’ve also tried step rentals. This seems attractive but the reality is business turnover doesn’t grow in the idyllic path that stepped rents do as we’ve more than seen in the last year.
Some landlords offer a turnover based rental. In my experience this is perhaps the fairest model, but it does lead to your landlord breathing down your shoulder and watching you like a hawk. It can lead to tensions if your business isn’t open every hour of the day and night!
Should we partially convert the shopping centre to accommodation?
A tricky one this… As the planning rules have been relaxed it is now much easier to get a change of use and convert buildings such as shopping centres to flats. But is this the best use of those buildings for the community? In the London borough of Croydon they now have some of the smallest flats in the country. One block contains flats of only 10 sq metres, nowhere near the minimum spacing standards of 37 sq metres. Others have high levels of crime and callouts. We’ve already seen with the new Olympiad car park how that can work out at night.
Class ‘E’ properties that includes gyms, creches, offices, shops, banks and restaurants, might end up turning into a new generation of slum housing. None required to offer outside space, now they will only be required to offer windows and meet minimum space standards.
The new zonal planning system will take planning decisions away from communities and hand them to regional boards stuffed with developer party donors. Residents are effectively gagged from opposing unsuitable developments, and will only be able to input into five-year development plans drawn up by crony boards.
Could the Council buy Shops or the Shopping centres?
Technically it could be possible for the council to borrow money and buy a shopping centre such as Emery gate. It would be a huge decision and one that would need very careful consideration. Many councils have done this recently in an attempt to reinvigorate failing town centres. Some have been accused of paying over the odds for failing assets.
I believe a decision like this would require a lot of input from the community possibly via panels or citizens assemblies. It would be important to consider whether it would follow the variation of the existing models of extracting rental value to fund the loan with the council replacing the investment company, or perhaps a more radical approach is taken for community good.
I’m not proposing the council should buy shops or shopping centres, but it’s certainly an idea worth discussing post COVID.
so what could we do differently?
As TED talks would say … Here are some ideas for Chippenham town centre worth spreading. I’m not promising I can implement these but they are ideas i’d like to encourage and pursue….
Library of Things
Started two years ago in London it’s now a replicable model. If everyone consumes at the same rate as the UK we’d need 3.5 planets to sustain us!
Borrow everything from a steam cleaner to a pasta maker. It would help build a Circular Chippenham economy.
Affordable and convenient, socially connecting, and kinder to the planet.
Something we explored in the Chippenham Neighbourhood Plan economic topic group last year. Now more relevant than ever in a post-covid zoom environment. Workers from different companies share an office space. Perhaps renting for just a few hours. High speed internet access office facilities, and most importantly a coffee and social area allowing employees from different companies to share ideas and socialise. Fostering a potential creative hub in Chippenham.
Another idea we explored in the Chippenham Neighbourhood Plan Economic topic group. Incubator units are easy in pre-fitted units to allow new businesses to experiment without setup costs or onerous leases. It could include food production kitchens, IT based units, small manufacturing. Links could be established with mentors to offer advice. Lackham college is already establishing some of these.
As someone that looked at more cow-sheds in fields than most around Chippenham when looking to move our business out of the home kitchen in 2008, an incubator unit would have been ideal.
Wouldn’t it be great to see local students from Wiltshire college able to try business ideas in the town centre. Perhaps on an easy in – easy out three month period.
Different skill elements could be brought together – for example graphic design students from WIltshire college (who i’ve previously worked with shown left) – could help with branding & marketing.
Supporting Upcycling Businesses
I was really pleased to see that Refashion My Town are opening in Chippenham on April 12th. A couple of years ago we gave a talk on sustainability in chocolate at the zero waste pop up shop run by MAD about Waste. The first Chippenham upcycle fashion show was held. Wouldn’t it be great if this became an annual fashion show, sparking a revolution in the way we view fashion? Chippenham could be come a hotbed of upcycle fashion designers.
I worked on the Neighbourhood plan last year and wrote policies to support the circular economy in Chippenham. This is the perfect example.
Now all over the world Repair Cafes offer a community facility to brng things for repair. You’ll find tools and materials as well as expert volunteers.
I noticed that pre-Covid a Repair Cafe was about to open in Chippenham and it’s certainly an enterprise I would support. As a society we throw away a huge amount of materials with a huge amount of embedded energy and resources. As we work to tackle Climate change we need to keep more materials in use in the economy. It doesn’t compete against professional repairers and can help to encourage that network.
Chipperoo or Delivernam
Business has now made a step change to online that’s unlikely to reverse. At the same time we have a revolution in small electric delivery vehicles from bicycles to electric Tu-Tuks. Perhaps we can join the two together with a local Chipperoo or Delivernam delivery service? It would need thinking through as to whether it was a local shop online hub offered at minimal cost for the community, or simply a bookable delivery service for local businesses. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Local deliveries could be made on small electric cargo bikes from medicines from the pharmacy to local fruit and Vegetables. It could be particularly useful for older people or those still shielding wanting to shop local but reluctant to venture into town. It could perhaps even include the local library?
Busking Code of Conduct
Not exactly a new idea – but if you’ve ever considered busking in Chippenham it’s actually quite hard to find anyone that understands what’s required. My children wanted to busk to raise funds for cancer research a couple of years ago, but bounced rather aimlessly between helpful council officials who couldn’t answer the question. By which time they could have just done it.
In Bath it’s simple, there’s a downloadable code of conduct – places you can busk, you can busk for 1/2 hour in one spot, shouldn’t repeat the repertoire, can’t ask for money but people can donate, volumes kept low enough so you can’t hear 50 feet away.. etc No need to contact the council.
Chippenham may never be the hot bed of busking that the tourist city of Bath is. But budding youngsters to schools and community choirs could perform without red tape and tying up council time. Win win!
More ideas to come…..