We all looked on in horror this time last year as riots broke out in London and across the country. A year on, many of these communities are getting back on their feet, but one group who were severely affected by the riots have not received the help they deserve. These are small business owners, many of whom saw their entire life’s work destroyed by mindless rioters.
That’s why I visited Croydon this week, an area still coming to terms with the legacy of the riots and a place where five small businesses go under every day. I wanted to hear firsthand the experiences of local small businesses about how they overcame the legacy of the riots.
I talked to a variety of small businesses in central Croydon, including market stall owners, jewellers and a small independent restaurant. I was particularly honoured to meet two generations of the famous Reeves family whose iconic, 140-year-old House of Reeves furniture store was destroyed during the riots. I also met with local Labour councillors who have been fighting hard on the side of those small businesses who were attacked, and the Chair of the Croydon Business Improvement District (BID).
I was struck by two things in particular. Firstly, how important the businesses were to the local community. The market stalls are undoubtedly the shop window for the whole high street, with many of the stalls owned and ran by the same families for generations, and the House of Reeves is very much a local icon.
Secondly, how the government, be it the Tory Prime Minister, Tory Mayor or Tory Council, has been conspicuous by its absence during the recovery process. Help has not been offered to local businesses, they have had to fight for it. Some businesses were only able to access loans to tide them over whilst they’ve waited months for compensation, thanks to the intervention of their Labour ward councillors. There is also much frustration that riot recovery money offered by the Mayor was spent by the Tory Council on existing projects and did not find its way to the businesses who needed it.
This is all despite the assurances of both the Prime Minister and the Mayor that they would stand by businesses who were targeted during the riots. Almost exactly a year ago the Prime Minister stood at the despatch box and declared:
“I give the people affected this promise: we will help you repair the damage, get your businesses back up and running and support your communities.”
As late as this February, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said:
“…all uninsured claims submitted under the Riot Damages Act have been processed through a bureau set up by the Home Office. MOPC officers have been instructed to treat these applications as a matter of priority and they guarantee that once a complete and documented claim is received an offer (Discharge Form) will be sent within five working days.”
These promises will be ringing hollow in the ears of the small businesses in Croydon and elsewhere as the government seems to have completely absented itself from the riot recovery process. If a promise to get businesses back up and running does not include action to speed up the compensation process then what is it worth?
This is why I have also written to the Prime Minister this week, highlighting many of the struggles that small businesses are facing because of the riots and asking him to finally take action to support small businesses which are the lifeblood of many local economies and communities.
As someone who ran my own small business for five years before entering Parliament I understand the responsibility small business people feel. They need to ensure that their business prospers every day to put food on the table for their families. Business people thrive on this responsibility, it drives them to succeed, but they simply want a level playing field where they are not penalised by the actions of others.
There is no doubt that Croydon is getting back on its feet and maintains a great sense of community spirit and pride in its local businesses. The new House of Reeves store is a potent symbol of this as the building has been covered with 4,000 images of young people holding positive statements. It’s just a shame that the government’s absence has made this struggle so much harder than it should have been for local small businesses.
Toby Perkins MP is Shadow Small Business Minister