Can our High Streets survive the pandemic?

During one week in lockdown, we spoke to local traders on Deptford High Street. What follows is snapshot of how many small local businesses are struggling to survive Covid

Deptford Highstreet. Pic: Isabelle Walker

By Niamh Houston, Caitlin Tilley and Isabelle Walker

It was a normal week in lockdown, and the usually bustling and vibrant Deptford High Street was quiet. Many of the shops were boarded up, and some seemed to have permanently closed down. Shoppers were few and far between, even during the lunchtime rush, and the shops that were open were almost empty. It was clear the high street had been hit hard by the pandemic, and on the day we took our snapshot – March 5 2021 – 102 of the 167 businesses were closed due to lockdown restrictions; that’s 61 per cent. 

While Covid has undoubtedly been a catalyst for the demise of local high streets, recent data suggests their decline started before the pandemic. As a result, cushioning the blow of this inevitable impact would require significant support from the government.

Multiple grants were made available by central government and distributed by local authorities to support businesses during Covid. The Small Business Grant Fund (SBGF) caters to small businesses such as those on Deptford High Street and involves a one-off payment of £10,000. The Local Restrictions Support Support Grant is for businesses that pay business rates to the council and have been forced to close by law. They cover sectors like non-essential retail and hospitality, and eligibility is decided by the government.

The Additional Restrictions Grant is for businesses who have been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions but may not have had to close so do not qualify for mandatory grants. Eligibility is not linked to paying business rates and so eligibility, defined by the council, is broader. This will differ from borough to borough. Are these grants enough to help businesses stay afloat?

Eastlondonlines spoke to some of the independent business owners on Deptford High Street to understand how they have been affected, the help they have received, and ultimately, if the government has done enough. Many of the people we spoke to received the SBGF, but felt this one-off payment was insufficient to support them through a year of Covid.

People feel grants have been unfairly distributed, raising concerns of a lottery effect coming into play; this has been compounded by a lack of communication from the council. While each person interviewed had a unique set of circumstances and individual perception of how supported they have felt by the government, they are all feeling the effect of Covid on their businesses.

51A, EasyTech , a phone shop

EasyTech open for click and collect only. Pic: Caitlin Tilley

Imran, the owner of the phone shop EasyTech said that his business has received nothing so far from the government. He said: “We applied for grants two months ago but they keep saying they’re going to let us know. We’re still waiting for their response.”

Even if they receive the money they have applied for, Imran says it won’t be enough. “We should be getting something better because our shop has been closed for a long time,” he said. “At the very least, they should cover our rent, plus the regular wages of the workers.”

He feels that the future of the business rests on how they perform after restrictions are lifted: “If the summer is not good, we’ll have to shut [the shop]. All our hopes are on when things go back to normal. If people come out and shop on the high street, then maybe we will be OK.”

51, AK Continental Foods, independent supermarket

AK Continental Foods shop. Pic: Caitlin Tilley

Khalil Wasiq, who works at AK Continental Foods, an independent supermarket selling Afro-Caribbean foods, said the state of the business was very bad. He said they had not received any financial support from the government, and felt like they had been very much left in the dark: “The council said ‘You can’t get grants because your shop is open.’ I said it doesn’t matter, people don’t have money, nobody’s coming.”

Although they considered closing, this wasn’t a viable option due to the loss of income if their fresh food expired. “The government should support us more, they should give us money,” he said. “It’s all bullshit. There’s been no profit. My savings are gone.”

27, Shaka Laka, hair and cosmetics shop

Lueqhe Ali, the shop’s owner. Pic: Caitlin Tilley

Lueqhe Ali, owner of hair and cosmetics retailer Shaka Laka said: “For the past 25 years I have been paying very high business rates, at £17,000 a year. In the first lockdown, we were closed for three months and I still had to pay the rent. The government gave me £25,000.”

“In the second lockdown, which was for three months, the government gave us £9,000. Ninety per cent of this money went on expenses such as my rates, my telephone, internet, the CCTV cameras which we have to pay while the shop is shut. We didn’t have the staff, it’s just been me and my wife, and we have a mortgage to pay,” he said.

“Since we’ve been allowed to open, we’re selling 10 per cent of what we usually would. It’s because what we sell is non-essential and people have to come out to get it. People are buying less cosmetic products as they aren’t leaving the house.

