By Joe Locker, Local Democracy Reporter
Traditional markets across Britain have been in a spiral of decline. In Nottingham the Victoria Centre Market is facing extinction after 50 years. In the surrounding areas, however, there may be hope yet.
Local Democracy Reporter Joe Locker visited a number of markets to find out what traders are really thinking as their industry faces a crossroads.
Standing amid racks of clothing on the Bulwell market stall he’s run for 44 years, Kevin Fitzpatrick delivers a simple and frank answer when asked how things are really going.
He thinks the market is ‘dead’.
“The next generation does not want to come on markets because it is just too much hard work now,” he says.
“We’ve been in a downward spiral. People used to follow family but there is no money in it.”
Regular markets selling typical, everyday goods date back hundreds of years, as far back as the Roman Empire and medieval Britain, with a particular boom when market towns were first chartered in the 11th Century.
Market towns bustled with activity for centuries before changing shopping habits and then the impact of high-speed internet connections changed retail forever in the early 21st century.
In Nottingham, the Victoria Centre’s indoor market opened in 1972 and was once home to more than 200 stalls. Now just 26 traders remain.
Those still there wait in limbo for a final decision from Nottingham City Council after it announced it was considering ending the lease 20 months ago, as it looks to save £39m over 50 years at a time when local authorities struggle with finances after a decade of austerity.
A similar fate is feared in Bulwell.
While the market place had a makeover in 2017, with £300,000 spent on regeneration works, it is far from the bustling markets of the 1980s.
“All these years ago a tenner would have been a day’s wages, but £100 now won’t cover wages,” Kevin says.
“Over the years, on the TV and the media, they put us down and used to say all we sold were counterfeit goods.
“If you go abroad, markets are bigged-up, but in the UK it is not.
“There used to be a few decent days here before Covid, but there is no future for markets now.
“The only ones which do well now are the specialist markets.”
The National Association of British Markets (NABMA) first tried to map out the state of markets across the country in 2005 with the commissioning of the Rhodes Survey, which led to extensive discussions in Parliament.
According to NABMA there were between 45,000 to 46,000 traders working markets as of 2009, with an estimated 95,000 people working in retail markets the same year.
Three surveys followed between 2014 and 2018, which revealed trader numbers had dropped to around 32,000 with people employed in the industry down to 57,000.
They highlighted an increasing number of traders going to niche market events, rather than standing at traditional markets, and more traders are now working on a part-time basis only.
NABMA says: “It is now safe to suggest that the number has declined further from the 32,000.”
Stall occupancy has also dropped to an average of 72 per cent, from 77 per cent in 2018, and relatively few markets actually monitor footfall which makes it more difficult to see how markets are really performing.
‘There is a future in these markets, but what needs to happen is for them to have consistent market managers’
Mr Fitzpatrick argues the case for the return of a ‘Toby’, a traditional market manager who organises pitches and collects rent.
Now, he says, there are “too many faces running around” Bulwell market to manage it effectively and in a cost-effective way.
The benefits of a Toby in contemporary times have already been seen in Bingham, where the Thursday market has been “thriving”.
The small town of Bingham in Rushcliffe has a market charter and the council commissions Ophelia Marshall as its ‘Toby’ to manage it.
“There is a future in these markets, but what needs to happen is for them to have consistent market managers,” she says.
“I’m a traditional manager and that is an investment on behalf of the council.
“They take the rent, they manage the market, but they also manage the shoppers and so we get a clearer vision on what needs to happen for a market to be successful.
“Event markets are successful because they don’t happen every week. A successful weekly market needs a Toby.
“Every retailer and trader has something for under a fiver. Everyone, every demographic, can afford to take something home.
“Our market is beginning to get spotted, and highlighted for best practice. The biggest factor is that the council is supportive and agile, and Rushcliffe is adapting and supporting the traders, so they are paving the way.”
A Toby, however, requires investment.
