As another Southwold independent shop closes, are high rents killing the high street?

Melvin Crown from Eco Electrical is faced with closing his business due to rent being doubled. Melv

Melvin Crown from Eco Electrical is faced with closing his business due to rent being doubled. Melvin with his sister Monica Crown and staff member Michael Bumstead. - Credit: Nick Butcher

As Southwold mourns the closure of another independent shop, KATHRYN BRADLEY discovers whether rising rents are killing of the high street.

Southwold has always boasted a large number of independent and locally-owned shops and prides itself on the diversity of its High Street.

But in recent years, a number of independent shops have closed because of large rent increases, which some say has been driven by the arrival of chain stores in the town.

Eco-Electrical is the latest of those firms to close after 37 years trading in the town.

Melvin Crown will be shutting up shop at the end of August after the rent on the premises more than doubled following a review.

It follows the closure of a number other independent shops in recent months.

In the last year, 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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Meanwhile, a number of chain stores have moved in including Costa Coffee, WH Smith, clothing retailers Quba & Co, Fat Face and Joules and Waterstones, which opened its new store – the Southwold Bookshop – in the former tourist office on Friday.

John Perkins, secretary of the Southwold and Reydon Society, said it had set up a working group to look in to the issue.

He said: 'It's very sad but this is the collateral damage that occurs when chains move in. It racks up the rents and there is a feeding frenzy among landlords.'

Mr Perkins said the society's working group had contacted Waveney District Council to request that it sought to restrict the size of extensions to existing shops to make them less attractive to chains, as they tended to prefer larger premises.

Southwold Town councillor Will Windell said the rapid rise in rents came after the arrival of property developer Gentian Development Group.

Mr Windell said: 'Rents were quite stable until Gentian Development came in and started paying high prices for buildings and putting forward a high rent for them. From that point onward, everybody followed suit.'

Gentian has bought and redeveloped four properties in Southwold, including the buildings let to WH Smith, which Gentian no longer owns, and Costa Coffee.

It also owns 72 High Street and the former Blue Lighthouse restaurant.

Nick Ekins, managing director of Gentian Development Ltd, said the company was in the process of letting the remaining two properties to large national retailers and would be able to confirm the details in the coming days.

Mr Ekins said: 'We live in a free country and we have bought properties because we saw an opportunity to make some money, which we have done. We have so far purchased four properties in the High Street for redevelopment.

'We have spent more than £1 million on local builders and architects and we are responding to a market place where retailers want to have shops in Southwold.

'The electrical shop is closing down but with the arrival of shops like Dixon, Curry's and Comet, little shops are ceasing to exist. It is not just Gentian, it is a national thing.'

Mr Windell said the increase in chain stores had not been positive for Southwold and added that the loss of independent shops had meant a loss of vital services for local residents.

He said the town plan survey, which was completed last year, showed both residents and second home owners valued the individuality of the High Street and did not want to see independent traders replaced by national chains.

'Eco Electrical staff know local residents and if you ever go in there and say you have got a problem with a light switch they would say they could pop round in 20 minutes and have a look,' he said. 'That wouldn't happen with a major chain.

'That is what we will be losing – that care and that attention to customer service.'

The town council owns at least nine commercial properties in Southwold, which it lets to independent traders at a reduced rate.

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