DEALERS in South London have cautiously welcomed Southwark Council’s proposal to relaunch Bermondsey Market, but remain sceptical as to whether funds will be made available to make a significant difference.
They are also anxious that the originality of the historic market is preserved.
Antiques traders have faced a difficult five years as the market has been moved around during the redevelopment of Bermondsey Square, which was completed earlier this year.
Now the council have undertaken a consultation process with market traders with the aim of producing an action plan to "reinvigorate and transform" the markets in the London borough.
The council's draft strategy document says that the Friday antiques market is in decline with large numbers of empty stalls. It points out that the market "needs a significant rebrand and relaunch if it is to remain a significant tourist attraction".
The findings do not tally entirely with what the traders have to say.
For instance, the council believe that only 40 to 50 stalls are currently let, with another 120 pitches available, whereas Bermondsey Antiques Market Traders' Association chairman Joan Bygrave reports 70 to 80 stallholders at the last count.
The council report also states that the stalls themselves are "in poor condition and present a detrimental image for the market".
Despite this, Joan Bygrave believes that the situation is now better than is being portrayed. She said business was improving now that the Bermondsey Square redevelopment was finished.
"The area is becoming more lively and I know the market will survive and improve," she said. "I have the utmost admiration for all the dealers who have struggled through the most difficult trading conditions during the five-year Bermondsey development. They have fought, and will fight, tooth and nail for the market to which they are dedicated, as am I."
Both she and the council agreed that publicity and signage needed improving, but she added that the council's track record at promoting the market was poor.
Traders' confidence in the council has been an issue over the years when it comes to acting in the interests of the market. This is an issue that the council are well aware of and they say they have gone out of their way to try to build bridges.
"We understand that there is support and affection for the markets and that's why we want to keep them going and improve them," said a council spokesman.
"We know that the regeneration has affected trade at Bermondsey and some dealers have expressed disapproval, but we need to balance this with the needs of people who live there."
She also pointed out that in the last 12 months the council had spent £1m on street lighting, road improvements and tidying up the market areas in the borough.
However, some dealers at Bermondsey doubted whether the council would make funds available for a significant rebranding.
Joan Bygrave said: "The dealers are also very anxious that the market does not lose its originality and we would not wish it to become a 'shrubs and tubs' place like Covent Garden."
There were also questions raised as to who would implement the measures once they were decided.
Since 2007, the market has been managed by Geraud Markets (UK) Ltd, the UK arm of Groupe Geraud, an Anglo-French company, who are the largest operators of local authority markets in Europe and have a number of local authority contracts in this country.
According to Matt Steele, who combines jobs as the operations manager for Geraud UK and trading manager for Southwark Council, the agreement between Southwark Council and Geraud is a "loose, informal arrangement", unlike Geraud's structured legal relationship with Liverpool City Council for example.
Mr Steele said: "We manage all of Southwark's markets, whether there's one trader or 250, and we have a contract with the council until July 2010.
"As far as Bermondsey Antiques Market is concerned, new investment is certainly needed in stalls and promotion, and the signage is certainly very poor. There are many issues yet to be resolved by the council, all of them involving the presentation of the market."
With regard to the relationship with Geraud, the council spokesman said: "This is not a privatisation of the markets, as some have claimed, but we use the services of Geraud as they have great experience and expertise in this area.
"We will look to put out to tender the management of the action plan once it is released."
It is envisaged that the action plan will be made public early next year.
By Alex Capon and Joan Porter