Comment: When is a community asset an obstruction?

My last post carried a good news story about Lambeth; I go over to something of a tale of woe today, in neighbouring Wandsworth.

“The Flower Stall” on St John’s Hill outside Clapham Junction station has come a bit of a cropper with the planners in Wandsworth Council – for the crime of modernising.

Ever since the end of March last year, when Simon Lyons, the long-term owner, upgraded his old stall to a newer model (the old one was run down and not fit for purpose) at his own (not-inconsiderable) expense, the well-meaning florist and his host local authority have been at odds. Because he thought he was merely replacing an existing facility, Mr Lyons (rather understandably) did not appreciate that he needed planning permission, he thought merely he was investing in the future of his business (and, incidentally, the well-being of the St John’s Hill parade).

Mr Lyons is a hard-working entrepreneur, who has been serving his community in Battersea for more than 10 years, but he is now being advised that he has fallen foul of the planning process. And that, without serious support from the local community, it is likely that he will not be granted said planning permission and will face closure and removal.

This is red tape gone mad. Why wasn’t an empowered officer sent out to work with this retailer? The site’s use for a florist stand is clearly a long-standing and established use. And I just hope that sense will prevail very soon over in “The Brighter Borough”.

A flower stall has occupied that same position, at this location, for the past 25 years but there is now a planning objection that “this is an unmovable structure that blocks the flow of pedestrians at a busy area”. Simon Lyons firmly defends his new stall saying “the new and improved stall extends no further forward on the pavement than the previous stall. The new version also has the capacity to enable customers to step into the cabin to browse and purchase flowers rather than gather on the pavement in front of the stall. This is a major improvement compared with the previous arrangement and goes some way to improve pedestrian flow at this location”. And the owner, staff and local customers alike believe that the new stall significantly improves the pedestrian flow capacity from the previous facility which (did I already say this?) has been in place for THE PAST 25 YEARS.

Well! It is all plain daft. And in a further breathtaking case of total disconnect, “The Flower Stall” recently won a “Love Your Local’s Award”, for services to its high street and its community, as awarded by local MP Jane Ellison. Everybody wants it all the way around.

Having spent more than 30 years grappling with issues of high street regeneration (and maybe shortly to pick up the cudgels again on this agenda, having been asked by senior civil servants to chair a new national town centre panel for the Department) I can only say that I hope Wandsworth comes to its senses. Frankly, many of the town centres I know would give their eye teeth to have a flower stall – a thing of beauty -– animate their streetscape with colour and life. So it is hardly surprising that Simon Lyons has collected nearly 1,000 signatures (both from people in the street, and on-line) in support, together with innumerable letters of support from the local community, in the hope that “The Flower Stall” can stay. A flower stall makes a massive contribution to a visually vibrant high street, and this “The Flower Stall” provides a great service to local residents, and employs half a dozen local people.

The last word should go to Simon Lyons who himself says, simply, and rather charmingly: “I’d like to go on providing the community with gorgeous flowers for all life’s memorable moments”. And I say this, as a so-called “expert” in the health of high streets and town centres: Wandsworth Borough would be thoroughly ill-advised to lose this important high street asset. They are lucky to have it.

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