Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Leeds Kirkgate Market: an update

It's time for more of my increasingly frequent commentary on what's going on with the plans for Leeds Kirkgate Market.

Back in November the Council had just appointed Consultants (Quarterbridge Project Management Ltd) to produce a report advising on various matters including the optimum size for the market, possible governance and management structures and a plan for achieving these changes.

That report was completed in December and made publicly available in January. The Council department responsible for the market have put forward their response to the report and the whole thing is due to be discussed by the Council Executive Board this Friday.

For anyone who might be interested in a bit of the detail here's my take on what's been going on.

The Consultant's Report

This was finally released for public consumption on the 12th January, you can find a link to it at the bottom of this article. I had a quick read through the document at the time, and made a few notes. My initial thought was that it's better than I expected, and I probably shouldn't have been quite so cynical about what the report would say (almost as cynical, just not quite so).

I think that they've responded to the brief fairly well overall, although some of the alternative options (for the size and refurbishment plans as well as the governance and management arrangements) considered should perhaps have been fleshed out in a little more detail to explain why they were dismissed.

On the positive side:

- A reduction in size of the market by 25% is recommended, but that's not by as much as I'd feared.

- The recommended way of achieving the size reduction is to knock down both the 1976 and 1981 halls, but replace one of them with a new build. A new indoor section would surely be a good thing.

- The report doesn't recommend a management and ownership model that would fully cede control to the private sector.

On the negative side:

- The outcome is, as predicted, that the future optimum size of the market is considerably smaller than it is now. I still don't agree with the rationale behind the reduction. Given that vacancy rates in the rest of the city centre are comparable to those in the market, is anyone suggesting knocking a few streets down to better match up the supply to current demand? Still, I've pretty much accepted that this is going to happen come what may.

- The language used to describe how stalls in the upgraded market will be allocated is a little worrying, with talk of  'a tenant reselection process' where tenants may 'be allocated to new positions' and that 'tenants would be offered an Agreement for Lease in return for surrendering their existing agreements'. To me that reads as 'here's your new stall, here's your new contract, sign up or bugger off'.

 - The report is even more dismissive of temporary tenants, stating 'As these [temporary lettings] represent licences which can be easily terminated we have assumed there is no need to offer them equivalent reinstatement.' Presumably true but I thought the primary purpose of temporary lettings was to help start-up businesses find their feet, then hopefully they can become permanent tenants at some later date. Turfing them all out is hardly going to encourage market based entrepreneurialism.

 - the soft market testing of private sector interest was a bit of waste of time, the obvious answer being something along the lines of: Yes, we're interested. We'd like the option that allows us full control so we can do as we please and maximise our return.

- They've only really looked at one management and ownership model in any detail (a limited liability partnership on a fixed term lease from the Council), with all other options being dismissed without proper assessment.

- A limited liability partnership, as recommended by the report might be the best legal vehicle, but I've got some serious concerns over the proposed 99 year lease and how the contract with the council will work. It could end up being a century long PFI style disaster (see numerous NHS hospitals, the London Underground upgrades et al).

- Among the governance and management models dismissed is the idea of a mutual or social enterprise. The main reason given for their dismissal is that the writers 'doubt if any already exist in a form suited to this type of opportunity'. So they don't know they don't, they just reckon probably not. This, for me, is a model that deserves more detailed investigation. It would keep money in the market rather than drain more out, and it's hardly a completely novel concept in the retail and food environment (anyone ever heard of the Co-op?). I appreciate that then raises questions about where the initial investment would come from, but I don't think it's necessarily impossible.

- There's a proposal for a balcony level food court. This worries me. It's not necessarily a bad idea, but out of the way, up some stairs market food offerings have a tendency to become underused backwaters. They don't (and certainly shouldn't) have the popular draw of big name chains to entice people in like shopping centre food courts do. If this idea is going to work then it needs to be thought through very carefully.

- The size reduction proposals would result in the freeing up of the existing open market area for redevelopment as an 'anchor attraction'. What this would be is obviously beyond the scope of the report but can't really be taken in isolation. Whatever plans are developed for this part of the site should be included in the scope of the whole market area project, as a smaller market with a big fenced off hole in the ground between it and the bus station is in no-ones interest.

The view from the Council

The market management published their initial response to the report on their website on the 12th January. After I criticised some of their previous pronouncements I must say I was pleasantly surprised this time. I thought it was balanced, informative and sensible, providing a decent precis to the full report.

On the 3rd February the council department with ultimate responsibility for the market (which I think is called City Centre and Markets, I'll stick to 'the department' from hereon) published their report to the Executive board, confirming what they believe should happen in light of the Consultant's report. You can find a summary of their views here, there's a link to the full report at the bottom of the post. In short, an overview of their recommendations is:

- accept in principle the plans to reduce the market in size by 25%.

- don't make any decision on how to achieve this until a full feasibility study has been done.

