London’s old Latin quarter, as the area was referred to in 1930, has for a long time been known for its variety of restaurants and cafes, many of them independently owned. But Fitzrovia also has a wide range of other businesses including furniture, electronic goods, and fashion wholesalers. Tossed in among the ground floors are small offices, and some quite unusual shops selling musical instruments, hardware, and specialist shops. There’s the advertising and media industry, conservation areas with listed buildings, and the BT Tower plonked in the middle.
That’s what those of us who live here find attractive. It is mixed in many ways. On a weekday lunchtime you could wander down one street and hardly have room to walk on the pavement because of the numbers of people rushing about, then turn the corner and be in a quiet residential street. Walk a little further and you could peer through the window of architectural offices animated by people constructing wooden models and creating town centre master plans, or view an art gallery or the latest in fashion designs. You may even discover the Toy Museum.
But Fitzrovia has been changing. Rents have risen. Where there was once a shop selling groceries or flowers, there’s now food ready to eat. There are a huge number of places selling sandwiches, hot food, takeaway or eat in; and up-market coffee shops have settled here. A lot more than there were ten years ago. And of course, they are all competing with each other. Unless people start having two lunches a day and doubling their coffee intake, something has to give.
Some people say the planning rules are being broken and that Camden Council has not being enforcing properly (or at all). Others say the A1 planning class (which allows for a variety of shops) is being abused and in effect allows everything to be sold from a back massage to some sort of hot meal.
Strictly speaking, if a business is cooking food on the premises it should have an A3 planning consent. If hot food is being served to takeaway then A5 planning permission is needed. But there is some flexibility allowed.
However, owners from three independent cafes and restaurants with A3 permission in Tottenham Street are furious that a Pod Food store boasting “Proper Hot Food” is being allowed to trade with an A1 planning consent. But it is not clear if the Pod people are breaking local planning regulations, and I’m not saying they are.
One resident in Colville Place said: “I have no sympathy with businesses complaining about market forces. If they want socialism, they can move to Cuba!” But others say that the small independent businesses are being driven out and the area has become a victim of its own success. “It’s just not fair on these small independent cafes and restaurants that have been here for ages. They are being strangled by the bigger guys who just roll out their clone outlets,” said a resident in Tottenham Street.
When a Barclays Bank on the corner of Tottenham Court Road closed it was replaced by a large Costa coffee shop. But the bank had a planning use of A2 which allows financial services. Didn’t that protect the premises from becoming a cafe or restaurant?
No, because planning permission was not needed to change from A2 to A1. Camden’s regulations protect A1 which is a retail use but don’t protect A2 in the same way. So a company can open a large cafe as long as they are not cooking hot food from raw ingredients. In theory there is also a limit to the number of seats on the premises, but in Fitzrovia this rule appears to have been blurred. Or chairs suddenly disappear when an inspector pops in for a skinny latte.
In another case, a large newspaper shop on Tottenham Court Road near the corner with Goodge Street closed down, and now the premises is being prepared to open as a coffee and sandwich shop, part of the Eat chain. Eat already have another store on the corner of Goodge Street and Charlotte Street, and another branch further up Tottenham Court Road. Where’s the next one going to be?
Tottenham Court Road used to be a street with a variety of shops selling furniture and electronic goods with a few independent cafes and takeaways dotted along it. But when a furniture or electronic store shuts it often becomes a Pret a Manger or another chain sandwich shop.
While hungry customers may be spoilt for choice with so much on offer, Fitzrovia is in danger of being less attractive as a result. For with every new cafe there is going to be one less shop doing something different. It could end up being a very dull district no matter what the marketing people will tell you. Choice, but not much variety.
When we asked a sample of cafe and restaurant owners if they thought there were now too many eateries in Fitzrovia, almost all of them said there were far to many to be sustainable. Most of them fear they will be pushed out by the big chains.
Is a source of the problem Derwent London’s Fitzrovia Partnership business group? The Fitzrovia Partnership is promoting existing cafes and restaurants through its website and literature, and has introduced a loyalty card scheme.
But is the Fitzrovia Partnership marketing Fitzrovia as an eating destination and encouraging more eateries? It has produced a leaflet entitled “Eat your way through Fitzrovia”. Are they trying to make us fat?
For one of the stated objectives of the Fitzrovia Partnership is to “increase the dining and eating offer to add value to the vibrancy of Charlotte Street and its surroundings”. This is according to Derwent London’s annual report 2009.
When we showed this report to cafe owners they weren’t pleased that anyone should be encouraging more eateries in Fitzrovia. It seems the small independent businesses in Fitzrovia are being squeezed and the Fitzrovia Partnership is partly responsible.
After a full breakfast and an Americano we put this to Gary Reeves company secretary of the Fitzrovia Partnership. He told us:
“We have not been marketing Fitzrovia to encourage more eateries. We have come a significant distance since 2009 and having spoken to a wide range of businesses, the Partnership wants to encourage an eclectic mix of businesses in Fitzrovia. As a membership led organisation it is our role to reflect the thoughts of our members.”
However, Mr Reeves is a former CEO of the New West End Company, a business improvement district covering Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street. With that background, aren’t the Fitzrovia Partnership just wanting to replicate more of Oxford Street in Fitzrovia, which will of course push out the small businesses and produce a “clone town” here?
Mr Reeves said: “What I have done before is irrelevant. Oxford Street is the epitome of a cloned high street. But we absolutely don’t want to see a cloned high street in Fitzrovia.”
Well, that remains to be seen. I find it hard to digest.
On the western side of Fitzrovia, Great Titchfield Street was (and still is) known for its rag trade and fashion wholesale showrooms as well as its collection of restaurants around the junction with Foley and Langham Streets. A few new cafes have opened up: the successful Kaffiene and Scandinavian Kitchen have added to the existing ones but the street has escaped the well-known brands.
Sadly I hear that Efes Restaurant, which has been on Great Titchfield Street for 37 years, is closing. The owner is apparently selling up due to the rising cost of meat.
Fitzrovia needs a balanced diet of uses: a variety of shops, services and employment. Customers coming to visit furniture shops may choose to stop for lunch or a coffee after their shopping trip. For many cafe and restaurant owners this is the passing trade that adds to the regular customers they get from people living and working here.
I enjoy Fitzrovia’s variety of places to eat and I spend a lot of my time in cafes. We are lucky to have so many independent and creative businesses here. But if we do get any more cafes, restaurants and sandwich shops, Fitzrovia is very likely to eat itself.