London SE1 community website

Borough Market "at a crossroads" says chairman

James Hatts

Borough Market faces tough choices about how it reconciles its twin status as tourist attraction and community amenity, says the man who chairs the market's board of trustees.

Borough Market
Borough Market seen from the tower of Southwark Cathedral
Borough Market
The glazed market building to be erected at the corner of Borough High Street and Bedale Street will bring problems and opportunities

Mention the words 'Borough Market' and what comes to mind? Fresh food sold by knowledgeable and enthusiastic producers? Overpriced hot food? Crowds of tourists taking photos? People munching burgers?

As custodians of the market's name and reputation, the trustees face a number of unenviable challenges, including dealing with the aftermath of the Thameslink building works and shaping the long-term identity of the market as both a retail and wholesale centre.

The past month – since the high-profile eviction of a number of traders – has seen the trustees face calls for their resignation and plenty of criticism in newspaper articles and online debates alike.

Peter Wilkinson, who has had a home in Borough for 17 years, has served as chair of trustees since summer 2009.

Soon after the evictions controversy came to public attention he agreed to talk to the London SE1 website and answer questions – drawn from the concerns raised on the SE1 forum – about the way he is leading the market through a difficult period.

The market has been on its present site for 255 years. I started by asking him how he would describe the market in its current incarnation.

"I remember the market when it was pretty run down with just a few traders," he says.

"But I also remember it being a great place to walk around and be close to. I love urban environments and it had a sense of real urbanism. It was a very raw and real place.

"There was obviously an injection of energy into the market and it became what it is today: a hugely successful, very high profile, widely known market.

"The emphasis of the market changed enormously away from wholesale towards retail. Part-way through that process you started to see a diversity of hot food on offer and the market spread and expanded. I see the market today as something of the result of all that hard effort."

A local market for local people?

The market serves a wide-ranging constituency from local residents to office workers and tourists. In 2011, who is Borough Market for?

"That's a very good question," he replies, and pauses. "I think we are privileged still to have a significant number of loyal proper food shoppers: people who come in here to buy their produce.

"In the main these are people who hit the market at about 9 o'clock on a Friday or Saturday morning and they are gone by about 10.30 or 11 o'clock.

"Then the market really is turned over to a very different sort of audience. A very significant proportion of that audience clearly is casual tourist traffic. A decent proportion is here simply to wander about, have a day out and do some shopping. Predominantly that is hot food related. They'll pass down towards the river and partake in what is the development of this whole area.

"It's a very mixed audience of people coming to the market."

I ask him whether he sees the current mix between those different types of consumer being maintained, or whether the Balance will shift over the next few years.

Again, Peter Wilkinson pauses before answering. "I think the market is at a crossroads, if you want my honest opinion," he says.

"I think it has choices to make and choices it needs to face up to, and these are difficult choices.

"My own sentiment is that everybody is welcome at Borough Market.

"You can't possibly ignore the fact that we are sandwiched somewhere half-way between the London Eye and HMS Belfast. It's a fact of our existence that we are on a well-trodden visitor path, and those visitors and tourists are both extremely welcome and highly entitled to be here.

"At the same time we've got an increasing and growing number of people who come to the market to buy hot food.

"These are people looking for a lunchtime offer or an early-evening offer to accompany a drink. Again, those people are welcome and are very important visitors to the market.

"What I think has been lost in all of that is the market's connection with real food shoppers and, to a great extent, its connection with people who actually live in this area and would like greater opportunity to find something of relevance to them in the market."

Crowd control

SE1 residents will be familiar with the oft-expressed complaints of locals that to do their weekly shop they must fight their way through hordes of tourists slurping on smoothies and photographing the produce, so it's no surprise that many enjoy the more relaxing shopping environments at other local Saturday morning markets such as Bermondsey Square.

What does Peter Wilkinson say to those who would like to support Borough Market but don't find it an easy or pleasant place to be?

"I have to say I rather agree with that perspective," he replies. "It is the perspective of the most concern to me personally. I live here. I came to live in this area partly because I like its urbanity, I like the eclectic nature of this area and its serendipity.

"When I first came here it was a difficult part of London. It's changed enormously since then.

"What I want to avoid is a) the 'glassification' of this very special, historic part of London and b) a market that sleepwalks into a place of unintended consequences.

"By that I mean that I don't want Borough Market to become just another outdoor supermarket. I want it to be a place that is special, is unique, in which everybody can find find something truly special for themselves.

"The issue about the crowding in the market isn't an easy one to resolve because I'm of the view that everybody's welcome here. That is my genuine belief.

"London is a world city. I've lived in many cities around the world; in my judgement it's one of the greatest cities in the world and I want the audience of people in the market to reflect that.

"This market is really, truly, at its core all about its connection to small independent producers, growers and artisans.

"The ability of those specialists to become successful in their space mustn't be hampered by the wider success of the market."

"A fresh produce market first; tourist attraction second"

I put it to Peter Wilkinson that many who care about Borough have expressed fears that in a few years' time it will look like Spitalfields Market across the river: soulless and dominated by the same chain restaurants and stores that are found across the city.

