The British have a delightfully dysfunctional relationship with supermarkets. On the one hand, we’re continually being told that they’re the bad guys – selling us poorly produced, microwavable slop with all the nutritional value of cardboard, while shafting small farmers and producers along the way. Yet, conversely, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that they’re everywhere; clearly they’re doing something right.

In Liverpool, as in most major cities, it feels as though there’s always another branch of Tesco Metro or Sainsbury’s Local opening up on every corner with nary a fanfare. A quick walk down Bold Street reveals that there’s two of them situated practically next to each other – and that’s before you get to the other branch of Sainsbury’s Local situated inside Central station. I’m surprised that they’ve not recruited the costermonger equivalent of the Bloods and the Crips to preserve their territory.

It’s a difficult balancing act, especially in a city like ours, which has been hit particularly hard by the recession. It would take a very cynical person indeed to argue that it’s not important for us to support our local independents – the coffee houses, sandwich shops, butchers and grocers that help to make the culinary landscape of Merseyside what it is. It seems like everywhere you turn at the moment, another independent is being forced to close down.

In the past six months, the city has lost Brew Tea Bar and earlier this week, Laura of Laura’s Little Bakery revealed on Twitter that her unit in the Home Quarter will be closing on the 31st May. It’s a sad state of affairs when you walk down a street and see that somewhere you knew and loved has had to close their doors due to the horrible logic of economics.

But with the price of rental units increasing, is it any wonder that the independents are being forced out? A friend recently went to see an estate agent about renting a unit in Central Liverpool to open up a small bakery. On paper, the idea was brilliant – a small, friendly shop serving freshly baked sourdough and sandwiches to busy commuters, the perfect antidote to Greggs and their sweaty steak bakes.

But then came the thorny issue of the rent. According to Sutton Kersh, it costs £33,000 per year to rent a unit on Bold Street (pictured, right). And that’s before you factor in the cost of equipment, rates, utility bills and ingredients. It’s a staggering sum, and one that is out of reach for most small scale operators.

Is it any wonder then that new build units lie looking empty and forlorn until the big boys move in and we’re faced – yet again – with a bright new shiny Tesco to walk past. Right across the road from the other one.

It’s easy to bemoan the fact that our city centre doesn’t have a decent – and affordable – independent greengrocer, butcher or fishmonger open after 5.30pm that you can pop into after work. But at the same time, what incentive is there for someone to open one when you’re unsure if you can earn enough from your endeavours to pay the rent?

And while Liverpool City Council appeared receptive to the idea of placing pop-up shops and restaurants in empty retail units back in 2010, this idea appears to have died a death.

So, another small shop feels compelled to sell up and move out, leaving behind another empty retail unit, until our high streets are filled with nothing but pound shops, supermarkets and the gaps in between. And the illusion of choice and convenience that we, the consumer, are presented with slowly ebbs away.

  • http://www.formidablephotography.com Mark McGowan

    Great post – it’s not just the city centre, rent along the likes of Allerton Road is extortionate too, even the tiniest of units are ridiculously priced.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com Robin Brown

    It’s an unfortunate outcome of a policy that suggests that it’s better for a unit to be active – even with another Tesco – than stay empty.

    On the face of it that’s perfectly reasonable but if these big brands – supermarkets and coffee shops et al – move in at these very high rents it keeps those rents at an unattainable level for smaller outfits and potentially drives existing rents higher.

    The end result is a high street increasingly crowded with Tesco, Pizza Express, Stabucks and Home +Bargain. The homogenisation of shopping. Another one to ponder when the next application by Sainsburys or Tesco comes along.

  • James

    As far as I am aware, if a unit already has permission for retail to take place then no application need to be made for Tesco or anyone else to move in and open up shop, so it’s not a matter of public policy or control whether this happens or not. Of course, if they want to make alterations to the property to accommodate their business then planning application may be needed.

    If anyone had the data then it would be interesting to track the cost of rents being asked by the private retail unit landlords, to find out whether they have gone down in times of recession, or whether landlords have been happy to leave units empty (and/or take the supermarket or charity shop cash when it eventually comes along).

    If that was the case then I’d support the city council CPO-ing empty units and letting them out to local businesses at low rents. A kind of ‘social-housing’ for small local businesses.

  • Cyran Dorman

    I thought I’d escaped Tesco but Picton High Street gets its Tesco Express this week. A few years ago residents opposed it and won. Not sure what happened this time, no one seemed to know it was coming until it was here.

  • Christine

    I have recently started a cake business selling to indepandant coffee shops/cafes across the city. I looked into renting a unit on Allerton Road but the rent was £33k plus £7k rates. It came with a 2 bed decent sized flat which could be rented out. The property itself was in dire straits! There is no way on this earth you could move a tenant in let alone move in yourself and trade!! All the windows need replacing, it needs a re-wire as the electrics were from the dark ages. I reckon a good 20k would need to be spent on it before you could start getting some of your money back – and who has that kind of money? Seems the owner would rather let it sit empty and let Costa/Starbucks/Tesco etc move in and do all the work.