The author Jeanette Winterson has co-owned a shop in Spitalfields since 2004. Now a huge hike in business rates could close Verde & Co – and many independent businesses like it…
‘In 1996 I bought a derelict building with a ‘Dangerous Structure’ notice in Spitalfields. I love Georgian houses, and back then not many people were interested in the area – just a few artists, like Gilbert & George, and a handful of artisans running small workshops. The fruit and veg market was still operating right opposite me, and my building had always worked as market porters’ premises with a shop on the ground floor. In 1805, during the Battle of Trafalgar, the shop was selling onions the size of cannonballs.
I had the idea to reopen the shop, so I hosted a few pop-ups. Then I had an offer from a coffee chain to rent the ground floor. I hated their coffee, their poverty wages and general exploitation, but they offered a lot of money and this depressed me into action. I asked around the neighbourhood, and – with luck of timing that felt like fate – found a New York chef called Harvey Cabaniss who wanted to start a food shop. We came to a deal and, 13 years later, he has put his life and soul into Verde’s – the original name on the signage.
But even though I own the building, we’re still at risk of being priced out. The government’s new business rate revaluation, due to come into force in April, will see our rateable value leap by £30,000: a crazy rise that we cannot manage. Even more bizarrely, this tiny shop has suddenly been reclassed as a ‘medium’ business, based solely on the rates rise. That means we don’t even qualify for small business relief any more.
‘London is a special place. That is under threat now.’
Business rates are a property tax. They aren’t based on turnover, or the kind of business you run; they’re based on the resale value of the property. Prices for London property are sky high: it’s an international commodity. We have sold a lot of London, retail and residential, to people who are only interested in maximising profits, not belonging to a neighbourhood.
The new rates imposed by the Tories (wasn’t Maggie Thatcher a shopkeeper’s daughter?) will change London for ever. Forget your little shops, start-ups and family-owned cafés – even bookshops. This is species wipeout. And once the little guys are forced out, we won’t come back.
London is a special place. It’s really a series of villages – Brixton, Shoreditch, Hampstead, Bermondsey – and in spite of the chain stores, there is still real life left: places that are a bit quirky, their own thing. That is under threat now.
Hiking up business rates gives the advantage to online and out-of-town shopping. One of the most disgusting things about the new tax is that the big supermarkets are set for millions in rate slashes, as their sites have been reclassed as less valuable than they were nine years ago. And of course the Amazon warehouses will thrive, while my shop and many like it will have to close.
The question is: what kind of a London do we want to live in? I know we are protesting about everything right now, from Trump to Brexit, but if you care about your neighbourhood, write to your MP about this devastating business rates increase and ask what impact it will have on where you live.
Mary Portas and I recently met with the Business Secretary, Greg Clark. He said he’d get back to us. He didn’t. Now we have to fight.’