There has been a lot of recent discussion and press reporting about the future of The Portobello Road Market and my role in its apparent demise. A small section of this reporting has been based on truthful events and on people’s opinions, which I absolutely respect. However, far too much of it has been inaccurate, politically based nonsense aimed at the royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the forthcoming local elections in May. The remaining parts, including several damaging newspaper articles, contain serious misinformation about the recent letting of 282/292 Westbourne Grove to the retailer All Saints and many personal attacks directed at me.
The overall suggestion is that Portobello Market is under threat from property developers such as me, and unless the Council brings in legislation to protect it, the market will die. This fact in itself, is quite simply not the case. Portobello Market is not under threat from anyone as far as I am aware.
The Council own, regulate and run the market and it is entirely their decision as to what to do with it. Primarily I believe they need to accept this responsibility and instead of bringing in new legislation, they should focus on the fact that it could be drastically improved. Likewise the shops on Portobello road are not being developed into a ‘High Street clone’. However, the shops and antiques arcades in a small part of the road are facing mounting financial problems and I would like to discuss a solution to these problems that is not based on archaic protectionism and retrenchment to a bygone era.
Many of the recent protesters’ assertions about the redevelopment of 282/292 Westbourne Grove are either simply untrue or deliberate distortions of actual events. Similarly, the attempts to suggest that my company (The Portobello Group) has sinister plans for redeveloping our arcades on the Portobello Road into mass retail outlets are totally unfounded. We, like other shop, business and arcade owners in the antiques section, face many different problems. We need support and assistance from people who understand the issues and want to address those problems.
Commercial redevelopment around the market is a consequence of these problems, not their cause. The varying factors putting pressure on the market are complex; they reflect the way the area has changed and the way this has impacted on the antique dealers who use the market. Those issues can’t be summarised in a press slogan or solved by a wave of the legislators’ wand.
I want this document to bring anyone who has an interest in The Portobello Road Market together to start a proper debate. This would be a non partisan discussion about the factors which are causing the decline in the market and what can be done to reverse that trend. I want us to address the real issues and share our aspirations for the future, not just try to protect the past. This document is an effort to get the ball rolling by attempting to put forward my view of the problems and what I think is required to allow the street to evolve with the times and the market to prosper and thrive.
We all have a lot to lose. If the current trends continue without anything changing, the antiques section of Portobello road will go on contracting and, bit by bit, it will eventually die. This very real prospect may eventually stop people coming to Portobello road altogether and that would be catastrophic for us all.
THE PORTOBELLO STORY SO FAR - How did we get where we are today?
How has Portobello market changed?
This street market is the ‘Life Blood’ of Portobello road. It is this market that needs to be maintained and improved. This market is responsible for the livelihood of hundreds of stallholders. This market drives the large footfall on the street, creates the ambience and maintains the uniqueness of the area. This market is owned and controlled by RBKC - it isn’t under threat, but the antique section could be significantly improved!
Either side of the street market lie the shops of Portobello Road itself. They are predominantly privately owned shops that follow the prevailing trends of the time and have done so for the last 100 years. These shops are striving to survive in an area dominated by a market which has reduced its trading hours from six days a week down to only one. It seems now that every time one or two of these shops changes hands, people are in uproar that it is a threat to The Market itself.
These shops have always changed hands and they haven’t always been smaller independent units as the protesters will have you believe. It is the very fact that these shops are free to change with the demands of the market place that has enabled the street itself to evolve. Without this freedom to evolve we would never have had the Antiques section in the first place - it only started in the 1950’s.
Until the 1950’s most of the shops were set up to serve the local community. There were grocers, butchers, haberdashers, clothing outlets etc, etc. Some were large emporiums like Jesse Smith at 143-149 Portobello Road, and some were even well known retail names like ‘Burton’s Tailors’ at 177 Portobello Road and Marks & Spencer, who operated a mega store at 188-192 Portobello Road. All of these shops operated on a six day per week basis!
I am certainly not advocating that Portobello’s shops should all become chain stores. Far from it. But without the flexibility to allow change and adapt to prevailing economic conditions and consumer demands, these shops will eventually close down.
