In the early 20th century, Brixton’s famous Electric Avenue looked very little like it does today. Huge glazed canopies protected the market traders and shoppers, lit by electric lights for the first time. Today, traders on the street are struggling, their canopies replaced with cheap tarpaulin. Customers in a place that was once South London’s shopping capital are now going elsewhere.
On a tour with London Assembly members, MyLondon hears the plights of traders. Collins ‘Egg Man’ Taylor, who runs, as you might expect, the egg stall on the street, tells politicians that cash-strapped customers are deserting sustainable sellers. “There’s only so much the council can do. People are buying less.”
His stall rent has just risen by five per cent while his wholesale costs haven risen far more. Council-managed stalls on Electric Avenue vary in price from around £2,000 up to £4,000 a year. “The rent is expensive,” he tells MyLondon. Facilities are lacking too: “We need to have electricity and cleaning facilities here.”
Sarkhill, who runs a clothing stall in the middle of Electric Avenue told Assembly Members he has five kids to feed, and his regular customers have just stopped coming. He says his business could go under in a matter of weeks. And at the Jamaican spices stall on Pope’s Road, Bryan’s business faces rocketing costs. His colleague Lee says they’ve tried to keep prices the same – but the margins are disappearing. One council officer said the open market traders also suffer from a high number of thefts – but there was no CCTV pointed at Sarkhill’s stall.
READ MORE: London Underground: The hidden entrance to Brixton Tube station commuters have no idea about
We’re walking with Lambeth Council’s Nicole Terrieux, who coordinates licences for market traders. They’re experimenting to keep the street markets alive. They’ve given what used to be an illegal street stall a proper pitch, while they’re trialling ‘try before you buy’ stalls – with traders given a few weeks to see if they can make a profit without forking out for a contract. They’re also offering (unofficial) business advice. One potential trader approached the council to sell imported t-shirts. Nicole went through the numbers with them – and soon realised she’d only be making £3 profit a day. The potential trader scrapped the plans.
Like Egg Man Collins, Shah’s halal food truck isn’t asking for much – just a proper electric hook-up and some seating for his customers. He has to turn off the diesel generator to speak to us. Part of the short-term lease scheme, he’s got until June to gauge community interest in his product before deciding whether to extend it.
It’s hard not to be demoralised when you walk down what could be a buzzing market street on Brixton Station Road, just around the corner from Electric Avenue. The road is in a poor state, and there’s no permanent cover for would-be traders. Shah’s halal truck relies on the diesel generator.
There have been plenty of calls for change to revive London’s markets – and little sign of action, London Assembly economy chair Hina Bokhari tells me. The London Markets Board has “no ethnic minority people” on its committee, she says, meaning it struggles to speak for diverse trading areas like Brixton. “Some of these stalls have been trading for decades – and they could go under in weeks. They’re surviving, not thriving.”
The slump is stopping potential traders even coming forward. Nicole says the council struggled to get interest in its recent Twitter call-out for traders. But Hina Bokhari savages it: “Who is looking on the council Twitter feed that wants to start a business in the area? It’s not the single mum making her own products.”
Matthew Dibben, Assistant Director of Regeneration at Lambeth Council, says change is afoot. More than 140 years since Electric Avenue got its electric lights, the council is finally installing electric hook-ups for traders on Brixton Station Road, and providing more space for seating. But will the change come fast enough to rescue Brixton’s market scene?
The London Assembly’s economy committee will publish a report on the state of London’s markets in the coming months.
Got a story you think we should be covering? Get in touch by contacting [email protected]
Do you want the latest news in your area sent straight to your inbox? It only takes a few minutes! Click here.
Josiah joined MyLondon as the outlet’s first City Hall Editor in October 2021, reporting on the Mayor, the London Assembly, the Met police, Transport for London, and wider London politics.
He moved to South London from Brussels in 2015, working in communications for the Electoral Reform Society, and covering Westminster politics as a freelance journalist. Originally from Cornwall, he is now also a proud Londoner. Josiah has appeared on BBC Radio 4, Times Radio, LBC and other outlets to discuss current affairs and general political chaos.
If you have an untold story – whether it’s a housing nightmare, an unfair decision or a local scandal, get in touch at [email protected] or contact Josiah on Twitter.