- don't make any decision on management and governance arrangements without exploring the advantages and disadvantages of commercial partnership against sole ownership and management by the council.

- set aside some of the market surplus to pay for the feasibility study.

I can't argue with any of that at this stage, it seems like a sensible approach and their concerns mirror mine as a general rule.

The Council scrutiny board for regeneration have also reviewed the Consultant's report and have made a similar set of recommendations. The minutes of this meeting can be found here.

What others are saying

The main, and certainly most vocal of the interested parties seems to be the campaign group 'Friends of Leeds Kirkgate Market'. I admire their tenacity, but am starting to get irritated by their scaremongering approach. You will generally find that their articles start factual but quite often veer off into speculation or exaggeration.

In their article of 17th January they claim that Councillors at the Scrutiny Board for Regeneration meeting accused the Consultants of going beyond their remit, which is not what the minutes for that meeting say. They do suggest that concerns were raised as to whether the brief was fully met, but that's not the same as going beyond it.

In their article of 14th January they state that if the limited liability partnership model was implemented the Council 'would therefore lose any power to influence the way that its [sic] run', whereas one of the fundamental points of this proposal is that the Council, as one of the partners, would retain a modicum of influence over how the market is run. I don't actually think the LLP is a good idea either, but making stuff up about the nature of it isn't going to help.

If you want to read reliably good, concise and honest information about what's going on in the arena of local governance in Leeds, I recommend turning to the Leeds Citizen, where you'll find a less rambling post than mine on some of the key market related issues. Or just keep reading me, because I'm the Oracle. (That bit was a joke by the way.)

What happens next?

The findings of the Consultant's report and the Council department response to that will be discussed at the Council Executive board meeting on Friday. The Executive Board will have to decide whether or not to accept the recommendations made by the Council department, also taking into account the recommendations made by the Scrutiny Board for regeneration.

Who knows what they'll decide, I for one am going to stop making (incorrect) predictions on the matter.

Any comments made by the public and submitted by 9th February (which is why I'm writing this now) will be fed back to the Executive board meeting, so here's my two penn'orth:

- In reviewing the advantages and disadvantages of commercial partnership against sole Council management of the market, the Council should investigate other alternatives, specifically the feasibility of a Mutual or Social Enterprise. Any option that would not have to result in additional surplus being siphoned away from the market would be preferable.

- The Council should reject the proposal for a 99 year lease, irrespective of the management structure chosen.

- If the recommendations for size reduction and rebuilding in the Consultant's report are adopted, the rights of existing permanent tenants need to be safeguarded, and existing temporary tenants should not automatically be removed. The market should support new businesses through a temporary tenancy system.

- If the recommendations for size reduction and rebuilding in the Consultant's report are adopted, the proposals for an upstairs food court need to be considered very carefully to ensure the necessary footfall could be achieved.

- If the food court idea goes ahead, please can it include the following: a good coffee stall, a proper greasy spoon in the market tradition, a taco truck, a good quality burger stall, a Vietnamese banh mi stand, a Vietnamese pho stand, a currywurst cart, a Bury market style black pudding shop, a dosa stall, a laksa stall, a good quality pie and mash offering and a Gregg's. Thanks. If this is possible I personally guarantee to keep the whole food court in business.


Rebecca Roberts said...

'Spot on' as ever from the 'Oracle' and I'm not joking ... loving your request for the Food Court, you find 'em, we'll bring 'em in :)

Seriously though, balanced, sensible, factual and obviously written by someone who uses the market on a regular basis and has the interests of both shoppers and traders at heart.

leeds citizen said...

What Rebecca said

Leigh said...

Yep - I don't know what seems so hard, really. you need a council who want to support the place as an asset to the city rather than a hinderance; make rents affordable to entice traders - of all kinds - and someone at the helm with a bit of vision. A food - orientated market (or part of) *could* be so much more than it is now. There's bedrock there - family businesses who are clinging on (my brother is a butcher there, so I know the daily problems with dealing with LCC) - it just needs to be built upon.
A lick of paint, some investment, a reduction in size (which i support, actually) and some decent, focussed advertising is all needed. When was the last time you saw an advert for the Market - something promoting everything available? Exactly.

Dave said...

Rebecca - thanks, you're too kind! I think the 'food to eat now' offering should be one of the main areas targeted for improvement, even if my suggestions might be a touch ambitious..

Leeds Citizen - thanks too, and thanks for your referrals on Twitter!

Leigh - thanks, I'm still not entirely convinced by the size reduction plan but I'm coming round to the idea tbh. Definite scope for improving the food offer too, which butcher is your brother out of interest? (should give him some trade!) Regarding the marketing, they do seem to have made some progress of late, the online presence is much improved. Still a way to go though..

Leigh said...

Now then - he works at Callards. Young lad, dark hair. Makes good sausages and the steak mince is great for burgers.

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