How the Antiques section on Portobello Road evolved
By the 1960’s many of the shops in this section had started to migrate from a variety of genres into antiques. They subdivided their shops into small stalls to create ‘Antique Galleries’ (an example being Harris Arcade, 161-163 Portobello Road, which originally sold prams). The owners did this to survive in a changing climate. It was only after they became antiques galleries that trading was reduced to the 1 day per week pattern that we see today. Eventually, the ‘Antiques Market’ became so successful that antique shops spread into Westbourne Grove and surrounding side streets such as Ledbury Road.
Antique sales on Westbourne Grove and Portobello
So many antique dealers had been forced to sell their properties that over the next few years the area around Portobello was forced to transform itself in order to survive. The Westbourne Grove that we see today is a totally rejuvenated shopping area, whose continued existence is due to a combination of wonderful individual shops, niche retailers and some of the biggest names in fashion. Westbourne Grove was forced to adapt early because it couldn’t rely on the global reputation of Portobello Road and the huge footfall of the street market to keep it going. It has become much more dependent on local shoppers again, reverting to a seven-day trading pattern and due to the huge increase in local property values it now reflects the needs and requirements of affluent local shoppers.
Now it’s the turn of the shops on the antique section of The Portobello Road to find a way to survive in a changed economic climate. The owners and operators of these shops and more pertinently the arcades, quite simply cannot afford to keep them going in their current format.
Although it is a huge factor, this current demise cannot be blamed on the economic climate alone. There are many other factors at play- including huge increases in the rents and business rates of the properties themselves, spiralling maintenance and operating costs, and a refusal from the antiques stallholders to trade more than one day a week.
I have tried very hard to maintain the arcades on Portobello Road even though some owners have closed their arcades and let them to retailers. Every year it gets harder. We have fewer dealers on the street pitches, so it follows that there are vacancies in the arcades. And with more vacancies, the owners such as me have to let in new goods to fill the vacant stalls or suffer further losses. This has created a vicious circle. But that isn’t the only problem.
The profile of visitors to Portobello has changed as well. Not many visitors are actually here to buy ‘Antiques’. They come for a fabulous day out and they spend money on many things other than antiques. And they don’t just come on Saturdays. Every week from Sunday to Friday, 40,000 people come to Portobello. Finding the antiques section closed they are disappointed and leave with a negative impression. Portobello has become as much a tourist destination as it is an antiques venue and it should deliver a good day out -every day.
The net result of all this is that in the antique section the arcades and galleries are suffering financially. Over the last 15 years, shop rents in Westbourne Grove, and further down Portobello Road, have trebled. Meanwhile, business rates have increased in line with the mounting shop rents. The tourists and shoppers are faced with walking through a section of the street that is closed six days per week. What business can survive on 1 day per week trade, when it pays bills for seven days every week?
I have been branded a ‘wicked developer’ who has recently come in to buy up all the properties and change them into ‘Chain Stores’. This myth just doesn’t fit with the facts. I have been running these properties as Antique Arcades since 1994. I bought Lipka’s in 2001 to stop it being turned into a ‘GAP’ – and I’ve tried very hard to make it work as an arcade for nearly ten years. I did this with an eye on preserving the very reason I and many people love The Portobello Road. I have resisted both change and approaches by retailers for many years - often to my financial detriment. But I am fighting a losing battle.
The ‘threat to the antique section’ is not the wicked property developers waiting to gobble it up.
The truth is a lot simpler: the antiques section is just no longer economically viable in its current format.
As I’ve said, I want to stimulate brainstorming, inspiration and debate on the future of Portobello. So, to get the ball rolling, I’ve summarized the key challenges we face and given you my suggestions for improvement. This is just a start – I will be contacting all involved to ensure everyone has a chance to make their suggestions heard.
The changing face of Portobello
The Influx of New Goods onto the Stalls
A reducing number of good quality dealers are trading in Portobello
This isn’t just affecting Portobello. other long established London antiques markets have closed completely – Antiquarius, Bermondsey and Camden Market for example. It is bound to get worse. Many Portobello stalwarts, dealers who’ve been here since the antiques market developed in the fifties and sixties, are now approaching retirement age. A younger generation of dealers is not taking their place because of the modern methods of trading I have mentioned. A pitch or stall is no longer absolutely necessary to every antique dealer.
Antique dealers only want to trade one day per week
This one day per week antiques trade creates two problems. Firstly, the arcade owners cannot produce sufficient rental income to keep the arcades going and secondly when the hordes of visitors come to Portobello midweek there is nothing on offer for them. This has a major, negative impact on the reputation of the Portobello brand.
