The last trader still standing on Soho’s historic Berwick Street Market has accused Westminster Council of trying to “get rid of us”.
The 18th century food market has been hit by a double whammy of low footfall during the coronavirus pandemic, and an unexpected 20 per cent hike in pitch fees charged by the council.
Robin Smith chairs the Berwick Street Traders’ Society, and is a co-founder of the Soho Dairy stall which began trading in 2015.
As of this week, his stall was the only one left out of 20 that usually trade in a part of central London usually populated by tourists and office workers.
“It’s a colossal impact but we’re determined to get through this,” said Mr Smith.
“The fruit and veg stall closed last week and they’ve been here 60 years. It’s a terribly worrying sign.”
He went on: “The council increased our pitch fees and backdated them by three months, from June. In Camden they waived the pitch fees.
“Legally, the council is only allowed to charge fees in order to cover its own costs, but we have no way of proving whether they’re charging too much.
“I think the only reason they would want to raise the fees in this instance is to get rid of us.”
Westminster Council denied the claim and said this is the first time in 13 years it has raised pitch fees in Berwick Street. And it said four grants of £10,000 have been given to market traders.
Mr Smith, from North London, explained that Soho’s residential population of about 3,000 has shrunk during the second lockdown, as many residents have fled to second homes elsewhere in the country.
Jim Margerham, 45, lives in Beckenham but has worked on different stalls in Berwick Street since he was 18.
He was working on the Quality Fruits stall, a mainstay of the market for 60 years, but which closed on Friday (November 6).
“The stall will be back in December but until then I’m going to have to take it easy. Fortunately my wife works as well,” said Mr Margerham.
“What can you do? We’re in a pandemic. But the council should have left it until all of this was over to raise the pitch fees.”
A council spokesperson said: “Westminster is committed to the success of our markets… we reject any characterisations to the contrary.
“Fees weren’t increased for 13 years and market traders in Westminster continue to pay some of the lowest fees in London.
“Westminster is supporting its market traders through grants and is investing in its markets by delivering WiFi, improving electrical charging points and by providing better and cheaper storage facilities. The charges for the Peter Street storage unit, which serves the Berwick Street Market, have been suspended since the beginning of the pandemic.”
They added: “This year, over £1 million in grants was made available to Westminster’s market traders, including four grants of £10,000 each to pitch-holders on Berwick Street.”
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