He is emphatic that Borough must not go that way: "I can assure you that there is an enormous amount of work being done by my board and the management here to prevent exactly that," he says.

"We are utterly determined that we do not – consciously or unconsciously – slide in to becoming a Spitalfields, a Leadenhall Market or a Covent Garden Market.

"We are determined that this remains a true fresh produce market first and foremost, and a tourist attraction second."

A lot has changed in the last decade since Borough Market began its transformation into a retail centre, with dozens of farmers' markets springing up across the country, and even – to a limited extent – supermarkets seeing the advantages of promoting local produce.

How does Peter Wilkinson think the market can retain an edge when there are far more outlets for its sort of produce across London and across the country?

"I see both of those things as major positives," he says.

"In my experience in business, all competition is good for the very reason that it stops you being lazy, it keeps you honest and it forces you to think about what defines your unique selling proposition.

"The other thing about competition is that, in the main, everyone benefits because it increases overall interest in the sector.

"What we've got to do is to ask ourselves is what it is that Borough Market really stands for, and to concentrate on the very core principles that define us. And then what we have to do is to distinguish ourselves in those principles."

Balancing the books: "there are precious few profits"

We turn to the governance of the market and its finances. The legal framework the market operates under is fearfully complicated, despite efforts to simplify it in recent years. One principle remains: the market's profits are used to offset council tax on homes within the parish of St Saviour as it stood in 1930. No such surpluses have been passed to the council for the past couple of years. What does this say about the market's financial health?

"The hard facts are that the market faces challenges today: those challenges are born of the difficulties that building a new railway through the market has brought," says Peter Wilkinson.

He explains that the frequent weekend closures of the Jubilee line and recent roadworks in Borough High Street have also hindered the market's operations at a time when "we are in the eye of an economic storm".

"There are precious few profits to share with anybody at the moment," he adds.

"This is not an easy market to manage from a financial point of view. We manage it very well, but it has to be very carefully managed.

"You don't make fast or irrational decisions; take your time and make very careful decisions. So you haven't see any distributions for a couple of years for that reason.

"The other thing is that we have elected as a board that any surpluses we make, we reinvest in this market."

He is keen to emphasise that the fees paid by traders in the market do not cover the full running costs of the space.

"We actually run the core market at a loss; a loss that we have to make up through other means. And it's our intention to carry on doing that."

The Balance of the running costs are met from income from property owned by the trustees, income from filming in the market and other venue hire.

"We want to keep the core market space affordable to people who couldn't normally afford to retail. That's the whole point of the market."

"It's a balancing act that's not readily understood."

Life after Thameslink

The next year will be a crucial one for the market as the Thameslink railway viaduct works draw to a close. Some predicted that Thameslink would kill off the market entirely. How will the market make the most of the new opportunities the completion of the building work will present?

"We have a very clear vision for the future of this market," he replies. "We will be articulating that vision in the next few months to the world at large.

"It currently operates under the working title 'Borough Market 2015' which obviously goes beyond the point that we get the market back."

I ask whether the market's new high-profile glass-fronted structure on Borough High Street will improve the visibility of the market.

"There are up sides and down sides to that high street presence," he says. "It's a very simple glass structure and it's not ideal from a market point of view.

"I think – with the benefit of hindsight, if we were starting again – we would not end up with the structure we are to receive from Network Rail.

"To be fair to Network Rail, they have recognised the problems and have gone some way to helping us mitigate the risks of that structure.

"It's a plain glass structure; it's going to be an oven in there and it's not going to be easy for produce in there. It's not a weather-tight structure so it leaves you with fairly limited possibilities as to what you can do with that space.

"However, we have come up with some very exciting plans, part of which will be about providing for a community space. We intend to operate that space, in part, for the benefit of the local community and not just to merely extend a retail business."

Wholesale traders will return "slowly but surely"

In the last six months the traditional wholesale operation at Borough Market has effectively come to an end and familiar names like Bourne's and Sugarman's have disappeared. Whatever the circumstances of their departure, this is undoubtedly the end of an era.

The Jubilee Market building on Cathedral Street – refurbished just five years ago – is now largely empty. How does the chairman respond to those dismayed by the way things have turned out?

"I have a lot of sympathy with those thoughts," he says. "It was not a situation dealt with lightly or easily. The hard truth of it is that the traditional wholesale market has actually been in severe decline for at least 10 years.

"The bare truth is that neither we nor they had really invested in those business for many years.

"On top of that I think the traditional wholesale market has changed. You've got somewhere like New Covent Garden which has got fantastic access; the kind of access we can't provide here for large container vehicles.

"It operates on an economy of scale we can't provide for here, simply because of the limitations of our own infrastructure.

"It's also true that a lot of the large buyers of wholesale in the traditional way have gone too. The wholesale model itself is different. They are seeing wholesale operating in more bespoke and niche ways.

"You're seeing small groups of restaurateurs and caterers buying selectively for particular distribution and you're not seeing the mass buying of the sort of produce that used to be sold here."

Peter Wilkinson is adamant that wholesale will continue to play an important role in the future of the market, and there is plenty of interest from new wholesale businesses.

