Friday, 10 July 2009

what’s going on at Kirkgate Market?


Despite being heralded as the cities ‘crown jewel’, Kirkgate Market is in a continual state of decline.
It has recently been played out in the press that the council are grooming the site for gentrification, purposely running down the market in order to facilitate and rationalise redevelopment.
Yet rather than act as a shining light that seeks to provide answers to the debate, this ‘conversation’ has actually further subtracted and obscured the reality within a cesspool of political spin. Many outspoken traders are now keeping quiet through fear of repercussions and feel helpless to the dictatorial powers which will ultimately determine the future of their business and the market as a whole.
Is the market going to be knocked-down and lost forever? Is it to be redeveloped? Is anyone brave enough to come forward with the plans?
Each week seems to see a long standing trader close down, taking with them some of the spirit and character that once personified the vibrancy of Kirkgate market. To walk around it as it currently is, to see the neglect, to hear the silence and to absorb the depression leaves the unnerving feeling of a market in desperate and dire health.
Depending on what source you look at, anywhere between 15 to 25 percent of all stalls now stand idle and destitute. Yet the market operates at a profit to the council of £1.5 million per year.
But this money isn’t pumped back into the building (only £80,000 is spent on upkeep); instead it is siphoned off into the overall council kitty. At a time when fewer people are spending and when traders are facing one of the harshest economic times in modern history, the council has cut Kirkgate markets advertising budget from £105,000 to £70,000. If you consider that the council spends £750,000 on adult social care every day, you really must wonder just how necessary that extra £35,000 really is.
Higher rents
Whilst numbers are being batted about, it is crucial to raise the issue of rent. This has probably been the most commonly contested theme in the press so far as it is alleged that since 2004 - when the new manager was installed - some rents have increased by up to 90% and, despite the recession and the decreased footfall of shoppers in the market, those in charge refuse to lower rates from the current unsustainable levels.
Some measures were taken a few years ago to help traders struggling to keep up with payments, but that support seems to have evaporated and now traders are threatened with bailiff action if payments are even a day late.
I spent a couple of days at the market discussing the situation with traders and most of the heartache was directed at the ‘bullying tactics’ deployed by the markets managers. Traders claim this hard-line, top-down approach that, for example, now means the guys on Butchers Row must be quiet and prohibits them from hawking their produce, has created the dispirited and downtrodden atmosphere that currently haunts the building.
Unfortunately, despite several attempts, the management has so far refused my approaches to discuss these matters. This seems to be symbolic of the limited interaction traders allege to receive from the market officials.
What needs to be mentioned here however, is not all fingers deserved to be pointed at the authorities. The commercial market simply isn’t supportive of local traders anymore. The environment has changed. Supermarkets and internet shopping now means we no longer have to trudge around city centre markets seeking out the bargains.
We are in a time when society is changing and revolving quicker than ever and perhaps the traders need to begin to show the innovation themselves to adapt in order to stay at the forefront of local produce.
Equally, the managers are trying to entice new traders in to the empty stalls by offering a 90% reduction on the rate – making rent roughly £50 per week. However, whilst this may sound enterprising in theory, in practise it appears to be little more than pretence of finding short term solutions with little or no sustainability.
Resultantly many believe that the council are knowingly and purposely allowing the market to weaken and perish to make the argument ever greater to sell off parts of it to private companies.
What lies ahead…
The redevelopment plans themselves are no secret, it’s just the extend of them which is rather hazy. Following the fire in the 1970’s, the indoor stalls (behind the listed main building) were rebuilt with a lifespan of only 30 years. Clearly then, they are quickly deteriorating and in need of attention. However, the estimated £20 million needed to implement these changes would be undertaken by private investors and resultantly the ‘release of equity’ is likely to have fundamental changes upon the markets genetic composition.
Building modern offices may further extend the desire for urban renaissance within the market and additionally marginalise the current ‘lower-class’ traders and public space on offer there.
The market is a public space, not a private business
It is argued that, as 60% of the Leeds population do not use the market, it therefore does not qualify as a public space. But Kirkgate market is representative of things unique to Leeds, of its local produce, its individual culture and heritage, and perhaps most importantly now, a genuine alternative nationwide, multi-chain companies that Leeds transform into the homogenised and cloned city it now is.
In fact, a survey conducted in 2008 by the Geography department at Leeds University found that the majority of people see the market as the most important component of the city centre.
Yet, tt appears that under the guise of people turning to supermarkets and high-street chains, the market managers are fostering the feeling that the public no longer care about Kirkgate market.
Although the price of the land is potentially worth millions, the cost of losing such a hub of local activity would be enormously detrimental to the native residents of Leeds and the cities character as a whole.
Join the Kirkgate Market facebook group -

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