Market Failure?: Can the traditional market survive? - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents


Annex 2: Committee visit to Leicester market


NOTE ON TRADITIONAL RETAIL MARKETS VISIT TO LEICESTER MARKET TUESDAY 24 MARCH 2009

1. Dr Phyllis Starkey MP, Sir Paul Beresford MP, Mr Clive Betts MP, Anne Main MP, and Emily Thornberry MP represented the Committee on a visit to Leicester market to meet market traders and Council market organisers as part of the Committee's inquiry into traditional retail markets. The Committee's two Specialist Advisers for this inquiry,

Professor Alan Hallsworth and Professor Sophie Watson, also participated.

2. The Committee held an oral evidence session in Leicester Town Hall Council chambers on the same day.

LEICESTER MARKET

3. The Committee met Nick Rhodes, Head of Leicester Markets and Enterprise, Leicester Council, who gave the Committee a guided tour of Leicester market. He explained that there has been a market in Leicester for over 700 years. The covered market offers a variety of merchandise ranging from fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, various meat products and groceries to quality fabrics, upholstery, garments, jewellery, and household goods, and has over 300 fixed stalls. There is also an adjacent indoor market, including a fish market on the ground floor.

4. Nick Rhodes explained that the market made an annual profit of around £500,000 for the Council. The profit was not ring-fenced for the market. The Council did allow casual traders—there were 25 on the day the Committee visited and Nick Rhodes commented that their numbers were increasing, possibly a sign of the recession. He said that he tried to keep some same produce stalls a distance apart, but did not seek to restrict product lines. Food was the core business of the market—and its main attraction. The customer profile tended to change through the day: for example, the elderly tended to shop earlier in the mornings, but bargain hunters shopped later in the day.

5. Nick Rhodes observed that Leicester Council was currently regenerating the town centre, of which Leicester market was a part. One current challenge for the market was that the recent pedestrianisation of nearby streets had diverted bus routes away from the market. A lack of nearby car parking spaces compounded the resulting accessibility problem. The Council was funding a city hopper service and home delivery service to make it easier for the elderly to access the market. It was possible that eligibility for these services would be expanded in future.

6. He felt that, whilst food selling continued to thrive, the non-food side of the market was struggling, largely because of increased competition from budget stores, supermarkets and on-line shopping. He felt that the diversity of food on offer was a major advantage in increasing footfall at the market, and the Council was seeking to promote this through food festivals. Leicester was a multi-ethnic city—with an Asian female Lord Mayor—and it was important that the market reflected and took advantage of this. A further advantage for the market was that, in the city centre, it was the only place that sold fresh fruit and vegetables. The rather grim-looking indoor market was not as popular as the covered market, and the Council was considering options for improving/replacing it.

7. The Committee spoke to a number of market traders as they went round the market—most seemed positive about the future of the market, and confident that they had unique selling points that would continue to attract customers. On the subject of whether market traders should take credit and debit cards, one market trader was unconvinced because doing so would slow down service. The Committee noted a "Shoppers Charter" on display designed to give shoppers confidence that they would not be ripped off at the market. Several food stalls were selling their produce in bowls—making it easy for customers to see exactly what they were paying for. The market was pretty busy with most stalls occupied and a good number of customers—though there were more empty stalls and fewer customers in the upper levels of the indoor market.

MEETING WITH COUNCILLORS

8. Following the market visit, the Committee met the following Leicester City Councillors; Cllr John Allen (Conservative); Cllr Peter Coley (Liberal Democrat); Cllr Andy Connelly (Labour); Cllr Sarah Russell (Labour); and Cllr Paul Westley (Labour).

9. Leicester City is a Labour-run council. There was a fair degree of cross-party consensus on the challenges facing its market. The Councillors explained that the market was "tired", requiring significant development if it is to remain competitive over the next 20 years. The market needed to be properly signed, pulled in to the main retail circuit and made more welcoming to prevent people missing it out of their trips to the town centre—for instance by heading solely to Highcross Shopping Centre, a new retail development. The indoor market in particular was a priority as customers didn't like going upstairs. One possibility was to demolish the current indoor market, and replace it with a one-level structure and/or make use of the old Corn Exchange. In the current economic climate, development of the market is challenging, and the Council is still debating the best way forward, with funding the main issue. The Councillors also recognised that they had to bring the market traders, and customers, with them. Changes need to be done sensitively, with agreement reached through consultation.