However, initially I would suggest that we aim for 4 days per week Thursday – Sunday when there is already good footfall.
If this were promoted and well managed it would convince dealers in the arcades to trade on additional days of the week. In order to facilitate this I have already stated my intention to upgrade the arcades, stalls and security to enable traders to open.
Business rates payable against seven day per week trading
The Street Market in the Antique Section requires specialist management
The antique market could also be much larger and extended further up to Chepstow Villas and beyond. Other ideas
include the potential for a covered Saturday antiques only market in the school playground, but only if alternative
parking can be provided. The street market is the ideal place for many of the antique stalls. They get far better
passing trade. Everyone who comes to the Portobello Road would have to pass their by RBKC as they wouldn’t have to
cover shop rents, rates, repairs, maintenance, electricity etc.
No centralised promotion or advertising
There is no Portobello Brand, no Portobello Trademark and no official merchandise
“Save Portobello Market”
THE WAY FORWARD – Creating a shared vision for the
1. Work together
2. Agree that Portobello needs better management
3. Accept that the market has had to adapt before and can do so again.
GETTING STARTED – a series of meetings
I would like to propose a series of meetings, under the aegis of the RBKC as the owner of the market and the elected representatives of the local community, to discuss the market’s issues and come up with some very specific solutions to our problems. I am prepared to organize, promote and fund these meetings myself if necessary. As I’ve said, everyone who has a stake in the future of Portobello has a view that counts and I want very much to hear everyone’s ideas and suggestions in response to the challenges I’ve set out. If anyone has any answers to the questions I have posed then believe me, I want to hear them.
The real threat to Portobello Road lies, not in the highly unlikely prospect of “megashop” developments but in a continuing unwillingness to address the commercial realities which are causing the problems. I have suggested some answers to this problem and look forward to discussing them with all stakeholders in a constructive environment.
NB In view of the political sensitivities surrounding the upcoming election, I will organize the first of these sessions once the election outcome is known. However, I would appreciate any comments or feedback that you have relevant to this document and any other problems / solutions that you would like to identify, as soon as possible.
APPENDIX 1 -
THE TRUTH ABOUT 282/292 WESTBOURNE GROVE
This redevelopment has been carried out with great care, pride and the utmost attention to detail to preserve the
integrity and character of the area. My decision to introduce AllSaints to Westbourne Grove was not taken lightly.
However, I do believe it has met, even exceeded, my aim to inject youth and vitality into a run down parade of shops.
AllSaints are a very well respected fashion retailer, which have proved to appeal to both tourists and the younger
locals seven days a week.
The initial 2007 plan was simply to redevelop the residential upper parts of the property, and retain the basement as an antiques arcade – providing a separate, well advertised entrance. Dealers agreed to move to another part of the building whilst the work was being done – but during the construction it quickly became apparent that this wouldn’t work because of logistical and safety considerations. The answer seemed obvious – I had vacancies in other antique markets so I offered them far better pitches on Portobello Road – pending return to trading in a basement arcade at Lipka’s when the work was completed. Then, during the refurbishment, and whilst dealers were off-site, it became clear that a basement trading area would not actually be viable. Due to the depth of the basement dig out it would no longer have easy access off Portobello Road, in addition to this it required a separate means of escape out to Westbourne Grove that couldn’t be accommodated into the scheme and finally we had very little interest from antique traders in taking up the proposed space. Clearly this had not been the smooth transition I had hoped but the problems we encountered were unforeseen when the work started. Throughout the entire process I kept the relocated dealers informed, both by letter and verbally, given that I saw them in our other arcades every Saturday. Suggestions that they only found out about the situation when the scaffolding came down to reveal an AllSaints shop, are once again simply untrue.
Incidentally, during the time that dealers were out of the Lipka’s site I tried once again to persuade them to return on an increased number of days a week, but this suggestion was of no interest whatsoever.
Was I always out to make a quick buck from Lipkas?
In the end, not unreasonably I believe, I decided that it was no longer possible to maintain this Westbourne Grove property as a Saturday only antiques arcade and felt that AllSaints was the best solution.
Consequently, the change has not disadvantaged the traders who moved, and has strengthened the antique market on Portobello road by relocating the best dealers into the many vacant units that existed in other arcades.
