Market forces

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Markets were a favourite stop on the shopping round of yesteryear that fell out of favour. Now they are making a strong and welcome comeback, finds Jayne Dowle

Where in the North West have 36,400 people had their hair cut, eaten one and a half tons of Italian cheese and consumed more than 100 sharks in a year? Here's a clue. It's in Manchester, and it's not Selfridges.

It's the new Arndale Market, which has attracted five million visitors since it opened a year ago. In a city where shoppers are notoriously trend-driven and demanding, the Arndale must be doing something right.

According to markets manager Brian Jarbett, its success should be credited to offering quality goods and produce, including a wide selection of food catering for the city's growing Polish population. "There is nothing second-rate about anything we sell," he says. "We're getting away from the old-fashioned reputation of markets selling shoddy goods."

The Arndale is the most high-profile example of markets as driving forces for regeneration, an idea being experimented with across the region. Manchester City Council began a fresh produce market on Palatine Road in Northenden on 6 October, which will open between 10am and 4pm on the first Saturday of each month, initially for six months. Northenden topped the shortlist against Chorlton and Didsbury. The thinking, according to the council, is that a market there will improve the profile of the area, and encourage residents to shop locally.

These "new" markets are enhancing the popularity of existing thriving markets such as those in Bolton and Bury.

Bury MarketIn both Bolton and Bury, the market is acknowledged as a crucial element of wider regeneration plans. "A major draw for Bury town centre is its famous market, which operates three times a week and attracts over 250,000 visitors who travel by car, revamped and modernised tram or coach…" enthuses a recent report from Bury Metropolitan Borough Council. "Located cheek by jowl with the town's Mill Gate shopping centre, the market underpins the town centre's retail offering which is soon to be boosted by The Rock redevelopments [a £330m regeneration of The Rock shopping centre to include a Debenhams, 60 shops, a cinema and bowling alley]."

Joe Harrison, chief executive officer of the National Market Traders' Federation, credits Jamie Oliver and other celebrity chefs with turning markets into desirable destinations in their own right. "Markets have become the sexy thing", he says, citing Borough Market in London as a prime influence.

It is true that the opportunity to purchase 16 different types of cheese and stuffed olives gives shoppers and traders alike a warm glow. But there are scores of half-shuttered and forlorn markets across the North West left behind in the rush to out-of-town Tescos. In Horwich, for example, whilst the town centre is gaining a reputation as a popular place to eat out, it is reported that the market hall has been plagued by vandalism.

Surviving markets will be the ones which are not only included as realistic elements of regeneration plans – offering what local people want, not what consultants think they want – but also the ones prepared to adapt to survive. Opening hours are a major issue. The Arndale Market stays open until 6pm during the week and doesn't close until 5pm on Sundays.

At Ashton-under-Lyne, where the 19th century market hall was destroyed by fire in 2004, Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council is taking the opportunity to re-think its operating policies as well as build a new structure, which is planned to open next year.

"There are 2,500 people working for the council alone in the town centre, who don't finish work until after 5pm, " says Ian Kelly, head of markets for TMBC. "The market is closed by then. We have to be able to meet their expectations and be there for them so they can shop after work."

The NMTF is working on a new policy for market opening times, in consultation with other trade bodies and the Government. "We have to challenge the mind-set of traders who have always come to work at 6.30am and gone home at 4.30pm," says Harrison. "We have to re-educate and re-train."

The new market hall in Ashton-under-Lyne will incorporate 90 stalls, plus meeting rooms and business incubation units aimed at local start-ups. The frontage is to be dominated by cafes and takeaways, which the council hopes will encourage "a café culture" to take off. "The sharper business minds have already got their applications in for alcohol licences," Kelly points out.

In Ashton-under-Lyne, as is typical in other towns where market rebuilding is taking place, traders have been forced to move into temporary accommodation. This is a challenge in itself, and not just for shoppers. Older traders often decide to retire rather than face the upheaval. This is a serious drawback of placing a market at the centre of a regeneration framework.

Innovative councils are taking steps to bring in new blood. In Stockport and Warrington there are notable schemes to support new traders. The Stockport Market Enterprise scheme, for instance, offers a free three-month trial of three-day-a-week trading and £250 to buy stock to those who then opt to become licensed traders.

Harrison says that the NMTF is encouraging new traders to specialise in selling "things you can't get in the shops". He believes that this is where modern markets should come into their own, providing items – he gives the examples of haberdashery and leather-work such as coin-purses – which chain-stores and department stores don't stock in choice because they can't make a profit on them.

He explains that the current development focus for the NMTF is to persuade traders to back up their stall offer with on-line trading. "Believe me," he adds, "markets are on the cusp of something really big."

Let's hope – for the sake of our town centres – that Harrison and all those regeneration planners aren't wrong.

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