Market Inquiry Part 2 (11/01/2011)
Friends of Leeds Kirkgate Market took part in the second chapter of the City Development Scrutiny Inquiry into the Market.
The meeting started with the Chair of the Scrutiny Board, Councillor Procter expressing anger that Council Officers present at the last meeting had been “less than frank” in failing to mention that the Rent Review had already been completed, and that the Council had decided not to reduce rents, but not increase either. Traders who attended that meeting in the morning in December were told an hour later in the Market about this rent review. Since rent reduction has been a key demand of the Traders – not to mention of the Friends of Leeds Kirkgate Market – it seemed as if this was deliberately done to avoid discussion and/or trouble. Paul Stephens (Chief Economic Officer, City Centre Development) had to apologise for this and for not mentioning other important documents.
Paul Stephens then presented the policy officers report which directly responded to issues raised at the previous Scrutiny meeting. This included the fact that the Valuation Office had recommended a small rise in rent in some areas, but the Council had held rent; that investment was needed in the market and that there are several ownership and running models which may work better than the current system.
After this Jo Williams (of National Market Traders Federation) opened her statement by saying she had been in the “Market Working Group” (see this blog for some information about the beginnings of this group) and unfortunately often had a sense of obstruction from Council Officers, and they had been vague on the market strategy. She felt traders were in a state of despair at their treatment, that, for instance, the market produced revenue of about £4m, yet the building was in a dire state. Had it not been neglected the current repair bill would not be so high (about £2.4m is needed for immediate and longer term work, much to avoid serious damage or health and safety problems). There is a need for transparency and fairness, with the policy of new traders paying only 10% particularly harmful. She concluded that with a more positive approach the Market could become a great asset and public space with tourism, events, fairs etc. being held there.
3 important issues were then discussed:
- surplus and reinvestment: Acting Head of City Development Martin Farrington said the Market produces a large surplus (£2,3m in 2010/2011) which the Council reinvests elsewhere but that this could be changed and some of it kept to invest in the market. Councillor Cleasby said there was £2.4m to do the repairs and yet the turnover would cover that. He said the management of the market had been inflexible and it seemed only knew how to prepare assets to be sold off. Trader Michelle Hockell then asked the Council Officers exactly what maintenance work needed doing, and why the revenue was not put back into the Market in the past? Council Officer Farrington said the £2.4m was a backlog of maintenance.
- ownership/management: This is the fastest emerging issue about the Market at the moment. An argument is being constructed by council officers that the council is not best placed to run the Market as a successful business. Some councillors agreed and mentioned Leeds Bradford Airport as a successful example (!) but other were uncomfortable with the idea of “privatizing” the market and mentioned examples such as the Corn Exchange as something to avoid. Amongst the options proposed were a Markets committee with traders, politicians and managers. Liz Laughton (Head of Leeds Market Traders Federation Branch) then pointed out that the hours she and other traders spent fighting the Council under current system could be put to better use. Acting Head of City Development Martin Farrington said the Market was different to the Airport. In terms of retail expertise, he admitted he was not a retail expert. He said one model would be to have a committee running the Market – under this model it would still be run by the Council. Alan Wheeldon (from Friends of the Market) said the danger with discussion of new management models and privatization or private involvement, was that some democratic control of the Market would be lost. Markets have positive social functions lacking in supermarkets and chain stores – many of which have been allowed to open in the City Centre in the last few years. Supermarkets have many problems associated with them – e.g. discounting alcohol, encouraging ‘multibuying’ of unhealthy food, squeezing small suppliers and decreasing retail diversity. These have real costs but they are longer term and harder to measure. On the issue of price which had come up in the last meeting, there are many studies showing that markets are cheaper than supermarkets, especially on fruit and veg. Several studies including two by the NMTF and one by Friends of the Earth show fruit and veg to be about 30-50% cheaper.
- consultation: Acting Head of City Development Martin Farrington mentioned that there is currently a public consultation on reinvestment and ownership of the Market (more on this on our blog soon).The Chair inquired as to what this consultation was, as Officers had not seen fit to submit copies of it, or even mention it before this meeting. The Chair said it was frustrating and he got the impression Council Officers were not very interested in the Board’s opinions. He said we were not the first group to meet on the Market, meetings had been held for some time and the Market was still not working – it seemed the Council had little enthusiasm for the Markets.