The Death of Knight & Lee is the Evolution of the High Street

Image taken from Google Earth

Councillor Claire Udy gives her unflinching opinion on the closure of Knight & Lee, a public vigil for a department store, and ‘the death of the high street’.

‘I think I’ve been there three times in my life, and I’ve never bought anything in there – they sell wool don’t they?’

That is my husband, Aaron (38), talking about the closure of Knight & Lee, a department store in Southsea which had stood (in one form or another) since 1865. Knight & Lee is part of the John Lewis Partnership and had been so since 1933. My memories of the place are similar to my husband, I’ve been in a few more times he has, but I can’t ever remember buying anything in there. To be honest, as a working-class girl growing up in Fratton, just walking in there made me feel like I was part of the under-class. We couldn’t afford anything in there growing up, and I have only really been able to in the last few years. Ironically, I did buy a very lovely dress from John Lewis only last week, but it was from their Southampton store and it has been the only large (£50) purchase I have ever made in any of their stores in my life.

Death of a department store

The closure of the store has invoked public discourse because of its longevity and the fact that it still retained the charm of a once upon a time, ‘proper’ department store that was your go-to for any purchase around the home. Quite a lot of the staff, especially on the haberdashery and beauty counters, had been working there for a significant amount of time. Before online shopping, people actually had to leave the house and relationships used to be built between the customer and the knowledgeable salesperson. Architecturally, it’s pretty pleasing on the eye and is at the forefront of Southsea’s high street shopping.

In a time where on-street retail and bigger department store brands are on their knees financially, John Lewis has had to make significant changes. A fairly ethical company in some regard, they profit share and are known to pay well. My ex worked at the store in Southampton during his time at university during the early 2000s and they paid him more than minimum wage is now. However, this past year, profits at the company have sunk 45% to what I would call a healthy £160m. Apparently this is not good enough because the staff profit share has sunk to 3% and has been sinking for the past seven years. John Lewis, unable to sustain some of its department stores thought Knight & Lee should go. This is understandable in some regard as other department retailers have been on shaky ground in the last year, Debenhams especially, avoiding administration but also closing their department store in Southsea opposite Knight & Lee.

The premises have been bought up by property developers THAT Group (who trade as This Group Limited), who have held public consultations and will eventually submit a plan (or at least we hope) to change the building into some form of office/social/cultural space*. THAT Group have permission to build in Portsmouth already, a new high-rise block of flats and hotel on the vacant lot next to the Zurich building by Victoria Park. This permission, in which they sidestepped their section 106 affordable housing quota, was granted last year but no building has taken place as of yet. It would appear that the site has been used as a storage ground for a development over the road, a new high-rise block of private student flats.

It must be noted that on the board of This Group, the significant share-holder, Ray Kelvin (of Ted Baker fame) has been in the press this year accused of some unwelcome behaviour towards colleagues. I feel largely uncomfortable over this and have expressed my concerns online, but my own personal view as a councillor (and a woman who has experienced harassment in the workplace) is that I would approach any such partnership or potential relationship with the city with trepidation.

Anyway, back to the story at hand!

A public vigil?

On the day Knight & Lee closed, on my Facebook feed appeared a shared post from fellow S&C contributor Matt Wingett who was in Palmerston Road during the closure of the shop. In a two minute long video, Matt shares his thoughts about the need for human interaction to be part of the high street going forward, and how we will never ‘Out Amazon Amazon’ – points I largely agree with. Amazon are too big for their boots, but this is a product of free-market capitalism and how corporations are too powerful. Unless we change the economic model we live under, Amazon will never be regulated.

The part of the video that really caught my eye – which was filmed outside Knight & Lee and Debenhams on closing day – is that there are scores of people watching a choir sing along to This is Me from the film The Greatest Showman.

I’m sorry, but were you all there for a fucking vigil? Over the fact a shop was closing down? The Lord Mayor showed up to I don’t know, pay his respects or whatever. We need to have a talk. Now.

