It appears that the recent local anti-Sainsbury campaign may have caused the supermarket giant to reconsider and downsize plans for locating a major branch of the evil Leviathan on Stoke Newington High Street.
Possibly taken aback at the hostility aroused by their original high-handed, disdainful plan to demolish whatever they wanted and to choke, and probably destroy, local streets with their massive container wagons, Sainsbury’s seem to have gone on a charm offensive. This decision can’t have been easy for them, given that they usually get what they want, but they are now apparently backtracking and adroitly presenting themselves as a significant benefit for the area.
At a recent promotional exercise in a marquee on Wilmer Place, which was buzzing with happy shiny Sainsbury staff only too pleased to explain their plans, the company set out a number of display panels which explained how this new proposal differed from the original, and to demonstrate what a blessing this new development will be to Stoke Newington.
Although they didn’t get round to applying for planning permission the first time they wanted to move here – possibly surprised by the resistance not only from local residents but also from the Council – they are making a formal planning application in late June and are currently trying to foresee and forestall any objections. Indeed, they are even handing out questionnaires (sample question: ‘would you like the site to be redeveloped? Yes or No?’ Those against the proposal probably wouldn’t fill it in, and the forms will probably lie in some back office anyway, but at least people are being ‘consulted’).
It’s also conceivable that Sainsbury have been quite clever here. Having made an arrogant, heavy-handed attempt to muscle in, which they guessed wouldn’t work in this area, they could then come back with a greener, more environmentally-friendly plan, which would be much more acceptable. This ploy – threaten, then offer a sweetener – is probably outlined in Clausewitz or Machiavelli, and the issue now seems likely to be more one of scale and environmental fit than whether or not a large Sainsbury store should be located in downtown Stoke Newington. In other words, they are moving the terms of reference of the debate to their own advantage, and seem likely to succeed in this. Or perhaps I’m crediting them with more cunning than they possess. Nevertheless, this is almost certainly what’s going to happen. So welcome to Sainsbury’s.
Assuming, therefore, that they are now here, it’s difficult to fault them on their development plans, apart from the original, knee-jerk indignant issue of their impact on local small businesses, which Sainsbury’s have now neatly sidestepped, and which will soon conveniently be forgotten by the Church Street latte-drinking classes as they join the queue for Sainsbury’s own-brand claret.
The buildings from 195 to 205 High Street will be demolished, but the other old, increasingly dilapidated outlets will remain; there will be no basement or car parking, but 128 cycle park spaces will be available; the size of the ‘retail unit’ (the whole point of the enterprise, let’s not forget) will be reduced by 33%, and the number of flats, including ‘affordable housing’ (or what passes for it round here), will increase from 44 to 68 in a new 5-storey residential development; there will be no vehicle access off the High Street, and delivery vehicles will stretch a maximum length of 11 metres; a 3-metre high wall and a landscaped buffer zone will form the boundary with Abney Park Cemetery; the whole caboodle will create 150 full- or part-time jobs; and so on it goes, the implication being that no sane, progressive person could object to this family-friendly, sanitised vision of the future. And, like it or not, this will almost certainly be the direction in which the High Street is heading.
Events occurring down the road apiece serve only to underline this trend. The impact of the new Superdrug Savers store (as discussed in issue 51 of N16 Magazine) is making itself emphatically felt in terms of diminished footfall and declining revenue of long-serving local retailers. We will also shortly be witness to the departure of one of Stoke Newington’s favourite stores, to be replaced by new retail units and flats.
For its 67-year existence on the High Street, General Woodwork Supplies has been attending to the various needs of builders, plumbers, painters, joiners, DIYers and other diverse tradesmen and residents. Their range of stock is quite staggering, and if they haven’t got what you want, then it probably ceased manufacture twenty years ago. Mike Cohen and his staff have an encyclopedic knowledge of their range, and they are as happy to discuss mouse traps and leaking sinks as they are to offer advice and deal in materials for rather more substantial, professional building projects. They are exactly the type of large shop which is not only required by but also indicates the existence of a thriving, industrious local community. It represents a fast disappearing notion of retailing, an emporium which is at once specialist but abundant, at all levels, within its specialism. You could maybe make a similar claim for supermarkets, but ‘specialist’ they are not, unless eating is now considered a specialism. General Woodwork Supplies is, however, closing its doors for good at the end of August, to make way for three retail units with living accommodation above.
Nothing, of course, lasts for ever, and the shop’s disappearance should not be perceived as another inevitable multinational nail in the coffin of Stoke Newington’s small trader culture. Mike is entitled to his retirement, and he and his colleagues have worked hard enough to deserve any rewards coming their way. I will be interviewing Mike in the forthcoming summer issue of N16 Magazine, and discussing with him both the history and future of the business and the area.
But who’ll take over this relatively massive space? A small commune of creative artists, jewellers and potters? Perhaps something useful, like a decent electrical or even woodworking business? A state-of-the-art community centre? I doubt it. We’ll end up with multinationals, however they may care to disguise themselves, and the ‘shop local’ proponents will only be able to watch as Church Street gradually turns into a North London Bond Street (or even Crouch End, God help us), with small independents unable to afford the escalating rents which the inevitable increased traffic on the High Street will engender.
Places and people change and move on. Twenty years ago, few would have suspected that run-down old Stokey would turn into North London’s Tribeca. And perhaps it’s all for the good of the artistic and retail independence of the area, albeit scaled down somewhat. However, I suspect that, five years or so from now, Lower Clapton will be assuming the free-spirited bohemianism to which Stoke Newington could lay claim until recently. But who knows? The influx of shoppers and money into the area, and the inevitable homogenisation which will take place, could well generate the need for more specialist outlets, quick to spot the opportunities afforded by the lumbering large stores. It may be that Sainsbury’s and a revitalised High Street could work to the advantage of the quick-thinking entrepreneurs among us. Why not think positively for a change?
By Rab MacWilliam