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Sink or swim: indies struggle in the wake of the winter floods




Almost six months after the first wave of devastating floods hit the north of England and Scotland, independent retailers are still counting the cost of damaged stock and loss of business.

It was a cold, wet Saturday in December, and Hilary Cookson had her day all mapped out. The town of Whalley in Lancashire, where her womenswear boutique, Maureen Cookson, and cafe, Benedicts of Whalley, are based, was holding a celebration of independent retailers. Many shops were simultaneously launching their end-of-season Sale to create a bit of buzz and drive up footfall in the run-up to Christmas.

But, as Cookson was readying her shop for a busy day ahead, the nearby River Calder burst its banks and inundated much of the town centre. Five months later, that day is still imprinted firmly on her memory.

“We all had to close by lunchtime. It was unbelievable. We lost a whole day of takings during a key selling time pre-Christmas,” she recalls.

Trade is dire – it has just fallen off a cliff since the flooding

Hilary Cookson, Maureen Cookson, Whalley, Lancashire

December 2015 was the UK’s wettest month on record, as three storms – Desmond, Eva and Frank – battered the country, bringing heavy rainfall and severe flooding to parts of Scotland and northern England. Cumbria and Lancashire were particularly hard hit. For many fashion independents, this had a devastating impact: property and stock were damaged, and footfall and sales were badly hit for months afterwards.

Cookson’s village was hit again by flooding on Boxing Day. Five months later, she has yet to receive her insurance claim of £30,000 to recoup the cost of water damage and lost business. Footfall and trade have not fully recovered.

“There are still shops and houses in the village that haven’t reopened. Parts [of the town] still look like a war zone. Trade is dire – it has just fallen off a cliff since the flooding. I have stock pouring in now for the new season and cash flow is challenging.”

For some indies, this has led to some difficult decisions. Nicola Scott owns contemporary womenswear indie Paper Doll, which has a store in Pocklington, Yorkshire. Scott had a second store in York, but was forced to close it permanently on April 27. Although the shop had escaped water damage, it was hit hard by the subsequent drop in footfall. The city centre was “completely dead” for months, says Scott.

“We had to close for the week between Christmas and New Year because the city centre was impassable, and it took months for people to get their confidence back and start shopping in the area. It was completely dead for January and February. The lease was coming to an end and we would have signed again if we had had a brilliant six months, but the floods put such a strain on trade in the town we decided not to renew.”

Like Cookson, Scott is still waiting for compensation.

She feels there was not enough support available locally for businesses in her position: “There wasn’t any local funding in place for those who were indirectly affected. Trade stops but bills don’t. Luckily we have a really good relationship with our suppliers so we were allowed to take a bit longer paying them back, but that has a knock-on effect on them.”

The government has made £11m available in the form of flexible business recovery grants, which will be distributed through councils and local enterprise partnerships. To date, £6.7m has been paid to 2,497 businesses. However, the damage caused by flooding across the North of England and Scotland could cost businesses and residents up to £5.8bn to repair, predicts Justin Balcombe, KPMG’s UK head of general insurance management consulting.

A spokesman from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills points out that the government has also provided local authorities with funding to give flooded businesses business rate relief, amounting to £4.3m at the time of writing.

It took months for people to get their confidence back and start shopping in the area

Nicola Scott, Paper Doll, Pocklington, Yorkshire

Cookson says she received some business rate relief for the first three months of the year, which was “a help”, but feels more could be done to help.

She is also worried about the threat of further flooding in the future: “I fear it will happen again. The local council isn’t dredging the rivers or clearing the drains, so I’m sure it will.”

However, she has found glimmers of hope. The flooding has brought a sense community to the businesses affected in Whalley, and they are planning to jointly run a series of events promoting independents over the summer.

“We want to show people we are back in business and promote local retail,” explains Cookson. “Everyone is coming together and working collaboratively, which is great.”

Some good came from bad: it showed people we’re here to stay

Jan Paul Dickinson, Scruples, Barrowford, Lancashire

This community spirit has been felt in other towns and villages. Scruples Menswear in Barrowford, Lancashire, lost £60,000 of stock that was stored in the shop’s cellar as a result of the flooding on Boxing Day.

Co-owner Jan Paul Dickinson says: “We spoke on local radio and to local papers about the flood and said we were having a bumper Sale to recoup some of the loss and boost footfall. It brought a lot of attention to the store and we saw some customers we hadn’t seen in a while. Some good came from bad: it showed people we’re here to stay.”

Retail Trust is offering support to the businesses and families of retailers affected by the floods and can provide services such as hardship grants, counselling support and legal advice. Contact Retail Trust at 0808 801 0808 or via

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