Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

When I moved to Battersea 20 years ago, you could mark the seasons by what was on sale in the fruit and veg market in Northcote Road - daffodils in early spring, peaches and strawberries in the summer, pumpkins at Hallowe'en, and fir trees at Christmas.

Over the years, in the face of rising rents, the market has clung on. There are fewer stalls these days, despite the influx of more fashionable merchandise (Italian bread, pashminas, olives, ceramics) but there are still the seasonal shifts. On a fine Saturday in September, with children back at school, it's heaving.

The shops and cafés are busy too. This has become an affluent neighbourhood and residents want coffee bars, specialist food shops, up-market boutiques and places that sell cards and presents. We locals like the fact that we have to pop in and out of different shops to get our cheese, our meat, our bread, our coffee.

We like being able to stand and chat to friends while we're queueing for fruit and veg. We like being on first-name terms with the shopkeepers and stallholders - Ted and Barbara on the fruit stall; Veronica at Quackers, the children's clothes shop; Bob and Brian at Dove's, the butchers.

Sarah Strickland, who owns The Boiled Egg and Soldiers on Northcote Road, knows about all this. She's been running her café for 11 years and as she puts it: "I've seen singletons turn into couples and couples turn into families of four." She's dispensed tea and sympathy to regulars who've come in for a shoulder to cry on when the overdraft seems too big, or the husband seems too absent, or the children seem too unmanageable.

But now Sarah, who is acting chair of the Northcote Business Network, is trying to solve a whole new problem. She's coordinating a campaign to save Northcote Road from turning into just another identikit high street, full of chains and estate agents. Many of the shops in Northcote Road are owned by a handful of landlords. They tend to be single units, which makes them ideal for the small, quirky businesses that currently colonise them. However, from a landlord's point of view, they aren't that profitable - not nearly as profitable as, say, three units knocked together that can be rented to a retail chain or a big estate agent for five times the sum paid by one individual tenant.

So, as these 10 or 15-year leases come to an end, the small shops are starting to disappear. Lizzie's, which has been selling cards and presents for as long as I can remember, is closing in two months. Hamish Johnston, the cheese shop - mentioned in every London shopping guide to Northcote Road - is also under threat as is Verde, the aromatherapy shop.

And this is the stupid bit. It seems to me it is precisely because of shops like Verde and Hamish Johnston and Lizzie's that Northcote Road is featured in shopping guides. When have you ever seen a shopping guide that draws attention to the number of estate agents in an area, or the fact that it has a Gap or a Sainsbury's Local?

According to Sarah, Wandsworth council has been very supportive but says there is nothing it can do. Up to a point, this is true. You can't force a landlord to rent to a particular individual, nor would you want to. After all, these landlords owned Northcote Road properties in the days before gentrification and soaring house prices and they probably feel it's time they cashed in too.

However, you could be vigilant about planning applications and changes of use. You could ensure the new Local Development Framework enshrines a vision of the community that is shared by its residents and local businesses. You could support proposed government legislation, such as the Business Conservation Areas Initiative and the Sustainable Communities Bill.

The council used to say there was nothing they could do about bringing in a cycle path on Wandsworth Common, short of an Act of Parliament. Yet what do we have now, following vociferous lobbying from local residents? A cycle path on the common.

It's time to kick up hell.

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