"It's a space we've never been able to offer because we've had a wholesale space that's been occupied by a relatively small number of wholesalers," he tells me.

"Now we've got that space back, we are actually able to invest in that infrastructure to provide a capacity for an expanded wholesale offer.

"That is something that we are doing right now and you will see over the next two years wholesale taking place in Borough Market.

"You don't see the departure of three wholesale businesses and get a 90,000 sq ft space back and fill it the next day. That would be reckless.

"We always intended that we would rationalise that space first, then invest in it. It needs work to make the space viable for different types of wholesale – it needs to be broken down into smaller compartments. The structure needs to be changed.

"Slowly but surely, you will start to see that space occupied. We want to build it up with wholesalers that will not just be here for five minutes but can build long-term viable businesses in those spaces.

Rebuilding trust between traders and management

We turn to the question of relations between the market management and its traders. Although the tensions have been exposed to public view more obviously than ever in the past couple of months, it is fair to say that there have been difficulties for much longer.

I ask Peter Wilkinson how he plans to go about rebuilding those relationships.

"The first thing to say is that it is not my preference to air arguments in the media," he says. "It takes a lot for me to want to engage in that way. It's just not the way I like to do things.

"I'm a big fan of calm, measured, reflective decisions taken in the cool light of face-to-face meetings rather than arguments aired in the media and the sorts of lines of attack I see written about at the moment. It's not something that I welcome and enjoy.

"The trustees of the market are facing some tough decisions, but they are the right decisions to be facing right now. We have to think about what this market will be like when we get it back from Network Rail, when the Shard is complete and when Borough High Street is rejuvenated.

"We have to consider not just the short term but the long term. Our job as trustees is to provide for a real market in perpetuity and not to allow it to slide subconsciously into a place that I don't think anyone who lives here or works here wants to see it.

"To face up to those challenges you have to take difficult decisions, and those decisions often have some fall-out.

"Change isn't always welcome or easy or pleasant. But these are decisions we do need to face up to. If we don't, then the danger is that Borough Market does end up another also-ran market.

"Whilst it's arguably had five to ten years riding a wave, that wave has crashed on the shore to a large extent."

He continues: "Just while we are going through this period of change, inevitably there is going to be some disquiet.

"The edges of that disquiet are at times unpleasant. I'm determined to see the vision through."

Maltby Street and the Real Food Market: "good for customers"

Peter Wilkinson has said clearly that he wants Borough Market to help its traders succeed and develop their businesses. I ask how he reconciles that with the conflict – perceived or real – created by traders who want to operate at Borough as well as nearby Maltby Street or at the new weekly Real Food Market on the South Bank.

"It's good for customers; it means choice for customers," he says. "That's my starting point here."

He says that the market has carried out research among shoppers – and among those who shun Borough Market – to establish their needs and opinions. This has helped to inform the new strategy.

"There needs to be a process of engagement, and that is the process that has been slightly lost. I put my hand up to that, and I think former boards would put their hands up to that.

"I think the market hasn't properly engaged with traders ever. We need to engage with traders to secure their commitment to that strategy and to help us make it work.

"In terms of traders trading in other markets, the competition is irrelevant. In my world I live with that on a day-to-day basis. If you don't have competition you're either very lucky or there's something not quite right.

"The issue isn't competition; it's integrity. I operate a board with integrity; the trustees have integrity.

"I like to think the management team behaves with integrity and most of our traders do."

He emphasises that traders – who pay "very competitive rates" to operate under the Borough Market brand – need to have a reciprocal relationship.

"What I'm expecting from traders is a little bit more integrity in that relationship. It can't just be a one-way street. A relationship is made up of two parts.

"If they are trading at other markets that's fine but what I want to be certain of is that what they sell here at Borough Market is something exemplary, is something different and something that belongs here and not just something you can find on every shelf everywhere else.

"Somehow we will lose our edge if that becomes the norm. The questions I ask are around those sorts of issues. They are not really around competition."

"I hear all the arguments and noise in the media but that's not the nub of the issue. The nub of the issue is integrity."

Last month's expulsion of a number of traders seemed to many customers and observers to be a dramatic, harsh action. Had every alternative avenue really been explored, I wondered.

"In every case there has been process, there has been consideration, there has been a dialogue," says the chairman.

"We can all argue that possibly at times the dialogue hasn't been perfect. I regret that some people ... have aired some of that argument in the media. That I find unfortunate. I'm more than prepared to accept that we don't always get it absolutely right.

"It would be wrong to suggest that anyone has left this market under some hastily-made decision.

"I can't pretend that some of those decisions aren't very difficult for both parties."

Borough products should be "a bit special"

It is clear that Peter Wilkinson is passionate about making sure that produce sold under the roof of Borough Market lives up to people's expectations.

"if you are paying decent money for food in this market, you have the right to take away something for us that is a bit special, no matter how much or how little you spend here.

"I want us as a market to redouble our efforts to have a range of produce here in Borough Market that isn't easily found nearby and that is distinguished in whatever category of food that is."

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