10. The Councillors accepted that in the past the market had been seen as a "cash cow" and that market traders had complained of a lack of investment from the council in the market, but agreed that recent administrations had worked to support the market and to bring people back to it. They explained that the Council made use of its powers under its Market Charter to prevent other markets opening within 6 & 2/3 miles of Leicester market, thus protecting its position. They observed that one problem in London, where Councils did not have this provision, was that there were too many local markets—the implication was that within a locality fewer, bigger markets able to attract a larger footfall were more likely to thrive. The Councillors were well aware and positive about the benefits of their market—two of the Councillors present had market trading backgrounds themselves. They offered the following reasons why they wished to keep their market:

11. The Committee asked whether the Council had considered using its "prudential borrowing" powers to support the market. The Councillors explained that, in the past, market profits could not be guaranteed, so borrowing to invest in the market was considered too speculative a venture. Other regeneration projects had promised a better early return. Now that the market had been turned around, there might be greater opportunity in future to use prudential borrowing in this way. The Committee also asked whether there was more that central government should be doing to assist them in the running of their market. The Councillors responded that more could be done to publicise markets to tourists. They also saw more potential to work in partnership with central Government to promote national targets through markets—e.g. by promoting healthy eating (addressing the government target to reduce obesity) with an emphasis on how to shop for healthy produce at the market. With regard to healthy eating, the market had already linked up with the local education authority to arrange for children from local schools to visit, and learn about healthy and easy recipes and how to cook with fresh produce.

12. Also on the national level, the Councillors said they would like to see wholesale markets—which supply produce to their market traders—opening later, as this would allow market traders greater flexibility to open later themselves. Currently, wholesale retailers open at 2am so market traders—many of whom can't afford to employ additional staff—want to close their stall by 3 or 4pm to give themselves time to have a break and make the opening of the next day's wholesale market. The Councillors felt it would benefit the market as a whole—for instance by attracting evening commuters—if more stalls were able to stay open later.

13. The Councillors also discussed with the Committee initiatives they had tried, or were considering, to attract more people to the market. They had organised successful food festivals—for example an Asian food festival which had changed the character of the market for the day. They had tried Sunday trading, but this had not been a success—partly because market traders had not been keen, wanting a rest day. They had debated the merits of switching from a fixed stall market to one with moveable stalls. A fixed stall market made it easy for stall holders to set up, and kept the costs associated with opening and closing the market low. On the downside, on Sunday and evenings the market space is a "dead area" which can't be used for anything else—and runs the risk of being used as a toilet. Also, during quiet periods, rows of empty stalls can be off-putting to shoppers. The Councillors felt there might be merit, therefore, in introducing some moveable stalls to increase site flexibility—though the Council would incur more costs setting the stalls up for trading and removing them when the market shut.

14. The Committee thanked the Councillors, and Nick Rhodes, for giving generously of their time. On their way to the town hall, the Committee witnessed the presentation of the "Britain's favourite market" award, which had been won by Leicester City market in a poll of the public conducted by the National Association of British Market Authorities (NABMA).

15. At the town hall, before lunch and the afternoon's oral evidence session, a NABMA delegation gave a talk to the Committee about Nuneaton market. The Committee heard that the ancient and still successful Nuneaton market operated on a Wednesday and a Saturday in the pedestrianised town centre, with Council-sponsored entertainment and prize-giving to attract visitors to the market. The emphasis was on being "family friendly" and on food. Nuneaton market had around 160 moveable stalls on a Saturday and up to 120 on a Wednesday. Nuneaton market made a profit for the council largely because it succeeded in attracting out of town visitors to the market. Nuneaton had a number of car parks at the edge of town and within walking distance of the market to encourage access.

16. Before leaving, the Committee expressed its gratitude to Leicester City Council for arranging the visit to the market and oral evidence session.


 
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