High Town Road and the Broken Windows Theory

Yoga World & Pesto notes in passing the sad demise of This ‘N’ That, the esoteric buying-and-selling shop on High Town Road that was Luton’s go-to for both buying and selling, and – if official police signage is anything to go by (and one has to suspect it is*) – a laundering mechanism for stolen goods. Ah well. The sign was probably the best thing about This ‘N’ That (We buy. We sell.) and mercifully, that remains.

This 'N' That. They Bought. They Sold.

This ‘N’ That. They Bought. They Sold.

police sign on shop window

… not any more.

Meanwhile, the grandly-named but perennially disappointing Grandior Furnishings has never to my knowledge been in the business of either buying or selling anything in at least the last six years. Permanently closed; permanently full of junk (there might be some interesting things in there, but who can tell?). Presumably the owner of Grandior is unaware of the convenient storage rental available just round the corner at Lok n’ Store. Does he not realise that the rest of us have to walk past his dusty, unloved shopfront every day?

Never knowingly open: it's Grandior Furnishings.

Never knowingly open: it’s Grandior Furnishings.

You’ll say I’m being mean, but there’s a wider issue at stake here. In something akin to what is known as the ‘broken windows theory‘, the existence of even one prominently long-term abandoned shopfront on High Town Road (let alone several!) does untold damage to the road’s fortunes as a whole, and contributes to an atmosphere of neglect and decline that in turn signals to others that anti-social behaviour will go unremarked and unchallenged in High Town. I think many people are unaware that High Town Road is a conservation area, placing a duty of care on shopkeepers to maintain and preserve both the fabric and character of the street.

Alongside the wilful quasi-abandonment of Grandior, there are a number of empty units, many in flagrant disrepair, and a number of other premises which give the impression of being wholly or nearly defunct: Waller, which I think is an upholstery business, does not give the impression of being a going concern, though there is evidence that it was open in 1999, an occasion of such momentousness that even the Queen dropped by.

The mysterious Waller.

The mysterious Waller.

Waller: trading on past glories?

Waller: trading on past glories?

The status of Lawnmower Services and Suppliers of Quality Machinery is not completely clear to me (but on closer inspection yesterday I see that it may be alive; I do own a lawnmower, but I’ve never needed to have it serviced); in any case, Lawnmower Services and Suppliers of Quality Machinery is substantially redeemed in my eyes by its cheery green façade and unnervingly precise approach to shop-naming; in this respect rivalling and even outgunning our friend, Wallpaper World & Paints.

Never knowingly misrepresenting the range of their services.

As for Modesty Ventures, I never had high hopes (their approach to selling different kinds of meat was decidedly minimal: a number of chest freezers with handwritten signs sellotaped above each declaring, ‘CHICKEN’, ‘BEEF’, and so on), but to have taken satisfaction in their eventual closure would be immodest.

Modesty Ventures: modest to a fault.

Modesty Ventures: modest to a fault.

Aside from the shops which have been abandoned, neglected, or whose premises have now lain vacant, in some instances, for years, there any many others whose upkeep falls short of a decent standard, with peeling paintwork, crumbling plaster or general disrepair. None of this does anything to tempt newcomers, or indeed the many locals who would love to spend more time and money in High Town.

Jesus may be Lord, but He will not fix your broken window.

Jesus may be Lord, but He will not fix your broken window.

Noah: rendered ugly.

Noah: rendered ugly by their inexplicable failure to paint over repaired plastering.

At least there are a few businesses working against the trend. A new café at 48a (which may be called Marjorie’s), at the corner of High Town Road and Duke Street looks highly promising; as does Shop 33, a new art shop of an as yet unimaginable kind.  

The stunning art deco shopfront at 48a.

The stunning art deco shopfront at 48a.

Art Attack! New art shop opening soon.

Back In Time, selling antiques, kitsch and other memorabilia, also appears to be thriving in its way.

IMG_1974

Back in Time

Finally, it seems right that we should end on a lighter, cheerier and indeed beerier note, and commend the unfailing welcome and real ales available at local watering-hole and High Town stalwart, The Bricklayers Arms. On this subject, we will certainly have more to say.

* This ‘N’ That update: We later learned that This ‘N’ That was an undercover police sting designed to catch criminals involved in the disposal of stolen goods.

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14 thoughts on “High Town Road and the Broken Windows Theory

  1. That’s a London way of looking at it, I think; implying as it does that anyone sees the potential of building converted flats right next to a train station serving a London commuter route. And presumably there are planning restrictions on those properties in any case. As far as I can tell, some of these shops have been either disused/neglected for years or are ticking along at such risible volumes of trade that one must assume that they either a) own the properties outright and just don’t care or b) are supplementing their ostensible retail income in other, more nefarious ways. I think there are instances of both.

