Campaigners’ perspectives on the community value of markets

Myfanwy Taylor

On Monday 12 November, 17 market campaigners from London and beyond gathered together to give us their views on the community value of markets. This workshop mirrored similar discussions with market managers and traders which we are undertaking alongside interviews with key actors shaping the national debate on markets in the UK. While we are able to hold workshops with managers and traders at their respective national conferences (thanks to NABMA and NMTF), there is currently no analogous national-level network or organisation representing campaigners. We therefore convened a dedicated meeting for market campaigners, building on and updating contacts and connections built through previous research.

We were particularly pleased that campaigners from WUR Bradford and Friends of Leeds Kirkgate Market were able to come to London to join campaigners from The Brixton Society, Community Centred Knowledge, Friends of Queen’s Market, Just Space, Latin Elephant, Pedro Achata Trust, Portobello and Golbourne Markets, Reclaim Queens Crescent, Save Latin Village, Shepherd’s Bush Market Tenants’ Association and Wards Corner Community Coalition. We asked campaigners for their views on the community value of markets, the key features of traditional retail markets, the main threats to community value, and their ideas about how to enhance it.

As this blog explains, the discussions focused on the ways in which the economic and the social are powerfully linked in markets, the potential uses of the term ‘traditional’ given many markets’ roots in migrant and diverse ethnic communities, and what campaigners and others can do to defend markets from plans and developments that threaten their community value. We will be further developing this analysis after we conclude the remaining interviews and workshops making up this first phase of the research project.

 

The community value of markets

Campaigners began by highlighting some of the specific economic and social functions that markets perform, including providing the ‘first rung’ on the entrepreneurial ladder, a welcoming and safe social meeting place which combated isolation and loneliness, and a place for children and young people to connect with their roots and to spend time. This latter role was particularly stressed in the context of escalating knife crime in London and the impact of austerity on youth centres and services. They described markets as social and community hubs, the heart of communities and keeping communities together. Brixton Market was cited as an example, listed by English Heritage because of its role at the heart Afro-Caribbean life for the communities that settled in the area after WW2. One campaigner highlighted that communities themselves play a major role in co-creating their own local, unique markets.

Campaigners debated whether and how supermarkets also provided some of markets’ social and community functions. Participants agreed that supermarkets could also be social spaces (the example of Tesco’s on Portobello Road was mentioned), but in a very different way to markets. Markets were public spaces and that affected how you could use them. For example, you could spend all day visiting some markets, spending time without spending money. That would not be possible in supermarkets or shopping centres. Others stressed the potential to ‘subvert’ the space of the supermarket through simple acts like talking in queues, while also highlighting some of the ways in which supermarkets restricted or policed social activity, for example through self-service checkouts and the video cameras sometimes placed there. While it was agreed that both markets and supermarkets were both also commercial spaces, supermarkets appealed to their customers in overwhelmingly economic terms, for example through ‘buy one get one free’ deals.

This discussion elicited a number of comments about markets being spaces for alternative values. In markets, the economic and the social/cultural are linked in powerful ways, meaning that transforming a market economically often meant destroying it socially, for example attempting to turn an affordable, working class market such as Brixton Market into an expensive, tourist-oriented ‘foodie’ market. Participants therefore recognised that markets were a place to make money, but not only that. From this perspective, the value of markets included their role as a space for expression of alternative values.

 

Traditional retail markets

The question ‘what do you think the key features of a traditional retail market are?’ provoked a range of views on the meaning and usefulness of the word, ‘traditional’. Some campaigners were concerned that ‘traditional’ signalled markets serving ‘white British’ or ‘indigenous’ communities, highlighting the ‘tradition’ of gypsy and Jewish immigrant communities starting up markets in London’s East End, offering successive waves of migrants an opportunity to earn a living. The market was where you came when you arrived in London; people told each other to go to the market and you would be ok. Another participant stressed that traditional retail markets enabled people to maintain their cultural traditions, providing access to goods and services that you couldn’t find elsewhere. As such, traditional retail markets were an expression of autonomy, an important means of achieving food sovereignty.

