Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Leeds Kirkgate Market: progress with plans for the future

Back in July I wrote this post about the plans for the future of Leeds Kirkgate Market. Four months later things have moved on a bit so I thought I'd take a look at how things have progressed.

Here is what I thought was likely to happen back in July:

  • The market will be substantially reduced in size through closure of the 1976 and 1981 halls.
  • Management of the market will be moved to an arms length organisation, profit making or otherwise.
  • Any investment will come from the private sector, and therefore probably work out more expensive in the long run.
  • There will be a general drive upmarket with what remains, but we won't see a 'Corn Exchange' scenario. I don't fully agree with Friends of Leeds Kirkgate Market (FLKM) on this. I don't believe that the council are daft enough to think it's going to become the new Borough Market. 

Things have progressed, and generally in line with the above. It's even clearer now that the market will be reduced in size, and almost certain that it will be transferred to private sector management, even if NO DECISIONS HAVE BEEN MADE.

The council have appointed Quarterbridge Project Management Ltd to consult on various matters. Quarterbridge, in case you are wondering, are experts because they also develop, manage and operate markets that were previously in local authority control. Quarterbridge will be providing the following 'deliverables' (here is the quotation specification document):
  1.  an assessment of and written advice on the optimum size for the Kirkgate indoor and daily markets and the necessary steps to achieve that optimum size,
  2. advice,  following soft market testing (to be undertaken by the Consultant), on the likely interest from the private sector in investing in the market or forming a partnership with Leeds City Council;
  3. written advice on the possible ownership and management models for Kirkgate Market to ensure the sustainability of the market and maximise potential investment into, and returns from, the market. The advice will include governance arrangements and will be based on the Consultant’s knowledge and experience, including summaries/studies of existing models and their success;
  4. advice to support the development of a methodology to evaluate submissions from private sector or other organisations who wish to invest in the markets or enter into a partnership with the council to own and or manage the market;
  5. a programme/stage plan which sets out, and sequences, the actions required to reach the best ownership/management model for the Market and the optimum size for the market as identified above.
As FLKM correctly point out that's a lot work to be done for just £12,400 in only three weeks, and the potential conflict of interest is wholly apparent.

For my own amusement I've predicted what the responses provided by Quarterbridge will be for each of these 'deliverables'. Imagine these to be the 'behind the scenes summary' rather than what's likely to go on the public register.
  1. As per the detailed brief the 1976 and 1981 halls are in very poor condition and the Council has no funds to repair or replace them, nor the inclination or resources to investigate this further. As such Quarterbridge concludes that the optimum size of the market will be achieved by closing them down.
  2. Soft market testing indicates that Quarterbridge would be an ideal partner to assist Leeds City Council in realising their vision for the market.
  3. The consultant's knowledge and experience indicates that the market ownership and management models successfully implemented by Quarterbridge in partnership with X, Y and Z councils could be implemented in Leeds resulting in equally successful synergies.
  4. See answers to questions 2 and 3. It may also be beneficial to seek the involvement of Arup.
  5. Project plan: January-March 2012 - run down the operations in the 1976 and 1981 halls, closing them permanently by the end of March. April 2012 - sign management and operation contract with private sector market operator (preferred bidder - Quarterbridge). May-June 2012 - do some cool marketing stuff, tart up the remaining market a bit, increase rents.
That's my not entirely literal interpretation about how things will turn out, but I'm fairly confident that I have the gist of it right.

All of this can be inferred by information that is available, but it can be difficult to work out exactly what's going on as the debate has become increasingly polarised. In one corner are the Council and their various representatives, and in the other corner the campaign group Friends of Kirkgate Market. As far as I'm concerned neither party is covering themselves in glory.

The Council indulge in many of the traits that put people off involvement in local democratic processes and governance these days. They obfuscate and issue dubious re-assurances, and publish documents rife with loaded management speak, deliberately obscuring any specific meaning.

As well as in the market strategy and consultation tender documents there's plenty of this on display in the information provided to the actual market traders. The photo above shows a newsletter I spotted on display at a stall a couple of weeks ago, issued by the Markets Manager. For starters it's not dated (kind of important on a newsletter) and includes the faintly patronising 'or correct' in brackets by way of explanation as to what 'optimum' means. If I was being pedantic I might point out that 'correct' and 'optimum' don't mean exactly the same thing.

It then proceeds to say 'we think we know what the options might be, but we could not progress this work further until the Council gave us the go ahead'. The rest of it explains reasonably enough that they will push for the work to be undertaken as quickly as possible, but the whole is completely ineffective at its desired aim of 'mythbusting'. You think you know what the options might be? That's two qualifications in one sentence, and reveals absolutely nothing.

I understand this to some extent, as the Council have to be seen to consult on things like this, even when it's wholly apparent some (if not all) of the decisions have already been made. The requirement to hold consultations for anything and everything has effectively degraded the process of public participation to a large extent. The most loaded of all the phrases in the market strategy is 'determine the optimum size for the markets. Everyone knows that's a euphemism for 'decide to close down the 1976 and 1981 halls', but the illusion of proper consultation must be maintained.

