Enough is enough! Regular readers will know I love markets and believe they are a valuable part of the social and economic fabric of a community.
There has been some utter nonsense spoken about Ashbourne market There has certainly been a lot of talk about making a quick buck on car parking and a desire to clear anything that stands in its way. As a final embarrassment we are reliant on Derbyshire County Council to fight for its 27 market towns ahead of the Town (1 market town) and District Council (4 market towns) by having a plan and applying for funding via the Portas scheme.
This week the first step in closure of our markets begins with the Town Council consulting the stallholders on whether they would be willing to move off the market square to private land. No consultation with Ashbourne residents is involved and Derbyshire Dales District Council have nothing to do with the action. If the stallholders agree we can say goodbye to an Ashbourne landmark because its future is then at the mercy of a landlord’s rent-setting and whether they get an offer for a better use of the land. By then of course, it’s not the Town Council’s problem. If this was the plan then it would have been better for everyone concerned for our councillors to have stood up at the review meeting and made it clear.
The Saturday market is doing well enough. It looks attractive and has a real atmosphere about it when the sun is shining in the summer. Local shopkeepers appreciate its presence and think that it contributes to their takings. This isn’t opinion – I have sat with a group of them and asked that direct question. What many may not realize is that a minority of market traders would prefer Saturday’s market to close so that Bakewell could have a Saturday market in addition to the Monday one – they don’t have Ashbourne’s interests at heart. Here is the first important lesson – towns without markets wish they had them – they know the inherent value in them. They don’t bleat on about car parking and congestion – they recognize it is a sign of a thriving economy. Standard marketing practice is to make places look busy – they busier they are, the more people want to join the queue.
The Thursday market is a different case. It is not supported by the Charter and is a relatively new addition to the Ashbourne retail scene. It has struggled for a while and after recovering briefly, the latest rules which stop casual traders has dealt it another blow. As it stands, the twelve month stay of execution given by DDDC will inevitably lead to the closure of the Thursday market through neglect – don’t be in the least surprised to see a Thursday market in Bakewell shortly afterwards.
The financial conclusion put forward by the investigation into Derbyshire Dales covered markets was laughable, in an otherwise good overview. The report’s own figures showed that Ashbourne’s two markets cost £28,273 to set up and repair against a rental and parking revenue from stallholders of almost £42,000. The Gross Profit of Ashbourne Market is therefore £13,700 – we have a profitable market until the enormous overhead costs are applied – more than £47,000 of overhead costs applied which mean that according to the DDDC report Ashbourne markets are losing over £34,000 per year. We should all be up in arms that our council tax is being wasted on inefficient administration in this way if the figures are true. This simple calculation is the sole element in the report behind the recommendation for closure – the report was otherwise full of praise for the markets. I have asked the question, and an answer was promised in the meeting, as to why so much overhead can be applied – proportionally more than any other market. I still haven’t had an answer.
Quite honestly I want to know the answer as a ratepayer – what is all this extra cost during a time of economic austerity? On the face of it, it isn’t the markets that are a problem, it is the inefficiency of DDDC in running them. No wonder there has been interest in running them privately! Who wouldn’t want to earn £47,000 a year for a two-day-a-week job? Until someone can explain the numbers properly (and as a businessman I expect more than just “it was done by our Finance department”) there should be no further case to answer. Crucially, the very nature of overheads is that if Ashbourne Thursday market did close, the overhead passes to the other markets to carry and so Ashbourne Saturday market, Matlock, and Wirksworth close accordingly and only Bakewell remains.
And so to the other nonsense in the report, and quite frankly one which should have been dealt with much closer to home. The report suggested that, if the market wasn’t there, the market would be full of cars paying car parking charges and so a further £24,000 could have been earned. Amazingly this was added to the calculations and heightened the “loss” to around £58,000. The theory goes that on a Thursday, the town is so busy that some people are turning away rather than struggle to find somewhere to park. You may have expected that, if this were true, any landlord worth their salt would be converting any spare bit of land they had into pay car parking to mop up the easy money. You would expect QEGS to turn their bus bay into a pay and display car park through the summer months along with the Church Hall and the unused land on the Nestle site. But of course they don’t – because this is a myth – all that would happen is that the cars would move from another pay and display location to one right in the heart of the town with no extra revenue but much easier access to Spencer’s café for the cup of tea they would otherwise have to travel to another town for.
The Housing Consultation meeting at the Town Hall demonstrated that people do care when something new appears on the horizon to threaten things they hold dear. It’s a less obvious threat when assets are slowly removed one by one. Each one may only affect a small number of people directly but ultimately affects us all and our way of life – we are left with a different town with different values. In hindsight is everyone totally convinced that we were right to lose the railway station, Nestle, the cattle market, the Post Office on the square, the full-time police station, and the tourist information centre with only a whimper? We are now in the process of losing potentially the Town Hall, the central bus station and the Thursday market. It should be that when you lose something, you do so by way of progress; you get something better in return. Maybe we need to toughen up a bit and fight to stop everything going the way of Bakewell and Matlock.
And one final innovative thought… Instead of giving its future away – why not subsidise the market totally? The overhead, by definition is not going to increase if the market gets bigger. Why not pay the rentals for all the stallholders on a Thursday – give them away for free provided they attend regularly rain or shine on Saturday too. If they don’t attend they lose their place. Give priority to local retailers having a stall to signpost to their shops and offer a few to local charities and one to QEGS to support their excellent Young Enterprise programme. The spin-off income to the town of a Thursday market packed to the gills with stalls would vastly outweigh the income from rents or parking. Instead of being happy to lose it we should aspire to a market which is bigger and better than Bakewell’s.