Producing the Goods 2

Queen's Market, Newham

Please Mr Mayor, Sir - this market is good for the poor people - please do not snatch it away…(postcard to the Mayor of Newham.)

Oh Lord…dey takin it down? Ah com in here an it better dan goin to church!  (Market shopper)

…like all old markets, it runs on an unfathomable dynamic that is linked to location and to the market's own specific community, it is in fact as fragile and complex as a coral reef. Dismantle a traditional market, sell it, move it, re-configure it, change its status, its access, its balance, its trading week, its rent and its service charges, squeeze it inside or turn it out of doors and its essence will be in shreds. (Friends of Queens Market)

It's not just about money, it's about our culture, and our culture is priceless. (Benjamin Zephaniah)

My son works the stall. My father worked the stall. My grandfather worked the stall. I'm not moving. (Queens Market trader)

For over 100 years the street market at Green Street - Queens Market - has been  attracting local shoppers from Upton Park and East Ham (who today may well hail from  Bangladesh, Somalia or Ukraine) and far beyond. The Hammers' stadium is a stone's throw away. Originally a market in Queen's Street, for the last 30 years traders have been housed in a covered square. The market may appear a little bit grubby if what you're expecting is the squeaky sterility of a shopping mall. It reflects very well the changing social and ethnic developments in this borough, the most ethnically diverse in the nation, where a majority of its citizens are non-white.

Visitors are initially greeted by fruit and veg stalls, a hot-dog caravan and haberdashery stall. As you walk into the covered market, which is closed in on two sides, it is immediately apparent that the sides contain shops. Halal, and a traditional English butcher between them cater for all comers from tongue to cows feet and just about everything in-between. Fishmongers enjoy a good-humoured faith in their own professionalism ('our parrot fish is fresh - you buy I eat!'). There is a Caribbean grocer selling culinary mainstays represented in the three types of yam, five types of banana and plaintain, plus firey rarities including 'Busta' sweets made of coconut, molasses and pepper (named after William Alexander Bustamante, Jamaica's first post-colonial Prime Minister) which bring in shoppers from all over England, let alone all over London.

In the middle area, stalls and fixed booths sell cards of tiny buttons and giant pots for big families. Bitter gourds and banana flowers are available in January, while in June and July Essex and Kentish strawberries and 'naps' (Napoleon cherries) are cheaper than chips. At Ramadan there are heaps of loose dates, crimson sorrel flowers at Christmas for rum and ginger. Calaloo is home grown, like the leeks and cabbages. The chestnuts are from Perigord. 'When your arms are breaking', writes Claire Peasnall, one of the dozen or so seemingly tireless people who form the backbone of the Friends of Queens Market, ' the bill will be half to two-thirds less than any supermarket and week's menu full of surprises. Jenny Linford, a celebrated food writer with a deep knowledge of and both traditional British food and London's ethnic food cultures, and who has lived in London, Italy, Singapore, and Trinidad is astounded: 'On Queen's Market there's stuff I've never seen before' (The Times Magazine 25th June 05)

Blokes with skin-heads discuss floral patterns with West African women who need a bustle. Both wear earrings, perhaps from a nearby stall. Further towards the back Indian silks are sold by a trader who has an exclusively Pakistani clientelle - he  speaks only Pashtu, but and waves smiles fluently.

But all is not well, by any means. Plans to redevelop and sanitise the market by Newham Council (with which the responsibility for the years of poor maintenance lies) may spell and end to the diversity and local distinctiveness of this market, a retail Mecca for pilgrims with particular needs from all over the southern half of England. A visitors' book has been opened to prove the point and includes Benjamin Zephaniah's mum, who comes from Birmingham). New plans include 200 new executive flats, a superstore and more car parking, as well as new flooring, a new maintenance contract and better lighting. Market stall holders and shops need do no more than tolerate a short move - just a few score yards in fact. Everyone should be happy.

