We will be culturally and economically poorer if we don’t protect small businesses
When Hackney Carnival was cancelled, just 48 hours before it was due to take place, Hackney Greens joined the calls from community groups and local buseinesses to reverse the cancellation. Along with my fellow Green Councillor, Alastair Binnie-Lubbock, we challenged this decision, but the Council considered it inappropriate to continue with the event during a period of national mourning.
The Council later stated that contracts would be honoured (predominantly private companies), those with pitches for the day would be reimbursed and offered alternative pitches at local markets, with unused food distributed via a charity. But this didn’t go even part of the way to making good really large losses.
Alongside the artists that weren’t able to perform, the biggest losers were local businesses like pubs and cafes on the carnival route, some of which had been preparing for the event for months with stocks of food and drink, well over their usual quota for the weekend.
Local businesses told me how hard things have been during Covid and how optimistic they were that this weekend would finally deliver a decent opportunity.
Of course, this period of mourning is not the only event to have thoroughly threatened the viability of local and small businesses. Brexit and the fall-out is cited as a major and unsurmountable issue by many small traders. Facing an especially hard time are pubs due to recruitment issues – particularly for chefs because of visa restrictions. I started looking into local training offers but this is not going to help in the short term and also does not solve the unsustainably low wages in hospitality. It is an incredibly tough trading reality and the savvy of people I speak to is really a display of determination that one can only admire and respect. But admiration doesn’t pay invoices, and respect doesn’t retain customers.
One pub I spoke to also commented that the hot summer meant people spent less time in the pub, preferring to go to local supermarkets to buy drinks and go to the park: another climate crisis casualty!
Pubs are more than just pubs, of course – they are an institution, yet we are losing them at a rate of knots. Clever campaigns have found ways of keeping them open like nominating them as an Asset of Community Value (ACV).The scheme gives the Council additional reasons to reject any proposal involving loss of the pub, for example. Around Hackney it’s all too clear to see what were once pubs now privately developed into poky flats that are still extortionately out of reach for anyone on an average salary.
We are all concerned about what will happen to energy bills in the coming months, but it is especially worrying when you are running a business and realistically just can’t do anything about reducing the energy needed to just trade.
Additionally, businesses run by local people in private rented housing are being squeezed out. A two-bed property in Hackney, privately rented in April last year, cost you, on average, £1,650 – and rents are only increasing.
Businesses are doing their best; they are adapting but only just surviving. In this context, could the council not have found a way for the carnival to run? It could have been done respectfully, but no argument was brooked.
Small businesses are the backbone of the independent high street and are the sole income of hundreds of thousands of people. Local businesses also play a key role in the move to a net zero economy, and they want to do so.
If we don’t start taking the challenges of the sole trader, the stall holder, and the one-person band seriously, the only viable businesses we’ll have in our communities and on our high streets will be anonymous chains with their centralised contracts and homogeneous offerings. Clearly, we will all be poorer, culturally and economically, if we allow that to become the case.
Zoë Garbett is a Green Party Councillor in Hackney
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Image credit: Martin Addison – Creative Commons