Tonbridge greengrocer is told to move off the High Street after 25 years
by Andy Tong | 10th April 2019
ROBERT SMITH, the greengrocer who runs a stall at the High Street entrance to The Pavilion in Tonbridge, is having to move after a quarter of a century.
The walk-through retail area is owned by the American bank JP Morgan, and Mr Smith says he was told: “It’s not the sort of thing we have any more.”
He says he has been ‘coerced’ into moving into one of the vacant shops in the arcade, though he will retain a smaller presence where his flower stall is located on the Angel Centre side.
But the pavement vending has to cease because it is now deemed as an insurance risk by the bank’s asset management company Columbia Threadneedle.
Although there has never been a problem before, it is believed that one area of concern was the cabling required to connect the till to mains electricity.
Initially the firm was not going to renew his lease, but after a meeting with local MP Tom Tugendhat and the Leader of Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council, Nicolas Heslop, a series of accommodations have been reached.
'I love what I do, and I really love the town. I know everyone, they all say hello to me'
“I’m a fifth generation greengrocer and it makes me so sad,” Mr Smith said. “They want to sterilise the whole set-up. I love what I do, and I really love the town. I know everyone, they all say hello to me.
“Tonbridge is going to go from strength to strength. We want to encourage people to come and shop in the High Street.”
Columbia Threadneedle declined to answer questions from the Times. Instead they issued a statement: “We have been working with Mr Smith to move him to a suitable unit which he has accepted.”
“They tried to hold the old health and safety card up but they didn’t clarify why,” said Mr Smith. “Then they said it was an insurance issue.
“JP Morgan have a blanket insurance for all their properties but most of their buildings are up in London. I’ve been here for 25 years without a problem.”
The 59-year-old, who lives in Southborough, said: “I work hard, the margins are small but I’m here all the time – my wife complains about it.
“We’re here seven days a week and I often have to be up at the markets in London, Covent Garden or Nine Elms in Vauxhall, at 3am.
“But it keeps me young because I love what I do. I don’t want to retire, I’ve got a 14-year-old daughter – and I’ve got staff and customers that I love.
“We had the family business next door to the Opera House and on the Old High Street in Tunbridge Wells. It’s in my blood. Mum, dad, sister, two brothers, my uncles were all in the business.”
In the new shop JP Morgan have given him six months rent-free to start again, with a modest increase on his former rent each year for the next five years to bring it up to the market rate.
He has been handed a 10-year lease on the shop and a smaller version of the stall where the flowers are currently sold – but he has been told that they can take away the stall at any time.
“I was coerced into taking a unit but I only agreed on the understanding that we still had a presence in the walk-through,” he said.
'Rob is the most fantastic retailer in Tonbridge. He has a real passion for the town and local economy'
“I want to keep it separate, have a top-class flower shop and a stall that has some flowers but is mainly fruit and veg.
“If someone wants to talk about funeral flowers, you don’t want to have lots of people coming in and out.”
Mr Smith is appreciative of the support he received from Mr Tugendhat and the council, which has given him £3,000 to invest in a new frontage, shutters, lighting and signage.
“Nicolas and Tom fought our corner when all this started around nine months ago. Tom told them this is what the town likes and it works – this is an ancient market town.
“Nicolas said they had a fund to help high street retailers and he and Jeremy Whittaker, the town’s economic regeneration officer, had it railroaded through. They answered my plea for help.”
Cllr Heslop said: “Rob is the most fantastic retailer in Tonbridge. He has a real passion for the town and local economy, with a longstanding presence and a great service for so many customers and new ones as well.
“I was really horrified when Rob phoned me to say his lease at the Pavilion Arcade would be ending, putting an end to many years’ presence.
'Many of us have used his flowers to apologise or congratulate more times than we can remember'
“Tom Tugendhat and I worked together to meet the landlord and their agents to ask them to reverse their decision.
“Though they refused to go that far, we did achieve a commitment from them that Rob could stay in the Pavilion using an empty unit.
“We were delighted that we could help keep Pavilion Flowers where they belong.”
Mr Tugendhat told the Times: “I’m sorry Rob is going to have to move because of the difficulty getting insurance. Many of us have used his flowers to apologise or congratulate more times than we can remember and all of us know how important he is to our community.
“That’s why I have been working so closely with the council. I’m delighted we were able to help find a solution which keeps Rob local to all of his loyal customers.”
Convivial – or sterile?
The Tonbridge Town Team said of the removal of Mr Smith’s stall: “The decision to make this an open space without stalls will make it appear sterile and uninviting, and that goes completely against current thinking in town centre management and retailing, which emphasises the unique, quirky and convivial nature of street stalls.
“Properly managed and well organised, stalls add so much to the character of shopping centres and high streets and also provide a route to market for entrepreneurs and small traders – something that benefits the local economy and wider community.”