But they are not at all. In 2003, following the story's first appearance in the local newspaper, a group of local people got together with market traders and local community groups to campaign to stop the sale and moving of the market, as The Friends of Queens Market. During the course of their efforts, which seemed against all the odds at the start, all councillors bar one from a small faith-based party, have been whipped into line on the issue behind the Labour Executive Mayor and will not speak in support of the Friends.

There is a very complex swirl of politics going on in the London Borough of Newham. The Council has been Labour since the time of its inception in 1965 with the merging of West Ham and East Ham into Newham. Red would be the only colour appearing on a Peter Snow swing-ometer sweep of the 60 seats in the council chamber - with a single exception representing the Christian People's Alliance. The Mayor himself, has stated that he will not shop at the market and has a vision for transforming the area into a retail complex rivalling the massive Bluewater shopping mall in Thurrock, Essex.

This political situation is at the heart of the problem facing the Friends of Queen's Market. The party machine has stifled debate and comment on the matter. Public meetings have been poorly chaired by councillors loyal to the Mayor, dismissing dissent and side-stepping critics. The people with the decision-making levers are in majority so courage and creativity is needed to change the course, which, in 2003, seemed inevitable - the death of the market.

Proposals to sell the market (this intention was 'wrung' out of the Council, according to the Friends, and was never included in any polls or press releases) also include replacing licences with leases, increasing fees based partly on new maintenance contracts held by the developer, which includes providing fork lifting services currently carried out by the traders themselves who move 10 tonnes of fruit and veg a day. They perhaps cannot be trusted on the shiny new floors. New 'mainstream' shops will be able to pay mainstream rents and the Busta sweet emporium will go bust for a Boots or perhaps a Starbucks.

Two market inspectors, whose job it is to safeguard trading standards and keep everyone happy, have just been employed after an absence of inspectors for seven years. Until 2002, the market was cleaned weekly, hosed down by four workers with powerhoses. Today under arrangements with a contractor, partial cleaning takes place fortnightly. While the Council proposes to revamp a neglected market, it seems that carrying out routine Council services are what have been neglected, if not abandoned.

The good news is that the Council seems to have a fight on its hands, with surveys carried out by the Friends and other local groups uniting previously frosty rival traders behind the cause. A momentum of media interest is building including new TV programmes and films, and articles by high-profile London writers which feature and celebrate Queen's Market. Ken Livingstone's new Food Strategy for London is due out in May 2006 looks conducive to keeping markets as both a commonplace feature of the capital's streetscape and the first run on the retailing ladder.

Working through the detail - understanding the place

The current market is certainly gloomily lit and rather grubby, though that could be considered to be the responsibility of the Council itself. The inadequate lighting however is mitigated somewhat by the colours of the goods on sale. The market is vibrant - it's busy. While the Mayor accuses the Friends' campaign of being stuck in the past (even, apparently, that they are Trotsky-extremists) and out of touch with his (arguably 1980s) vision for Newham's future, the Friends unfold the nuances of Green Street. North of the market the street is famous for its 'tiny Asian eateries and boutiques where the atmosphere is one of bustling commerce and blissful domesticity; south of the market the cultural climate is different, staked out by a famous pub and the gigantic West Ham United football stadium. Hard to define it is ruff-tuff and nostalgic, a reminder of male solidarity centred on the docks … [which sits] ill with Newham's modern multi-ethnic population.'

The market is well used by local shoppers, many of whom will walk or take the bus or tube, which is 100 yards from the market entrance. A Mall with parking will attract drivers from further afield, stocking up for the week in the 46,000 square metre Asda.

The shops lining the market are run by family teams in most cases. The presence of the men is striking. In the arguments about jobs (the Mayor claims 300 new jobs will be generated at the superstore), the Friends point to the men - skilled professionals, knowledgeable about their wares and how to use, cook, clean or handle them. These are often full-time workers, perhaps the heads of households (still relevant in this heartland of Bangladeshi Newham, while other neighbourhoods or cultures may have shrugged off such social structures). Native East End traders may have marketing roots dating back several generations, having inherited the businesses and their stalls. The superstore jobs, say the Friends, are likely to be low-paid, unskilled, part-time. The banter, now delivered in rhyming slang and patois, will not be necessary among the fixed prices and non-negotiable commodities of the isles and shelves.