    • There are actually very few empty units as a percentage of those available on High Town Road (HTR), especially in comparison to shopping areas in the UK that are faring badly. There is only one that I can think of that has been permanently shut in the last few years.

      I know that ‘Waller’ was trading a couple of years ago and probably still is. If you want to try getting some upholstery, then call his number in the window. I see Lawnmower Services take stocks of mowers for repair every so often, but again, it is not so much a ‘walk-in’ business.

      Fashion Afrique (with the misty windows) moved next door to a smarter-looking shop. The empty shop pictured above has not looked like the photo for that long.

      Noah, as a local charity, may not have the resources to do repairs very easily. It may also not be their place to do the painting, as its building is owned by Luton Borough Council. Furthermore, I have heard that Noah could move out and across the road to the former Welbeck Youth Centre, to be replaced by a business or businesses willing to pay the market rent.

      However, from a purely ‘business’ perspective, the problem on HTR is more the rapid turnover of traders.

      I think there are flats above all of the properties on HTR already, built at the time the shops were. I doubt the owners of the shops would be able to turn their premises into flats, because they would have to get permission from the Council for ‘change of use’. Furthermore, as HTR is a Conservation Area, the physical changes necessary to make them viable dwellings would be very difficult to enact.

      Although the Portas Review suggests this as a possibility for the future of high streets and the pressure on housing is immense in Luton, there are other solutions in High Town. Some have been stalled by the recession, but it is possible they could be kick-started soon.

      Despite all that I have said, I would agree with the principles behind this post: HTR needs public and private money to improve it. The problem is there isn’t much of that around at the moment.

      • Thanks David. Fashion Afrique’s window has been broken for years — though the cracked pane is difficult to see in my picture because in recent months they have vacated the premises and whitewashed the window (presumably just passing on the broken window to the next tenant?). As for Waller, I appreciate that it may be a specialist small business, but that’s no excuse in my book for the way that the shop front has been woefully neglected for years. I have the impression that it’s not been spruced up or changed in any way for ten years or more (the royal visit in 1999 gives one an idea of the possible timescale). Will it be left to moulder for another 10 years, 20? Since I understand that the owner of Grandior is still alive but has no intention of opening the shop, I must assume that he owns the premises and that the window of Grandior will remain untended at least until he dies — again, we may be looking at another 20 years of dust and neglect, and that seems deeply anti-social to me.

        While I take your point about the financial squeeze and the recession, I also think that much of the neglect of HTR stems from lack of care, rather than lack of money. I also think that there is money to be made in High Town — we are but a stone’s throw from a very busy train station that serves an annually increasing number of London commuters — presumably people with jobs! — who spend elsewhere simply because they cannot get what they need or want within High Town.

        The high turnover of traders in HTR is typically down to poorly-planned, relatively identikit or low-quality ‘convenience stores’ that seem to compete with each other for existing custom rather than differentiating their offer from (in some cases, literally) the shop next door. Presumably these businesses are not being enabled by bank loans, as I doubt whether any bank would loan to businesses that are unlikely to survive even on paper.

        I’m not sure what this suggests. Are these new traders people who are essentially running vanity concerns, with no thought for revenue? (Unlikely.) Can we imagine that in some instances the shops are ‘fronts’ for money-laundering? (Possibly, in some cases. And yes, people do imagine that, whatever the reality.) With respect to start-up finance, could there (in some instances) be religious/cultural mores that mean that a new trader is less likely to set up via a loan? (I don’t know.) Is there simply a lack of business sense, a failure to see the potential of offering an ‘up-market’ offering (competing on quality and service, not only on price), a failure to understand that two convenience stores next door to each other does not magically double the market for convenience items, does damage to both businesses (and probably more damage to the newcomer)? I do not consider myself any kind of businessperson, but to me these elements of business planning are very basic indeed.

  2. Really enjoying your blog. I popped into Marjorie’s for lunch this week. They do a great lunchtime pizza offer, and the cakes look amazing. Very friendly staff too (even when I realised I’d forgotten my wallet!).

  3. I had just dusted down an old electric guitar out of the loft ready to go to this’n’that, when I walked past and found it had been closed. Darnit. They were friendly folks, and props to them for keeping the pleasingly 70s reception desk from the hairdressers too.

    I was sad to see the tailor close down last year too, although at least that was a retirement rather than a bankruptcy. I was hoping there was someone to take it on as a going concern, but I guess there aren’t many tailors around any more.

  4. Interesting, your experience of This n’ That. Perhaps I have judged them too harshly, and of course we don’t finally know the outcome of the police investigation, though they appear to have come down on them pretty severely. It didn’t really seem to be a very viable business, though, and the name was (one suspects, unintentionally) hilarious. To me, at any rate…

    Briganti Tailoring, meanwhile — yes, loved them. I took a few things in there, and aside from taking mild umbrage the time when I asked him to put a new skirt in an old denim skirt of mine and he asked me ‘whether it was worth saving’ (that was years ago, and I’m wearing my beloved denim skirt today), I was really pleased both with service and price. Though as usual I slightly question how he made enough money to live on. Presumably he owned the shop?

