The return of the street market

There was a time when local markets were stalling, but local councils are starting to recognise that they could offer a way to boost a local economy and reverse high street decline.

Borough Market is more than 1,000 years old. The Southwark-based market survived the English Civil War, the Great Fire of London and two world wars – but, in the 1990s, it went through a period of decline, hit by competition from supermarkets and nearby New Covent Garden Market.

But the foodie revolution was in the air, and the trustees (Borough Market is run as a charity) responded by introducing good-quality, artisanal producers such as Neal’s Yard Dairy.

It was an instant success and today, says Darren Heneghan, the market’s chief executive, in a single area of the market you can find “Swiss cheese, Croatian wine and produce, spices from India, tea from India… a guy from Luton selling Italian ham”.

London, he says, is “one of the most multicultural, most wonderful cities in the universe. And what Borough Market tries to do is reflect that multicultural celebration of food.”

These days, the market is thriving. Heneghan reels off the figures: £300m annual revenue for the traders, an average dwell time of 96 minutes, an average spend of £40 a head, and 15.5 million visitors a year, of whom well over a million are from overseas (more than visit Wales each year).

Despite a popular perception that it appeals mainly to wealthy outsiders, about 80% of visitors are Londoners, split equally between the middle-class (ABC1) and working-class (C2DE) demographics.

At a time when many high streets are in decline, councils are recognising that markets can boost a local economy.

There are 1,173 markets in the UK, hosting 32,400 businesses, turning over £3.1bn a year – an increase of £200m year on year since 2012. A 2015 study by the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University found that traditional local markets increased the number of visitors to a town centre by 25% on the days they were trading. More than half of those visitors spend money in other shops.

Local authorities run 82% of markets in the UK, and, since the study was published, says Simon Quin, director of the IoPM, a number have refurbished their markets. Between them, Barnsley, Doncaster, Leicester, Preston, Scarborough, Tameside and Warrington have invested £37m. There is anecdotal evidence, he says, that these “have been a major attractor of people who then use other facilities”. Earlier this year, the government announced a £675m fund to revitalise high streets, which may encourage more local authorities to follow suit.

One of those authorities, Barnsley, has made refurbishment and relocation of its historic markets the focus of wider town-centre reinvestment. David Shepherd, director for regeneration and culture at the council, says: “Barnsley was at risk of becoming like many other town centres, where businesses move out of town and you don’t have the vibrancy and vitality of a meeting place for the community.”

Markets are “places where people can come and feel appreciated… they’re about much more than just buying a bag of apples or a pair of jeans”

Graham Wilson, chief executive of the National Association of British Market Authorities

Its £180m Glass Works development will host shops, restaurants and a cinema – but the markets will be the centrepiece. As well as improving the mix of traders, Barnsley is helping them introduce cashless payment systems and promoting the market on social media. O2 Smart Steps technology enables the council to count visitors to the market and create a detailed profile by age, sex, time spent and town of origin. Since the indoor market opened in its new location in November, it has seen a 10% increase in footfall – and it’s attracting coach parties from as far afield as Suffolk.

In Altrincham, a rather tired traditional indoor market selling cheap wares has been transformed into a foodie’s paradise, aided by Trafford Council’s programme that lends £20,000 to new traders to set up business there. This has gone hand-in-hand with investment in the town centre, which has resulted in many new independent shops opening. Similarly, Shrewsbury Market Hall has gone from 40% occupancy levels in 2006 to having a waiting list today. The market, which specialises in quality local food and even has a champagne bar, acts as a business incubator, with a number of stall holders opening businesses on the high street.

London, too, is recognising the benefits that its 280 markets can bring. Mayor Sadiq Khan has invested £12.4m in markets, and in 2017 set up the London Markets Board to oversee them. Yet although Portobello Road and Camden markets, among others, are world-famous, and attract tourists as well as locals, London markets face a unique set of challenges. Under the London Local Authorities Act, councils are not allowed to make a profit from markets, and licences have to be granted to individuals, who must be present to manage the stall.

This bar on profit, says John Burton, director of consultancy Urban Space Management, means a lot of London local authorities let their markets tick over rather than actively investing in them. This has allowed private markets to flourish, adds Burton: “Private operators can accept businesses as traders, so a trader with a business could be running five, six or seven markets on the same day without personally having to be present.”