The market, though covered, is still subject to highway bye-laws - it is a street market. The market is in a public street to all intents and purposes and concrete pillars keeping up the leaking roof display familiar yellow 'no parking' notices, in places where no-one could hope to squeeze by for fear of bumping the cassava and spinach. The new development requires the reclassification of the market.

The Friends have looked into the record of the proposed developers. The company has also been responsible for the re-development of Edmonton Green market in the nearby borough of Enfield, which saw the relocation of the open-air market to a newly built mall. The vibrant atmosphere has been replaced by what the Friends claim is a dead shopping experience, with few shoppers and many closed shops. St Modwen were also responsible for the redevelopment of Farnborough Town Centre, where reports of loss of atmosphere and footfall have been made by some campaign groups and local shopkeepers. Feedback from some members of the national network of councils which run markets, don't rate the chances of Queens retaining its buzz or, vitally, its custom after the arrival of these particular developers.

Illustrations of the new designs have featured white faces in suits and skirts, when knee-length shirts and hijabs are as common as jeans and trainers. When raised by the Friends, the corporate illustrators got to remedial work. All well and good, say the Friends, but all these elements conspire - the vision for a Bluewater, the new floors, the superstore, the white faces, the one and two bedroom flats integrated into the designs, suggest homes for singles and couples perhaps, in the middle of an area where large families of 4-6 children are commonplace. Executive prices contrast with Newhams's position in the top five most-deprived boroughs in England. Original plans for inclusion of affordable and social housing have been reconsidered.

Under the current terms of the market trading licences, the Council may not draw a profit from the stalls and should re-invest fees. The shops lining the market, on the other hand generate £240,000 in rates for the Council's estates department. Either way, investment back into the fabric and the maintenance of the market from market-related income is not clear, as the Council will not release market specific figures. Profits from Queens Market, say the Friends, subsidise the failing markets at Canning Town and Stratford, both of which have been subjected to insensitive regeneration.

The Friends, in contrast to the £65million value of the regeneration contract, and the £1million already spend on revamping the market in 1998 (a large sum was spent on lighting though, you'd never guess) have drawn up their own costed plans for remedial work to improve and maintain the existing market. These come to £5.5million, with £36,800 needed in the first year. Thereafter improvements can be gradually planned and financed through a combination of market income and a £100,000 loan. Wonderfully affordable, they argue, and without the need for two years of building work in the heart of the High Street.

The current structure surrounding the market - sheltered accommodation for elderly Asian men - may be the subject of a campaign to get them listed by the Twentieth Century Society, but the market does not reflect the municipal grandeur of, say, Leeds Kirkgate or Bath Guildhall markets. The Friends point out that the designs proposed for the new development offer few architectural merits, so why replace the current structure when it can be symapthetically refurbished at a fraction of the cost. Visitors from other London markets success stories, notably Borough, have opined that the current structure is robust.

Are you thinking what we're thinking…? wonder the Friends.

Latest News from the Friends of Queen's Market web-site

15 June 2006 - "Asda / Walmart throw in the towel. Asda / Walmart have announced that they no longer wish to be a part of the Wales / St Modwen plans for Queen's Market. St Modwen and Sir Robin Wales desperately try to put on a brave face as their ill-conceived scheme begins to unravel" see

Ten tips from the Friends' campaign

1. Unite your supporters - before the campaign traders were dived, sometimes along lines of race, religion and ethnicity. Understanding the histories, nuances, local distinctiveness and the patina which make the place, will be vital in gaining trust for and investment of energy in coming efforts. This understanding has been absent and evident from the development proposals.

