Liverpool City Council never ceases to amaze me although by now I should be beyond surprise. This time it’s a proposal to levy rents and service charges for St John’s Market which will effectively close it for good.
Since the re-opening of the Market in 2017 the Council has raised very little from rent and service charges because the design of the Market was so poor that it brought instant condemnation. It was redesigned by an architect with no experience of markets. Perhaps Government Inspector Max Caller might enquire into how this happened. The Council involved neither market traders or market users in the redesign. The resultant market looks like an adjunct to an abattoir. Market traders have done their best. There are some real bargains to be had there, I look in regularly myself, but couldn’t overcome the drabness of the building.
Mr Caller might also enquire why the offers of rent reduction for a few months then a few more months were not properly reported to Cabinet and why hardly any rent or service charge has been invoiced since October 2017 when no authority was given for this.
What is St John’s Market for in the days of Poundland and other bargain basement companies? I don’t know. Crucially, however the council didn’t bother to ask that question before spending more than £2.75 million on this project. Given the costs that have been incurred since then total costs are now more than £4.5 million.
Some of the redesign money was totally wasted. The first floor was also converted to trading areas complete with roller shutters which were on site but never installed. 18 months after this work was done it was undone to provide a new home for the City Centre One Stop Shop. One of the theories being that this would drive up footfall in the market area. It hasn’t!
The report, being presented to next month’s Cabinet, suggests that rent and service charges start to be paid from January and that it be increased to a full rental after three months. I believe that it will make the market unviable and is simply a prelude to its permanent closure. To start introducing a rent and service charge when 95% of the market is being closed due to lockdown is an incredibly stupid thing to do. How the traders will pay these with no income is beyond me.
More importantly in the long term even when the situation returns to normal the rents and service charge will be too high for the likely takings in the market. It was doing badly even before the virus struck. It is badly designed and unattractive. It is now clear that there will be considerably less footfall in the City Centre as people have begun to explore different ways of shopping and more workers will now work from home. Now the Council must begin to review how the City Centre works and the Market and the space outside it could become an important pivot for a renaissance of the City Centre.
In September the traders wrote to the Council offering to start paying rent and service charge building up to 75% of the previously agreed figure. That letter sent to Mayor Anderson’s office was never responded to. So, let’s be clear, the traders want to pay rent and service charges and have offered to do so but those costs must be at a level which will mean that they can make a living from the Market. Charge the rents that were agreed in 2017 and the Market will close for good. After being the markets authority for more than 813 years you would think that by now someone would have a decent idea how to run one.
As always with Liverpool Council we need to examine whether or not there is another motive for the Council’s actions. The Council has been clear that it has been seeking another use for the Market for the last two years and was seeking a solution that would enable the existing traders to continue trading although it was never clear whether that would mean a continuation of trading on the current market site. So, has another occupant been found for the Market? Is this just a cheap way of getting the traders out without paying them compensation for loss of earnings and a recovery of the extremely high capital outlay for fitting out their stalls that many of them have made in their premises?
I think that the Council should accept the Traders offer of rent and service charge payments and work with them to create a viable and thriving market that people will want to visit. In the meantime, we will call in this report to the Regeneration Select Committee to allow the Traders the opportunity to directly talk to Cllrs about the ways forward.
I got involved in the problems of the market within weeks of the reopening at the request of the late and great John Foley. It is in his memory that I will continue to fight for the Market that he traded in for so many years and which still has a value to many of the people of Liverpool over and above the rents and service charges which the Council should be getting for the building.
UPDATE: 28th January 2021
I was appalled to hear from Colin Laphan this morning that the Council have issued invoices for rent and service charge. They have no power to do so. See why in the email that I have sent to our Director of Resources this morning.
Mel Creighton, Director of Resources, Liverpool City Council
28th January 2021
I am both surprised and appalled that the Council has begun to collect these charges and rents when it has no legal authority to do so.
Although the recommendation to approve the charges has been approved by the Cabinet it has not been approved by the Council. The issue has been called in by the Liberal Democrat Group on the Council and Democratic Services has confirmed that the matter will be dealt with at the next appropriate committee and then the decision of that committee will need to be returned to and considered by the Cabinet before anything can happen.
As the Council’s actions are clearly ultra vires I am demanding that the Council recall all invoices issued and apologise to the traders.
I am hopeful that the Council via the appropriate committee will see sense as the imposition of these charges will close the market causing even greater losses to the Council.
Cllr Richard Kemp CBE, Leader, Liverpool Liberal Democrats,