Leeds market has just been voted one of the nation’s favourites - but it also stands on the brink of the biggest change in its history. Neil Hudson reports on its future.
Leeds Market still has plenty going for it - it has just been voted runner-up in Britain’s Favourite Market competition.
Yet even its biggest supporters would probably agree there is much room for change and improvement to make the best of this fantastic asset - and that change is about to happen.
Its operators, Leeds City Council, will this year bring plans forward outlining an ambitious £12m revamp, which will see a new entrance on George Street, Butchers’ Row moved and the demolition and rebuilding of the 1976 Hall, complete with a performance stage, seating area and night licence.
It’s no secret that Kirkgate Market has been struggling for some time.
Despite the accolade from the public this week, the number of visitors is down, say traders, and many of them feel disillusioned.
Take a walk around the historic market and you’ll see why savvy shoppers spend their money here - there are bargains everywhere and any of the butchers will proudly tell you how their produce beats the supermarkets on price and quality any day of the week.
But there are plenty of empty stalls and traders in the outside market claim footfall is not what it used to be. The coming of John Lewis as part of the Victoria Gate development in 2016 could help revive the market, although some traders say they will have to see that to believe it.
In truth, the market has struggled for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact we, the general public, have changed our shopping habits. Gone are the days when we used to walk into town to meander among market stalls - it seems you can’t put a price on convenience.
Still, the market is fighting back. It is online, producing regular tweets with 11,700 followers (and growing) and its Market Delivered option enables shoppers to ‘click and buy’.
The essence of the market - of being there, of hearing the traders bellowing their latest deals, of pushing through the crowds, the sounds, the smells, the raw immediacy of real life - is its major selling point.
Susan Burgess is the woman in charge of Leeds markets and she has been in post for three years.
She said: “Overall, I would challenge any business not to see the benefits of social media. We tweet on behalf of the market but we also encourage individual traders to tweet and retweet. Some of them have taken this up.
“When I first came here, most of the opinions were negative, there was no positive noise about the market, so we have set about trying to change that. We have stepped up our game and tried to engage with new customers. If we are going to be taken seriously as a retail presence in the centre of Leeds, we have to be accessible to our audience, whether that means targeting a younger, student audience or the middle class.
“There are a number of initiatives going on every month at the market, such as World Feast on Briggate, where businesses from the city go out onto the streets to create a unique food-orientated experience.
“We also have Market Delivered, which enables people to order goods from the market and have them delivered to their homes. There is also a ‘shop and drop’ facility in the form of a chiller room, which enables people to buy things and store them for collection later. It’s not as well used as it could be - we’re trying to get traders to talk more about it.
“In terms of parking, the NCP car park has lowered its long-stay prices recently and when Milgarth Police Station is demolished as part of the Victoria Gate development and the arrival of John Lewis, there will be a new 805-space short stay car park created and it will be right on our doorstep.
“Big changes are afoot for the market in the next few years. We have a budget of £12m, part of which we will use to create a new access on George Street to take advantage of the increased footfall which will come as a result of the new John Lewis store.
“The second major thing we are going to do is to move the butchers over to the fish and game row to create a new ‘wet sales’ area.
“The third thing is we will be completely revamping the 1976 Hall, which has been failing for some time. We are going to tear all the stalls down and completely redesign it to create a new covered daily market area, which will include a stage for performances, cafes and seating.
“This will be the biggest change to the market since 1904 and we hope work will begin on January or February next year. We will be bringing the final plans before the council in April this year and assuming they are approved, we will then seek planning permission. The other thing that new section of the market will have is a new night licence allowing it to remain open well into the evening, so if you can imagine it with nice lighting, tables and chairs, cafes open, someone busking.
“There will be no high street names in there, no chain cafes, we want to retain the ethos of the market, which is independent traders.
“It’s a really interesting time for the market, it’s a real asset to the city and we want to make the most of it and the £12m investment underlines the council’s commitment to ensuring it will be a success. As the city moves forward, the market has to be up there to compete with other key retail destinations.”
The Leeds Market Twitter account (@LeedsMarkets) has 11,700 followers, compared to 7,000 last year.
Susan continued: “I understand the frustrations of some traders but this investment should show the long term commitment the council has to the market and I think some are now starting to believe something is finally going to happen.
“You cannot tinker around the edges with a scheme like this, you have to be bold.
Butcher Michael Leary, 44, said more needed to be done to promote the market.
He suggested offering limited free parking for people using the market and that Leeds City Council invest some of the £3.5m in rent they made from stallholders last year in a year-long marketing campaign.
“I’ve worked here 30 years, I started when I was 14 and the footfall we have today is not even 10 per cent of what we used to get. There are things which could be done to remedy that.
“The council started a ‘shop and drop’ service, which enables people to buy meat and veg and store them for free in a giant fridge at the bottom of butchers row - the only problem is, no-one know about it. It’s a great idea but no-one uses it because they don’t know it’s there.
“I’d like to see a lot more promotion of the market to different areas of Leeds targeted every week in a bid to sell what we’ve got.
“The one thing which sets us apart from anyone else is value and quality - we can beat the supermarkets every time on value and we can beat them on quality.”
MARKET’S ENDURING APPEAL
Leeds Kirkgate Market is the largest covered market in Europe.
It has been at the heart of Leeds city life since 1857 and it home to over 1,000 independent traders.
Plans for a £12m investment will be submitted later this year.
Some 1029 traders work in the market and there are 420 indoor units alone.
Over 200,000 people from across Leeds and beyond visit the market weekly.
In 1975 part of the market was practically destroyed by fire and replaced by temporary stalls (the so-called 1976/1981 halls).
In the late 1980s, more than 250,000 people signed a petition calling on Leeds City Council to scrap plans to redevelop the market into a multi-storey shopping complex.
In 2012 Councillor Richard Lewis admitted there had been a lack of investment but said the council was more guilty of ‘not coming up with coherent story’ about what they were doing.
In Sheffield, the city market was moved from its historic home at Castle Market, Exchange Street to a new £18m building - in its first month it attracted more than 400,000 people and is regarded as a success.