Promoted as healthy: Muswell Hill

Haringey in North London is a borough that hosts both the healthiest and unhealthiest high streets in London, according to recent research from The Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH), and since Retail Insider is a local resident we decided to investigate.

The survey certainly received a great deal of publicity for its second ‘Health of the High Street’ survey that ranks High Streets in the capital and rest of the country making links between the mental and physical health of the local inhabitants and the retailers, services and businesses in their local shopping centres.

The Broadway in Muswell Hill, on the affluent west side of the borough, was deemed the most healthy in London while three miles away to the east poor old West Green Road in Tottenham was ranked the unhealthiest. This was a gift to commentators but the easy headlines potentially hid a much more complex story about what a successful local high street means to its neighbouring residents.

The RSPH bases its findings on a very simple Richter Scale of good and bad types of business and then counts the number of these in a given neighbourhood. So, good influences include leisure centres, health clubs, art galleries and libraries – none of which are retailers!  Pubs are half way – they are ranked good for social interaction but bad for health with coffee shops on the same score. Convenience stores are exactly at zero as their mental wellbeing score is cancelled out by their unhealthy choices.  And right at the bottom come the villains of the piece: payday lenders and rent to buy retailers, off licences, fast food outlets (FFOs) and tanning salons.

On paper some of the report’s conclusions would appear to be fairly indisputable – there is a link between deprivation and poor diet, and probably a link between mental health and the physical environment in which we live and the shops we have access to. However, residents in Haringey who know both streets could very legitimately argue that it is West Green Road which feels more like a vibrant and buzzy community area shaped and inherently linked to its local residents, while Muswell Hill’s Broadway could be any affluent thoroughfare with no particular identity of its own and that cultural identity also has a role to play in wellbeing.

No doubt the two Jamaican patty shops on West Green Road are designated FFOs but anyone with a passing acquaintance of the area would concede that they are also places where people reconnect to their heritage through food (good for mental wellbeing), and where they have a good old catch up with friends (good for social interaction).  And only someone who had never set foot in a bookmaker would rank them, as the RSPH has done, with a zero score for social interaction. It’s just not the Royal Society for Public Health’s preferred kind of interaction.

Stigmatised as unhealthy: West Green Road

There are certainly plenty of convenience stores on West Green Road but they almost all have a large green grocery stall laid out in the front of their stores – a far cry from the small shelf of dried up potatoes and fruit in an average convenience shop. And when the report calls for many more so-called ‘third spaces’ for the community, well this area already has a plethora of beauty and hair salons where residents while away hours together in a shared space. There are no pay day lenders on West Green Road, instead several money transfer offices allowing people the mental satisfaction of knowing their family abroad is provided for. A large proportion of the other units are ethnically diverse food stores for Asian, Ghanaian or Congolese communities.

Muswell Hill Broadway has large retail units and wide roads with plenty of room for civic buildings like libraries. West Green Road is a small, narrow, side street off the Tottenham High Road, its units are tiny and there is absolutely no room for a swimming pool or theatre in its architecture. However within five minute’s walk of West Green Road for those same residents, there is a large library, a very modern leisure centre and a fully functioning arts complex. The report is comparing apples to pears and unfairly judging Tottenham. No doubt the High Road would have fared much better on the Richter Scale.

Bizarrely the authors of the report do not seem to like people who actually sell things as all the most positive influences are more service-providers than retailers. This sentiment probably actually translates into “we don’t like what you people in deprived areas are spending your money on” but to say that is unacceptable so instead retailers are blamed for selling what the locals want to buy. But even where the simplified logic seems irrefutable as in ‘fast food shops are bad for health’ there is a subtlety in real life which is lost.

To penalise retailers which are providing services and goods to people priced out of the mainstream seems peculiarly shortsighted.  The question is not why are there pay day lenders on the poorest streets but instead why have retail banks turned their backs on these areas. Pawnbrokers have been providing the cash-strapped with no bank accounts with a temporary lifeline for hundreds of years – their effect cannot, with any integrity, only be classed as negative.

Likewise, if you don’t have financial access to the no-doubt highly healthy pursuits of dining out, going to the theatre or cinema or joining a gym then the huge TV in the front room becomes the focus of all entertainment – and if the only retailer willing to allow you access to that is Brighthouse then presumably there is an argument that this is could be a valuable High Street provider.

The risk with reports such as these, well-meaning though they undoubtedly are, is that they fall into the classic pattern of the more affluent imposing their value system on the less well off. After a long day, doing low paid work as a carer in an old people’s home, for example, telling people that what they actually want is not, as they thought, a bucket of fried chicken and a flutter on the horses but to read a book in the library followed by an improving look around an art gallery – well, good luck with that!

Reading this report, one gets the distinct impression that if the RSPH could also rank the kind of improving programmes that those in areas of deprivation should be watching on their TVs versus what they are actually watching, then they would. But by reducing shopping centres like the West Green Road to these two dimensional caricatures of alcohol and fat the authors create a false ideal of the perfectly healthy high street which actually is not one many of us would want to live in.

Negative scoring (as per RSPH)

                                West Green Rd                                 Muswell Hill Broadway

Fast Food Outlets            8                                                              1

Betting shops                    2                                                              2

Tanning salons                  0                                                              0

High cost credit                 0                                                              0

Empty shops                      5                                                              0

Off licences                        3                                                              2

 

Neutral (as per RSPH)

Convenience stores        10 (most with large                         2 (as above off licences)

green grocery)

 

Positive (as per RSPH)

Leisure centres                 0                                                              0

Health providers              0                                                              4 (3 optician, 1 dentist)

Pharmacies                        2                                                              3

Health clubs                      0                                                              0

Libraries                             0                                                              1

Museums                           0                                                              0

Vape shops                        0                                                              0

Pubs                                    2                                                              2

Cafes                                    3                                                              9