Did anybody in Lipka’s lose their livelihood as a result of the redevelopment?
An example of the negative propaganda circulated by the protesters was the early accusation that we had evicted 94 years old Phylis Pollak and her son, Paul. Here’s what Paul said to me about the move:
“ I’ve been on Portobello for over thirty years, and my mother over forty. We both had businesses in Lipka’s when Joe Lipka retired in 2001, when there were all sorts of rumours about it being sold to a big retailer. But it didn’t happen. A year or eighteen months ago, part of the arcade closed for the redevelopment and people were relocated. Not thrown out, but relocated to other parts of the building. We were moved around a couple of times within the building which was inconvenient but we never had to stop trading. I had two moves, the first into a next door property where I had 6 or 8 weeks notice to move. Then, after three months, I got notice again and was offered a pitch in the Red Lion arcade on Portobello Road. We got a rent free period and compensation for the money spent refurbishing the pitch in the next door property. Overall, the business was not dislocated and I haven’t lost any business that I know of. The Red Lion is on Portobello Road which has always been the prime spot on the market, there’s no denying that. Lipka’s was always off the main road and people were always a bit reluctant to come round the corner. And of course, at the end the scaffolding didn’t help attract people in. On balance, I’m paying a bit more in the Red Lion arcade but I’ve moved into the main road, so things have pretty well balanced out for me. Were we tricked into moving? Quite the opposite. People knew that Lipka’s was closing and we certainly weren’t kept in the dark. I’m a realist. None of us like what is happening to the market but it’s obvious that things are different from the way it was even five years ago. Outside pitches used to change hands at a premium - now they can’t get enough people to take them. Since we moved to the Red Lion, my mother sadly has had to retire due to ill health. Portobello Group treated her very kindly, especially when she was in hospital, and were sympathetic and understanding while she decided she would have to retire.”
Is the AllSaints shop out of keeping with the area?
AllSaints has the ability to draw new customers, into Westbourne Grove and Portobello, and this is clearly evident from the number of customers visiting the shop. This is what John Ryan, Group Stores Editor of Drapers Record had to say about the store:
“The long storefront is painted different colours at various intervals which is intended to promote the idea of a series of small shops rather than a commercial behemoth. Whilst perhaps it may differ from what it replaces, All Saints is to be congratulated for creating a space that blends with its surroundings.” (20 March 2010)
I asked AllSaints to tell me how their customers have reacted to the new store. This is what they told me:
“AllSaints Portobello, on the corner of Westbourne Grove and Portobello Road, is our newest and best store. It has now been trading for twelve weeks and has exceeded our targets and expectations. We have had a lot of very positive feedback and a big welcome from our loyal customers who live in the area and from the many visitors to Portobello who have come into the store. Westbourne Grove is already home to many great fashion names, including Joseph, Nicole Fahri, Paul Smith, Agent Provocateur, Jigsaw and many more. AllSaints is a very positive addition to the draw of the area. The store has already become a local landmark with thousands of UK shoppers and international tourists admiring and photographing the shop. As with all of our stores, great care and attention to detail has been paid to the execution of both the exterior and interior. The shop has a trading area of 11,000 sq ft on two floors, ladies on the ground floor and mens downstairs. AllSaints have been able to integrate the two floors with a dramatic and well designed staircase which adds to the visual appeal and architectural integrity of the shop. We have carefully designed the shopfront to make the frontage sympathetic to the local environment, creating the look of three individual shops”.
I am disappointed that the arrival of AllSaints has been drawn into the argument and that the protesters have raised unfounded concerns that the store is not in keeping with the area because of its size and position. I believe this is not true and unfair to AllSaints.
I do realise that some people are upset because the site was formerly occupied by the antiques arcade and they are anxious about the future of the Portobello antiques market generally. So am I but for different reasons. The new AllSaints store is a commercially viable solution in a changing environment which at every level is in keeping with the area and a welcome arrival on Westbourne Grove.
The arrival of AllSaints is clearly a big plus for Portobello as well. It ensures that there is something good on offer seven days per week and generates a greater footfall that can only be good for other local businesses.
Finally to reiterate, most of the antiques dealers who formerly traded in Lipka’s have been re-housed into vacant stalls elsewhere on Portobello, where their arrival has helped to strengthen the depth and quality of the arcades on Portobello road itself.