Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Reflections on Bonneville scandal, Clapton, Hackney

It's not every day that a pub on your local high street becomes part of a #twitterstorm. ICYMI: Bonneville, the subject of my last post, seriously misjudged their response to when a stabbing victim came into their pub, and then misjudged a subsequent apology too. But it went viral, in a flurry of right-on outrage, hipster-hate, capitalism-hate, and Hackney-hate.

The twitter outrage grew quickly, and also dissipated quickly. By about 6pm the volume of tweets had notably died down, and a couple of days later a crowd of less than a dozen staged a peaceful protest outside. There was more sincerity in Bonneville's apology by then, and like most twitterstorms it's unlikely to leave much of a long tail - its been getting busier in the evenings as I've cycled past.

What it has surfaced, though, is the extent of quiet, ongoing frustration that many in Hackney feel about the pace and face of change and the extent that it benefits a range of Hackney residents, new and old. That quiet frustration is increased every time a new business opens and people realise it's not for them: whether £475 pairs of dungarees, £35 bottles of wine, or pieces of cake priced just shy of £4.

The trajectory is unlikely to change. The word is out that Clapton is 'trendy', so shop landlords will jack up the rents at every opportunity. Long-standing businesses whose leases come up for renewal could well see their rent tripling from what they were paying already. The only businesses that can thrive on a high rent will have to have a hefty margin on products or have lots of lower margin products and shift them quickly.

Put bluntly: Hackney's many working class residents do not have much disposable cash. If high margin products seem unjustifiable on a low income (unless you're talking payday loans, then you're talking desperation), then you need to sell lots of lower margin products to attract a wide cross-section of people, and pretty much the only businesses that can do that are supermarkets and high turnover fast food restaurants.

You could well find that the people who get angry about gentrification and Hackney's new fancy, exclusive establishments overlap with the people who get angry about chains and fast food joints opening. Those don't have to be intellectually incoherent positions - but it shows the tension in supporting small, independent businesses to keep money local and support innovation, which at the same time drive up house prices, residential and retail rents, and narrow the pool of businesses that can serve a broad reflection of the local area.

As with many thorny issues, the answer is more complex and probably doesn't involve finger-pointing and there probably are no silver bullets.

But we need to start by acknowledging that prices (houses, residential rents, commercial rents, of beer and meals outs) are driven by supply and demand. Unless the price of everything is regulated (capitalism is having a shaky moment, but we're not quite there yet), you'd want there to be as many pubs, shops, houses, private rents as possible - taking the heat off commercial and residential rents, and making it more feasible for businesses to serve wider demographics. That would mean protecting retail space from being converted to residential, creating more retail space, and also building more affordable and intermediately priced homes.

It also means we all need to get behind businesses that started pre-gentrification, serve a wide range of people, but could be flattened by a post-gentrification rent rise. Give them your custom, and you could help make them more viable into the future.


  1. When was the last time you wrote about a place 'for them'?

    1. Hi Ben.

      I've got into a rut of mainly writing about new places, so part of this is me reminding myself that I need to redress my own balance if I'm to practice what I preach.

      If you are picking up on my use of 'them', then you can include me within it. I'm not going to spend that money on dungarees wine or cake either. I believe it's a huge chunk of people who do not feel new businesses are 'for them', and while I'm clearly into my food, there are lots of places that I consider too expensive or pretentious for me.