What Kirkgate Market means for the poorest in Leeds
written by a “Friend” of Leeds Kirkgate Market
I write this as both a market customer and a support worker.
For me personally, the market is a vibrant, colourful place with traders that you can get to know and have a laugh with. I can find bargains that supermarkets could not offer and food from all around the world so that when I google a recipe and think ‘how would I get hold of that?’ the answer is usually a trip to Kirkgate. I have become well acquainted with the South African Butcher, the outdoor market fruit and veg folk and can always count on the fish mongers to come up with a recipe when I splash out on a fish I’ve not previously heard of. That’s my take, for me it’s somewhere I can go because I’m on a low wage and trying to save hard for a future ambition. I also think it’s a beautiful building that I’m proud to introduce visitors of Leeds to.
As a support worker though, the building means more to me than beauty and bargains. I work with some of the poorest people in Leeds, people who have lived through some pretty dire events in their lives and find themselves struggling from day to day, often addicted to drugs and alcohol that have been the tonic to help them forget the horrors that swim around in their minds and memories on a day to day basis. Just recently, the Yorkshire Evening Post have been running some hard-line headlines on begging in the city centre; designed to eradicate those whose lives are the most chaotic from the city centre so that we can all do our shopping in a ‘pleasant environment’ and pretend that poverty does not exist in Leeds.
Well poverty does exist and is highly visible from a wander around the market. I can see cheap clothes worn to the thread, dirty fingernails and the effects of stress worn on people’s faces.
The market doesn’t eradicate the stresses of poverty but it is somewhere that people who are challenged by supermarket prices and can barely afford to feed themselves can go and pick up the bare minimum to get by or buy cheap toys for their children. It’s also a chance that people can treat themselves to a brew and a catch up with friends when they wouldn’t have the confidence or double the cash to go into one of the big coffee houses that it’s become so popular to buy a cup of something complicatedly caffeinated from.
It’s a place where asylum seekers and refugees can find comfort as they meet people from the same part of the world as them and buy their home foods and, it’s a place where people without the so called ‘vital qualifications’ or low literacy skills can find work.
Some of my best memories working in this job have been taking clients (who previously had only used the market to meet friends on the outside benches) to the best bargains inside and show them how easy it was to plan a couple of days meals on a very low budget. 6 pies for £1.20 is a big deal to someone who has been spending £3 on a microwave meal (the only meal of the day) or simply going without because eating wasn’t the priority of the day. They learn that actually, with a little planning they can fend for themselves and eat regularly. This might seem obvious to some of you reading this article but as Wendy Jones, Trustee of National Numeracy and a former BBC education correspondent explains:
“Nearly 17 million people in England – almost half the working-age population – have the numeracy skills expected of children at primary school. What’s more, half of those have the skills of a nine-year-old or younger. That means they may not be able to check pay and deductions on a wage slip, understand bus timetables or pay household bills.”
The market provides an open environment where support workers can comfortably wander round with their clients, pointing out bargains and encouraging shopping at a price they know will benefit their client and also directly, the stall holders who are mainly Leeds residents.
Leeds market is about supporting all sections of the society but most importantly, about providing a place where the poorest people in Leeds can shop comfortably. The proposed market changes, associated with the Eastgate development, will see the market swamped in pollution and surrounded by traffic flow, could be the first push that Leeds council and private developers are giving to the market to see it shunted out of the city centre, along with ‘beggars’ and all the other aspects of Leeds that do not reflect the ‘cosmopolitan’ image. I cannot ignore this and I hope you also feel compelled to act. There are so many ways you can get involved, even if you don’t have much time to devote to this cause.
241 bed spaces that provided specialist support for those who find themselves homeless in Leeds have been closed down, with more changes to the welfare system, due later this year, that mean more people in Leeds will lose their homes and be battling to survive financially and emotionally day-to-day. We have to think about people on the breadline, more than people who can afford to buy their bread from supermarkets when we consider what changes to make to Leeds city centre, unless we want it to become another disused space, run down by private developers and those whose greed stood in the way of them thinking about the rest of society.