Spiro and Naomi Gropetis are a Cardiff North success story. Their Miss Jones bar and restaurant in the middle of Whitchurch Village, a vibrant aspirational area three miles from the Welsh capital’s city centre, is a recent addition to a region where cosmopolitan cafes nestle happily alongside high street chains and local butchers.
Yet despite their progress, the couple speak of having reached a ceiling. They feel that rising taxes in the years they have spent building up a business that now employs 85 people, combined with difficulties in securing loans or finding new retail space, is halting their ambitions.
“A lot of what governments have done, like the minimum wage or pension reform, has been good, but costs are rising,” Naomi says when we meet for a chat at their Top Gun Fish Bar on the high street, one of three they own in Cardiff.
“When VAT and the minimum wage go up we take the hit. We can’t pass it on as there’s only so much people are going to pay for chips. Fuel is going up. It’s not a level playing field either. Gregg’s is just one example where big business has found a loophole so their customers don’t have to pay tax on a hot coffee and hot pasty, but ours do if they want hot food. Small and medium businesses lose out, independents are struggling to grow.”
A new EU directive coming into force later this year means all food labels must identify allergens – for Spiro and Naomi it will probably mean information boards displayed around their shops and represents another extra cost. Margins are being squeezed. It is a typical story you hear in Whitchurch.
“There’s no cream left in the business,” says Spiro. “We’re just left with the scrapings and if there’s anything left we’re lucky.”
Who secures a large chunk of the business vote at next year’s election will be vital in a constituency that returned Conservative Jonathan Evans in 2010 with a majority of just 194 – the 13th smallest winning margin in the UK – over Labour incumbent Julie Morgan.
Until the New Labour landslide of 1997, the seat was held by the Tories at every election bar 1966, but with Mr Evans standing down and Mrs Morgan, the wife of former minister Rhodri, now sitting in the Welsh Assembly, the battle is well and truly on between two bright young things of British politics for the future of Cardiff North. The Lib Dems won more than 18 per cent of the vote in 2010 but their support is expected to plummet and it is obvious from spending a day here that locals are not looking much beyond Labour’s Mari Williams and her unrelated counterpart Craig Williams, a Conservative city councillor.
“People want to have a go and take risks,” says Ms Williams, much like she did when cycling around the world in 2012 while on hiatus from her deputy head teacher role in Hackney, London, where she taught for a decade. “It’s about having a culture where it’s ok to take risks and fail, much like in America. That’s what I learned from being there. If you have small, local thriving businesses like you do here, that has to be key to the recovery.”
Ms Williams, a local who went to school in Whitchurch, advocates a sliding scale of business rates citing supermarket giant Tesco’s ability to pay the same rates for its shops as their independent counterparts as an example of an issue that is “not quite right”.
Unemployment in the UK is growing fastest in Wales, as David Cameron pointed out in Prime Minister’s Questions on the same day I arrived in Cardiff North. On the flip side, the country was also singled out in yet another stinging Tory attack on Labour’s “cutting” of the NHS in Wales. The Prime Minister even said recently the whole country is a scandal waiting to happen, claiming that Offa’s Dyke has become a dividing line “between life and death”.
Ms Williams admits the NHS frequently comes up on the doorstep. “But that’s an issue wherever you go,” she says. “People are passionate - they don’t want the NHS to be privatised.”
Although Mr Williams, a school governor originally from mid-Wales, and who has lived in Cardiff for more than 10 years, disagrees with the language Mr Cameron and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt have used in Tory attacks on NHS Wales, he says when they describe Wales as “another mid-Staffs waiting to happen” they are simply quoting bodies such as the Royal College of Nursing.
“With the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff North you can’t escape the NHS,” says Mr Williams in a Costa on Cardiff Bay. “If you walk around for more than 20 minutes you’ll meet a consultant, nurse or doctor. All of them say the same thing: we don’t like the NHS treated as a political football but we want an honest debate about the future of the NHS.”
Cardiff North is a strongly middle class area with 87 per cent owner occupied-homes. Crime rates are some of the lowest on the UK, and pensioners feel safe and secure in the area while upwardly mobile young professionals are keen to move in. Yet for an area largely untouched by immigration it is extraordinary how many people cite this as a top-three voting issue occasionally referring to “them” when describing immigrants.
Martin Player, the owner of High Class Butchers, places immigration alongside health as at the top of his personal concerns.
“It has not changed around here,” he says, “but we have got to get it under control.”
It is a familiar refrain but, as one local said: “Everyone here reads the Daily Mail or the Daily Express. If you read those newspapers every day for 10 years you’d be worried about immigration too.”
Back on Whitchurch high street DeliaGoGo owners Nick and Bev Davidson put party leadership as a priority: “I couldn’t vote for Labour with Gordon Brown as leader,” says Nick, before moving on to immigration. “We are changing to accommodate people that are occupying whole areas, but we’ve not decided who’ll get our vote yet.”
Mr Williams acknowledges the importance to the area of business leaders like Spiro and Naomi. “They are the engine room of the economy because they slog their guts out,” he says. “Miss Jones has completely reinvigorated the high street. People like them are at the forefront of economic growth.”
Spiro and Naomi, typical of local traders, remained uncommitted. Perhaps the only certainty in Cardiff North is a Williams will win come 2015, but which one?
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