By Alan Clawley
Its well known that Birmingham’s city centre is dominated by the big national retailers so you would expect the city council to be bending over backwards to help independents keep what precarious foothold they have and encourage new ones to come in. An official report by Roger Tym (October 2009) confirmed not only that Birmingham lacked independent retailers, but that the Bull Ring markets were an important part of the retail offer in Birmingham City Centre.
The epitome of the independent retail sector is the Bull Ring Open Market where low overheads allow traders to keep their prices at rock bottom. Not the most glamorous end of the city’s retail trade, but vital to thousands of customers and traders on low incomes. The Market is within walking distance of the Wholesale Markets so stallholders don’t even need a white van to haul their fresh produce to their stalls. Elsewhere the use of small vans is widespread and major retailers truck goods long distances from giant warehouses located at motorway junctions. Municipal wholesale markets like Birmingham’s are left to support thousands of smaller independent traders who run their businesses admirably well with the lowest possible overheads and with less adverse impact on the environment.
The council has had its eye on the 21 acres of prime development land occupied by the Wholesale Markets for some years. In 2007 it boasted that it could sell the site for £300 million to help pay for the new Central Library. But before it could offer ‘vacant possession’ it had to find a new home for the Wholesale Market. The plan was to move it to Witton at a cost of £80 million.
In 2007 the property market collapsed and land values halved. Then the government scrapped Advantage West Midlands who were going to help pay the bill and the private sector partner pulled out of the deal.
Now the city says that due to spending cuts the council is no longer able to fund, or partially fund the relocation and that as a result the Wholesale Market is to close in 2013. Instead of spending money refurbishing the facilities to secure its future, the council appears to be abdicating its responsibility for wholesale markets altogether.
There may well be a case to answer for keeping a wholesale market in the centre of Birmingham. Other cities have faced similar problems but while London was re-locating Covent Garden from its historic location in 1974, Birmingham was just opening its brand new ‘state-of the art‘ wholesale market in the heart of the city. Were we then behind or ahead of London?
I can find no evidence that the council has done any research into the affect of closing the Wholesale Market on the Bull Ring Open Market and the independent sector in general, which makes me think that there is nothing more to it than making or saving the council money.
There was huge opposition to the proposals for redeveloping London’s Covent Garden in the 1970s, the result of which we can see today in the lively alternative market that fills the now preserved historic buildings. Sadly this offers little inspiration to us in Birmingham as the council has already destroyed its1835 Market Hall without, it seems, any protest at the time. The modern Wholesale Market designed by J Seymour Harris and Partners, whilst well-designed and efficient is not likely to engender the same outcry at its loss. It is so unremarkable that Andy Foster ignores it completely in his book on Birmingham buildings.
However, if there really is to be no future for the Wholesale Market as we know it now where it is today, perhaps with some imagination, those parts of it that support the Open Market and other retailers could be kept going and the rest of the building re-populated by independent enterprises of the kind that the city so badly needs and which the council should be actively supporting.