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Judge orders council to come up with market plan

Chris Satori
(First posted: 28/10/11, Updated with additional information provided by Lancaster City Council, 31/10/11): Lancaster Market traders tired of uncertainty over the council's plans for the market building won a victory at the County Court last week, when the council was given until 12 December to present them with firm proposals for the building's future.

New leases being negotiated by the council included a disputed 'break clause' which could mean that traders could be turned out at short notice. Traders successfully argued under the Landlords and Tenants Act that the council's vacillation and uncertainty over the Market's future was creating an impossible business climate.

Lancaster City Council fell into a £567,000 deficit on Lancaster Market last year and this year's budget projected costs of £553,400. However, uncertainty over the future of the building has led to more tenants leaving while new tenants are hard to find, and a report presented at the last Council meeting in September projected that these costs might increase by a further £89,000. There are currently 24 businesses trading from the market.

Traders are hoping that the council will relocate all the stalls the ground floor of the market and find a single trader to take on the entire upper floor. The council estimates the cost of relocating stalls at £270,000 (see previous story) although the traders believe it could be done far more cheaply. For this amount you could buy an entire five-bedroom house with a garden, so the council must certainly be planning a pretty spectacular refit.

Who would take over the upper floor isn't known though. The council's last attempt to find a single trader led to the disasterous Asco debacle, in which council executives Mark Cullinan and Heather McManus doggedly argued to give the contract to a company already exposed as a rogue trader. The public furore became so loud that city councillors actually woke up, did the maths and put a stop to the deal. Shortly afterwards Asco went into administration, dragging several local businesses down with it. (See previous story from 17 June 2010 Asco: Council's response on Cushman & Wakefield contract).

While the Market is a popular cause the building's 99-year lease from Allied (Lancaster) Ltd is undoubtedly less popular. No-one else appears to want to lease the building or part of it from the council, and the financial instability of the arrangement deters traders, leaving the building half-empty. The rents traders could pay if they did fill it will not meet the cost of the lease. However, although the terms under which the council leases the building from Allied are shrouded in secrecy we understand that the rent cannot ever be renegotiated downwards, only upwards.

Badly Designed Building

The building itself is far from ideal as a market premises and this is partly why the reason why the market doesn't thrive, the other reason being that rents have tended to be higher than at other, busier markets. Comparing the layout with the more traditional, flat, grid layout, as at the Festival Market, or indeed as the original Lancaster Market was laid out, sightlines and access are poor, with stalls hidden away in corners and customers having to traipse all around the sides to reach stalls just a few feet away.

Frail elderly or disabled people must trail around the outsides of the building to get in at the one flat entrance off Marketgate - then go all the way back on the inside again to reach the lift (when it's working) - as the doors adjacent to the lift both open onto stairways. To get to the disabled loo in the next door car-park building you have to go all the way back around again. Ok if you're fit but not so good if you're a bit arthritic. Hauling yourself (or someone else) up that long indoor ramp with a wheelchair or a rollator is a challenge which few ever actually take on, so the upstairs cafes and food stalls have been for the fit and fast alone.

The overall layout seems designed to deter the elderly or disabled shopper, while the (expensive) private carpark has a separate lift, so if one lift or the other doesn't work you've had it. For pedestrians generally, it is far easier to detour around the market than to cut through it.

It seems a doomed proposition that the council should be being forced to pay a rent that is unrealistically high in the current economic climate for a badly designed building that offers only limited access to many of the elderly shoppers who might otherwise be its most frequent users. Its deadening, cul-de-sac ambience has never compared to the hectic bustle of the market it replaced, which offered direct and easy thoroughfares between the adjacent streets. How long can Lancaster ratepayers afford to carry this burden?

At its last full meeting the council deferred making any decision about the market until the next council meeting on 16th November. Now it will somehow have to come up with a plan to satisfy the County Court ruling and it's a tough proposition with no easy answers.

We do need a proper market. We have been needing one for over 20 years now. But tied to this lease, it's becoming increasingly unlikely that we will ever get one.

Added 31 October 2011:

Lancaster City Council has issued a comment to clarify the situation:

"The hearing you refer to was a case management hearing to decide how the case should proceed. The brief facts are that traders have asked the council to issue new leases. While the council has agreed to new leases being issued we have asked for a break clause to be inserted.

"The court directed that the council should provide details of its future plans for the market by 12th December in order that the terms of the leases can be resolved. In order for the court to determine whether the lease should contain a break clause it has to look at the Council's proposal for redevelopment.

The Council is due to discuss the market again on 16th November, ahead of this date. Members will discuss a number of options available to them for the indoor market and will receive a full report detailing the implications of each."