So long, fare well

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Tim Lang reflects on being a Borough Market trustee, and his life-long dedication to fair and good food

I first became aware of Borough Market back in 1984, when I started commuting to London from the north of England to head a city-wide food thinktank. I thought I’d be in the capital for just a year, but the job turned into a six-year one. We moved down, other jobs followed, and here I still am, 34 years later, standing down after 10 years as a Borough Market trustee.

What a privileged, fascinating and sometimes scary responsibility this has been. At Borough, being a trustee means not only signing off the Market’s commercial activities but ensuring that these fit the charitable aims of the Market trust. This has meant ensuring the Market remains a flagship for real and decent food. It has meant taking big decisions, like remaining open during five years of a major railway link being built through and over the estate. It has meant digging deep below the Market, down three floors (I still worry about medieval drains!).

Borough is unique in this mix of old and new, and forward-looking. The Market has sat just off the River Thames at the south end of London Bridge for what we think is about 1,000 years, although it has moved a few times. Its location has been stable since 1756, but the Market’s function and social role have been anything but. As trustees, we are partly looking ahead, always looking at the present, but endlessly mindful of history and legacy.

I became a trustee for many reasons. I was—and still am—interested in and committed to real food markets. Historically, these were the places where food producers met and sold to consumers. In the late 20th century, they were marginalised and under-supported, as the British (and global) food system was altered by the rise of supermarkets. Britain now has a hypermarketised economy. Giant food corporations bestride the globe. Small growers and processors remain—indeed, three-quarters of food worldwide is estimated to be grown by peasants—but in the West, food has largely been industrialised.

Decent but affordable
I was—and remain—troubled by how rapidly the share of consumer spending taken by the big firms has risen in the last 50 years. Power corrupts even as it seduces. Scale and efficiency crush diversity. I was—and remain—interested in artisanal and simple food systems, and how diversity can be maintained from field to fork, but also how top-quality diets can be made available to all: better food, rather than just cheaper food. At Borough Market, the trustees are tussling with all this. What is ‘real’ or artisanal food? What is ‘good’ processing? Can we get ahead of the hypermarkets? Can we purvey decent but affordable food?

The social divisions over food remain a thorny issue for me; diet-related ill-health is too high, and food poverty has actually worsened in my time as trustee. But that’s not the fault of the Market; that’s shaped by national policies. There are limits to what trustees can do. But we can cut waste, and work to ensure that a good, affordable diet is made available, and that there’s a good affordable offer amidst the fancier pricier stuff. And we can work with the voluntary sector on ways of tackling food poverty.

Back in 1981-83 I’d worked on an inter-city research project into modern food poverty in the north of England. I’d become acutely aware of how there was a battle going on between growing supermarket chains and the ‘old’ model of smaller shops and even older markets. Back then, the supermarket revolution was far more advanced in the north than in London. In towns and cities across the north and midlands, new giant stores had undercut the small shops and ancient markets; people got into cars and headed out of town.

I still think this is bonkers. It’s neither rational economics nor environmentally sustainable, nor good for people’s health. Why sit in a car belching out fumes to buy supposedly ‘cheap’ food, which pollutes? This adds what the economists call ‘externalised costs’ to diet-related ill-health, and dumps those costs on the National Health Service. I wouldn’t say that Borough has cracked this mess, but it is part of the struggle to reframe what a better food system might look like, by facilitating a new generation of direct sellers and purveyors of high quality food.

Rolling up the sleeves
Being a trustee means rolling up the sleeves—not a bad thing for an academic like me to do. To be fair to myself, I never thought food came from the sky. I’d been a farmer in the 1980s and remain a keen vegetable gardener. In the 1990s, I returned to academia to set up what remains a unique research and education institution: the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, just over the river from Borough. Too much food research has been framed and shaped by commercial interests, so while we talk to the food industry all the time, we do no commercial work for it.

For me, becoming an unpaid trustee of a charity, a kind of social enterprise, which runs the space on which small businesses operate, was a chance to rethink the 21st century role of markets at close quarters. Being a trustee isn’t about running the food stalls or managing their supply chains, but it is about setting the terms and conditions on which the Market runs. Trustees set the moral and social compass.

Being a trustee gets under your skin. It’s a big commitment. I’d admired how the trustees who began the new experimentation in the 1990s, shifted the Market from a declining wholesale operation to a reborn retail hybrid. It will continue to change, I am sure, but in recent years, it has transformed what it does, how it recycles, how it audits purveyors, how it responds to consumers while trying to shift food culture in a better direction, how it relates to the public, what its public education role is and can be. Hosting public events and debates has grown over the last decade.

Being a trustee means juggling competing demands. It’s a strange role, unpaid but rewarding, hard work but energising. It offers teamwork with good people. It requires that we know what we cannot do and what the staff can. It means taking big decisions yet being alive to the minutiae; being part of a small enterprise with a huge reputation and influence. It demands that we keep this historic institution going forever, for the people, for the public good, for Southwark and London. It has been a privilege. I wish Borough and its future trustees well. I miss being a trustee greatly, but it’s right to churn the roles. This is a great model for social enterprise.