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‘We’re asking for help’: rent row grows at New Covent Garden flower market | Business

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Buckets of colourful and scented cut lilies, roses and hydrangeas adorn the stalls at the New Covent Garden flower market, waiting to catch the eye of passing shoppers. Except nobody’s buying.

Outside by the Thames, the roads hum with early morning traffic, but inside the market’s warehouse just a handful of masked shoppers are browsing in the cool alleyways, while radios blare pop music to motivate the market’s army of early risers.

Slow trade isn’t the only concern for the flower market’s 16 wholesalers: alongside the cut flowers, potted house plants and shrubs, a row is growing over rent and service charges.

Closed along with all other non-essential retailers from March until mid-June, flower vendors at the UK’s largest wholesale horticultural market complain that their landlord, the Covent Garden Market Authority (CGMA), isn’t offering them any financial support as they try to get back on their feet.





Porter’s Foliage stall owner Bryan Porter, his son Sam and his nephew.



Porter’s Foliage stall owner Bryan Porter, his son Sam and his nephew. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

“At this time, 7.30am on a Tuesday, there would have been shouting, people running around, stalls half empty, and traders making orders for the next day,” says Amanda Willgrave, a florist who in pre-Covid times rose before dawn daily to buy supplies for her business, Flirty Flowers.

Flowers, along with fruit and vegetables, have been traded at New Covent Garden Market since 1670, and the market still bears the name of its former location even though it is now based near Battersea power station in south London.

Despite the proud heritage, the traders fear for their future. The cancellation of summer events, government restrictions on the number of guests who can attend wedding receptions in England, and the slow reopening of hospitality venues have made it a tough summer for the flower industry.

The flower market traders claim the CGMA is not following the government’s code of practice for commercial property relationships during the pandemic, despite the fact that the authority is accountable to – but does not receive funding from – the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).





Boxes of flowers on display at Covent Garden flower market.



Boxes of flowers on display at Covent Garden flower market. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

The code states that landlords should consider “a reasonable case put forward by a tenant in distress” and can offer a temporary arrangement if it might enable a tenant to survive.

The CGMA has deferred the April to June rent payment until the start of 2021 but has not yet offered any reduction in either rent or service charges. These account for around three-quarters of the amount usually invoiced monthly by the CGMA and contribute to the market’s running costs.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, we are asking for some help,” says John Hardcastle, 62, the owner of Bloomfield Flowers, a cut flower wholesaler, whose family have traded from the market for more than 100 years. “Trading has been a lot worse than we imagined. It was naive of me to think there would be some kind of bounce back.”

Sales are down 80% and Hardcastle has already made three members of his 14-strong team redundant. “Rent is a very small part of the problem. To be asked to pay this huge service charge when we were closed for three months seems harsh. We’ve been told there might be a 5% or 10% reduction at the end of the financial year, but if we don’t get it now some of us might not be around then.”





Stall holder John Hardcastle.



Stall holder John Hardcastle. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

At Porter’s Foliage, a market shop brimming with lush, aromatic bunches of eucalyptus and purple basil and a rainbow of dried flowers, Bryan Porter has also made a long-serving staff member redundant. “It was very tough, upsetting and emotional,” he says.

Porter, 51, is the fourth generation to run the family firm, and is already training up the next in line, his 18-year-old son Sam and 26-year-old nephew Aaron.

Whether Porter makes more employees redundant is dependant on the firm receiving financial support from the CGMA. “Cashflow now is vital to bankroll us back through to profitability, which is not expected until large events return in March or April next year,” he says. “I fear many firms here in the market will choose to fold rather than pay to support a landlord that seems to be putting profitability in front of long-term market success.”

The CGMA is a public corporation, whose statutory duty is providing facilities for a wholesale horticultural market at Nine Elms while ensuring that its revenues allow it to break even across two financial years.

The CGMA’s most recent accounts, for the year to 31 March 2019, show £1.4m profit after tax – which its chief executive, Daniel Tomkinson, described as a “strong position” – in addition to capital and reserves of £76m.

The market tenants complain the CGMA will not consider any request for financial support before receiving financial information from them, including cashflow projections and details of all payments made to directors of its businesses over the previous three years.





A flower stall holder chats to customers.



A flower stall holder chats to customers. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

The CGMA said it was aware of how the closure of the market and the reduction in demand for flowers had affected flower market tenants, and it was working with them.

“In order to ensure that the support goes to where it is most needed, we have asked our tenants to provide detailed financial information about their businesses so we can assess what is needed and make informed decisions that will support those most in need,” said David Frankish, the chair of New Covent Garden Market. “In the meantime we are not putting our flower market tenants under pressure to pay their rent or service charge invoices.”

The CGMA declined to answer whether any of its board or executives had taken a pay cut during the pandemic, as many executives elsewhere have opted to do. The authority employs 26 people, five of whom earn more than £100,000. One member of staff has been and remains on furlough.

A Defra spokesperson said the CGMA was following the government’s code of practice for commercial property relationships. “The authority is rightly considering the support that tenants have already received from central government support schemes to ensure good use of taxpayer money,” they said.

At the market, brother and sister florist duo Rob and Patrice van Helden are buying limited supplies for their business, as they have done for 35 years. Providing the flower arrangements for Princess Beatrice’s private wedding in July was one small bright spot for them from the past few months.

“It’s heartbreaking seeing people making colleagues redundant,” says Rob. “We have relied on this place and become a family in here.”

“I’m scared for the whole industry,” adds Patrice. “This is not just a job, it’s our life.”

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