To market we will go ..: Street traders are a dying breed

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The Independent Online
When I lived in Beirut I used to shop from the window of my flat on the second floor. Like most of my neighbours I had a basket with a rope attached to the handle and at the sound of the fruit and veg seller passing in the street, out of the window it would go.

A moment or two of chat or haggle, then up came the order and down went the cash. Very easy and I felt a touch more part of the community, unlike the crowd of staid expats who did their once-weekly shop in the supermarket. Posh Lebanese friends were horrified and told me I was behaving like a working-class housewife.

I wasn't troubled. I also became a market shopper in the souq when I had the time. It all added to the excitement of taking part in local life rather than watching from the side-lines.

I'm ashamed to say that I probably wouldn't have bothered with street markets in England had it not been for those five years in the Middle East. It had become a habit which I needed to indulge. I had Leather Lane for lunchtime shopping and North End Road for Saturdays, both within walking distance.

When I moved to Wandsworth in 1979, Northcote Road market was a few hundred yards away. It had 42 pitches and a waiting list, and it was a lively, colourful contribution to life in the borough. Today there are only 14 regulars. They hang on, resigned to the worst, yet hoping for some miracle of regeneration. Gaps appear in the line of stalls as more traders give up the struggle. Even on Saturdays you seldom have to queue now.

The market traders blame the council for the rents they charge. Until January this year, a

40 sq ft pitch was pounds 3,500 per year - higher pro rata than the rent on a shop in Bond Street, and double the price of a pitch in Islington.

The council is allowed by law to cover only the costs of cleaning and administering the

market, so for one which prides itself on its cost-cutting measures and its value-for-money

council tax, this seems to be oddly in contradiction with its charges.

Under pressure from the traders' association rents were halved as a temporary measure, but it has done little to halt the decline. Although

residents accept that their tax pays for social amenities, they would draw the line at subsidising market traders.

Despite protestations to the contrary, I can't help feeling that the 'Brighter Borough' would be relieved to be rid of the problem and happier if we all bought our neatly packed fruit and veg from the supermarkets they encouraged in the Eighties.

More depressing is that this decay is affecting other inner London boroughs. Talk to street traders in Northend Road in Fulham, Tachbrook Street in Westminster, the food stalls of Portobello Road. The story is the same. Takings are less than half what they were five years ago. Even allowing for some exaggeration to support the annual sob story they tell the taxman, you have to believe them. The state of the New Covent Garden wholesale market at Nine Elms bears it out, one of its two halls now lying empty.

Fifteen years ago, supermarkets sold 17 per cent of the fruit and veg we bought. Today it is 85 per cent and almost all imported direct. Yet stall holders admit that a supermarket within a few hundred yards can do wonders for trade.

When Sainsburys and M&S moved out of North End Road, turnover dropped overnight. Parking restrictions brought in to prevent

suburban commuters using Fulham and Wandsworth as park and ride facilities were

criticised, though in fact they made matters

easier for local shoppers.

Paradoxically, recession and the housing slump - which should have pushed consumers back to the cheaper market prices - often had the opposite effect: former housewives were forced back to work and were able to shop only out of market hours.

Credit-card food shopping and Sunday opening are the final straw for most

markets. Saturdays accounted for as much as half their week's takings, but all the urgency and bustle of a Saturday has gone. Convenience shopping rules.

Brewer Street, still king among food markets, survives more than ever on its secondary trade with local restaurants. Chapel Market has the continued support of Islington council house tenants, who make up 60 per cent of the

borough residents. East Street off the Elephant and Castle, apparently immortal in 1980, is slowly dying. Everyone seems concerned, but the concern stops at words.

So you did once buy five dodgy lighters for a quid which leaked all their gas in a week, or a half-length roll of tinfoil which seemed such a bargain at the time. Every market has its shysters and we all get caught. But with little more effort than a trip to the bottle bank you could support your local fruit and veg stalls, knowing that the prices are a good 25 to 30 per cent less than the supermarkets and that you were helping to keep alive one of London's traditions.

If London's parks are its lungs, its markets are an integral part of its wit and sparkle.

Use 'em or lose 'em: they're going fast.

(Photograph omitted)