The lack of available funds from local councils has furthered the demise of markets, with NABMA saying more than 80 per cent of traditional markets are now owned by local councils.
Many of these councils are cash-strapped, and balancing their budgets is becoming harder every year.
Several local authorities in Nottinghamshire have argued they have attempted to regenerate town centres, but they have been left to compete for money from the Government’s limited Levelling Up pot.
The city council’s portfolio holder for leisure and culture, Cllr Pavlos Kotsonis (Lab), says people’s shopping habits “were already changing” when the pandemic hit.
“It’s an issue that towns and cities across the world are grappling with, and impacts global brands and our high streets as well as traditional markets,” he says.
“The council has provided support to local markets, but of course there’s a limit to what we can do.
“In Bulwell we put a bid in for Levelling Up Funding for town improvements that would have benefited the market, but unfortunately the Government turned it down.
“At Victoria Market we have invested in the market and heavily subsidised its operation for many years. At all local markets we provided support to traders during the pandemic.
“Ultimately, though, it’s up to people whether they choose to shop at markets or not.”
‘There is no new blood coming through’
A similar situation to in Bulwell’s is unfolding over in Gedling, despite investment and promises from the borough council.
Arnold’s market place was transformed from the 1960s, upon the demolition of the former British School which was built in the 1860s.
A flea market opened on the site of the old school after 1960, and in 2018 Gedling Borough Council took over the running of the market.
Traders have more recently been moved to Eagle Square, from their original town centre location after 50 years, while work was carried out on the £4m Arnold Market Place (AMP) development.
Arnold market is made up of stalls trading on Tuesdays, Fridays and
Saturdays, selling products including fruit and veg, fashion and books.
Meanwhile the new AMP development is home to a wine tasting experience, a pet accessory store, a cake shop and a delicatessen, as well as the relocated Post Office.
The council hopes the new offer will increase footfall in the town, ultimately benefiting the existing market, too.
While traders operating in Eagle Square say their new position has better footfall, trader numbers have plummeted from 110 to just five.
David and Mandy Rogers run a stall selling books and other items, and they fear investment has come too little, too late.
“I do not think markets as they are have a future,” Mr Rogers said.
“I am doing OK because we have our regulars.”
“It is a shame but what can you do about it?” Mrs Rogers added.
“I do not think the investment will make a difference. I don’t think the council is bothered, really.
“People are not coming because there aren’t a lot of stalls, but then new stalls only last around two weeks.”
Andrew Webb, who has operated a watch repair stall in Arnold for the past 40 years, echoed similar concerns.
“We will wait with bated breath to see if the investment changes anything,” he said.
“It is a dying trade. Whatever they do would not improve the market, because there is no new blood coming through.”
Leader of Gedling Borough Council, Cllr John Clarke (Lab), added: “Investing in our town centres to encourage growth and regeneration is a key priority for the council.
“Our town centre manager is working closely with local businesses and traders to find out what more we can do to help them and help increase footfall across our town centres.
“We applied to the government on two occasions for Levelling Up funding, which would have allowed us to invest significant amounts of money into improving our town centres, including market areas. Unfortunately, both applications were refused.
“We’ve consulted with market traders who made it clear that they want to stay at the current location at Eagle Square, Arnold, due to its prominent location.
“We will continue to support them here by using money from the UK Shared Prosperity fund to improve the market.
“Our investment in the AMP has seen five new start-up businesses open their doors and has helped revitalise that part of the town centre.”
Some attempt has been made to introduce young blood to the market scene across the country, including with a ‘Teenage Market’ in Kettering.
Some cities have invested heavily in indoor market buildings in the past, including Sheffield which opened its new £18m Moor Market in 2013.
Of its last markets performance report, published in 2022, NABMA says: “There is much to be learnt from the 2021/22 survey and issues raised that the markets industry needs to address going forward.
“While, for example, there is evidence of substantial future investment in new and redeveloped market buildings there are concerns, in particular, about trader numbers and financial viability for many markets.”