Above: Market trader Peter Corker presents a copy of the huge petition protesting at the closure of the Market to the Council's Chief Executive Mark Cullinan on the steps of Lancaster Town Hall. Photo: Zoe Caldicott
At a four-hour special Council meeting last night, Lancaster’s Indoor Market was saved by just five votes from closure.
The final motion also called on the Council to consider refurbishment of the building, at a cost that will be far less than if it opponents to keeping it open had got their way.
"Let's hope they put their money where there mouth is," commented one trader.
24 councillors voted in favour of the successful Green Party motion (Greens, Labour, one Tory and two Independents) while 19 voted against, including the Liberal Democrats, most Conservatives, most Morecambe Bay Independents and one independent). There were three abstentions.
Those against the motion wanted to terminate the market traders’ leases, spend a fortune on turning the market into a ‘white box’, and then spend a further fortune in sweeteners to attract a single trader - ASCO, which has only one other store and the worst possible credit rating.
"We felt that the company in question does not have a reasonable prospect of success," the Greens said in a statement after the meeting, "and the worst case scenario (where they take the sweeteners, operate for a year or two then go bankrupt) was much worse, both financially and in terms of the Council’s reputation, than the alternative worst case scenario of continuing to operate an indoor market with a big deficit."
Now more hard work begins in trying attract new traders and new customers to the market to ensure that it thrives and that the deficit is reduced as much as possible.
Shockingly the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have both put out several leaflets in the John O'Gaunt council by-election claiming that they are fighting to secure the market’s future - yet yesterday they voted to close it, with no relocation option.
"Obviously, every trader in the market will be overjoyed in hearing that their businesses are secure for another 4 years," commented market trader Chris Green. "However, I'm dismayed that 19 councillors still thought that ASCO were a viable alternative, even after receiving information which clearly showed that this was an insolvent company.
"After taking professional advice, it is my understanding that any local authority cannot enter into a business arrangement with an insolvent firm.
"Let's face it, it's not rocket science."
Zoe Caldicott told virtual-lancaster she intended to pursue her Audit Commission complaint about the Council's handiling of the proposed closure of the Market.
"I'm pleased with the result, butt I think there are a lot of questions which need answering," she says. "In my opinion, the leader of the council should now step down."
Green party councillors are delighted that the market is to remain open and the tenants are to get new leases.
"The real work starts now and the Council needs to work hard to produce a re-invigorated market," urges Dukes Ward councillor Anne Chapman. "One that can maximise its contribution to tourism, jobs, regeneration, local food, choice and health.
"We look forward to getting on with this job."
"This is good news," added Green Party prospective parliamentary candidate, Gina Dowding (pictured). "It's clear from the size of recent support from shoppers that people in Lancaster want to see the market retained and revitalized and offering the choice that it once did.
"We have very committed traders and we have local shoppers who will get behind the market. Hopefully now with this renewed commitment from the Council we can start to make the improvements so that Lancaster can have a successful indoor market once again."
The full text of the Green Group motion for Council 31/3/10: Lancaster Market
Council notes that the Council has been unable to secure a single tenant to its satisfaction since January 2008 and also that the option of a market on one floor is expensive in terms of capital costs and has many legal difficulties. Council also notes the desirability of a thriving indoor market in terms of employment and service to the district. Council therefore resolves that:
1. The City Council renews all existing tenancy agreements in accordance with the landlord and tenant act.
2. That the City Council endeavours to negotiate by agreement an amendment to the terms and conditions which would permit the City Council to consider any plans to refurbish the market hall.
3. That a sum of £150,000 is set aside that can be used for professional advice on running a successful market and on potential costs of refurbishment. However, money spent on consultants should be kept to the minimium possible.
4. That the option to tax the market should be re-affirmed, should this be necessary, to protect the Council from any VAT liability on any of the proposed capital works.
5. That a working group of councillors from all groups be set up to oversee plans for refurbishment and revitalisation of the market. That this working group gets expert advice and considers visiting other successful indoor markets.
6. That this working group to report back to cabinet at key points.
7. That the Council looks at all options in terms of reducing the overheads of the market and on the staff needed to make Lancaster market more successful.
8. That the working group considers the advantages of licenses/tenancies for new businesses in the market.
9. That the working group considers options such as making the market more food-based (particularly local food), attracting key businesses, such as a bakery, and marketing the market as a visitor attraction for the city centre.