Fresh concerns over future of Southwold High Street as new chains move in

PUBLISHED: 06:34 15 August 2014

The former Blue Lighthouse in East Street.

The former Blue Lighthouse in East Street.

Fresh concerns were voiced this week for the future of Southwold’s independent traders after it emerged that two new chains are set to open stores in the town centre.

The children’s clothing shop Little Joule is moving into the former launderette in High Street while the fashion retailer Seasalt is taking over the old Blue Lighthouse restaurant in East Street.

They are the latest national companies to announce plans to open stores in Southwold – fuelling fears about increasing rents and the effect on hard-pressed locally-owned businesses.

It comes after Waterstone’s opened a store in the former tourist information office under the name the Southwold Bookshop last month and follows the closure of the long-established independent retailer Eco-Electrical after the rent more than doubled on its Market Place premises.

Town councillor Will Windell said the latest developments were disappointing because it meant there would be fewer locally-owned and independent shops in Southwold and would have the effect of forcing up businesses rents.

But the company behind it, Gentian Development Group (GDG), said it wanted to invest further in Southwold and was on the look-out for new properties to develop for national retailers.

Nick Ekins, managing director of Gentian, said: “We are still keen to buy more in Southwold.

“There are at least three national retailers who want stores in Southwold but it is hard to find the premises and we would like to get more.”

He added: “These are big people committing for a long time to Southwold with quite high rents.

“We are very pleased. We set out to create buildings to let to national retailers; that is what we do, and we have achieved it four times over.”

The properties GDG has bought and redeveloped in Southwold include the one let to WH Smith, which Gentian no longer owns – and the one taken over amid much controversy by Costa Coffee.

The influx of national chains to the town has been blamed for pushing up rents and forcing smaller retailers to close down or move elsewhere.

However, Mr Ekins has disputed claims that Gentian was behind the problems in Southwold.

He said: “I think it is the market. It is also a question of the quality of retailing. If there is a choice between a national chain and an excellent independent retailer I know what I would do.

“If you have got small towns like Woodbridge with fantastic coffee shops like Honey and Harvey, they can compete against Neros and Costa Coffee.”

He added: “We have created shops that suit national retailers. National retailers only operate in certain

size units. The rents we get are market levels. We can’t change the world and make people pay a higher price than things are worth.”

Mr Ekins, 45, said the new retailers would create jobs for young people, many of whom would come from economically-deprived areas such as Lowestoft.

He added that his company had bought the properties from local people and had spent more than £1m with local builders and architects as part of the four developments.

Mr Windell said he was unhappy to hear about the arrival of two more chain stores in Southwold.

He said: “It is a disappointment for two reasons. It means less local independent shops and as more chains come in the more the rents go up. Financially for a small town it has a big impact.

“You have to remember that money spent in an independent shops goes round the town an average of seven times while money spent with big brands goes straight out.”

The town council owns at least nine commercial properties in Southwold, which it lets to independent traders at a reduced rate. Members are also currently working on a neighbourhood plan, which will have the power to influence local planning decisions.

Mr Windell said one of the things being considered was restricting the size of new shops to make them less attractive to national chains.

John Perkins, of the Southwold and Reydon Society, said the town did not need any more clothes shops and the society had long been warning that the arrival of national chains would push up rents.

He added: “Eco-Electrical closed because of a rent increase and we are proved right all the time. The chains go in and the little guys move out.

“The danger is Southwold is going to lose its character, which is the whole reason people come here.

“We risk losing tourists if we carry on like this and they are the lifeblood of the economy. Long term, the effect on Southwold will be negative.”

In the last year, Eco-Electrical, All Pets, Tilly’s Tearooms and Trinity’s café and restaurant have all closed and the town’s tourist information office has moved from its prominent High Street position to a side street because of rent increases.

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