mark tate

Mark Tate, a spokesman for Birmingham Wholesale Fresh Produce Association (BWFPA)

Britain’s wholesale markets are functional buildings, and Birmingham is no exception to this
architectural school.

However, as opposed to many such structures erected in the last 40 years, Birmingham Wholesale Market is flooded with a wealth of light, space and atmosphere that makes it almost a pleasure to wander through, if it were not for having to dodge forklifts.

With the decision to close the Pershore Road site and relocate to one of two options given the official stamp in March this year, it seems a foregone conclusion that this 1974 cathedral for food will be demolished.

“We’re obviously disappointed,” says Mark Tate, of George Perry’s and spokesman for Birmingham Wholesale Fresh Produce Association (BWFPA), a company established by the tenants to put forward a redevelopment plan of their own.“But now we have to be optimistic and make the new site work.”

When the trucks finally roll out it will be the end of a magnificent era in Birmingham’s history. A wholesale market has operated in the city centre since 1883, not only supplying grocery businesses and eateries but also the neighbouring open market, where stallholders pop up the road to load up their barrows.

The wholesale and open markets are inextricably linked; the proximity has ensured that the public-facing market has retained low prices, much to the gratitude of the city’s poorer communities. As a child I remember making the weekly trip with my mother to fill our trolley with fresh produce and meat – a lifeline to a family living on low wages. The markets are still as vital as they were during my formative years and there are real concerns that the move will add costs in the form of extra transport that will have to be added to the prices. The traders have already called it a ‘food tax’ onthe poor.

Since 2007, when rumours of relocation first surfaced, the traders and Birmingham City Council have been locked in often heated discussions over the future of this 22-acre site. Despite its leaking roof and tatty appearance, the building is alive with activity as the workforces of the 72 companies fulfil orders. It is unique in that it includes a meat, poultry, fish and flower market alongside the fruit and vegetable trade. The tenants are also very open to ‘walk-in’ trade, which brings in extra income that they fear will be lost with the move. Some 1,100 people are employed by the businesses based there and according to an economic impact report commissioned by the tenants, some 15,000 further jobs are reliant on the enterprise.

There is an air of resignation among traders over the council’s decision. While the move to either a site in Washwood Heath or in Witton would result in a new purpose-built facility, it would also mean a reduction in size with the market losing around seven acres. Although it has been pointed out that the market has a 30 per cent vacancy rate, it will still mean firms will see pitches reduced in size.

“We are all just going to have to be a lot more efficient,” says Chris Sydenham, manager for the Total Produce branch. “We have got used to having a lot of space and it will mean a new way of thinking but we can do it.”

The BWFPA proposal included a downsized version of the market, but one that would offer more public access and be the centre of a ‘food hub’ with restaurants, supermarkets and the potential for a university food technology campus.

Tate says it would have been an asset to the city centre and attracted thousands of extra visitors as well as servicing the growing residential community in the area.

While Birmingham City Council, which is in debt to over £2.5 billion following financing for several civic projects, says the reason it rejected the plans were they were not economically viable, it has said that traffic congestion is an issue too.

In a statement released at the time of the decision, the deputy leader, councillor Ian Ward, said that the council had no legal obligation to provide new facilities but recognised there is “still a demand from both tenants and
customers for these facilities but they have to adapt to meet the changing market place.

“For example, no other wholesale market in the UK is co-located with its retail food markets and very few are based in city centres. Having the market outside the city centre would provide better transport links, particularly considering that the majority of the traders’ business comes from either outside of Birmingham or from the suburbs rather than the city centre.”

While the area will lose the wholesale traffic, the open market and restaurants will have to transport produce into the city, which will still potentially cause congestion – one of several practical points made by the tenants. The emphasis for the tenants now is to gain compensation for the move, with Tate estimating that the bill will run to £10-£12 million. There are also question marks over the increases in rent and service charges, with tenants concerned by talk that it could be as much as a 120 per cent hike.

Birmingham City Council declined to comment on the potential increases or to give any indication on what they proposed to do with the site once the market was moved.

This is the repeated complaint by tenants that the council is not forthcoming with information – only when forced to.

“They [the council] have purposefully let this market be run down so we all have to move,” alleges Paul Foy, co-director of Paul’s Produce. “What we have to do now is work towards the new facility and ensure it is not at a great cost to us.”

While many of the tenants would have preferred to stay in the central location, they are now keen to get the relocation plans finalised so they can move forward.

Paul Cherry, sales manager for R&RW Bartlett, says that for many years they had been operating in difficult conditions. “This is a dilapidated building, the roof leaks and when it rains water pours through,” he said. “We just want it all sorted now so we can move to a safe, dry environment.”

It is clear that now the decision has been made, many of the traders are employing that most admirable of Birmingham characteristics, practicality.

They are simply getting on with the new set of circumstances, and it is this attitude that will hopefully help to forge a future for the new market. —