Covent Garden Tenants issue High Court action against CGMA to halt redevelopment

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Photos courtesy of New Covent Garden Market

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Gary Marshall (left) of CGTA and Bevington Salads

The Covent Garden Tenants Association (CGTA) has revealed to PBUK its High Court legal appeal for an injunction against the redevelopment of New Covent Garden Market (NCGM) in London, citing serious concerns about traffic management and the long-lasting negative impact on the market, its traders and their customers.

Gary Marshall, chairman of the CGTA and managing director of wholesaler Bevington Salads, told PBUK that the association and 17 market tenants, as well as many more planning to join the action, have mounted a High Court legal challenge this month [11 October 2018] against the Covent Garden Market Authority (CGMA) – the statutory body which was set up in 1961 to run the market.

The relationship between the two organisations is at an “all-time low”, according to Marshall, stemming from an “unwillingness” on the part of the CGMA and its development partner Vinci St. Modwen (VSM) to “cooperate, consult and disclose information”, particularly over proposed traffic management systems before the redevelopment began.

“The CGTA has a severe lack of confidence, trust or belief in the way the CGMA has gone about this redevelopment,” Marshall lamented to PBUK.

As a last resort, the CGTA, which represents approximately 90 per cent of NCGM’s traders, has been prompted to gather virtually all of its members to contribute to a £1 million “fighting fund.” 

While the CGMA declined to comment to PBUK on the specifics of the legal proceedings initiated by the CGTA, the market authority’s CEO Daniel Tomkinson had this to say:

“We regret that some of our valued tenants have seen fit to take this action, and we hope to resolve this issue as quickly as possible. In the meantime, we will continue work on the much-needed development of the Fruit and Vegetable Market.”

The CGTA is confident it will win the case, thus resulting in the four parties – CGMA, CGTA, VSM and Defra – having to resolve the long-running dispute over the market’s future format.

“What they are considering building is simply not fit for purpose,” Marshall explained to PBUK.  “We’ve been trying to negotiate and to find a compromise for 10 years. A legal battle is the last thing we want." 

“But the [redevelopment] process has been shambolic. There has been no real consultation. VSM put forward a ‘decant strategy’ [a temporary relocation of business] but what’s never happened is to prove that that process works.

“The CGTA has had to instruct lawyers, traffic consultants and planning consultants to prove that the CGMA’s plan isn’t going to work. We believe they’ve acted illegally within the public Acts [that govern the CGMA] and the lease law [signed between the traders and CGMA].”

However, the CGMA’s CEO Tomkinson maintains that its organisation has remained in close contact with the CGTA to guarantee the continuity of produce trading at NCGM

“For the last 24 months, we have worked closely with the Covent Garden Tenants Association (CGTA), tenants and their advisors to address their concerns and to ensure that disruption is kept to a minimum and that their businesses can continue to operate, safely, throughout,” Tomkinson told PBUK

“The extensive consultation we have conducted and hands-on assistance we have put in place clearly demonstrates the extent to which we are committed to ensuring minimal disruption to our tenants, though we know and understand that we can’t build this new market without some. We acknowledge and welcome their continued understanding during this period of adjustment.”

The traffic dispute

The particulars of the CGTA’s legal case focus on the traffic management plan during the redevelopment, including claims of a lack of consultation with the market’s tenants before the commencement of works; and the failure to provide a complete traffic data report. 

These claims relate to the market’s Southern Vehicle Car Park (SVCP) – an area encompassing several acres that included covered space for the commercial unloading and loading of fresh produce by internal and external customers. 

On 1 October 2018, the CGMA handed over the SVCP to the developer (VSM), resulting in the erection of a barrier around the area and the demolition of its concrete surface.

Since then, the CGTA claims in its legal action that the market’s business activities have been “severely disrupted” because of “insufficient space” for loading and unloading; leading to “increased conflicts and congestion”, serious safety concerns and customer complaints.

Unless the SVCP is reestablished, the CGTA alleges that its customers may defect to other fruit and veg markets in London, causing lasting damage to the traders’ businesses. 

“Customers are openly writing to us to say they might have to go elsewhere because they can’t operate effectively from NCGM,” revealed Marshall. “If traders at NCGM can’t do the job, someone from New Spitalfields or Western will. It’s put business continuity at great risk.

“They’ve taken away this massive area for commercial parking,” Marshall continued. “It’s resulted in more vehicles and personnel operating in a much smaller area. It’s very inefficient, and it’s far more dangerous. Already there have been two accidents. It’s not been thought through.”

For its part, the CGMA told PBUK that the organisation is satisfied the space for traders is “adequate”, and has put in place additional measures to support traders during the relocation of traffic.

“This phase [of the market’s construction] is being built on an area called the Southern Vehicle Car Park that had been previously used for vans and cars,” Tomkinson told PBUK

“Before starting construction, we relocated all of the cars from this area and around 100 vans to a different part of the site. This, along with extensive traffic surveys, has given us the assurances that we can continue to provide our traders with adequate space to safely fulfill their operations.

“Now that construction has started in this area, we have extra teams on site overnight to help direct and assist vehicles, and to ensure that it is business as usual for everyone who uses the market – that’s our traders, customers and suppliers.”

