Leeds Kirkgate Market: Uncertain outlook of treasure in our midst

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The future of Leeds Market hangs in the balance, as Fiona Russell and Neil Hudson discovered.

It’s the biggest indoor market in Europe, employing 2,000 people and even in the midst of a recession, it generates a profit of £2 million pounds a year.

Kirkgate Market, Leeds.

Kirkgate Market, Leeds.

There’s no denying Kirkgate Market is and always has been at the heart of Leeds.

It is more than just a market, it’s a whole way of life - venture beyond its grand frontage and you enter an almost magical world of lively banter, stalls ablaze with colour andsalt-of-the-earth people stood behind each stalls.

In terms of retail, it’s a million miles away from the sanitised environs of the modern high street.

Yes, it’s grimy, even grubby and perhaps it could do with a little spruce-up but that rustic ambience is also part of its charm.

It’s the kind of place you’d want to visit if you went abroad - and people do.

But all is not well. Traders are anxiously awaiting the outcome of a feasibility study, the latest in a series of consultations, reports and attempts to create a ‘vision’ of the market’s future.

Janet Douglas, historian of Leeds and a paid-up Friend of Kirkgate Markets, said: “‘It’s really frustrating and it’s been going on since 2008.

“I used to come here when my daughter was a baby. I’d load up the pram (much easier than carrying it in bags) and push it all home.”

Janet has been a market regular ever since she came to Leeds over 30 years ago.

These days she conducts architectural tours around the building.

She added: “The rear skyline always reminds me of Istanbul, especially at dusk. It’s all very romantic.

“But like a lot of Victorian and Edwardian architecture, it’s a mixture – Venetian domes, Art Nouveau details, Corinthian columns - all wrapped around the cast-iron and steel framework which you can see once you get into the hall’.”

So what will become of this historical hotchpotch?

Leeds City Council has come up with a 12-point plan it hopes will form the basis of something resembling a revival.

The report, which is being considered by the council and will feed into a consultation which is due to end on December 14, suggests re-roofing the 1976 and 1981 markets halls or demolishing it altogether (retaining only the frontage) and re-building it.

Other options include creating a central focal point for events and performances and making it easier for people to navigate around the market, perhaps separating its traders into districts, which has already happened to some extent with the meat and fish traders.

It also suggests better heating and cooling systems but at the moment, it’s all pie in the sky.

Liz Laughton runs family owned fish stall, R Bethell. She now works on the stall with her son, the fourth generation of the family to do so.

She has fond memories.

“When I was younger, my parents used to bring me down here to play with the eels.

“They’d flood the bottom of the walk-in fridge and put the live eels in. And then they’d put me in!”

Liz would play all day, or watch the world go by perched on a bag of whelks.

“‘I love the diversity of the market. We supply the top restaurants in Leeds and at the same time I can’t count the number of nationalities who come to buy the fish. When I began the market was very white, very English and we stocked about ten lines. Now it’s far more interesting.”

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Further down the hall, Michelle Hochen and her husband Cliff specialise in freshly boiled crabs, lobsters and seafood.

“It’s like a theatre,” laughs Michelle. “And we’re the performers. Sometimes we’re marriage guidance counsellors; sometimes social workers; sometimes we advise on care for the elderly.

“Some customers come every day. Others arrived in Britain a few weeks ago. Then there are the students, just landed. They come straight to the market. They want to know what’s best to buy, and they know we’ll give them honest answers.”

Even on a wet Monday morning the market is full of life, a fuggy warmth and the unmistakable market smell of tea, bacon sandwiches and cut flowers.

Chrissie Hill occupies an elegant Edwardian booth just inside one of the main entrances. Her mother, Dorothy Goodall, started the business in 1963.

“She wanted to sell top-quality hosiery and that’s what we still do.”

The Grand and the Playhouse send their performers down to Chrissie, and the big shops too, if there is something they don’t stock.

“Trade is good I’ve always been happy here.”

But she’s bothered by the number of empty stalls: “Empty stalls mean jobs have gone.”

Traders, including Chrissie, lay much of the blame for the market’s problems, like its numerous empty stalls, at the feet of the council, who set the rents.

Chrissie said: “The market is for the people of Leeds to make a living but the rents are astronomical.

“That shop,” she says, pointing at a long (empty) stall immediately opposite, “cost £1,664 a month. Plus rates. Plus service charges. And he was selling chicken!”

She added: “Supermarkets are so much easier. And people are lazy, about quality, seasonality variety. That’s what we offer.”

It’s also what keeps people like tour-guide Janet coming.

“You can buy things here that you can’t buy anywhere else, like razor clams - delicious fried with butter and herbs.

“I used to come twice a week when I worked in the city centre. But now I’m retired, I come once a fortnight.”

Even ‘foodyism’ is a mixed blessing. Farmers’ markets are popular but traditional markets suffer by comparison - they seem shabby, difficult to use.

It’s no secret the market has suffered from neglect and possibly a loss of direction.

According to the traders, the council should be investing in the market.

Janet said: “In 2008 there was a consultation exercise, then there was the Scrutiny Board’s ‘vision’. Then there was the Quarterbridge report.”

The 2011 report was hugely controversial. Quarterbridge, a consultancy specialising in markets, recommended Kirkgate be shrunk by 25 per cent and that the council look for a ‘commercial partner’ to manage it.

Now, Norfolk Property Services have been employed to conduct a ‘feasibility study’ which will consult (again) and present a series of options to the Executive Committee in January 2013.

Conspiracy theories are rife, not least because the whole thing is bound-up with Eastgate, a development planned for just north and behind the market.

Janet fears Quarterbridge’s suggestion that the open market be rehoused inside the halls is merely a way of freeing up space for a car park to attract the likes of John Lewis to Leeds.

Not everyone in the market is hostile though. Nick Copland, co-owner of The Source - a stall offering small artisan food businesses a place to trial their wares - is looking on the bright side.

He said: “A giant construction site. Just outside this door. Think how many people will need something to eat!’

Nick is not over-concerned about the idea that the market might be leased.

He said: “Councils can’t run commercial enterprises. I think it would be fine if it was run by the right people.

“Kirkgate needs a focus. I believe that food is the heart of the market.”

Fellow trader Junior Cuffy, known as ‘Dean’, who first sold his wares at The Source and has just moved into a small shop at the top of Butcher’s Row, agrees.

He said: “I like the market vibe but it’s changing. It’s becoming more of a place to eat.”

He believes the market should open until 9pm and become a ‘foodie destination’.

So what is Kirkgate Market and what is the future likely to bring for it?

Will it become a shadow of its former self, its gristle cut to the bone, its size vastly reduced, modernised, homogenised, made to fit the template of the modern high street?

Will it become more of a haunt for the trades of yesteryear, the ones which used to occupy places in every high street and now sometimes eke out a living in supermarket-based kiosks?
Kirkgate Market is the last place in Leeds where rich and poor rub along, a rare remaining pubic space in an increasingly corporate city.

But change is coming.

Janet added: “Markets have always been unruly things and there’s always been an urge to tidy them up. But they’re also - like the smell of tea, bacon and cut flowers - homely, fragile, strangely romantic.

“And it’s worth remembering: sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

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