Some background. Our shop is located on the corner of 240 Brick Lane and Padbury Court. Brick Lane at this point, north of Bethnal Green Road, is a quiet residential street with a few shops and a basketball court on one side, houses and a small park on the other. Padbury Court is a quiet cul-de-sac, with a wide pavement on our side which narrows to under two feet halfway down its length. The road is driven down perhaps once an hour during the day.
Until July 16th, we had displayed bikes on the 2.5m wide pavement of Brick Lane, leaving a full 1.5m-plus unobstructed, and put a bench and a pump for public use – no commercial gain – on the 2m wide Padbury court pavement – again leaving well over a meter unobstructed.
On July 16th we were visited by two Tower Hamlets Markets Officers who advised us we were obstructing the pavement, and that we should not do so without a license. The logical inconsistency of an obstruction ceasing to obstruct once licensed notwithstanding, we moved the bikes in the next day.
About 10 days later, we got a letter and penalty notice, accompanied by photographs of the outside of our shop, showing our bench and pump on the Padbury Court pavement, and a bike (not for sale!) and two houseplants against the wall on the pavement of Brick Lane. The reason for the penalty notice was stated as ‘Wilful obstruction of highway’.
We sighed. We have been in Tower Hamlets for several years. While disappointing, this was no surprise. We moved the bench inside, along with the offending pot-plants.
On July 30th, we saw the same TH officer that had visited us before, once again photographing the exterior of our shop. We questioned him. We were still not complying with the council’s demands, we were informed, and would again be fined. On the pavement was a bike – not for sale and entirely within its unlicensed rights to be there! – and our pump on the Padbury Court pavement. No bench. No bikes for sale. And hence ‘Isambard’s Cycles fined for providing free foot (sic) pump’.
In the statement Tower Hamlets issued to “clarify” what had happened on July 30th, they used the photograph above, taken a full two weeks previously, and entirely unrepresentative of the way the shop looked on that day. On July 30th, when the enforcement officer was again taking photographs, the shop actually looked like this:
Draw your own conclusions…
The Wider Point
The pump issue has stirred emotions more widely than we might have anticipated, because it succinctly illustrates a much larger issue about the attitude of councils, and TH in particular, to small business. In broad terms, one of the fundamental roles of a Council, surely, is to facilitate enterprise, endeavour, and innovation amongst local businesses, in order that an area long-renowned for its individual character loses none, or as little as possible, of that to the steady march of faceless corporate money.
It is hard work doing business in TH. I think most local business owners would say the same. Our extortionate business rates are spent setting up hoops and hurdles for us to jump over and through. We pay £8,000 a yer in rates at present. As it stands, within three years, that figure will have risen to £18,000, and we will have had to close up shop. These ‘rates’ are of course misnamed – as far as I can tell, we receive nothing in return. They are in fact a tax in the purest sense. Of course this should come as no surprise. Rather than providing a steering and guiding hand, a steadying influence, and benevolent support, the council behave like feudal lords to small businesses’ tenant-farmers – extracting whatever tithes they can without even a pretence of logical or moral justification.
The depressing truth of all this is that to most people, business owners or not, this is all self-evident. It is a debate scarcely worthy of engagement because the weight of evidence is so firmly in support of one side. It takes a profound act of doublethink to take the council’s point of view on this.
It is, however, possible in this day and age to form a broad and widespread consensus in way that was never previously possible. Accountability is, in theory, more accessible, and the steamroller approach of large organisations less tenable than ever before.
This morning, as a result of public pressure, the council acquiesced to our requests, and agreed to the pump being outside our shop with no licence. However, this is of course the tip of the iceberg, and the broader point has only been illuminated, not addressed.
We’d like to thank everyone for their support and for every tweet, letter and email sent in support of common sense. Without that sort of pressure we’re absolutely certain we would have had to remove the pump, or pay to have it there.