As well as seeking an injunction against the CGMA from interfering with the SVCP, plus an injunction requiring the dismantling of the barrier and the restoration of the road surface, a major component of the CGTA’s legal case relates to the analysis of how the market and its traffic flow would function without the SVCP

In its claim, the CGTA and tenants are seeking to obtain the full data from Ove Arup & Partners (Arup) to enable an independent traffic management consultant to advise the CGTA on traffic management during and after the development so as not to impede the effective functioning of the market. 

“We were promised that information; to have a full consultation process,” Marshall asserted. “But we’ve never seen the full Arup report. We’ve seen a snippet, which had no detail, no diagrams, no vehicle counts." 

“Also, it uses data from 2009. Now lorries are bigger and heavier. A lot has changed in 10 years in terms of how transport moves and how the market operates.

“The most recent data Arup used was from 2014, and relates to December time – one of the quietest periods for fruit and veg trading. They’ve taken very little interest in what the market does or how it operates.

“This report has been paid for by and reported to the developer, not the CGMA. We believe it’s a potential conflict of interest. Why has there been no independent traffic consultant for the CGMA? It gave us no alternative but to mount a legal challenge.”

A resolution?

Despite the dispute, the CGTA still believes in a resolution to what Marshall describes as “a project that has gone from a contracted seven-year timespan to a potentially delayed 10 years, and from an original cost of £130m to an estimated £500m to build something that doesn’t work.” 

“We have to believe for the future of a market that’s had a presence in London for over 200 years that sooner or later common sense will prevail,” he declared. 

“If we win the case, and we strongly believe we will, the actual plan [signed in 2010] cannot be carried out because they won’t have the area to put up the different buildings.”

Nonetheless, the CGTA suggests there is a path forward and considerable potential for NCGM.

“We have the opportunity to become an iconic market that is the envy not only of the UK and Europe, but the world,” Marshall exclaimed. “NCGM is critical to feeding London.”

Indeed, with London’s Billingsgate, New Spitalfields and Smithfields wholesale markets expected to merge and relocate, Marshall says NCGM, which employs more than 2,500 people, has an opportunity to seize. 

“The Corporation of London is looking for alternative sites outside of London’s main ring road,” he pointed out. “That would give NCGM a phenomenal opportunity to embrace all that business within London, provided we’ve got the tools to do so.” 

To that end, CGTA is calling for “a full dialogue with an open mind for change, for progress, for compromise” to build a market that works. 

“No development of any size has ever been successful without the support of the tenants,” Marshall claimed. “They’ve got to listen to the people who understand how the market works, and take our points seriously.” 

The CGTA’s vision

Rather than “knock down and turn around” the wholesale market buildings that sit on a 45-acre site within NCGM’s triangular piece of land in London’s Nine Elms area, the CGTA proposes that the current buildings should be kept in place and upgraded instead.

While the necessary infrastructure upgrades are made, traders could move into the space released by substantial customers relocating to the recently-built food hub at NCGM. This, Marshall claims, would cause no disturbance to the trade, and no disturbance to customer parking and unloading.

“What we propose is far more environmentally friendly, and we believe it will not extend the seven-year programme but shorten it to nearer four years,” he said. “We also believe there could be a major saving on the potential £400m-500m cost.”

Indeed, Marshall claims the CGMA’s redevelopment strategy – which the CGMA estimates will cost £200m – is both uneconomical and unnecessary, considering the market has functioned in its present format for more than 40 years. 

“Work was done over a period of 20 years in the 1960s to come up with the most economic and convenient way to use that land,” he said.

“The way we park and unload our vehicles still works, which is why we still have customers coming to the market. Every ounce of space has to be used to keep the market operational, or the traders will lose their customer base.” 

Marshall points out that the wholesale markets in Melbourne and Frankfurt are based on the current footprint of NCGM, while Philadelphia market in the USA was constructed using the same philosophy as NCGM

Importantly, Marshall says previous structural engineers confirmed that NCGM’s existing buildings are fit for purpose. 

“The units are state-of-the-art,” he continued. “The units have been upgraded to be fully refrigerated – if they weren’t we wouldn’t qualify to get the BRC and Red Tractor accreditation to supply government departments, schools and prisons; the list is endless.” 

While the CGTA is opposed to a complete redevelopment, Marshall does acknowledge the need for a “significant upgrade” of the market’s infrastructure. 

“The electrics were put in during the 1970s; now we all have refrigerated units and we need more power. We need upgraded drainage and roads because the vehicles we’re using are bigger and heavier.” 

Put simply, Marshall says NCGM’s traders want what they were promised; “an affordable, sustainable market that is fit for the 21st Century.”

The CGMA, meanwhile, maintains that a “major transformation” of the site remains “essential” to create a wholesale market for the future.

“We started building the new market three years ago and this next phase of construction, which will see us build the new Fruit and Vegetable Market, has now started,” Tomkinson pointed out to PBUK.   

“This essential redevelopment will upgrade the nearly 45-year-old infrastructure and secure the future of the market at Nine Elms so that our 175 traders can continue to contribute even more to the London economy for generations to come.” 

As for the legal challenge, the CGMA has 28 days to respond (subject to an extension), before a date for trial is set. Then a High Court judge will assess the evidence and, ultimately, make the judgement.

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