Birmingham’s wholesale markets – a partnership of inclusive local enterprise

It is vital to Birmingham’s independent food supply chains that Birmingham wholesale markets remain at their central site, neighbouring the retail markets, and being central for their diversity of customers and employees.

Despite a much-publicised Council recommendation to stop investigating solutions for the markets remaining on their current site, there is still a hope of this happening – an opportunity those of us who really care about widespread economic wellbeing in Birmingham need to seize with all hands.

There is an option to redevelop the current site keeping the wholesale markets, with new and exciting food-focused uses around them. This is the option Birmingham needs and that any self-respecting local enterprise body for the city would recommend.  On Monday, Birmingham’s Cabinet will decide whether to continue investigating this option. All it commits them to is keeping the door open for discussion.

Here at Localise West Midlands, as part of our Mainstreaming CED research, we studied the Birmingham Wholesale markets as good practice in community-scale economic activity. Below is what we learned about the impacts of the markets for inclusive economic success and enterprise.

To some, this will read as irrelevant to the big boys’ game of real economic development. They are wrong. The Mainstreaming CED findings are clear that economies built on local ownership and control and on smaller businesses are more successful in traditional economic terms as well as better in for all those woolly, irrelevant social concepts like quality of life. Far too much conventional economic analysis fails to recognise the collective benefit of local enterprise.

The wholesale markets and an inclusive economy

Birmingham Wholesale Markets are the largest integrated markets in the UK, comprising fruit and vegetable, fish, meat and poultry, dairy and flower sections. They are sited in central Birmingham, next to the city’s retail markets and have an aggregate turnover of £275 million, with 73 trading operations (all but two of which are locally owned) and employing 1,100 people. It is estimated by BWFPA that 15,000 jobs in the region are dependent on the markets.

ourbirmingham.orgSupply and Demand Chains

The markets also occupy a very significant place in Birmingham’s food supply chains: 95% of independent food businesses in the city – close to 5,000 independent food businesses – do some business there: an extraordinary market share.  The customer base also goes far beyond Birmingham into surrounding counties and even into mid-Wales.  The wholesale markets serve some ‘top end’ establishments such as Purnell’s as well as the affordable end, and also limited supermarket trade.

Whilst (as you’d expect) BWFPA has no official local sourcing policy, some members serve Bretts, the company that serves the city schools’ fruit and vegetable contract, for which the council has local sourcing and CO2 policies.  Figures are not available from BWFPA for the markets’ local sourcing but much of the horticultural produce is sourced from the region, including the Vale of Evesham and Staffordshire; but also from Europe and further afield.  Meat is mostly locally sourced, although also from Wales and Scotland too depending on seasonal availability and market value.  Again this points to a significant market role for produce that does not go through the multiples’ supply chains.

Social and Economic Inclusion

In addition to strengthening Birmingham’s local food supply chains, the wholesale markets also contribute to social and economic inclusion. This is partly in the sense that through the neighbouring retail markets they provide cheap high quality foods for the local community. Overheads and thus prices are low at the Bull Ring, making it a major contributor to healthy food access and social inclusion in the city centre. The markets also contribute in terms of  economic and social/ethnic diversity is very wide in the markets’ customer base, including always the latest wave of immigrants. Currently for example the customer base at George Perry is 80% Asian. Immigrants using the markets include Iraqis and Afghanis who will use the markets for small-scale street trading such as buying a box of apples and selling them on the street. A vast number of the city’s culturally specialist food shops source their produce at the wholesale markets, some of these communities then mix and socialise at the markets alongside the  long hours they work. So a social cohesion role emerges as well as a practical food distribution role that it is hard to imagine functioning if the Wholesale Markets weren’t there.

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Employment, skills and recruitment

The Wholesale Markets also contribute heavily to employment, providing a major local source of recruitment especially from areas of high unemployment, resulting in a constant churn of new people.  They offer an effective opportunity for people who haven’t done well at school or those from “less socially acceptable” backgrounds: in comparison with many training programmes they provide ‘real’ manual work with a degree of security, flexibility and mutual respect; 99% of these positions are salaried and there tends to be mutual flexibility over hours depending on company and employee needs.  “It’s a rough and ready environment with politically incorrect banter but people just get on with it and each other, and there’s a sense of honour amongst entrepreneurs.”

Business: innovation, resilience, community

The Markets also offer a key source of innovation and resilience within the community. History has shown that the market is always capable of evolving and adapting, for example, innovation in IT to facilitate trade with international partners. The BWFPA committee is highly representative of small businesses, feeding their opinions into the council. Unsurprisingly, the wider community has been very supportive of the markets remaining where they are during BWFPA’s campaign, with strong support for the Bull Ring Markets and shops in addition to the signing of a petition of well over 20,000 signatures in support of the markets remaining on their current site. This is the largest petition ever delivered to Birmingham’s electoral officers.

The support of Birmingham City Council is essential if the markets are to continue supporting the local community. The council needs to recognise the fact that composite markets work well because they function as a ‘one stop shop’ – businesses will use them for all their produce needs and so are likely to buy a higher proportion from these local supply chains.  Community leaders also value the integrated markets, saying a move would split up whole communities. A central site is also crucial to this.

Moving the markets out of the city would change how the markets’ finances work, as rents and service charges would rise and require capital outlay. Some of their current efficiency and little need for borrowing would be lost.

Attempt to relocate or move the markets would be disastrous to the local community especially in terms of social and economic inclusion and local food supply chains. The Council might propose mitigation measures such as providing collective goods transport from the out-of-centre site for the retail markets and other customers, but realistically, how long would revenue funding for this last and how practical would it be? The proposal by BWFPA for a smaller and more streamlined wholesale function within a mixed use development and still bordering the vital retail markets would maintain, and enhance, the ability of the wholesale markets to benefit the local community and strengthen its local economy. This would support medium and long term economic success and yet still bring short-term financial benefits for a cash-strapped local authority.

The proposal for keeping the Wholesale Markets where they belong, in the city centre at the heart of a food-related new development, really is a win-win situation and if Birmingham City Council failed to take advantage of this, the economic and social consequences would be severe.

Jamie Stone and Karen Leach

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