So why, when most of us still buy our weekly food shop from a supermarket, are markets so popular? Joe Harrison, chief executive of the National Market Traders Federation, believes it’s to do with delivering food fresh to the consumer. A lot of supermarket food, he says, “sits in huge cold stores, sometimes for months on end, and therefore the food produce on a market is of a better standard and higher quality. In some cases, it’s the grower selling their own produce.”

There is an enormous variety of markets, of course: some are permanent structures, often indoors, while others run for a day or two each week. Some towns run farmers’ markets, while others host craft stalls. There have been a few notable trends though. One is the rise in stalls selling prepared food. “Strutton Ground in Victoria was originally a whole mix of the usual stalls on a daily market, but now a lot of it is prepared food. You’ll see queues of office workers buying lunch there,” says Quin.

Another trend is the rise in Christmas markets in cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff. These generate “significant footfall”, often from tourists. Manchester’s Christmas market, for example, attracts nine million visitors each year. Quin adds: “They’re not just coming for shopping – you’re also eating food, drinking glühwein and so on, so there’s a sense of an experience going on.”

But markets do more than increase the number of visitors to a town or city centre. The IoPM study listed 25 benefits of local and farmers’ markets. One was that markets, with their low barrier to entry, give a boost to entrepreneurship. “They’re very easy places to start businesses. Your costs will be remarkably low, so why not try out your business in a market?” says Quin.

Burton believes that the explosion of private markets has had a “massive impact on entrepreneurialism”, particularly among young people who, since the 2008 financial crisis, have found it hard to obtain work. For many young people, running a market stall might be just one job of many, he says.

Another intangible benefit identified by the study was that markets “are places of social interaction”. In an era when people, especially the older population, feel increasingly isolated, markets, says Graham Wilson, chief executive of the National Association of British Market Authorities, are “places where people can come and feel appreciated… they’re about much more than just buying a bag of apples or a pair of jeans”. As Burton puts it, they’re about “knitting together communities and breaking down loneliness”.

The beauty of markets is that they can range from a huge city market like Borough Market to a small town market – and both will see benefits, says Quin: “The footfall change comes from small places as well as large ones.” This is a view borne out by Lampeter People’s Market, which runs two Saturday mornings a month.

“Launched six years ago in the small mid-Wales university town, the market has begun to attract start-up businesses and now has 18-20 stalls, including a number of popular food stalls. It draws visitors from surrounding villages, and is also a hit with students, says the market manager Dinah Mulholland.

Not everything in the market garden is rosy, however, says Wilson. The latest figures show that 41% of market operators reported a decrease in footfall and stall income in the previous year. Last year, Wakefield Market Hall closed owing to a decline in visitors – which Wilson puts down to the rebuilt hall being poorly sited. Similarly, in Scarborough, the footfall “has been taken away from where the market is located”. This is a particular issue for indoor markets or ones located in a fixed area if town-centre activity moves.

Another significant challenge is that the average age of traders has risen to 60. Older stall holders are retiring, but are not being replaced. While there are people willing to run stalls at weekends or one-off events, says Wilson, there are few “who want to stand on the market three or four days a week all year, throughout all weathers”. In an effort to change this, a number of markets now offer training for traders when they start out, as well as discounts for the first six months.

The NMTF runs campaigns to attract younger people to set up stalls, and a competition aims to find the UK’s best young market traders. NABMA’s annual Love Your Local Market campaign runs events to encourage people to visit their market and to offer new traders the chance to set up stalls at a discount.

But not everyone is convinced that investment in markets will necessarily boost a local economy. Research by the Centre for Cities think-tank shows that a number of high streets, such as those in Cambridge and Manchester, are thriving – even in the face of competition from online shopping. The key differentiator is not on the supply side but on the demand side, says analyst Rebecca McDonald. In Cambridge the high street vacancy rate is 8%, compared with 25% in Newport. The difference is between an affluent city and one with high poverty and unemployment.

“Even if you created an amazing market in, say, a struggling city centre, if there isn’t enough demand and there aren’t enough people in sufficiently well-paid jobs to spend their money in that market, then it’s not going to thrive or be enough on its own to boost that high street,” she says.

It’s important to improve local skills and education and to create high-paying jobs to create demand, McDonald argues.

At a time of economic uncertainty, the future of markets isn’t guaranteed. But Shepherd believes that as long as they stay relevant to local communities, remain accessible and have a throughput of new traders, they will survive for hundreds of years. “I can’t see that changing because they’re such a wonderful experience – people love them.”

This article was originally published in Public Finance in July 2019.