Next time you tuck into your balti, burger, fish and chips or even your Michelin five-star gastronomic delight, pause for a moment and think about where that food came from.
Indeed, enjoy a restaurant meal in Birmingham, or even in towns and cities as far away as Aberystwyth or Stoke-on-Trent, and there’s a good chance the owner will have bought the food that went into your meal from the Birmingham Wholesale Markets. The same may well go for your local farmers’ market.
With the nearest rival markets as far away as London and Manchester, the Birmingham Wholesale Markets’ catchment area is huge, and it supplies fresh cost-competitive produce, fruit and veg, fish, meat, poultry and flowers to a vast array of hotels, restaurants, takeaways and retail outlets in the West Midlands and beyond, many of which are small businesses.
In fact, more than 80 per cent of the markets’ clients come from outside Birmingham, bringing in much needed trade to the ‘city of a thousand trades’. The markets attract around 13,000 customer visits a week.
I reckon the markets are one reason why Birmingham itself was recently named by BBC’s food magazine Olive as the UK’s gastro-capital (yes you read that right).
We don’t always realise it, but here in Brum we enjoy a huge diversity of restaurants offering good quality food at good prices. Having the wholesale markets here ensures freshness, variety and value.
Take the markets away and the average price of a main meal in the city could well go up. So having the markets in Birmingham is good for all of us, but also makes business lunches more affordable.
Moreover, the markets also provide a significant outlet for local food produce, again providing competition to the national retail and wholesale chains, and helping in terms of food security and in reducing food miles.
With rising fuel costs and environmental concerns, ‘relocalising’ our food system will become a bigger priority in the future.
And the markets comprise a vast operation made up of many small operators. They in turn, through the markets, support many small and medium-sized firms in the wider economy.
Add the small traders up and the markets make a big contribution to the regional economy, with an aggregate turnover of over £275 million a year.
The markets support as many as 4,000 jobs. Many workers come in with no qualifications and in some cases end up as highly successful entrepreneurs running their own businesses, doing pretty complex things like real-time trading with markets in places like Amsterdam. In that sense the markets do as much for start-ups and enterprise as many of our educational institutions. Think of it as the university of hard knocks. And bananas.
But the markets’ traders have been told by Birmingham City Council officials that they have to vacate their current city centre location in 2013. And despite past assurances, traders have been told that the commitment to build a new market at Witton is no longer on offer. Nor indeed is the finance for an alternate site.
The 2013 ‘deadline’ seems hugely over-optimistic.
The relocation of the Western International Wholesale Market, near Heathrow, took ten years after the initial tie up with finance and land partners, with five years spent building the new market.
And that move enjoyed extensive support from the local council, in contrast with the situation now unfolding here in Birmingham.