    • I had no reason to venture in to This ‘n’ That, but – like Jeremy – was always pleased to see the 70s reception desk inside. Maybe we can slap a conservation order on it (for any news hounds out there, I jest).

      CP – you are right to be cautious about what the outcome of the police investigation might be.

      Re. Briganti, I spoke to Mr Centracchio before he retired and from what I remember he told me that he did not own the shop. Before setting up the business, he had been employed for about seventeen years by clothing companies in the area, then worked with a ‘tailor partner’. He worked hard for his living. He owns a nice house on a nice road in Luton, which I understand that he bought at a time when the wages to house price ratio was not as big as it is now, so I would not worry too much about his finances.

      Here is an article about his retirement: http://www.lutontoday.co.uk/news/features/tailor-is-all-sewn-up-for-retirement-1-3215109

      As for alternative tailors, we have been very happy with the one that Mr Centracchio recommended verbally and on a notice in his shop window: Marco Tailoring. The address is technically 6 Dudley Street in High Town, but is accessed via a door on Albion Road – the dog-leg off High Town Road.

      Marco’s quality and prices were excellent. Be aware that he is a man of few words and it takes a while for him to get to his front door from his workshop, so you may need to ring the mobile number displayed on the door. Make sure you are clear when you expect to be able to collect the finished item.

      When you go inside the shared building, you will also get a glimpse of the intriguing netherworld that is Walter Wright hats.

      • Re. my first Reply about HTR, I was referring to the general state of the former Fashion Afrique, not the broken window, when I wrote: ‘The empty shop pictured above has not looked like the photo for that long’.

        On the number of convenience stores, I can only think of two general ones on the ‘main drag’. The others sell specific ethnic foods.

        There are, however, three kebab shops. You would have thought that was too much competition, yet they all seem to be surviving very nicely.

        As for the evidence on ethnicity and the availability of bank loans, the consistent story over the years has been that it has been harder for entrepreneurs from the so-called ‘visible minority’ communities to access them. This is particularly the case for people of African and African-Caribbean heritage. The reasons are complex, I am sure. Here is a recent article about the issue: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f0a2852c-6ed2-11e1-b1b2-00144feab49a.html#axzz2PFEOB400.

        Strict Muslims are not allowed to take part in ‘usury’, i.e. loans with interest, but there are ways around this using Islamic financial tools: http://www.islamic-bank.com/business-banking/. There is also the possibility to get interest-free loans from family and friends.

        On ‘lack of care’, whilst making me unhappy, it seems to be rather common across the land. It is something that I saw yesterday on all the high streets on a trip to an ‘up-and-come’ area of London (Highbury) and an ‘up-and-coming’ area of London (Hackney). The difference in these parts of London, perhaps, is that there are sporadic outbursts of ‘care’ amongst the myriad convenience stores, and somewhere to buy your cappuccinos and artisan bread. However, if one were to take the example of Wembley High Road, with the apparent advantages of a rail and tube service, a new ‘piazza’ and a national stadium on the doorstep, the offer is not much different to HTR.

        You could also compare to Hitchin or Harpenden, but that would be unfair. Realistically, HTR would be most likely to get closer to the shopping mix on offer in the up-and-coming parts of Hackney.

        The next question would be how to achieve that and therein lies the rub. You are writing this blog, which may help, but there are other forms of action open to you and others.

        I know one person suggested to a trader on HTR that removing some of their window foil would be more attractive. You know what? They did.

        There is a recently opened business on HTR that a number of us are supporting with our custom, because the manager is enthusiastic and full of good ideas to make it work, which includes involving the local community.

        There is the Friends of High Town residents’ association (FoHT) – among its concerns is HTR. FoHT was also the lead group in forming the High Town Team, which was to access Portas Review money for HTR and has a remit to help local traders. Two bodies that you could have a direct input to.

        Oh, and the most direct action of all: set up a shop called Yoga World and Pesto.

  5. Pingback: Never Mind the Bollards: Friends of High Town Meeting, January 2014 | Yoga World & Pesto

  6. Hello I love the character of hightown great that you are discussing this I am a local florist and have been trading for three years I m looking for a shop in to hightown road any of you have any suggestions on who I should be contacting maybe I ll go find the grandiose dude I remember him from when I was young(er)

    Thank you

    • Hi Daisy31, thanks for commenting! Good question regarding places to let or buy. The good people at the Friends of High Town might be able to offer some pointers, and you could also possibly speak to Michael at Marjorie’s, since he’s always looking out for ways to extend that business and make it more viable (I could see flowers and coffee working well together — wake up and smell the coffee/flowers!). Such a shame that the man at Grandiose (!) doesn’t bring his shop façade into use and brighten up the street.

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