Stephen Myers is, as far as a market trader has the ability to be, a contented man. He owns one of a row of large and impressive fishmonger stands on the southern edge of Kirkgate Market in Leeds. His display is impressive. It includes cockles, sea bass, sea bream and raw tiger prawns, produce that you would be unlikely to find in any of Leeds city centre’s more regular food stores, no matter how hard they may try to persuade you otherwise.
“Yes, people say the fish stalls are what brings people in here,” he says. “And what we have is much more comprehensive than the supermarket. You can’t get this online either. People like to see fresh.” Myers, who has run his stall for 22 years, takes pride in the market hall itself. It is, after all, Europe’s largest covered market, with more than 600 stallholders. It is also where what is possibly Britain’s best known store chain was founded. In 1884, a Russian-born Polish refugee called Michael Marks set up a penny bazaar stall here. Although it would be another 10 years before he joined Thomas Spencer, the cashier of a business friend in Manchester, the corporation that is now Marks & Spencer has not forgotten its history. That was why it marked the centenary of its founding in 1984 with a commemorative clock in Kirkgate Market.
So, are there other stallholder similarly starry-eyed in the hall today? Sadly not. In fact, anyone visiting the market today can’t help but notice the growing number of empty stalls, particularly towards the back of the market in what are called the temporary sheds. (History runs at a different speed in markets. These “temporary” sheds were actually put up in the 1970s following a fire and have been there ever since.) The figures bear such an impression. Between March 2005 and March 2009, the number of units effectively empty on an annual basis (bearing in mind fluctuations through the year) went up from 45 to 70. And the attitude of a good many of the stallholders is equally desolate.
Peter Whitley, for example, has run a stall in the market for 37 years, first selling textiles, and more recently cut-price CDs and DVDs. Now aged61, he says he is just hanging on another year until he feels ready to retire. Speaking to him in the week leading up to Father’s Day, he says trade at his shop, Too Damn Loud, has been disappointing. “I thought that at least this would be a time when even today people would be buying CDs and DVDs because fathers are not keen on downloading,” he says. “But we had just a handful of people in.” John Hetherington, meanwhile, is manning the Biscuit Box stall his son Simon set up, because, he says, Simon has already given up to go back and work in the trade he originally trained – an electrician. “It is absolutely shocking,” he says. “There used to be 30 to 40 buses coming down here from as far away as Newcastle at Christmas time. Not any more.
There are traders closing down all the time.” Richard Bates, who owns Whitakers Eggs, a stall selling eggs of every variety, says he is really only staying on because he has been offered a small amount of help with the rent by a business support organisation. He has had to rely more and more on his wholesale business to make ends meet.
“That has been suffering too in the downturn,” he says, “but not as much as the market stall. At least it is still making a profit. They shouldn’t let the market get like this. It is the jewel in Leeds’ crown.” Even Myers is annoyed that, in its attempt to fill vacated premises, the council – which owns the market – has allowed what is “in effect a job centre” to take a space directly opposite him. And there is the common theme. Many of the stallholders see a variety of reasons for the downturn. With Whitley its the obvious impact of the internet. Hetherington and Bates both says it’s the expensive parking nearby.
And all three mention the impact of the supermarkets and the chain stores. But they also claim the council and market management is doing them no favours with the rents.
“The rents are currently far too high,” says Hetherington. “When will they ever listen? Instead of going for a rent reduction, three years ago rents went up 100%.” Whitley has had to move stalls to bring his rent down by £1,000 a month, but in doing so he had to forego the advantage of a stall that opened onto two different alleyways.
“The market needs to change the policy,” he says, “at least until there is an upturn.” Sarah Worthington, who has been selling handbags at the market for 27 years, is also annoyed because other shopkeepers she knows in privately-run shopping centres in the city have been offered some rent relief.
“There have been rent freezes at some places such as JJB Sports,” she says. When I point out that in JJB’s case, given its parlous current financial position, the chain might have won such an arrangement because otherwise it might go under, she has a simple answer – “so might we”. Megan Waugh, of Friends of Leeds Kirkgate Market, a pressure group with 300 members made up of traders, customers, and other interested parties, agrees that relations at the moment are not good. “The stallholders are pretty angry,” she says. “The relationship between traders and management is really poor.” So poor, in fact, that 18 months ago the then market manager Chris Sanderson lost a vote of no confidence among stallholders and left shortly afterwards.