Unfortunately Friends of Kirkgate Market are no better, unwilling or unable as they are to review any document, publication or press release on its actual merits without resorting to polemic about gentrification of which there is little actual evidence.

I agree with Friends of Kirkgate Market on a lot of points. It is pretty shocking that the firm awarded the consultancy work to 'determine the optimum size of the market' is also a property developer and manager working in the field of markets. I can't see how the potential for conflict of interest can be avoided here. But then they go and spoil a perfectly legitimate, rational argument about this conflict of interest by making out the consultants (Quarterbridge) to be some sort of social cleanser, devoted solely to pillaging markets of their honest, working class, salt of the earth character. They specifically describe Quarterbridge as a business specialising in turning traditional local authority markets into high-end food halls.

I just don't buy this argument, for two very good reasons. Firstly both the Council and whatever private firm ends up with a stake in the market will expect it to turn them a profit. There is no precedent for an entirely gentrified permanent indoor daily market. Even in London nothing really fits this bill. Borough, the grandaddy of all the gentrified markets is only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday and still operates at least partially as a wholesale fruit and veg market on weekday mornings. If the Council was really planning on turning Leeds market into a permanent middle class gastrodome they're running a high risk strategy because there's nothing comparable with that in London where all the money is, never mind anywhere else in the country.

The second reason is that there is also no evidence that Quarterbridge are 'a business specialising in turning traditional local authority markets into high-end food halls'. I thought I'd take a look at their website to see what they've been up to. Obviously that's going to say that everything they're involved with is wonderful, so I used it to get a general idea, took it with a pinch of salt, and headed off into the web for further details. Taking a look at the places I'm familiar with they've been involved with the design and build projects for new market halls in Bury, Bolton and Blackburn, all of which are categorically proper markets and not 'high-end food halls'.

Bury and Bolton are both award winners, and Blackburn, the newest of the three seems to be a success so far. There have been mixed reports, but issues raised by those against the development relate mainly to the increase in rents and the change in trading days from three to six. Legitimate concerns of course, but I'm generally of the view that an increase in trading hours and days is one of the things markets need to do to attract more custom, and if you're open six days rather than three then rents are likely to be higher. Taking a look at the list of stalls at Blackburn, it's also apparent that there's a genuine mix of proper market traders. There's even a tripe stall, not something you'll find at Borough even if nose-to-tail eating is fashionable.

The whole upmarket/downmarket thing is a false dichotomy anyway. What do FLKM actually mean when they say turn it into an 'high-end food hall'. Are they inferring that everything currently sold in the market is downmarket, cheap, poor quality? Are they saying the market must remain downmarket, peddling low grade goods to the deserving poor? This doesn't reflect reality anyway. A lot of stuff on the market is very cheap, but not everything. Most of the butchers provide excellent value, decent quality meat for example, but if you look for the budget brands or head to the discounters you can often get cheaper in supermarkets.

Snobbery works both ways. Just as there are people who wouldn't dream of shopping there because they see it as scruffy or chavvy or downmarket, there are also people who like to scaremonger about an impending influx of hordes of poshos. It's not going to happen.

To summarise, I still think what I said will happen in July is going to happen. I think it's sad that the market will be greatly reduced in size, and it's disappointing (but seemingly inevitable) that private sector management will result in the removal of potential investment in the form of profit. On a more positive note I think what's left of the market will thrive, and isn't going to become some great big hollowed out gastro-mistake.

Most of this will become apparent in the next week or two as Quarterbridge are due to submit their final report to the Council on Monday.

.... and finally a quick plug for two new stalls that have opened recently. Katie over at Leeds Grub has been to the Little Yorkshire Pie Company and last week I discovered a little Turkish food stall down in the doomed section (may as well support them while you still can!). I think there used to be a Polish food stall there before. I had a lahmacun, which is a flatbread topped with spicy lamb mince. Warmed up in the oven and rolled up with tomatoes and onions they make a great snack or light lunch. Only £1.50 too.


leeds citizen said...

pretty spot-on analysis.

Dave said...

Thanks, appreciate the feedback.

Simon Cooke said...

First class article - agree about the confusion around gentrification and the nature of markets. I don't know about you but I worry that the rental and tenure structures preferred by people such as Quarterbridge take some of the dynamism out of markets operations. In effect they become little different from shops.

Although I think the pass is sold on this, I remain unconvinced about the closing of the newer halls.

Dave said...

Thanks for your comments Simon.

I don't really know anything about rental/tenure structures to be honest. I'd guess the likes of Quarterbridge prefer longer term, more rigid leases? Hence the lack of dynamism you've suggested? This ought to be something the Council could tackle through the terms of the management agreement, but whether that would happen in practice I doubt.

I'm also unconvinced about the closure of the new halls, but convinced it's a done deal.

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