A corporation (which still makes a profit) has decided to close and sell their shop without giving a single damn about what the public think. The day John Lewis announced Knight & Lee’s closure it had already sold the building, to the shock of many of my council colleagues who had no idea.

So, you are all there upset because – even though you have not been in there for the better part of a year – it is sad that a shop that we barely had any connection to (apart from it looking nice and making poor people feel like shit) is closing, and it’s going to screw over the shops on the ‘dying’ high street.

It’s not death, it’s evolution

Southsea’s high street is not dying. It’s evolving; it’s turning into a more culturally in-tune significant street which is still, in part, only available to those with money. There are many places to eat and drink still springing up, and it has a great array of charity shops (but that Boots is dire, sorry). I do not mourn the loss of John Lewis, Debenhams, Laura Ashley or others; if they do not want to be part of that evolution, then quite frankly, they can go fuck themselves.

John Lewis was expensive, no one was buying anything from the store because even with money, people are tight and like a bargain. That dress I bought was reduced from £120. There is absolutely no way I would have purchased that dress at full price. It was gorgeous but I can live without it because it was £120. I do the majority of my shopping in charity shops.

The closure of Knight & Lee has also brought out the professional politicians. Labour were first out of the gate, holding a street stall shortly after the closure’s announcement. However, I have not seen them campaigning in Commercial or Fratton Road even though these areas have the lowest occupancy rates of shops in Portsmouth’s retail centres. Labour’s vote in Portsmouth largely relies on liberal metropolitan voters, those with some disposable income, those who more than likely voted Remain, who are against austerity but not enough to help.

The real people that would benefit from Labour’s policies are sometimes so upset with the establishment they are voting UKIP or Brexit Party. While it must be noted some campaigners have done significant work to build bridges and repair the damage done to deprived communities, it is hard not to see the hypocrisy when you see Labour campaigning on what are, by and large, middle-class issues. Let the Tories and Lib Dems fight over who is going to get their dick sucked from voters in Southsea, there are areas in the city that genuinely will benefit from Labour’s national key policies and being upset about John Lewis isn’t one of them.

The experienced officers at Portsmouth City Council know our high streets need help and have in recent months applied for grants to the Future High Streets fund for Fratton and Commercial Road. Both are in the ward I represent (well half of Fratton Road is) and I hope we see the money. I have been keen to see culture-led local investment in high streets as we inevitably move away from a retail-led model, but we need to see business rates overhauled and private landlords bringing their rents down so empty units can be occupied.

Want to go to a pop-up local art gallery on a moment’s notice? Buy unique stuff from someone who lives in the same road as you? Drink a beer that was made in Milton? Wear some clothes that someone repurposed and made amazing? People should be given the opportunity to do that, to make money and to spend it. People exchanging their help in shops in exchange for goods or services, skill-swapping. People at a pay-what-you-want café giving more money than they would have been charged elsewhere because the food and company was great, knowing that someone who had no money could eat a free meal without judgement.

This is where we are going to get our ‘face-to-face’ experience. The high street is evolving.

John Lewis does not care about the evolution of the high street. They sold the shop in double time and it is gone. Adios. Au revoir. Adieu. To see people mourning a chain store infuriated me.

Save the high street or change the system?

We can, of course, each have our memories of the place. But it’s notable that there was no choir for the closure of U Need Us and that was a Portsmouth family having to shut down their business. Everyone in Pompey used that shop no matter what their social status or class. We all had a whoopee cushion or a fancy-dress emergency. U Need Us definitely lost to the internet and the globalization of shopping. John Lewis did not. It has not even lost; it is still making money.

Don’t feel guilty about shopping online either. In a world where we may see full automation in our lifetimes, it is time to reclaim, rebrand and change the high street. For people and not for profit. And do not feel guilty if you cannot shop independently because it is more expensive, and you struggle to afford it. We need to be doing such a bigger job of changing the economic system we live in so the rich stop getting richer.

Never be told it is your fault that a shop is shutting down. It is capitalism’s fault.


*These are THAT Group’s initial proposals for consultation, which may be subject to change when a full plan has been submitted to the council.