`Aspirational' Liverpool wants street traders to shut up shop

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The Independent Online
MARY BRAY'S family has sold flowers on Liverpool's streets for more than 150 years. Now council chiefs have decreed that she and her barrow must go. More than 50 street traders are to be exiled because they don't contribute the right "ambience".

They have another month of trading before a full council meeting will take a final decision. The outcome is awaited with interest by other northern towns agonising over the future of high streets faced with crippling competition from out-of-town shopping malls. Do they "trade up" and banish the barrows, or retain colourful low-price shopping with no check- outs or credit cards?

Liverpool's often fumbling attempts to resolve the issue date back 20 years, when some traders were evicted to make way for a bizarre and ultimately abortive episode in "ambience-generation" - the erection of a huge statue of a cart-horse.

No bronzes are under consideration now, but the traders claim that the middle-class Liberal Democrat councillors now running Liverpool have a different retail agenda from the Old Labour group from whom they wrested power.

"Street trading has a detrimental effect on appearance, investment and the overall ambience," explained a council spokesman. "It affects Liverpool's aspirations to be one of the leading and most attractive cities in Europe."

If no more street licences are granted, the traders may be offered sites in the cavernous St John's indoor market. But Mrs Bray, 69, believes more is at stake than her claustrophobia, and she and fellow traders are considering going to court to protect their stalls.

"We sell at least 400 bunches of flowers a week at about pounds 2 a bunch and, if the street traders go, the only place to buy flowers will be in expensive bunches in Tesco or Marks and Spencer," she said. "If I sat out here all day and didn't take a penny, I'd still think I'd done a job. I've no other way of earning a living, and nor has my son. He began selling flowers when he was eight. He's 34 now with a wife and two children."

The Christian family have spent long enough selling fruit and vegetables to earn a prominent place in the city's popular history. The stall Gerard Christian runs with his uncle opposite Central station is busy with regular and passing trade; in an average week they sell a ton of bananas.

"We're up at four every morning to go to market and we sell top quality fresh produce. I can't see how fruit harms the ambience. The disabled find it easier to shop here than in the shops or market. And a lot of customers buy from us, then leave their bags at the stall until they've finished the rest of their shopping," he said.

Criticism of the traders has focused on Church Street, the heart of the shopping centre. Outside Marks and Spencer, a cluster of stalls offer a range of cheap novelty goods, hosiery, towels, toys and hot food which multiples do not sell.

Shop managers have complained that the stalls look like a "casbah", with 80 per cent of representations made to the council critical of the appearance of Church Street. Some officials would like to recommend keeping flower, fruit and vegetable stalls, but say the law does not allow discrimination according to what goods are sold.

The traders dispute the interpretation, and claim their returns show public opinion wants choice of what a judge in an earlier dispute called "the right goods in the right place".

A hot dog and cola is pounds 1.50 on Church Street, four doughnuts pounds 1, an ice cream 50p.

Stallholder Brian Gould insists the street traders are prepared to listen to suggestions. "We've commissioned our own plans. We've suggested stalls with a Tudor look and stalls with a Victorian look. But I don't think the council want to listen. The decision's been made."

Dave Antrobus, the councillor heading the review, said no decision, or comment, will be made until the traders' case has been heard. Meanwhile, Mary Bray is not preparing him a bouquet.

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