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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 March, 2003, 07:51 GMT
London's markets face the future

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online business reporter

New Covent Garden
Change is in the air at New Covent Garden
It would be hard to imagine London without its markets.

Spitalfields, Billingsgate, Smithfields and New Covent Garden are as much a part of the city's fabric as red double-decker buses and Big Ben.

But some of these ancient markets could disappear forever under plans being considered by the government.

The proposals, outlined in a report last year by Nicholas Saphir, represent the biggest shake-up of London's wholesale fresh produce markets since the Middle Ages.

Fierce opposition

In his report, Mr Saphir recommends the closure of Billingsgate and Smithfields markets.

This would leave all of London to be served by three markets at Nine Elms, in South London, Spitalfields to the east and Western International.

For the first time, traders would be able to sell meat, fish and fruit and vegetables on the same market site, although not necessarily from the same stall.

This, Mr Saphir argues, is the only way to guarantee the future of London's wholesale markets in an increasingly competitive world.

The Corporation of London, which owns Billingsgate fish market, Smithfields meat market, and the horticultural market at Spitalfields, has given its partial backing to the Saphir findings.

It wants to move Billingsgate and Smithfields to a new composite market at Spitalfields, but leave New Covent Garden and Western International as seperate specialist wholesale and catering supply markets for fruit and vegetables.

But some traders are against a move out of central London.

A spokeswoman for the Smithfields' traders association said: "Our members' view is that we are not moving.

"There has been a market on this site for 900 years.

"It's been in families for generations. I think many of us consider it our second home."

Market warning

Smithfields has recently undergone a multi-million pound facelift and traders say they have just signed new, 10-year leases.

Don Tyler, a trader at Billingsgate fish market for 40 years and former chairman of the merchants' association, said: "As soon as the Saphir report came out we said we are not moving to Nine Elms (New Covent Garden) under any circumstances.

"Most of our clientele are East London based so we would much prefer to stay here.

"I think moving up to Spitalfields would be more appropriate."

He also warned against spreading the fish market across different sites.

"We are only a market while we are all together, so customers can compare prices."

One-stop shop

But for New Covent Garden, which moved to its current site at Nine Elms, Vauxhall, in 1974, the Saphir plan is seen as a lifeline.

Philip Emmanuel, chairman of the Covent Garden traders' association, said: "The future of our market is at stake.

"The catering trade, the retail trade all want a one-stop shop.

"If they can't find it here, they will go elsewhere."

The market rights of the City of London were based on a charter granted by Edward III in 1327 which prohibited the setting up of rival markets within 6.6 miles of the City.

Supermarket sweep

This was the distance it was reasonably expected a person could walk to market and return in one day.

Ronnie Hadsley
Ronnie Hadsley is philosophical about the changes
But the laws which once protected the livelihoods of traders have over the years turned into a straitjacket.

Traders have had to stand by while supermarkets monopolised the supply chain, eventually by-passing the wholesalers altogether in the 1980s to deliver direct to their stores.

Add to this the slow death of the traditional street market and the disappearance of corner greengrocers and butchers shops and the outlook for the London markets has, at times, looked bleak.

Adapt and survive

Today's traders have managed to transform themselves into niche suppliers for the restaurant and hotel trade.

The great strength of wholesale markets, and one of the reasons Mr Saphir cites for persevering with them, is the diversity of the products they can offer.

For smaller retailers, markets can also even the odds with the supermarkets by allowing daily price comparisons.

But change has not come without pain.

And many traders, at Covent Garden in particular, believe their long-term future depends on being able to branch out into other areas.

'Brilliant idea'

Catering trade supplier Peter Condon, who has been at Covent Garden for 15 years, plans to start selling meat and fish as soon as the regulations allow.

"There is quite a positive feeling in the market now.

"It was desperate three or four years ago.

"But you have got new businesses coming in now, like the ice sculpture people and cheese merchants, which gives hope for the future."

Just a ploy?

Flower seller Ronnie Hadsley, who has been at Covent Garden for 25 years, was less enthusiastic.

"The proposals would certainly secure the future of this site as a market for a reasonable amount of time."

But he added: "It could also be a ploy to get us all under one roof and move us out of central London.

"I suppose the logical thing to do would be to stick us on the rim of the M25."

The final decision on the future of London's markets rests with Environment Minister Lord Whitty, who is expected to announce his conclusion within the next few months.

Whatever the outcome, London's ancient markets are unlikely to be the same again.

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