Traders struggle as council bids to revive economy

Walthamstow Market trader Joseph Benjamin
Walthamstow Market trader Joseph Benjamin

Report by Victoria Munro, Local Democracy Reporter, and James Cracknell

Traders returning to Walthamstow Market have criticised Waltham Forest Council for its handling of the re-opening.

Europe’s longest street market reopened at the start of June, but many stallholders found themselves placed in a different part of Walthamstow High Street, making it harder for their usual customers to find them. The council said it was only able to accommodate half the normal number of pitches, but had waived pitch fees for three months and offered grants to stallholders to support them.

Philip Prince, who has had a clothing stall for around 40 years, said that although he was happy to return he was upset with the council’s decision to move his stall to a quieter spot. He said: “I think they have rushed it without concentrating, because they did it so quickly. Others who have not been here so long got their usual spots. I asked them [the council] for their criteria and they have not come back to me yet.

“This is my life, my living, when a lot of other people have got other jobs, and I think they should take that into consideration.”

Another market trader who had been relocated said he had not sold anything on his first day back. Sunny Mahmoud said: “The traders are not happy at all. They are changing the plan and then after people lose their trade, there is still no social distancing. What is the point?

“In the market, people do not seem to care about social distance. They forget about the coronavirus, show me one other person wearing a mask.”

Mirwais Rahmaly also said his business had been unusually quiet. He said: “If it’s still [continuing] like this, we will have to relax some days because there’s no point coming down.”

Other stall owners, such as Joseph Benjamin, were more optimistic. He said: “We’re hoping the days and weeks ahead of us will be a bit brighter. People are fed up staying at home so they are coming out. It’s not a bad start.”

Margaret Nadeem, who met her husband after buying bed sheets from the stall they now run together, said it was nice to see familiar faces after so long away. She said: “The customers that know me have been asking how I am, which they don’t normally do. It’s nice to know they’ve got your welfare at heart, it’s lovely.

“There’s plenty of people about but right now people have not got a lot of money. Still they are buying bits, trying to get back into it again.”

Councillor Simon Miller, cabinet member for economic growth and high streets, said the council had “worked extremely hard” to get the market open again. He said: “My priority has been to ensure shoppers and traders alike can operate safely. Throughout Covid-19 officers have been considering ways to introduce social distancing at Walthamstow Market to allow traders to resume operations.

“This meant reducing the number of pitches by 50%, being mindful of the impact of socially-distanced queuing on nearby shops. The new layout has space for 150 permanent traders.

“All traders’ pitch fees have been waived for three months, including this month [June]. Traders can also apply for discretionary grants to offset the lack of earnings.

“On the first day trading, the market operated at 61% of the pre-lockdown average – other markets have been operating at a far lower capacity.”

The re-opening came as the council launched an ‘economic recovery plan‘ for the borough that sets out how it “intends to boost the local fortunes of residents, businesses, town centres and high streets” with a commitment “to rebuilding the economy around a green agenda, with the aim of a carbon neutral future”.

The council is also introducing a ‘rapid jobs brokerage’ service to help connect employers to local residents and provide practical support for those who may have recently lost their jobs or who are struggling, such as increasing access to adult education.