Back when I was a little blonde girl, I used to play with dolls houses/ Sylvanian Families’ shops, and when these became too restricting I made my own abodes and SMEs out of spare shoe boxes. Plot-lines between the dolls/ badgers/ frogs and clowns unfolded daily, and even though ovens regularly doubled as beds for small animals, there was a place for everything and everything in its place. Now that I am all grown up (!), I frequently find myself doing the same thing with Birmingham when I can’t get to sleep.
The Big City Plan never ceases to yield a number of articles in each week’s Post or Mail, and because of the constant soap opera of town planning in our fair city (as if it is the opening sequence to Game of Thrones), it is impossible not to play doll’s houses with the map sometimes.
Recently, reports of a £50 million upgrade to The Mailbox emerged. We are getting a full-sized Harvey Nicks (yay), and a roof over our heads as we walk through the shops (which, as anyone who has had to endure the British weather during a winter routine puddle-dodge through The Mailbox can surely attest, is a good thing). It is throwing off the depression at being largely abandoned by the BBC and re-embracing the unique identity originally carved out for the former sorting office.
When I used to live near The Mailbox I always found it a little dispiriting to walk through the empty banks of shops and felt a bit sheepish when the news networks described it as ‘Upmarket’ and ‘Prestigious’ during the riots. Although I knew that The Mailbox and John Bright Street would eventually come into their own when the Station expansion and Metro were completed, and I’m glad things are getting back on track, I did not foresee the downside to the shift in city centre spending.
This weeks’ episode of the Brum saga (and for once I am not talking about Peaky Blinders) is the knock-on effect this will have on the shops of Corporation Street and the surrounding warren of lanes. Rex Johnson (the lovely, friendly CS-based jewellers’) delivered a worrying vox-pop revealing that the station/Metro road-works had been nothing short of disastrous for their business. I have always wanted Brum to have its own independent quarter (not just for knock-off pop-ups or market stalls) and I’m not alone but why can’t the Chamber of Commerce, the banks, the landlords and the business owners work together to make this happen? If Corporation Street/ Cannon Street and the rest are perfect places for small businesses (SMEs) and the ubiquitous chains are moving to the Bull Ring/ The Mailbox and Grand Central, there has to be a lowering of commercial rents to help these businesses to start up and thrive. I have seen too many small businesses here go under before they even had the chance to make an impact. And time and time again, high rent and low footfall is to blame.
There is no reason for Birmingham rates to creep ever closer to London’s extortionate commercial rates. And whilst the threat of a Saturday Strike for businesses last October did spur the Council and local groups to give support and to drop rents by a meagre 7.5%, I think 20% until the conditions improve would be a far more caring gesture. The 60% of expenditure that shopping provides to Birmingham would only increase if there was a diversity of services – this means independents.
Yes, having a Kiehls or a White Company shop in town is very nice, but nicer still is a town where shops run by local people can give our city a greater sense of community and service in a world increasingly held to ransom by the same twenty monopolising shop brands. A high street it is not. Let’s pull for the underdog and support Birmingham’s independent businesses – you’ll miss them when they’re gone!