Sunday, 12 February 2012

Broadway Market faces the Tesco test

'Google', so they say, 'is your friend'. And Google does, indeed, provide a most informative search engine.

For instance, earlier today, I tried something. I entered my post code and then I entered a single word: Tesco.

It made for depressing viewing. Page one – eight listed. A further eight on the next page. Ten on the next page. Another load on the following page – and still I wasn't finished!

Indeed, it just went on and on.

I already knew that I had at least five within easy walking distance. There are others I pass on my way to and from work that have sprung up in the last year or so. The screengrab here shows just [i]some[/i] of the Tesco stores in central London.

I know that it doesn't show all of them, because the most detailed map searches I used for specific postcodes do not show the newish stores on New North Road, Pentonville Road and Hackney Road, so it seems reasonable to assume that a few more are missing too.

Sainsbury's is not quite as bad, although it appears to manage some clusters that make you wonder how anyone could justify three stores almost on top of one another.

Morrison's – fewer and more spread out.

Waitrose – a new one I had no idea was almost on my doorstep, just to the south of Hackney Road.

Co-op? A lot fewer, but there are quite a few Icelands.

Why this sudden spurt of searching? Because it seems that we're going to have another Sainsbury's, very soon and very near me. And because local businesses are worried about the possibility of a Tesco, too.

Let me explain. Our local council is dealing with a planning application for a site just around the corner from the top end of Broadway Market.

The site is currently occupied by small workshops and offices for small, local and locally-based businesses.

These will be chucked out and a block of flats will be built instead.

However, for the flats to be financially viable for the housing associating that wants to build them, there will have to be some commercial properties on the ground. Planning permission is being sought for office space.

Yet in similar developments only a few metres away, spangly new office spaces continue to stand empty.

And here we hit the nub.

Only recently, Hackney Council changed the nature of planning permission on one such block around the corner, on Mare Street, so that its empty office space can be used for retail instead. Sainsbury's will be moving in soon.

This was done with absolutely no consultation with local businesses or residents.

So it's hardly surprising that local businesses are now worried that this new scheme is just a ploy to shoehorn yet another supermarket in the area, without the bother of formally consulting on such a plan – and the one that they most suspect is Tesco.

That there is already a Tesco on nearby Wells Street (the first one), which killed off the old street market means nothing. That there is a vast Tesco metal box just off Mare Street, around half a mile up the road, means nothing either. That there's one on Bethnal Green Road and two on Hackney Road and I've seen a new one on City Road too matters not one shred.

That Hackney Council is spending money to hang banners around the borough linking 'I heart Hackney' with 'shop local' also appears to have no meaningful content – unless we assume that, by 'local', they simply mean at one of the rapidly increasing number of supermarket outlets that we're allowing to open'.

Now, I appreciate that, to some of you, this might sound a tad hysterical. I'll briefly mention – as always do when discussing this subject – the value of reading Shopped: The shocking power of Britain's supermarkets by Joanna Blythman and The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman (Wal-Mart owns Asda and is also a big model for Tesco).

But let's move on.

In the last few months, I've twice been in a cab where the driver has a former butcher, who realised that the traditional trade had little future and decide to change direction.

In the first such instance, his father – who owned three butchers' shops that his son expected to take on – had told him that the only hope for him, as butcher, was to go and work for a supermarket.

So he gave it a whirl. He found that he needed no skills; his knowledge of cuts and so forth was of no use. He had no butchering to do.

He did The Knowledge and changed job.

Travelling across London just over a week ago, there was the time to quiz the second of these quite thoroughly.

In a massive coincidence, he was born and grew up just around the back of Broadway Market. A couple of years younger than me, he remembers there being three butchers on the street - together with the greengrocers and the fishmongers and the bakers.

When The Other Half and I moved into the areas some 17 years ago, the street was a mess. A famous piece of graffiti described it thus: 'Broadway Market - not so much a sinking ship as a submarine'. Witty - and sadly true at the time.

I asked what he thought had killed off the street. There was no hesitation: supermarkets.

How, though?

They'd opened, offering cheap vegetables, he said. When shoppers went there for their greens, they decided to take the easy option of buying other things at the same time.

Gradually, unable to compete against increasing buying might the supermarkets could deploy, most of the independent businesses died.

Then, he added, shoppers found that the supermarkets were not quite as cheap as they had initially seemed, but by then it was too late.

But after the street had been killed off, what revived it? Small, private businesses – simple as.

The council made some half-hearted and completely cack-handed efforts to revive the street, but utterly failed. To give just one example, the council had the bright idea of starting a flower market on Saturdays. They kicked it off with just a couple of really, seriously piss-poor stall.

And yet this is just a stone's throw from the legendary Colombia Road, where people come from (at least) across the city for the Sunday flower market.

What has happened is entirely down to private individuals getting together to build a market – and to small businesses moving in, all at around the same time.

Broadway Market is no longer a submarine – it's no longer even close to being a 'sinking ship'. It is thriving and bubbling and healthy and quite wonderful.

Now this doesn't meet with universal approval. Ultra-leftist, SWP lies that there was ever an option between a privately-run market and a council-funded community centre haven't helped.

As haven't the almost mythical tales of the £3 loaf of bread – which is rendered utterly daft on the basis that it's an organic, seven-day sour, as opposed to a £1.72 loaf of ordinary, mass-produced wholemeal, which you can, of course, still but on Broadway Market from Percy Ingle.

The reality is that the market has been instrumental in reviving a once-almost dead street. Little has been lost to locals (myself included) as a result – and 2/3 of that as a direct result of collusion between the council and the ridiculously-named local commercial landlord, Roger Wratten, who, one imagines, delights in adding notches to his bedpost every time he drives another business to the wall because he, as landlord, can demand more dosh.

Trust me – it's happened more than once, more than twice ... And the most recent example is only just occurring.

Wratten, indeed, is an example of what can happen when greedy, individual landlords get their way. Broadway Market as a whole is – at present – and example of something different and far more positive from private businesses.

It's become a vital, thriving community. Where once there would hardly be anyone on the street at any time of day on any day of the week, now it draws in people for lunch, for dinner, for the evening. In the week and at the weekend.

Where once I'd have been forced to go to a big supermarket to do my shopping, I no longer have to. I can shop locally and stay locally.

And I'm going to defend that.

I have written to the council already with my comments on the planning application. I'm trying to find out the legal situation, I have said that I wish to attend any council meeting at which the application is discussed – and I wish to speak. And, simplest of all, I have signed the petition that is in most local shops on Broadway Market.

I'll let you know how it goes!

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