I didn’t catch this until today – Sunday’s Observer covered (in part) the impending destruction of Queen’s Market, which is the first time I’ve seen it covered in a national paper:
It’s a Tuesday when I meet Neil and he is clearing the decks for the busy end of the week. Today you can get 25 satsumas for a pound, or 15 apples. Women, some in jeans, some in saris, some in shalwar kameez, line up to buy. No one can beat him on price or freshness or range, least of all the supermarket that is looming over his future, but none of that will matter if the council gets its way. The site of Queen’s Market is being sold to a city developer, St Modwen, owner of Longbridge and Elephant & Castle among other properties. In a ?75 million deal St Modwen plans to put the entrance to an Asda mall where Neil has his pitch.
Queen’s Market is my local market, and in some respects it is the antithesis of Borough Market. The food on offer is cheap, and usually not organic or hand-tendered, though it is still fresh, tasty and healthy. Like Borough, it is a covered market, but the architecture is decidedly more functional than elegant, and it is in need of attention; it is structurally sound but could definitely do with a clean and a refurbishment. But it’s as vitally important to the nation’s cuisine as it’s much more upmarket cousin. The food is not just affordable but diverse – the native staples most people are familiar with sit cheek-by-jowl with diverse foods bought by the local Indian, Bangladeshi, Caribbean and African communities.
Newham council see the market as just an eyesore, one which is on a prime bit of real estate (it is a minute’s walk from Upton Park tube station, making it ideal for commuters), and has neglected to provide the correct maintenance (e.g. not providing litter bins, dallying over sewer repairs) in the past few years. In its place, an Asda and flat complex are proposed; there is the concession of a “market mall” alongside, but it has considerably less floorspace for stalls, fewer shops and much more restricted delivery access. The end result will probably drive most of local traders out of business, decimating the local market. The diverse range of fresh, healthy produce will be displaced by a narrow mainstream-friendly range of processed food. High-skilled specialist jobs will be replaced by mundane deskilled ones. One letter to the local paper has referred to it as “ethnic cleansing”; a misuse of the term, but you can understand the sentiment, especially given that the first artist’s impressions of the site produced by the developers featured only white people (in a borough where 60% of the population is from an ethnic minority).
To make things worse, there isn’t even any real need for another supermarket in the area – there is already a medium-sized Tesco up the road, while a short bus ride away you can get to the Morrison’s and Sainsburys at Stratford, or the vast Asda and Sainsbury superstores in Beckton. Despite widespread local opposition (only 3% of survey respondents wanted a new supermarket), the property developers seem to have the council’s ear, with the result being that they’re willing to push it through at any cost. Council debate on the issue has been stifled; three of Labour’s councillors have defected to other parties (though they still occupy 56 out 60 seats on the council, so it doesn’t make much difference).
There is one hope, however. Like all the other London boroughs, Newham council is up for election this Thursday; to make it even more exciting, Newham has a directly-elected Mayor, Robin Wales, who proudly proclaims he never shops there and is spearheading the redevelopment. Both council and Mayor have been Labour certs, but that could all change: Local Labour campaigning has been virtually non-existent, and where it has popped up, it has been quite subdued (the leaflets through my door have dropped the red rose and relegated the word “Labour” into the small print). The opposition parties (chiefly RESPECT and Conservative – the Lib Dems and Greens have very little presence here) have been united in opposing the destruction of the market. They might split the anti-Labour vote though, and on a low turnout Labour might just squeeze through. Then again, they might not.
If Labour loses a good chunk of Newham council, or if Wales is toppled, it will probably be explained or excused as a local thing, a single-issue campaign. But in truth it’s a microcosm of what New Labour has been about: the grim fascination with “progress” and destroying the old and established no matter what its merits, the cosying up to big business, the total defiance in face of the opinions of the people affected and the arrogance of a man in charge who wields near-absolute power. And I’m sure Newham is not an exception; every issue of Private Eye‘s “Rotten Boroughs” details similar actions taken by other Labour councils. I will be voting against Labour tomorrow primarily because I’m concerned about the market, but I am also voting to express my dissatisfaction about Labour’s policies at all levels of government. If Queen’s Market is destroyed it will not just be a setback for those directly affected, but a setback for anyone who cares about the preservation of diversity, opportunity and local communities over the schemes of the rich and powerful, no matter where. Saying that this election is just about “local issues” falsely separates them from “national issues”, when in actual fact they are irretrievably bound together; the New Labour philosophy doesn’t just occupy the very top. Please bear that in mind when marking your ballot paper tomorrow.
(Much more information is available at the Friends of Queen’s Market website. Londoners outside of Newham can make their feelings known to Ken Livingstone, I strongly encourage you to do so. An Indymedia report has some good photos of how the market currently is).
Apology: Somehow (not sure how), soon after publication I accidentally marked this post as “Private” when I was making a minor copyedit to it in WordPress. A feature (or as I prefer to call it, bug) of WordPress is that when you’re logged in, it shows all posts made, private or published, so I had no way of knowing that no-one else could see it until it had been pointed out to me, both by Ben (here) and Tom (in the pub). Apologies to all.