New dawn for Leeds Kirkgate Market?

A support group has been set up to help polish a jewel in Leeds's crown.

Rod McPhee met the Friends of Kirkgate Market and explored the traders' fears – and their hopes.

With a silhouette of towering domes, extravagant gables and grand stone archways, it's a building which could have been lifted block by block from a Viennese square. It doesn't look like the kind of building you expect to find in Leeds, certainly not a market.

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But over the last century that's just what Loiners have taken for granted. It may boast an opulent Edwardian frontage and Victorian core, it may take up a huge block of the city centre, but it's started to merge into the mish-mash of classic and contemporary architecture.

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Which is perhaps why Kirkgate Market has become something of a mish-mash itself. Inside stalls still offer the best fresh seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables. Specialist sellers offer African-Caribbean, continental, Polish and South African products you'll struggle to find elsewhere in the city.

And the front trading hall remains a sight to behold. It's a palace of turn-of-the-century style – tiles, cast iron, carved wood and a vast glass ceiling providing natural light throughout the day.

But get past this area and the late 20th century addition to the rear is something of a sad sight. A vast metal warehouse devoid of character which is now peppered with empty units and disgruntled traders.

While the rest of Leeds has enjoyed a renaissance, those who work in Leeds Kirkgate Market feel they've gone backwards to the dark ages. There's a stand off between the council, who run the market, and the tenants who, often begrudgingly, pay them rent.

Thankfully there's now a chance to stand back and take stock. The Friends of Kirkgate Market organisation was set up earlier this year with the aim of supporting the cause through a third-party organisation.

Sara Gonzalez, a Leeds resident and a regular customer of the market, is one of the leaders of the organisation. She said: "We've seen similar groups formed for other markets around the country, particularly in London.

"In Brixton, for example, they've set up a support group and at Queens market in Newham they stopped the proposed construction of an Asda

supermarket there.

"So we felt that a similar body here in Leeds might help with some of the issues we are facing. They're different issues but just as important."

Perhaps the biggest issue they are up against is one of image. No one can question the quality of most of the products on Kirkgate but most Loiners either don't know it's there or think the market is a tad downmarket.

Which is particularly frustrating for the traders since they are increasingly being surrounded by a burgeoning population in the heart of Leeds. City living apartments stand just a few feet away from the entrance and house, purportedly, some 6,000 people within walking distance.

And while the supermarket giants start to open more and more stores the market should also be getting a share, but aren't.

"Don't get us wrong," says Sara. "We don't want to have the market hijacked and turned into something purely for middle class people. We think the market should be somewhere people can come and buy cheap clothes and food and other products.

"But we do think it should be a real mix, something for everyone and we also think people should be made more aware of the quality of products here. Most of all we feel the environment should be improved to attract more people."

Liz Laughton is chair of the Leeds market traders federation and her family has been running her seafood stall for almost a century. She welcomes the formation of the Friends of Kirkgate Market as a means of improving their lot.

"We don't want to preserve the place as a museum but at the same time there are lots of old elements in here which could be enhanced." There are beautiful pillars behind the stalls which are boxed in and covered up, so let's uncover them, make them features, enhance the character of the place."

At first glance the central part of the market looks pretty bland, even though it should be one of the most beautiful sections.

Over the years stalls have been expanded and modified and the old archways which line the thoroughfares – many of which are carved with the names of old stalls – have been painted over and covered up. A quick glance up confirms the huge potential currently masked by signage and layout.

While other landmarks like the Victoria Quarter, the Corn Exchange and the old Lewis's building on The Headrow have all been brought back to life with private investment, traders feel they're neglected by the local authority.

"We just want to see what money we make for the council put back into the market," says Mrs Laughton. "And not just for us, but for the city –

it would be a great investment.

"Instead we see the council borrowing millions of pounds to build things like Leeds Arena, which makes me sick quite frankly."

There have been numerous battles ongoing with the management of the markets and the council. In recent times it has become heavily politicised, but many of the gripes are about practical matters – for example, on butchers row, which has existed for decades – a hairdressers was controversially allowed to open between shops selling raw meat.

What The Friends of Kirkgate Market want to see most of all, they say, is some kind of long-term vision.

Cliff Hocken runs Hayes with his wife, Michelle. The stall sells seafood, sandwiches and refreshments in the newer part of the market hall to the rear. His family have run the business for 130 years.

"Something has to be done," he says. "We can't go on like this. I think the worst part of it is the uncertainty. There are all kinds of rumours about this and that happening but nothing ever seems to happen, which is frustrating.

"I think there is actually a real opportunity to do something incredible to the markets. We have the Eastgate development being built just across the road and, if that's linked in correctly, then that could be a massive benefit to us.

"It could be the permanent solution we need because actually, since 1976, we've basically been existing in what should have been a temporary market and that, obviously, has to addressed.

"Everything seems to be coming together to create a potential turning point for the markets now. There are plans for neighbouring developments, more people living on our doorstep and, of course, the formation of the Friends of Kirkgate Market. It could be the start of something really good for us - but everyone has to get on board now."

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