Q&A: Donald Hyslop

Categories: Reflections and opinions

After finishing an 11 year stint as a trustee of Borough Market, including seven as the trust’s chair, Donald Hyslop reflects on his tenure—a period of significant change at London’s oldest food market

How did you come to be involved with Borough Market?
I came to work in Bankside in 2000, for Tate Modern. One of my roles was to get out and about, to be the Tate’s presence in the locality, working with local communities and businesses. From the start I was walking through the Market, getting involved, getting to know people there. As often happens, what started as a job changed into something more. At some point, I went native. In the old days, only people who lived very locally could become trustees of Borough Market, but a decision was taken to change that, to get people with different skills onto the board. In 2007, four of us were invited to become the first trustees from further afield.

What did you think you could bring to the trust?
In my day job, a lot of my work relates to placemaking and how culture and creativity can play a role in changing cities. From the beginning, I saw that culture and food—places like Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe and Borough Market—could be catalysts for significant change, and I was interested in how you could harness that. I could see the potential of Borough Market and I thought I could help give shape to its growing influence. Of course, I was interested in the Market for the food, but I was particularly interested in its wider social value.

What form does that social value take?
It comes in two forms, which aren’t always aligned. Firstly, it has the power to change perceptions of the area and attract people and businesses from further afield. Secondly, on a day-to-day basis, it is part of the social fabric—and that’s something that’s important to this day. In many ways, it provides the glue for this part of the city, as a place that offers access to good food, a place of social congregation, of education, of employment.

What was your focus during your time here?
When I first arrived, the major challenge facing the Market was the Thameslink railway project, which caused considerable disruption for several years. I was involved in working out how you decant people across the site while there’s a major engineering project going through. That meant thinking about the place and how it works, the dynamics of trading. That thought process became a central theme of my time here. As the railway work was being completed, and I became chairman, we had to consider how we would put the Market back together, how we would develop it further, how we would utilise some of the buildings around it, always in the context of heritage, function, and experience. How do you make it modern, safe and clean, but retain its character, its history, that labyrinth under the arches? In my time, there are lots of things we have done that have changed the day-to-day experience, but it’s also about laying foundations for the future.

To what extent could you plan for the long term?
Because the Market has no shareholders, it is able to think ahead. You have to be careful, though: the time when the Market hits trouble is when it is over-managed, when a single set of priorities is imposed from above. The Market has never been master-planned. It has been an accidental success from its very beginnings and that is particularly true of what happened 20 years ago. It has developed independently, with its own ecosystem. I strongly believe that the role of the trust is to provide the infrastructure to allow that ecosystem to grow. It’s like working in an art museum: you provide the space for the artists, you organise it, set some parameters, and you communicate with the public, but you don’t make the art. The traders and the goods they sell need to always be at the heart of Borough.

Did the trust itself change much under your stewardship?
One of the things that me and the deputy chair David Lyon did was create individual portfolios for trustees. When I came, there was lots of enthusiasm on the board, but we needed a wider spectrum of skills. Now the trust has a professional recruitment structure. Applications are sought for specific posts, each of which has a proper skills matrix. It’s a very old charity, but it now has a very modern governance structure, a good group of trustees and staff and a very modern outlook. As a result, it is extremely stable. That stability is so important—the Market has been here for a thousand years, and as a trustee you are only there for a very short time stewarding a major part of the city’s heritage. That’s the weight on you, that’s the pressure.

How does Borough Market fit into the wider landscape of food markets?
For a period, the Market turned in on itself a little, and perhaps didn’t think it had much in common with traditional markets across Britain. One thing we successfully did in recent years was return to the family. When we went along, after some years’ absence, to our first NABMA event [the National Association of British Market Authorities], it was like the prodigal son had returned. Rather than being sceptical of us, they recognised our punching power and value to the whole national sector.

We’ve also gotten more involved with international markets, and with the Slow Food movement. It is so important, that idea of commonality. In the world at the moment, with the rise of nationalism, with Brexit, there is an alarming tendency for countries to close in on themselves, to shrink back. One of the things that I’ve helped to set up is the M7 Alliance—a global alliance of markets working in communities in city centres, sharing values about food and its social function. I will continue to chair that group, which I’m really pleased about—it will keep me involved with Borough and allow me to use some of the knowledge I’ve built up over the past decade.

With the Borough Talks series, Market Life magazine and the kind of engagement that you’ve just mentioned, the Market is increasingly active in discussing food as well as selling it.
The Market’s values are now as strong and clear as they have ever been, and it is important that it has a voice. I wanted the Market to not just be a place that people spoke about in the third person or claimed for themselves in a tangential way. I wanted it to be a place that would create and communicate ideas itself—that environmental, social and charitable aspect is a vital part of what it does, alongside the business of food, which is what it was set up to do. Food is a major factor in global warming, in health, in social cohesion, so Borough Market has an important role to play. And it has the power to be heard.

How has it utilised that power?
The water fountains, the waste disposal, School Food Matters, the redistribution of excess food through charities—the Market has the ability to act swiftly and do something worthwhile on a small scale, but because of the reputation it has, it can be an influence further afield. The water fountains, for example, were a good and interesting intervention on a local level and have significantly reduced the amount of plastic generated by the Market, but their impact went far beyond Borough. Because Borough did it, it had that resonance. It got so much press. The Mayor of London is now implementing something similar.

With high streets stuttering, do markets have a future?
There’s this fallacy that shopping is all about consumption—about the thing you end up with—when the reality is that traditionally it was as much about the interaction, the social exchange, the gossip, the people-watching. And we still all crave that. People want to shop, but they also want to sit down, chat, be part of the experience. That’s what the nation’s high streets were once like—independent retailers, social interactions—then the chains started to move in, and it all became so much more impersonal. But now even that paradigm has busted itself, with online trade blowing the chains out of the water, and the only thing that can fill the void is what made high streets work in the first place: connection to community and locality, something tangible that you can see and touch and taste. That’s what markets offer, and no online trader can ever supply.

Is it important to evolve?
It’s all very well being the pioneer of the last big change—you have to be the pioneers of the next one, too. There is more competition now, lots of it not far from Borough Market, so its relevance cannot be taken for granted. You can never slip into complacency, either with the food or with how you manage the trust’s buildings and the surrounding area. The Market can’t afford to either be a museum of heritage or some sort of rarefied place for the fooderati, where food is fetishised, disengaged from its social purpose.

Where else do you see innovation coming from?
London, with all its diversity, will always generate change but I think that a lot of the innovators will probably come from the regions, where there’s a less pressurised atmosphere, lower rents, less risk. One of the last things I did in my tenure, and which is set to continue, was set up a scouting network like you’d have at a football club, with scouts out in different parts of the country seeking out the new talents, the innovators. We want to create a dialogue with the regions that is supportive—to share what we know, but also lets us find out what’s happening. We want to bring those people to trade at Borough, even if it’s just for a short time—not to suck them away from the regions, but to profile them and help each other evolve.

How has your time at the Market affected you personally?
I’m quite an independent-minded person. I can also be awkward and obstinate, and I’m often of the mind that there are always different ways of looking at things. And in many ways, it has proved a good fit—that’s what the Market has always been like too. I found a compatibility there: Borough Market is a thing to be worked with, not to be tamed. I’m middle-aged, I’ve got a lot of experience, but you’re always learning and at Borough Market I learned a lot about myself. Being the frontman for the Market after the terrorist attack—a challenging time for everyone at Borough—was part of that, but not all of it. Borough Market and the people involved with it have had a fundamental effect on me in many ways, and certainly on my worldview. That goes back, I believe, to its uniqueness.