“All business is gone. It’s getting worse and worse everyday.” Pawan Chawla, director of the shop Designer Baby on Narrow Way in Hackney, looks outside the window and shakes his head. “You can ask anybody around here. The difference is striking,” he continues, now pointing to the other side of the road.
“We see nearly 50 or 60 people less everyday. If we used to get 100 customers a day, now it’s only 40 or so. It used to be a busy street, but now it’s just dead,” observes Muhammad Saleem, standing behind the till of Unlocked and Linked on Mare Street.
“We are bored and need more business if we want to keep a decent lifestyle,” he points out. Two young ladies with pushchairs walk by the shop without looking in, maybe discouraged by the rain. Saleem sighs: “And off they go… This is what happens all the time nowadays. Nobody stops to enter in our shops anymore.”
What worries Chawla and Saleem is not the economic crisis or the opening of Sainsbury’s near their local shops, but pedestrianisation.
Since the beginning of the month, Narrow Way and Mare Street have been permanently pedestrianised, a decision taken by Hackney council in association with Transport for London (TfL) and the Greater London Authority (GLA), after a trial period of six months started in June 2013. The local traders claim that this has deeply affected their shop’s revenue, as the number of customers is constantly decreasing.
During peak hours, up to 150 buses used to drive through and stop on Narrow Way, but none of that is left now. The street is only accessible to cyclists and pedestrians, while the regeneration plan conceived by the council also includes the creation of a big fashion hub on Morning Lane, a stone’s throw away from this area. Even though the council’s decision is now probably irrevocable, on Narrow Way the complaints are still loud and persistent. Many complain that now that all the bus stops have been moved to Dalston Lane and Amhurst Road, the street has been transformed in a “cycling track”.
Chawla grumbles that now there are only “passers-by” walking on Narrow Way, and no customers. The proximity of the shops to various bus stops encouraged people to buy more, he argues, but now nobody has a reason to go to Narrow Way. Saleem also observes that there are not many attractions in the area, so people have no reason to choose to shop on this road.
On the other hand, cyclists and the Hackney Living Street group see the pedestrianisation of Narrow Way from a different perspective.
Brenda Puech is the co-ordinator of Hacking Living Streets, a group that promotes pedestrianisation and cycling tracks as part of a bigger London network . “Removing buses takes away a significant source of danger for pedestrians and creates a safe, enjoyable, unpolluted environment for shoppers,” she says. “It is difficult to say why local shops are losing business, as the streets are thronged with pedestrians.”
Figures released by TfL in a recent study seem to endorse her views, showing that pedestrians are the biggest spenders on the high street, while the number of Hackney’s residents who cycle to work has also tripled in the last 30 years (figures from the last three censuses, 1991, 2001 and 2011).
But Chawla, Saleem and other traders are also accusing the council of turning a deaf ear to their opinions. “During the trial period, we started a petition that finally showed that 90% of the traders on Narrow Way were opposed to the pedestrianisation. But the council never listened to us, they made their own reports,” protests Chawla. He adds that they were invited to the council meetings, but only to “tick some boxes” and they were never actually given an opportunity to be heard.
“During one of the meetings, Head of Regeneration, Andrew Sissons, said that there would be ‘casualties’ on the high street. If they knew that some shops would be put out of business, I really wonder why would they decide to make the street permanently pedestrianised anyway?” asks the director of Designer Baby.
Hackney council doesn’t agree with the traders’ impressions. In a statement they said that: “During a survey conducted for the council, independent specialists spoke to 48 businesses and a total of 960 residents, shoppers and visitors.
“In addition, Hackney council received separately comments from more than 310 residents, visitors and traders during community events, from online comments, emails and phone calls.”
Puech also points out that, when they held a stall to canvas opinion on Narrow Way an: “overwhelming majority of shoppers supported the scheme. During the pilot stage, at an event organised by Living Streets, there was a similar level of support demonstrated by shoppers.”
As confrontation between the council and the traders escalates, Chawla and his supporters are not going to throw in the towel. “It is not over yet,” he says. “We are contacting the MPs for Hackney and we are doing everything we can to get the buses back on Narrow Way. Soon we will have posters on our windows with a very clear message: the local mayor and his councillors are not welcome in our shops. They did not support us, and we want everybody to know that.”