London’s iconic markets under threat – are soaring costs, rampant theft and ULEZ final nails in coffin?

By Staff

“It used to really mean something to have a stall here,” Graeme Gibbons said as he looked tentatively over Romford Market on a gloomy spring afternoon. “My gran used to brag to her friends that I had my own spot on the market.”

In its heyday, the trader said someone would have to fork out £60,000 for a prime spot on the market. Stalls once lined the entire high street as people travelled from across London and the home counties for clothes, produce, meat and more.

Nowadays, Graeme says the situation is rather different. “Nowadays you can practically walk onto the market and set up a stall,” he adds. “A lot has changed”.

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Data from Havering Council shows in 1985 it was home to 339 registered traders. This figure had dropped to 170 in 2005 and 90 in 2015 before slumping even further to 60 in 2020.

Traders have pointed towards ULEZ and lack of car parks as a key reason behind this decline though ULEZ only expanded to cover the outer boroughs last August so in reality the downward trend was seen long before that. But with other markets across London witnessing similar issues, the growth of online shopping and general shift of consumer habits are perhaps to death knell for a historic part of the city’s culture.

Graeme – who labels himself the ‘Romford Market nerd’ – owns one of the busiest stalls along the high street. As the straps of his blue marquee tent flapped in the wind, the East Londoner was engaged in selling bathroom sprays, sponges, and a whole range of other everyday essentials.

He says his hard work is recognised by Romford locals, who turn up to support him even on cold and rainy days. Although customers clearly appreciate Graeme, he’s under no illusions about the difficulties facing traders on the market.

“The prestige of being a market trader has changed,” he tells MyLondon. “It’s now a much harder business. With price increases it’s much harder to find the bargains at wholesalers to then offer customers. Many of them also have less money to spend which only makes this even harder to earn a living.”

On top of this Graeme said he spends £175 a month on ULEZ travelling into London for work. At this point he jokingly asks a regular customer to speak when she asks for the price of a household spray, before being berated by her in turn to the delight of those nearby.

“I love it here and I’m really lucky to have a job that I enjoy doing,” he then adds. “This community feel isn’t often found elsewhere which makes the market essential. We make sure to help people who are vulnerable. I have customers with dementia who hand me their purses to take the money out for what they buy.”

The sense of melancholy and uncertainty about the market only became more apparent after engaging with more traders. Tony Geary, 57, who left his finance job in the City to set up a market stall in 2000, has found rising wholesale prices one of the biggest challenges to his daily profession.

“I’ve absorbed some of this myself,” the clothes trader says, “but ultimately I do need to make a profit. This makes it very difficult.”

In his role as chairman of Romford Market, Tony has seen more and more fellow traders complain about a surge in thefts since the COVID pandemic. He believes the cost of living crisis is the key reason behind why so many have resorted to stealing, but nonetheless fears it will only lead to more traders being forced to give up their stalls along the high street.

To combat the issues faced by Romford Market, the 57-year-old says Havering Council needs to engage more with traders and respond quickly to their requests. “It took nine months to just get this bolt in,” Tony says as he pointed to the small anchor point which holds his marquee in place. “The council takes far too long to do stuff. They need to help us with these issues or the market will only decline further.”

Havering Council told MyLondon it is always looking for ways to improve Romford Market. A spokesperson added that after Tony and other traders requested anchor points the bolts were installed over a phased period when the market wasn’t being used for parking.

“The Romford Masterplan that we are currently working on will also put the market at the heart of improvements in the town centre,” a spokesperson added. “A new enforcement team was brought in to crack down on people littering, fly tipping and not clearing up dog mess, after residents and councillors repeatedly asked for more to be done about littering and dirty streets.

Drive west along the A12 and North Circular and you’ll notice traders along Walthamstow Market similarly struggling to make ends meet. The longest of its kind in Europe, Walthamstow Market was once considered the pride of E17.

But walk along the market today and you’ll notice it no longer boasts the former prestige which attracted customers from across London and the South East. Theft has in particular hampered the daily lives of traders, and has left many worried about looking away from their stalls for even a moment without running the risk of their products being stolen.

Ibrahim Zazai, who sells high-end aftershave on the market, has decided to surrender his pitch on the market due to the issue affecting his revenue. He tells MyLondon: “They’ll stand looking at the stall and when you look away they’ll seize the opportunity. Some will even use their children to make a distraction.

“I can’t afford this. Next year I’m going to find a different job so I don’t have to put up with this anymore. It’s not worth it. I’ve built up credit card debt because of the higher prices, rents and thieves. I’ll most likely have to move away from London.”

At this point, Phillip Prince, who owns a clothes stall adjacent to Ibrahim, adds that it’s not just traders who suffer daily from thieves. “I’ve had old ladies cry at my stall because their purse has been robbed,” he says. “I even gave one woman money to get home because she was inconsolable. It’s horrible this happens here.

“They steal from my stall or even from people’s pockets. But the police don’t even come when you call them.” Phillip, who has worked on Walthamstow Market for 45 years, said at one time the entire mile of the market was full from top to bottom. He admits the changing times and economy are behind the decline of the market, but says the authorities have only made it more unattractive to customers.

Phillip adds: “Why would you come to Walthamstow? You can’t park, the buses don’t run on time – there’s no reason to come to this market or shopping centre.” There’s no variety of stalls and nothing is being brought in to make the place more welcoming. My business has gone down about 60 per cent since they introduced ULEZ, the parking charges. COVID didn’t affect us as much.”

Phillip believes Waltham Forest Council needs to step in to help combat these problems. First off, he says public toilets are needed to stop people urinating in the street. Additionally, he says free car parking should be provided in off-peak hours from 11am to 3pm, the council should advertise what the market has to offer and that security should be put in place to protect traders and customers alike.

He concludes: “I’m very passionate about this market. Common sense is just needed to make it a better place.” Responding to claims made by traders, Metropolitan Police said although it does not recognise a surge in theft. It will factor in these concerns to future patrols.

Sergeant Bray, who leads the neighbourhood team that covers Walthamstow Market, added: “I would also encourage traders to report offences to us so that we can build a picture of emerging issues, direct our resources appropriately and ultimately take action.

“I also want to reassure traders that we do carryout patrols in the market, including plain clothes patrols, so there is a police presence. We also work with local partners to ensure there is a holistic approach to security in the market.”

Waltham Forest Council has been approached for a comment.

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