A family-run business that has been serving South Norwood for more than 40 years has almost had the stuffing knocked out of them in the past week, as their landlord has notified them of a rent increase of £3,600 a year, and submitted a planning application to turn their small high street shop into a small high street flat.
Dobson Upholstery has been a successful business since it was started by the hard-working father of the current owner, Robert Dobson, on Portland Road in the 1970s.
The business moved to the High Street 15 years ago after their previous landlord decided to convert their shop into a studio flat.
History seemed to be repeating itself, then, when the Dobsons were shocked to discover that their current landlord had submitted a planning application. Dobson says that the first he knew about it was after the application was submitted to the council on January 29.
“Our client is considering residential amongst other options for this particular site, as they have had issues with the present tenant for which they cannot comment for legal reasons due to ongoing action. We endeavour to fulfil our client’s requirements but we sympathise with the tenant,” was the comment from Aaron Hill, the owner’s agent.
Dobson denied any knowledge of “issues”, or of any ongoing legal action. “I pay my rent on time and have never asked for maintenance to be carried out on the property. I have only seen the agent three times in the last 15 years.”
On Friday, Dobson was informed of a £300 per month rent increase. This comes on top of other increases in costs his business is facing, such as their insurance going up from £300 to £1,100 over the last two years.
Trading conditions for local businesses continue to be tough, with character-full independents which are often part of the local community clinging on daily against the barrage of rising costs and ever-slimmer margins. “These are exactly the kind of shops we should be encouraging on our high streets, instead of the identi-kit chains, the fried chicken shops and bookmakers,” one local said.
The Dobsons have been overwhelmed by the support they are receiving from the local community.
Residents have been speaking out in favour helping to save the business and property from development. Many have expressed concern about development within a conservation area.
The South Norwood Tourist Board posted to Facebook: “Just across the road from our beloved Sensible Garden, and one of the few remaining original shop buildings left in South Norwood! If you are local and would like to support Dobsons, please add your support for them and object to the planning.”
By the end of the week, there were more than 50 objections lodged on the council portal to the planning application to turn the shop into a residential property.
Among the objections submitted is one from ward councillor Wayne Trakas-Lawlor, who went online while out of the country attending a seriously ill relative.
An online petition had by this morning reached the 500 signature milestone, with the public supporting the statement, “… the repeated conversions from South Norwood shops to flats must stop, the area is losing its character, and the need to support long-standing local businesses”.
But it would seem if you operate from a rented commercial property, no matter how successful, you are powerless against the whim of the landlord. Even the local planning authority, the council, has limited legal scope to determine what property owners chose to do with their properties.
South Norwood is currently seeing an economic surge, with new businesses opening regularly. This has brought with it a new hope and vibrancy. But there is always a fear that speculative property developers see High Street shops as easy pickings. South Norwood is not short of converted shop fronts.
Local group WeLoveSE25 set out aspirations of participating residents and businesses within a Community Economic Plan last year which shows a definite desire to support and nurture existing and new businesses. The groundswell public response to the news about Dobson Upholstery this week underlines that sense of feeling, and offers the family business some hope of a reprieve.
What it has no influence over, however, is rent hikes imposed by landlords.
“Residential property values locally have climbed 15 per cent in just a year, so there’s probably more profit to be made from a flat than from a long-standing, steady business,” one supporter of the local business said.
“The rent hike looks like a tactic: if they can force Dobsons out with rising rent, then the landlord is better able to win a decision for change of use on an empty shop. And there’s another nail in the coffin of a vibrant local high street.”
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