“While we were shut and I was COVID-19 positive, we applied for a £500 grant, but they [Lewisham Council] refused to pay because we didn’t apply within the application window, but I didn’t even know I could apply until it was too late.”

Despite his fallbacks, he tried to remain positive about the future. “This business is in our blood. We will get through this difficult time. Hardly any businesses in Deptford got grants, because they were partially open,” he said.

23, Prestige Textiles, fabric shop

Prestige textiles. Pic: Google street view

Nooria Hosseini, owner of fabric shop Prestige Textiles said: “A lot of people have really suffered, and a lot of businesses have gone bankrupt during lockdown, we’ve seen that firsthand in our area.” 

Nooria says that most of the shops of Deptford High Street have had to close their doors as a result of the pandemic. She has tried to adapt her textile business by operating on a click and collect basis, but doesn’t feel entirely hopeful about the future.

She was very concerned about the future of her business, and said: “I don’t know if we’ll be able to survive this, we’re getting less customers but we still have to pay the rent, so all we can do is keep going and try our best really.”

“God help us, I hope the government will allow businesses to go back to normal soon,” she added.

15, Maz Arcade, a discount shop

Maz, owner of the shop. Pic: Isabelle Walker

Masoud ‘Maz’ Husseini has owned his shop on Deptford High Street for 22 years. Two years ago, he opened Maz Arcade next door. He said: “I got the first grant of £10,000 in March. The business got affected and we had a few closures, but since the most recent lockdown from January, I have applied for more money three times.”

He expressed similar concerns about eligibility as others had: “They [Lewisham Council] tell me I’m not eligible but it doesn’t make any sense to me. When I ask why I’m not eligible, there’s no solid reason. There’s no telephone line where I can speak to someone and say Lewisham Council made me close the shop for two months. I paid my rent of £7,000 for these two months. I didn’t get anything. That is why I’m opening now to see how things are going.”

In regards to the money he was able to receive, he said: “The £10,000 wasn’t enough because we were closed for three months that time, and I still had to pay for my rent, the card machine, water and electricity. Then again, it got me through that period. It was hard, but I managed.This time, it’s been even worse. Some of the businesses on the high street got the grant when they were open, and we were fully closed and we didn’t get anything.”

“They could have told us why we didn’t get any more money. It just seems like they’re not bothered. I’m going to go through the local MP to see if they can help us. If it carries on like this then my business is not going to survive. I’m suffering. It’s going to really affect us in the long term.” he added.

127, Terry’s Discount, discount and hardware shop

Shop owner Terry. Pic: Caitlin Tilley

Terry Corne has owned his shop for 18 years, with his two cats by his side. Like others, he received an initial amount of money, and said: “I applied online and received £10,000 in the first lockdown, which I was grateful for. It all helps. I haven’t applied for any more because I’m just happy to be working. I stayed open throughout all the lockdowns apart from for two weeks. I was busy in the first lockdown.”

He seemed to have a positive outlook, and was confident that his shop would survive the pandemic: “We need to come out of lockdown so people can start trading again. I’m going to survive the pandemic because I have so many regular customers. I was going to do a click and collect service, but a lot of my elderly customers don’t know what that is.”

Ronald Hermann, market trader

Market trader Ronald Hermann. Pic: Isabelle Walker

Ronald Hermann has been running his market stall on Deptford High Street since he was 19 years old. He told us with confidence that the pandemic won’t stop him: “The business will absolutely survive, I’m a fighter.”

Having worked consistently through the last year, he believes that having got through the worst of it, he’s more than capable to carry it forward. He said: “Business has gone down, but it’s better to be doing something than nothing.”

He personally chose not to apply for any of the government grants for small businesses and said: “The mere fact I’m still able to be working would make me feel a bit greedy if I did apply, I’ll leave them to the people that need it.”

He did receive some support from the council in the form of rent reduction, and while he feels more could be done to support local businesses, he remains positive. “It’s never enough, but a little is always better than nothing.”

