Monday, 28 April 2014

Things (including Food) Are Hotting Up...

It's election time again.

The emerging issue in Levenshulme appears to be that of takeaway food outlets. The incumbent councillor, James Henningan (LibDem), has launched a Facebook campaign, "Say No to Levenshulme's Takeaway Mile", asking people to sign a petition with the preamble:

"Stockport Road has changed beyond recognition and everytime one of our independent shops close - it seems to be replaced by another fast food outlet."

Now, it's a catchy petition title, and taps into local concerns about the main Stockport Road (A6), Levenshulme's "shop window" to the rest of the city (and the country - it's the main route out to Stockport and Cheshire, which is presumably why UKIP tried placing billboards on the southbound carriageway last year). His assertion is that we already have 'enough' takeaways (currently about 12% of the total commercial properties in the area).

Let's leave aside the negative tone of Councillor Hennigan's campaign - telling us what we don't want rather than asking us what we do (he's also a bit reluctant to engage with people who disagree with him on this), and the spin that the local Labour council is somehow encouraging takeaways to come to Levenshulme to bring its 'quota' of them up to the citywide limit of 20%, and consider whether the campaign has any real merit beyond it being something he can get in the papers with. He can't point to LibDem success in dissuading the Tories from the worst excesses of national policy, and the alleged economic recovery certainly isn't being felt this far north of Westminster....

Judging by the comments his campaign has attracted, it seems as if it's the general appearance of the area which people feels lets us down, rather than the alleged preponderance of hot food outlets. Now, I'm a naturally curious person and have lived in Leve for over 25 years. I know that a number of independent shops have closed in that time, and we no longer have, for example, the shoe shop, Poysers motor shop, Grace Fabrics (?) curtain and haberdashery, and at least two greengrocers and three more butchers that were here when I moved in. Not to mention the pubs that have closed - The Railway, The Pack Horse, The Church Inn, all of which are either empty or gone completely.

But in a previous life I analysed statistical data for a living, and every "fact" I see on a topic like this makes me say, "Ah, but...." and go looking for an explanation, confirmation or refutation.

With this in mind, I spent a happy evening last weekend doing a virtual trawl of the A6 on Google maps, making a note of each of the premises in the ward. I even included a small section on the east side that falls within our neighbouring ward (itself a bone of contention - why is half of Levenshulme in Gorton South ward? Ask the Electoral Commission!). I wanted to see if we really are overrun with takeaways (especially, the 'chicken shops' which seem to get cited on local discussion threads). 

As a result of this, I found that we currently have, as Councillor Hennigan suggests, about 12% takeaways (this goes up slightly to around 14% if you include those in the Gorton South ward).

In today's Manchester Evening News is an article on the subject which states that Takeaway Owners Back Crusade to Tackle Levenhulme's Fast Food Mile in James Hennigan states that "it's getting to the stage where there are just too many." and that "many have their shutters down during the day, hampering efforts to revitalise the high street."

In support of his case, two local takeaway owners are quoted. One says that he is "now struggling as rival outfits have begun to pop up at an alarming pace" and another that "It has been over the last two years. Before that everything was running right, but everybody is just surviving now."

This piqued my interest even more. The Google images I had scoured were all taken in 2012.  Maybe things had really changed over the last two years. So I decided to walk the whole of the A6 from one ward boundary to the other. I deliberately excluded premises away from the A6 - after all, it's a positive thing if residential areas are served by local takeaways rather than everyone having to pile on to the A6 for them, and because it was the impact on the A6 'high street' that I wanted to assess (not least because referring to a 'Takeaway Mile' suggests the long - nearly 2 miles - main route from border to border).

I found some interesting things:

There have been some changes of business, but in the main fast food outlets aren't chief among them. Most new businesses since 2012 have been health and beauty or solicitors/accountants. Some food outlets have changed hands but have remained selling the same or similar products. Several of the takeaways from 2012 have now ceased to be fast food outlets.

A major fast food restaurant right in the centre of the high street  had its shutters open at mid-day today, whereas many of the hairdressers and barbers did not (it being Monday, a traditional day off for them), and including one of the takeaways mentioned in the article.

Notably, we only have three national chain takeaways - McDonalds and KFC at the southern end of the ward, and the ubiquitous Subway. Many of the other takeaways and restaurants are independently-run family businesses providing livelihoods for local families, which is somewhat different to Councillor Hennigan's assertion that they "bring nothing to the area."

So whether we have "too many" takeaways already, or whether we can't/shouldn't absorb any more,  it's clearly not the case that there has been a massive expansion over the last two years. I would argue that if we want a more varied high street, we have to be positive about the businesses that are already there and actively encourage others to join them, which is undermined by headlines about "crusades" to deter certain businesses - if I were a potential investor in the area, I would think twice if I thought I would get a hostile reception. Levenshulme is by no means unique in having a 'challenged' high street - it happens all over the country, but the problem goes far wider than any one kind of business, and the solutions are more complex. Whatever commercial pressures local businesses are subject to, competition from an increasing number of rivals wouldn't appear to be the whole story.

And while I hear some of you saying "Well, she would say that. Just another Labour activist toe-ing the party line and point-scoring at election time" this is not one of my political blog posts. I am quite capable of holding opinions of my own and - occasionally - disagreeing with the Labour Party! I would be interested to hear a a detailed explanation of the rationale behind the 20% takeaway limit; how it was arrived at and the reasoning behind it. Then I can decide how many is "too many" without reference to Councillor Hennigan.


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