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None of Your Business? A mixed bag for indie trade in Sheffield

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Hop Hideout at Kommune. Photo by Mark Newton

Can local independent businesses succeed in Sheffield or does the city itself make it hard for them to survive?

There are shiny new shopfronts on the Moor, but while Marmadukes Two café opened last month on Cambridge Street, chains like Next and H&M have merely moved from Fargate. Abbeydale Road has gained Two Thirds Beer Company, The Teller and Krydda but lost The Rude Shipyard. Staying afloat in Kelham Island isn't necessarily easier; The Gatehouse, Pa's Bistro and Noosa Café have all closed within the past six months.

At street level, it's difficult to tell how many ventures last in the long term. Last year, The Guardian reported that the city centre had seen 18% of its stores shut since 2013, though Sheffield City Council disputes the paper's interpretation.

In November, James O'Hara - whose venues include Picture House Social, Gatsby, and the Ambulo cafes at Millennium Gallery and Weston Park Museum - slammed a 730% increase in business rates at his award-winning bar Public. O'Hara's tweets also raised a crucial question for local outlets. "The customer base for something different doesn't exist," he said. "The 'build it and they will come' adage doesn't really hold true in Sheffield."

While there's been plenty of talk about nationwide challenges to business, including austerity, Brexit and a continuing shift to online shopping, it's striking to hear an experienced entrepreneur claim that some of Sheffield's problems are specific to the city. If true, this should be a major concern for somewhere that is historically deeply proud of its independent spirit and its homegrown success stories.

In the slick surroundings of Kommune, now home to Hop Hideout bottle shop after its relocation from Abbeydale Road in 2019, owner Jules Gray told me that local punters have been positive about the transformation of the Castle House building, but added a note of caution: "I think there's been a lack of opportunities for higher-paid jobs, so we see a lot of people commuting to Leeds and Manchester - and that's money out of the city."

Jules, who is also a director and founder of Sheffield Beer Week, has seen really positive support for independent businesses in Sheffield, but says that sometimes this remains purely vocal. "That's different to actually going and spending money. If you want a thriving independent retail, food and drink scene, support it economically and vocally."

She stressed the importance of "transparency around what goes into products and prices". "There's a misconception that independent businesses are much more expensive, but I don't think that's always the case."

Jules noted that while councils have a part to play, she has also seen barriers to local business in unaffordable city centre rents set by investors and private landlords.

Higher rents elsewhere in Sheffield meant Stephen Ogden and his wife Marion opened Butta La Pasta restaurant on London Road in mid-2018. Stephen said: "We did lots of research, but Sheffield as a city is just tougher than we expected.

"From what I've seen in Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow, there's places with a similar style which seem to be doing much better. It just seems like diners in other cities are more prepared to try new things. There's a percentage of people in Sheffield that do, but the feel here is maybe less adventurous for dining."

Stephen raised a similar question to Jules, asking whether there are fewer jobs for 'young professionals' in the city, those who typically "lead on [food and drink habits]".

He said initial exemption from business rates and a Business Sheffield start-up course had been "really helpful" to Butta La Pasta, but that the landscape remained challenging.

For David Granville, it's a change of location which has led to a boost in business. The Kelham Island Books and Music owner shifted from Ecclesall Road about 18 months ago and said he was "actually quite positive" as greater passing trade has seen turnover rise by about 30%.

Granville said a big problem for local business was sky-high rents - that he'd heard of "£32,000 annual rents" around Kelham Island - but also that "there's no overall plan for retail in the city".

"People want a thriving independent sector, but that doesn't just happen. It needs some sort of framework to support it."

Hellen Stirling-Baker, owner of ethical children's shop Small Stuff, feels that the lower footfall following a relocation to Crookes from her former pop-up in the city centre has actually translated into better business, with customers taking their time "to stop, browse, take it in and enjoy the experience". Stirling-Baker said that there are many support organisations and networking opportunities in Sheffield, and that the surrounding business community in Crookes is "so supportive and genuinely wants me to succeed".

Commenting on the landscape for independent businesses here, she added, "We have to adapt and give people a reason to leave their computers and same-day deliveries," noting how customers respond well to transparency and positive changes around sustainability which larger retailers might struggle to implement so quickly and effectively.

Sheffield City Council's Cabinet Member for Business & Investment, Mazher Iqbal, told me that Council representatives had met with several independent traders in recent weeks to hear about their experiences. The Council has also just appointed a "dedicated retail business advisor" to help independent traders with matters including licensing, planning and property, he said.

Cllr Iqbal added that the Council recognised business rates were a "massive issue" and that most of Sheffield's 17,000 or so businesses were eligible for some form of rates relief. He said clear, simple information would be produced and distributed by the Council so every business receives the relief it is entitled to.

The Council is also aiming to work more closely with the Valuation Office Agency, the body responsible for deciding the "rateable value" of business premises, which is used to calculate business rates. The VOA is part of central government, but local councils can offer relief and discretion in some cases. Cllr Iqbal said the Council wanted to "reduce disruption" for businesses which challenge incorrect bills.

The people I spoke to for this piece obviously have a professional interest in seeing local businesses thrive. What about those of us who are deciding how to spend our hard-earned cash?

It's clear that we live in an age of multinationals operating across borders, corporations dodging billions in tax and ordinary workers whose livelihoods rely on zero-hours contracts. Partly as a result of these factors, many people feel they have no choice over how to spend their money. Although independent traders aren't always more expensive, perceptions of value are the priority.

But many of us can ask ourselves about cost versus worth, for some of our purchases at least. Yes, it may cost more to buy a coffee, a shirt or a vinyl record from an independent vendor. But what do you and your area gain from that decision? A trip outside, with no delivery van emissions or excessive packaging; a face-to-face conversation with someone who is passionate and knowledgeable; a much-increased chance that the money you spend will go straight back into the local economy; and the knowledge that you've done your bit to promote and retain difference and character in the fabric of your city.

How much is that worth?

Next article in issue 144

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