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Our worries about the emerging council’s Market strategy

January 24, 2011

The council’s strategy for the future of the Market is emerging at the meetings that we have been attending as part of the Markets Inquiry. There is now a series of documents available to the public that we will soon make accessible from this blog where we can start to see what the council has got in mind.

Here we present our main worries of this emerging view so far.  These first steps in devising a new strategy for the Market are important because the last published strategy dates back to 1996, when most of the current problems of the Market were already identified. In contrast to that 1996 strategy, the council is now presenting Kirkgate as a “struggling Market” in need of a “fundamentally new approach”.
Although we agree a new approach is certainly needed we are concerned about some of the assumptions and propositions in the aforementioned documents. We have presented these at the 11th of January
City Development Scrutiny Board, of which there will be a report soon.

  • Kirkgate Market is presented as a struggling market, victim mainly to natural and inevitable trends in consumer behaviour and competition. Although we cannot deny the influence of these trends, there is plenty of evidence to show that these are not natural but largely the result of public policy and unchecked aggressive corporate practice. We find it somewhat disingenuous of the council not to take some responsibility in this, through for example, granting planning permission to so many of the big supermarkets and other mass retailers in the city centre in recent years. There is also a distinct lack of reference to the numerous examples of markets which prosper.  At the last scrutiny meeting in December following questioning from councillors, Chief Economic Development Officer Paul Stephens himself acknowledged that there were markets which were increasing footfall and continuing to thrive.
  • The Market buildings are in such poor condition that immediate investment of £1.8m is needed for work in the next two years simply to comply with legislation and avoid serious deterioration or health and safety risks, and a further £600,000 is needed for longer term work. We feel it is important to highlight that it is the Council as owner and landlord which has allowed the physical infrastructure to deteriorate in such a way, and believe a full and transparent investigation is needed into why the sizeable rents and service charges paid by traders which have produced regular annual surpluses have not translated into an adequate level of maintenance, repairs and investment.
  • The Council sets out an unambiguously narrow economistic approach to the future of the market, regarding it purely as a retail investment and real estate asset with considerably less interest in its community, heritage, historical and identity value. This is despite current central government thinking that traditional retail markets are real “community builders” and have much wider benefits that cannot be easily quantified.
  • The ownership and management arrangements are for the first time being put up for discussion with the Council openly questioning whether the Market should be publicly owned and managed. FOLKM believe that this is an important and useful direction for debate given the Council’s questionable performance over the past two decades, and raises the possibility of a social enterprise or cooperative model which might prove more appropriate. However, we caution against seeing changes to ownership and management structures by themselves as a panacea – a change of attitude from seeing the market as a burden to a vital and popular public service would make an enormous difference.
  • We are concerned that in parallel to the first open and potentially productive discussions about the future management and organisation of the market, the ‘strategic direction’ document appears to be pushing the debate in one particular direction and preparing the ground for specific changes without first having established whether there is any real evidence that this is what is wanted and whether it will work. An example of this is the rushed consultation process that has been started and the proposed questionnaire to survey members of the public and traders, which contains heavily weighted/slanted questions.
  • The essential function of the Market as a retail and public space for low income households in an increasingly upmarket city centre is being put into question. FOLKM thinks that this is one of the most worrying elements of the strategy and is likely to cause social injustice by discriminating against low income household families and leading to their de facto exclusion from the city centre. We believe this contradicts the Council’s stated aim of ‘narrowing the gap’ between rich and poor and creating socially mixed communities. Also it is worrying that almost the only reference to this important function of the market is a single quote saying that old people use the market.
  • The strategy implies that rents should not be lowered based on recent independent valuations but fails to seriously consider how a lower rent regime could help the long term future of the traders and the Market overall. The strategy documents also suggest that higher rents could lead to a smaller and more focused market but which we think the council means a market oriented to middle and upper class consumers. The mention in the strategy of the Borough Market in London, an overpriced specialist food market oriented to tourists as a best practice would support our suspicion.
  • Council officers do not seem to take *any* responsibility for the decline of Kirkgate Market, despite the now very public evidence reported in the local press of communication problems with traders, lack of investment and integration with the regeneration of surrounding areas and general disregard for the Market by the council (admitted by both main party councillors), none of which are mentioned.
  • There is little understanding and engagement with the general public view on the market beyond consumer research. There is also no evidence of how this strategy has been agreed or written in partnership with traders. A vague consultation strategy has so far been presented and the council acknowledges the need for close collaboration with traders but worryingly warns that “firm action [will be required] if traders are unwilling to change”.
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