133b, Anchor Barber Shop

Barber Nico. Pic: Anchor Barbers

Nico at Anchor Barber Shop said: “We’ve had no customers at all at the moment, we’ve only been open a couple of months this whole year so it’s been the worst year we’ve had, but you’ve got to make everything into a positive. We had the opportunity to set up this new place and I don’t think we would have done that if it wasn’t for the pandemic.”

“We were comfortable where we were but we were looking to move and then the pandemic came along so we were able to focus on due to having less customers.” he added.

In terms of government support, he shared the same frustrations as others. He said “We haven’t received a lot of support and haven’t been able to get government funding because we are changing location. We were supposed to get £6,000 or something but it didn’t happen as no one was getting back to us, the council hasn’t been particularly helpful.” 

He has hopes for the future however, and says that his new shop will be finished next week. “I believe we’ll survive the pandemic though and I think we’ll go far, the new location is almost ready and it’s nicer.”  he said. He expressed frustration with the continuous in-and-out of lockdowns however, and said: “More money has been going on advertising on social media every time we open but then we close again and advertise so it feels like we’re going in circles. It’s like there’s a setback when it goes well.”

144, Tony’s Daily, Italian delicatessen

Tony’s Daily, open to the public. Pic: Caitlin Tilley

After working as a food buyer for hotels for 27 years, just before the pandemic hit, local resident Tony decided to take the plunge and open his own independent Italian food shop, selling authentic fresh produce. “I got lucky in a sense as a lot of people [from my last job] got made redundant and still are.”

He said he had received an initial grant in the pandemic, but had no support since: “I got £9,000 in the first lockdown. Frankly for me as a sole trader it was not exactly great but it kept me going.”

“I didn’t receive any funding after the first lot, I was not eligible because I have stayed open the whole time due to being an essential shop so I didn’t qualify,” he said. “I think the self-employed and sole traders like myself have been hit harder than bigger businesses. The smaller businesses always suffer more than the bigger ones,” he added.

He said that in some ways the pandemic had encouraged people to visit his shop: “I had barely been open for one year in the first lockdown – it will be two years this March, so it wasn’t much but due to people clearing out the supermarkets and the supermarkets then running out of products, people started shopping locally so this was a big help and told me that the business could survive.”

He agreed with the government’s decision to allow businesses tax relief, as he currently pays around £50,000 in tax a year and was glad to have relief from this.

Despite the pandemic Tony said he hopes to continue his business in Deptford for a while, and encouraged people to shop locally to support independent businesses like his.

37, Isla Ray , cafe and bar

Rachel Dalton-Loveland, owner of Isla Ray Cafe. Pic: Caitlin Tilley

Isla Ray is a vibrant, retro cafe/bar that stands out on the highstreet with its tropical decor. They were open for takeaways when we went in and spoke to owner Rachel Dalton-Loveland. Rachel said the cafe has received some business grants, including an initial £25,000 and the Additional Restrictions Grant. They have been doing better than others: “Financially, we haven’t lost out throughout the pandemic – the grants have been just enough to tide us over. However, every business has different overheads and some people have lost out massively,” she said.

However, she also said there had been a lack of support, and she felt she had been left in the dark: “It would have been nice to have had more advice and correspondence from the council. Every time the rules have changed it is up to you – the business – to figure out how to go about it and adapt.”

She was grateful to be in a good position, and felt confident Isla Ray would see the light at the end of the tunnel. “Now, we need more schemes to help boost business. We are going to survive this pandemic but we are one of the lucky ones,” she said. 

Council response

In response to the issues raised, a spokesperson for Lewisham council told ELL: “Since the start of the pandemic Lewisham Council has worked with and supported local businesses to respond to the challenges of the last twelve months…Lewisham Council would like to reiterate that businesses do not need to have closed to be eligible for a grant. If a business has remained open but has seen a significant drop in sales or a reduction in turnover as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, it may be still be eligible for a discretionary grant.”

“The Council is proactively contacting businesses it believes are eligible for the mandatory grants but have not yet claimed them – methods include in person visits to businesses, phone calls and letters. We would encourage any businesses who’ve not yet applied for grants to review either the Council’s website or, the Government website where there is a wealth of information about the support available for them” they added.

They reiterated that eligibility for the Local Restrictions grant is set by the government and not by the council.

Tomorrow: Business rates and budget gaps: The financial impact of Covid on local authorities

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