Other workshop participants focused on the traditional role of markets as places of barter and exchange, stressing again the more-than-economic nature of market transactions. In a traditional retail market, traders would accept payment the following week, offer a personal service, source specialist products for their customers and would often be self-employed or working in family businesses. One participant traced traditional markets more-than-economic nature back to historic markets, where a wide range of economic and civic functions took place, and to historic street markets or ‘shambles’, before their various roles were disentangled, regularised and controlled. Another argued that traditional retail markets evolved in a particular place over time, whereas ‘pop up’ markets can ‘pop up’ someplace else.

Finally, campaigners stressed that a good traditional retail market provided low-income communities with affordable access to a wide-range of quality everyday necessities, and was a welcoming space for all.

 

Threats to community value

When asked about the threats to community value of markets, market campaigners focused overwhelmingly on the role of councils and developers, while also making mention of competition from supermarkets, changing shopping habits and contemporary pressures on people’s time. Participants identified a specific London ‘disease’, of which markets were ‘the casualty’, due to a combination of high housing targets, the pressure to build on transport hubs (where many markets were located), public sector cuts and drive to attract top council tax band paying residents. One participant felt that the London Plan acted like a business plan, inviting developers to come and ‘plonk’ their building here, and that the Mayor of London and the GLA had not considered Londoners’ needs. And, while some local authorities made it their business to know their markets, others did not: several participants spoke about their experiences in finally getting through to local authority or GLA planners, having previously only heard from developers.

One participant noted that while they supported the research project, it was a shame that markets were constantly having to demonstrate their value. Campaigners with experience of redevelopment schemes highlighted threats such as gentrification, raised rents, traders being forced out (especially those having leases outside of the Landlord Act), managed decline and removal of related storage spaces (e.g. under railway arches). Many campaigners felt that councils and developers were working too closely together, with developers having unfair access to planners in the process of developing plans. Others pointed to broader democratic failures, including infrequent elections, low participation rates, inadequate local scrutiny processes and insufficient representation of black and minority ethnic groups within planning teams. For some participants, the threat to markets therefore needed to be understood in the context of broader class and race struggles.

 

Enhancing community value

Discussions about how to enhance the community value of markets focused on actions campaigners could take to defend threatened markets and develop and pursue alternative plans, suggestions for market operations and recommendations for broader policy changes.  Campaigners urged each other to keep campaigning and suggested strategies such as anticipating and getting ahead of the debate, picking something very specific to focus on, listing markets as assets of community value, doing their own research and developing alternative plans. Participants also stressed the importance of knowing your local plan, participating in public examinations on local plans (and the London Plan), holding elected officials to account, fighting developers seemingly only interested in private profit and uniting with other campaigners to demonstrate the broad importance of markets.

When fighting redevelopment schemes, campaigners felt it was particularly important to develop alternative plans to avoid being incorrectly labelled as being anti-development altogether. Suggestions for market operators included developing a good understanding of the market and the communities it serves,  getting a good mix of traders from different communities, expanding opening hours and introducing community and cultural activities to build solidarity and celebrate market culture. Recommendations for broader policy changes included demonstrating and improving understanding about the social importance of markets, introducing policies to promote markets as spaces of social inclusion, designating more markets, requiring greater scrutiny of decision-making processes and transferring market assets to communities.

 

Next steps

After the workshop, campaigners stayed on to explore how they might work together in the future, including by participating (with the help of Just Space) in the upcoming Examination of the new London Plan, engaging with the new London Markets Board and forming a platform for community markets. Such activities could play a role in making links between the key actors presently shaping the debate on markets in the UK, and the wide range of organisations and actors whose goals and aims markets contribute to. We will therefore be exploring how we can support greater networking amongst market campaigners through the latter stages of this research project as well as more generally. Please get in touch if you would like to participate in any further activities, or know of any groups or organisations that might be interested in taking part.