UK’s Largest Wholesale Horticultural Market Struggles For Survival As Rent Rises

Amanda Willgrave, a florist, says Covid-19 has impacted so many small businesses, and the New Covent Garden flower market is no different.

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The New Covent Garden flower market is a giant warehouse located right outside of the Thames in London. On a typical morning, pre-Covid, the roads would bustle with morning foot traffic as the aisles begin to fill with customers waiting to purchase one of the thousands of types of flowers/plants offered. 

Now, the market is seeing a lot less customers, but a small set of loyal masked early risers still come to pick up their fresh bouquets every morning, according to Willgrave, who has been working at the market since 2016. As of right now there are 15 other floral wholesalers working alongside Willgrave, all of which have the same concern; the rising cost of rent in the middle of a global pandemic shutting down their businesses completely. 

Flower vendors in the UK in general closed down along with all other non-essential retailers back in March, and weren’t able to reopen until mid-June. The Covent Garden Market Authority (CGMA) is the market’s landlord company, who has apparently offered no source of financial support throughout the pandemic. Willgrave continued on to express her fellow florists’ disheartened attitudes as of late, as there is no sign of the pandemic slowing down.

“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, now, nothing.”

The New Covent Garden Market has been operating since 1670 and has held the same name despite moving locations three times in the past due to space restrictions. The market has a proud and deeply-rooted heritage that all vendors know of, and share with their customers. Now, vendors are fearsome of their future after Covid-19 cancelled all summer events and attractions that typically bring in a huge seasonal crowd for the market. 

Government restrictions on events that normally require a floral presence (weddings, funerals, graduations, etc.) has also greatly hindered the horticulture market in England. The traders at the New Covent market specifically have made claims that the CGMA is not following the government’s code of practice for commercial property relationships in wake of a pandemic. 

The CGMA receives a lot of funding from the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs; especially throughout the past six months. The code specifically states that all landlords should put together a “reasonable case put forward by a tenant in distress to offer temporary” relief/arrangements if it can help the tenant remain fiscally secure. 

John Hardcastle, a 62-year-old florist who owns Bloomfield Flowers in the market, has claimed that the CGMA has only differed April-June rent until 2021, but besides that has kept rent as high as it is despite a complete lack of customers.

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“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, we are asking for help. Trading has been a lot worse than we imagined, it was naive of us to expect some kind of bounce back.”

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Hardcastle’s family has been trading at the market for over 100 years now, and he’s just one of many legacy stories ingrained in the history of this establishment. He claims he had to let go three of his very loyal employees, simply because he could no longer afford to pay them. Total sales for the market are down by 80%.

“Rent is a very small problem, to be asked to pay service charges when we are closed for three months seems harsh. We’ve been told there might be a 10% reduction at the end of the year, but if we don’t get it now some of us might not be around for that.” 

The CGMA is a public corporation whose main responsibility is to provide facilities for a wholesale horticultural market while also ensuring that the revenue earned allows the market to break even across two fiscal years. Tenants, however, claim that they’ve barely done any of that, in fact, the CGMA is not considering any request for financial support unless a detailed report on how the tenant plans to earn the money back in the upcoming months is attached to it; something that’s been obviously impossible for anyone to do since we’re still in the middle of an unpredictable global health crisis. 

CGMA responded to these claims by stating that they’re continuing to work with the tenants on collecting as much financial information as possible in regards to their specific businesses so that they can “assess what is needed to make informed decisions that will support those most in need.” David Frankish, the chair of the market claims that he is not putting any pressure on his tenants to pay rent.