That is something new manager Sue Burgess will not discuss. But while she agrees the adjacent NCP car park is “expensive”, she insists relations have improved since she took over. “You have to remember that there are 600 traders on site,” she says, “and some are more vocal than others. “We are taking the market out to people with, for example, a page of special offers in the Yorkshire Evening Post. We are spending tens of thousands of pounds on marketing.” To be fair there are some stallholders who are still relatively content.
Lee, aged 34, who wouldn’t give his surname but runs a pet food stall, said he wasn’t doing too badly. “People are quite a bit down,” he said, “but it depends on what you are selling.
And you need a good location.” What Burgess thinks the stallholders need to have more sense of is the need to be commercial, particularly about the need to collect rent. That is why the job shop that Myers has noticed had to come in – as a source of much-needed income.
“An independent rent review we carried out in 2010 actually suggested we put the rents up,” she says. “We decided not to, and took a hit of £18,000 a year as a result. There hasn’t been a rent rise for two years. But we cannot get to the point where the market is not viable.” The stallholders and Waugh insist that the market is in fact still very viable. Figures released by the council in 2010 under Freedom of Information laws show that the revenue it received in 2009/10 stood at just over £3.6m, from which it made a profit of around £1.6m. That revenue figure is a drop of half-a-million from a decade high of £4.1m in 2006/7, but the same amount ahead of the £3.1m it received in 2000/1.
Burgess says that, roughly speaking, the council spends half of what it makes on all the markets in the city, among other things, to cover the cost of a staff that is 45-strong, including part-timers. But she still believes the market could be improved commercially in other ways, and that is why earlier this year Leeds Markets commissioned a customer survey that for the first time sought the opinions not just of regular shoppers but of occasional shoppers too. The results suggest that many improvements could be made – such as evening openings. This is an anathema to Lee at the pet food store.
“Ninety five per cent of the people who come in here only come in because they are looking for a bargain,” he says. “Evening opening wouldn’t make any difference to them.” Megan Waugh points out that many sole traders start work at 3am. “If they were still there at 7pm or 8pm it would be a really long day,” she says. To Burgess that is a clear illustration of why it was important to get the views of outsiders.
“We wanted to look at what might persuade people who don’t shop there to come,” she says. “The over-riding intention was to look at improving the customer experience, and what jumped out was that we were not meeting the 21st century customer experience.” As for hours worked, she points out that In Barcelona market they stagger their opening times.
“We could look at that.” Waugh says her organisation and many of the traders were suspicious of the report, and felt particularly that the questions had been phrased to encourage people to say what was wrong with the market. She disputes claims that city markets like Kirkgate are necessarily doomed if they don’t change, referring to a 2009 House of Commons Commnunities and Local Government Committee Report which she claims said they did have a future. In fact, this report did acknowledge that councils have to consider whether markets are “sustainable”, but also claimed that markets have a much better fighting chance if they have a “champion” at a senior management level within the council. Waugh is also suspicious that the report might be a prelude to something. Above all, her group is concerned that the council might be hatching plans to turn Kirkgate Market into an upmarket food emporium like Borough Market in London. This, they say, would be a disaster.
“Leeds City Council does not have a good track record in doing this kind of thing,” she says. “Just look at what happened to the Corn Exchange next door.” Indeed, some two years after the council gave permission for that building – which it does not own – to be refurbished in a similar way, the former fashion stalls on the top floor that were intended to be food shops lie mostly vacant. Burgess will only say that they are looking at all options, including management and even owners, but insists nothing has been decided and will not comment further until a strategy report goes to full council in July. But of course in a way, the report is a prelude to something. At the same time the council is also considering the Eastgate development application which would see a large new shopping centre go up right next to the market. Because this was still in discussion as we went to press, Burgess would not comment on it, except to say that “by dragging people over to a multi-million pound new shopping centre next door there is bound to be some benefit by association.” As you might expect, however, Megan Waugh, who has shopped at Kirkgate for 15 years, thinks differently.
“It won’t be a pull if half the market is empty,” she says. The Friends have lodged their objections.