2. Find allies, locals and outsiders with enthusiasm and special skills - the Friends found support from food writers, architects, artists, poets, photographers, councillors (the one non-whipped in Newham and cross-party others from neighbouring boroughs), chefs, accountants, local community and religious groups. Seek unlikely supporters - Marks & Spencer in Lewisham, south London, fear that they would lose half their customers if the street market there were ever closed.

3. Talk to the Council (even if they don't listen) - attend public meetings, submit comments to proposals, go to or organise exhibitions and opportunities to speak and celebrate the market. Woody Allen said 'the world is run by the people who turn up.' Council elections may refocus members' affection for their electors and encourage them to listen to local opinion. You only get that luxury every few years so making the market issue central is vital. All parties, with the exception of the majority party joined the Friends management committee, showing the ruling party to be isolated against local opinion. Four opposition parties have issued a joint statement committing a prospective new mayor of whatever party to halting the redevelopment process and seeking legal advice.

4. Involve politicians higher up the chain - the local MPs (not especially supportive, perhaps reflecting tribal loyalties), a London Assembly Member (very supportive) - and make links with relevant policies covering economic development, food strategies, town centre plans, spatial development (planning), transport, health, culture. Get help - reading that lot is a trial but will help strengthen your case if your campaign can be seen to be supportive of the aims of such strategies. Redevelopment proposals covering over 15,000 sq metres have to be referred to the Mayor of London. His food strategy is likely to be supportive of markets, though will probably not specify Queens Market by name.

5. Don't take their word for it - a Mori poll commissioned by the Council with wording approved by the Council interviewed 8,500 local people and reflected support for the new development. A differently worded survey carried out by The East London Community Organisations (TELCO) canvassed 5,000 people and reflected strong support for the Friends campaign objectives.

6. Compile a petition - 12,000 signatures against the development proposals were delivered to the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, in September 2005. That's 5% of the population of the Newham. The Mayor of Newham recently issued a self-addressed, self-portrait postcard inviting people to write to him with their views about improving local services. The Friends took 225 cards to the market - 224 were returned in support of keeping the market. A markets visitors book is kept to record visitors great and small.

7. Publicity - The Queens Campaign is now nationally renowned. But as well as getting press coverage, take photos. Pictures can be as powerful as words. The photographer Adrian Arbib was commissioned (he took no fee) to record the vibrancy and the characters of the market and these professional compositions added both emphasis and artistic insight into the interpretation of the market, and were used in Friends publicity and public exhibitions.

8. Dig deeper - There is a sense that the developers in question would not be conducive to keeping the essence and the vibrancy of the market alive, based on past form and analysis.

9. Semantics matter - when seeking political support the Friends have sought mentions of the market, not a market (there will be a market after the development, but not the market everyone loves). The market is a traditional or street market (recall the highway designation). A market-in-a-mall, as proposed, reflects different priorities: extending  'dwell' time, easier management and controlling footfall. Mezzanines may maximise retail space and rate increases may lead the market stalls somewhere less handy or accessible within the mall. Developers should not be able to replace one kind of market for another, say the Friends. Demand plain English (or Pashtu or Polish) - Farnborough's town centre proposals in 1996 described 'exciting' visions and 'revitalisation', but, as local trader Peter Newman says "After four years and the destruction of the town centre, all there is to show for it is the loss of over 70 businesses" - clearly not an objective of PPG6 or Hampshire Council's planning policies on town centres. That contract was handled by St Modwen.

10. Do the sums - understanding the value of your market in terms of profit, customers, sales is useful and can be applied when calculating alternative scenarios, positive futures. Traders may be cagey initially about the level of their takings but it's all in a good cause (make sure your campaign leader isn't a tax official, perhaps) and at least you know the estimate will be very conservative. Compare prices - Queen's Market offers lower prices than a superstore could ever do to simpler business structures (self-employed traders) and low overheads. Low prices reflecting lesser quality (you can buy cheap stuff at the stalls if it's past best) is a long-standing and continuing part of market shopping and reflects the Victorian tradition that bargains are best won on Saturday afternoons.

Clare Peasnell, The Friends of Queen's Market, e-mail peasnall [at]