Leicester independent traders defend 'special' city centre after criticism following M&S announcement

Peter Gardner
Peter Gardner, owner of Cocoa Amore, said Leicester had “so much going for it”. -Credit:Leicester Mercury

Independent businesses in Leicester have praised the “uniqueness” of the city and its "vibrant" atmosphere after the news that M&S was set to close drew a slew of negative comments about the city centre. Though M&S simply named changing shopping habits as the cause for the proposed closure, readers were quick to weigh in, with comments ranging from "too many vape and chicken shops" and "expensive" parking to harsher criticisms such as feeling “unsafe” because of "too many beggars and druggies" or that the city centre simply had "nothing" to attract shoppers.

But Leicester has a thriving independent sector with a wealth of "pretty special" small shops that many cities would envy. LeicestershireLive went to Silver Street, one of many streets in the city known for such businesses, to ask traders what they believed the city had to offer shoppers. We also asked them what improvements they would like to see.

They praised Leicester's many unique shops and urged people to visit and support them. However, many also said more police were needed to reassure visitors that the city was safe.

READ MORE: 'Leicester city centre is dynamic' despite M&S closure

Peter Gardner, 43, is owner and founder of Cocoa Amore, which describes itself as selling “the best speciality hand-crafted chocolate” in the city. Peter said Leicester had “so much going for it”.

“The danger in Leicester is no different to any other city," he said. "I went to Birmingham on Friday. It’s no different.

“There are pros and cons where you live everywhere. There are a lot of businesses here that are pretty special and people ought to come and try them.

“We have such a problem in Leicestershire of not shouting up the good and whining about the bad. The positives outshout the negatives. If you speak to some of these coastal towns who have lost everything and are desolate - these business owners are campaigning just to get a bank on the high street. Here we have access to banks and help from BID [Business Improvement District]. We are so spoilt in how multicultural we are.

Silver Street on a wet and rainy May day
Silver Street on a wet and rainy May day -Credit:Leicester Mercury

"We have to go out, try things and take a chance."

Peter said Leicester was a "quite unusual" city because it was "like four or five town centres in one". He added: "It’s incredibly multicultural. You have a real set of independent shops. At St Martins Square [off Silver Street], they have done a real good job with nice food and drink offers. They [the owners] are happy to invest in it.

“I've never wanted to run a business anywhere else. Leicester is my city. I want to build a business that Leicester can be proud of. I want to be ethical and sustainable on our pricing and keep our prices affordable and for good value. When we look at our chocolates that come in from farmers all over the world, they should be more expensive than a bar of Dairy Milk on the high street.

“I don't want to be in business anywhere else other than Leicester. There are a lot of businesses here that are pretty special and people ought to come and try them."

He said it was "sad" that M&S was set to close, "but at the same time, it sells a lot of chocolate; those customers have to go somewhere".

Asked what he thought needed to be done to make Leicester city centre more attractive, Peter said he believed that the police needed more powers and funding from the government to help reassure shoppers that Leicester is a safe place to visit and shop. He said: “That comes back to the central government, not local governments.

“We have had problems with rough sleeping and fires on the back step of the shop which devastated us. [But] it's not going to push me out of working here.”

Edina Zoltai
Edina Zoltai -Credit:Leicester Mercury

Edina Zoltai, 40, is a manager at Just Fair Trade, which sells failrly traded gifts, homeware, toys and more next door to Coco Amore. Referencing the pouring rain, she said: “When the weather is not like this it’s a vibrant area.

She added: "We are very much hopeful with the plans of opening the walls between the market and this area. The development around the market is definitely a good thing for independents."

Edina said the city would benefit from more independent businesses to add to the many the city already boasts. "We do have lots of uniqueness, and when you think of other cities, that is what we need more of," she said. “I think in this sector we can offer a much more personal and much nicer service than big chains. That’s why a higher percentage of our customers are regulars.” Edina said Leicester also needed more of the makers' markets which were held in Highcross.

She said she liked the fact that the city centre did not have cars “everywhere”, and praised the multicultural nature of Leicester and how “every month there is always something going on”.

Abbie Robinson, 38, who is other manager at Just, said the Silver Street area offered shoppers many unusual items that could not easily be found elsewhere. But she said she believed more police in the city could go some way to making people feel reassured.

“There’s not much of a police presence," she said. "I used to work at Pandora on Humberstone Gate and we did see an increase in homeless people on drugs [which might make people feel less safe]. I think people would feel a lot more reassured if there was more of a police presence. But they have been stretched, their resources have been cut.”

Sisters Tracey Brewill and Juliet Hooper run Brides of Bond Street, on the other side of Cocoa Amore. The family-run business has been around in the city for three decades.

Brides of Bond Street in Leicester
Brides of Bond Street -Credit:Leicester Mercury

Tracey said: “The one thing we hear from our customers is that they do not feel safe being here. It’s the begging and the drugs. I think it's more people wanting money off you. It can be intimidating.”

As the shop takes regular deliveries of dresses and gowns, lorries have to drive through the city centre to get to its delivery area. Juliet said: “The looks that you get from people and the animosity you get from people with it all being pedestrianised. There are not enough signs to say vehicles are passing on this road.”

However, the pair were adamant that independent shops can still thrive in the city. Tracey said: “We have to keep pushing the fact that there are some nice independents down here and try and get people to support independents. You have got to support the shops or there won’t be a high street.

"I wish we knew [the answer]. All we can say is that we have to stay positive.”

After the news of M&S's closure broke, and the critical comments began to emerge, Dominic Gomersall, managing director of luxury jewellers Lumbers Ltd, in High Street, defended Leicester. He said the city centre was "dynamic and vibrant" despite the closure of the highstreet giant's store.

Mr Gomersall said: "The city centre continues to be a dynamic and vibrant shopping area. The shopping experience with independents far exceeds the Fosse Park experience. It is rarely highlighted how often drivers are sat in queues waiting to get in or out of Fosse Park – the convenience has altered and parking in the Highcross is now always readily available and easy…..a far cry from the days when you just drove and parked outside your favourite Fosse Park shop or queued an hour to get into the city centre….this has all been reversed.

"Yes – things have changed and they will again. Fenwicks closed but we haven’t really missed it and those who mourned its closure had probably not frequented it for a decade."

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