Environment: Cafe society's blot on the townscape

Twenty three years after Covent Garden's fruit and vegetable market moved out, the area has become a victim of its own success. Stephen Goodwin examines a classic case of conservation at odds with commerce.

Aussie bars, canopies of perma-umbrellas and racks of garish waistcoats a la Carnaby Street; it's all too frightful for the Covent Garden Area Trust. The place may have been a market for most of the past 300 years but the Trust believes over-commercialisation is destroying the character of Inigo Jones's piazza.

Some 40 million people a year visit the central London piazza, making it one of the most successful city restorations. But the image of upmarket boutiques is being tarnished by businesses trying to wring every last penny from their patch.

A damning 127-page study by the Civic Design Partnership warned last week that urgent action is needed if the historic area is not to lose the character which has made it so popular.

Pavement cafes maximising trading space beneath a canopy of corporate umbrellas are among the worst offenders, according to the Trust. Unauthorised stalls, tables and chairs obstructing footways and infiltration by less chic high street names are not far behind.

"It really is starting to look like the lower end of Oxford Street," says Leana Pooley, the Trust's administrator. This disdainful verdict takes in the likes of Sheila's Bar - "Drink your way round the world" - racks of cut-price clothing, and a Pizza Hut next to a Lloyds Bank.

"It's all so tatty ... We get accused of being terribly snobbish, but I don't think it is that. Once you start having all the same old high street people what's the point in coming here? You might as well go to New Malden."

The study, commissioned by the Trust jointly with English Heritage, Westminster City Council and Guardian Properties, who manage the restored market building, calls recommends better design for pavement cafes, removing obtrusive umbrellas, restoring authentic shop fronts and paving, and banning vehicles. The work would cost pounds 5m.

Way back in mid-Saxon times a thriving trade settlement existed in the area. The piazza, reflecting Inigo Jones love of the formal market squares of Italy, and St Paul's Church, date from the 17th century. Charles Fowler's neo-classical market building appeared in 1830 and was roofed over in 1872.

The battle of the umbrellas seems destined to run and run. Trevor Davies, director of the Market Cafe, which has 140 seats beneath umbrellas out in the open, says the weather makes large umbrellas a necessity. He accused the conservationists of not listening to the traders: "They want to ban everything in sight without consulting. I used to come here as a kid when the [fruit and veg] market was thriving ... And that's how it should be."