Standing Up for the Little Guy

Louisa Burden on how Glasgow City Council is letting down small businesses

One of the ways freshers are seduced by Glasgow University is its location in the West End: proximity to the cute and quirky independent vintage shops, the second-hand book shops packed to the ceilings with yellowing novels and hidden gems, and coffee shops that are as good for your stomach as your Instagram feed. This eclectic mix of independent stores in the area is celebrated throughout the year with the Gibson Street Gala, the Queen Margaret Drive Street Festival, and the West End Festival itself, all of which are testament to the pride in which locals and retailers alike place in their community. Described as having ‘unique character’ on the People Make Glasgow website, it’s safe to say that Glasgow’s West End is a jewel in the cities’ touristic crown.

But for all their boasts that the West End was voted ‘Best Neighbourhood in UK & Ireland’, Glasgow City Council do little to protect its smaller retailers, the very businesses that make the West End what it is. The council’s main concern seems to be making money off those that give the area its unique charm, ruling in favour of big business and taking decisions that seem to hit independents the hardest. Recently, the owners of the famous University Cafe on Byres Road have come out and said that they may have to close, one year before they celebrate their centenary year of trading. This is due to new parking regulations requiring businesses to pay a yearly sum of £700 up front to park near their shops. On top of this, members of the public will now have to pay to park on Byres Road, prompting worries of a drop in footfall. These measures are the latest in a number of changes that have made life more difficult for small traders, such as having to pay fees of up to £120 a month for a Business Improvement District, an initiative that carries out social media marketing for the entire area.

Sadly, the University Cafe’s predicament is nothing new. Over the last five years the businesses on Otago Lane (home to Voltaire and Rousseau, Mixed Up Records, and Tchai Ovna House of Tea) have been fighting plans for a redevelopment that would see their iconic establishments displaced to make room for four townhouses and 45 flats. Approval for the development was granted in October last year; the council do not seem phased by the backlash that these plans have sparked. Cup, which opened as a cafe on Byres Road in 2010, was told in 2014 that it would not be granted planning permission to continue trading as a food and drink outlet. Local baker Stefan Spicknell tried to move his premises to the top end of Byres Road, only to find that he would have to pay around £70,000 a year in rent and rates; the premises have now been taken over by the high-street booksellers Waterstones. No surprises, then, that time and time again decisions are made in favour of those with the most money.

The public support of the University Cafe is strong; as has been the long-standing support for the establishments on Otago Lane. Within a few days of the announcement being made, social media was full of anecdotes about the eatery as people spoke of childhood memories, dates and family outings to get the famous Italian ice cream, or a chip supper. It’s clear that locals value what the West End has to offer, and are aware of how much a part independent businesses play – the issue is that Glasgow City Council does not. With Byres Road’s rents being some of the highest in the city, any additional expenses on top of rent will hit small retailers hard. Pret a Manger reportedly paid £100,000 to open up shop at the start of this year – a price that no start-out independent could afford. The old Santander unit was therefore always going to go to big business.

Despite all this though, Byres Road is almost at full occupancy, bucking the recent trend of struggling high streets. After the Starbucks next door, the new Pret is still only the second national coffee shop chain on the street. Though the number of chains may slowly be rising, Byres Road continues to be dominated by independent stores –  some admittedly more ‘unique’ than others – something that is pretty special at a time where across the country 15 shops a day would shut, and the number of new openings has fallen to the lowest level it has been in five years. What is sure though is that Glasgow’s independent businesses can’t survive on public awareness alone – there need to be measures put in place to support both long-established traders, and those new to the area, if the West End’s ‘unique character’ is to prevail.

[Louisa Burden]

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