Council says Leighton Buzzard Market is bucking national trends, as it rejects FoE claims of unfair rent and shrinking stall numbers

Leighton Buzzard Market
Leighton Buzzard Market

Leighton-Linslade Town Council says the town’s market is bucking national trends with stabilised trader levels, and is also reporting increased high street footfall on market days.

Responding to a South Beds Friends of the Earth campaign which claims the market is shrinking thanks to unfair rent increase, the council says the market relauch has been a success.

A statement to the LBO reads: “As a market town with a rich market history, the Town Council wanted to do all it could to safeguard the markets’ future prosperity in the face of a changing and challenging retail environment.

“Therefore some 24 months ago, a decision was taken to invest in excess of £120,000 in new equipment and trader training in order to make the market more attractive to existing and future shoppers as well as prospective new traders.

“The town council is pleased to confirm that the market is bucking national trends with trader occupancy rates remaining constant.

“Since the town council took over the running of the market in 2012, trader numbers have remained largely unchanged with approximately 20 traders attending the general Tuesday market and 27 on the general Saturday market (combining casual and permanent traders).

Roy Walker of South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth organised the letter writing opportunity

Roy Walker of South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth organised the letter writing opportunity

“On Saturday 22nd September 2012, the mix of traders attending the market was counted at 27. On Saturday 23rd September 2017, the relaunch date, attendance was recorded at 28 traders. Two years’ worth of footfall surveys also show a 21% increase of footfall in the town centre on market days which is tremendous news.

“In this time, the town council has introduced more speciality markets which can be found in their dedicated area by Pizza Express under brightly coloured canopies.

“Yes, since the relaunch some 9 months ago, we did lose one permanent trader who decided that it was no longer in his businesses’ interest to hold a market stall whilst competing with his shop unit within the town centre. A further 2 traders have left because of reasons other than the market relaunch. However, more pleasing is the fact that 3 of our casual traders have now decided to become permanent which again is excellent news.

“Much has been made about the fairness and transparency of the market rents which traders now have to pay.

“The town council wishes to confirm that the rents are fair because traders are now asked to pay for the space their stall occupies.

“Quite simply, the more space you take up, the more you pay which in a free market economy (in which we live) this is an accepted and evidently fair system. By doing this, we are ridding the market of archaic practices which allowed certain traders to benefit from reduced rents because of a deal struck with the market manager of the time.

“The town council contends the rents are transparent (the charges can be found on the town council’s website) with rents starting from £19 for a permanent trader and £23 for a casual trader who may wish to use the market to test their product range.

“At the time of the relaunch, of 26 comparable market operations, our market rents were 19th cheapest.”

The council adds that a recent independent and informal trader survey found that 88% of traders were satisfied with the council operation and rents charged.

The statement continued: “Furthermore, over 90% of our loyal traders have committed their future to the market by signing their revised pitch agreement which confirmed their new rent payable and their plot size. It is hoped this figure will continue to rise once traders return from holiday and summer shows and events.”

Regardingthe 176 letters received followng the FoE campaign (see story which follows), the statement added: “The town council would wish to thank those residents who have shown active interest in the market and like the town council wish to see it continue and prosper over many years to come.

“In order to be more engaging with our residents, a regular Market Newsletter will be created on a quarterly basis and will be sent to those residents who through their representation have provided an email address. For those residents who are keen to follow progress, we will carry on providing updates in About Town as well as on social media channels.

“Finally, can the Town Council thank all those residents who care about the market. In order to safeguard its future, can we please urge you to carry on visiting the market by making it your shopping preference.”

> A campaign to fight ‘unfair rent increases at Leighton Buzzard market, has resulted in 176 individual letters being written to the town council.

The public was encouraged to put pen to paper by members of South Beds Friends of the Earth, who stationed themselves in the town centre on Saturday 14 and Tuesday 17 July.

The letters were addressed to the individual councillors who voted for the changes to the market rents.

But given the council had indicated the letters would only be considered if the council decided to review the market at a future date, FoE decided to deliver them to councillors’ home address rather than take them to the White House, to the annoyance of members.

The letters have asked the council for an affordable transparent and fair rent system for market pitches.

It follows the market’s relaunch in September 2017, when the town council decided to standardise pitch sizes and fees, introduce a new layout, and clamp down on businesses who have historically expanded their pitch size - but not paid for the privilege.

Those staggered rent increases came into effect in April, as the council began to charge for depth and not just stall frontage.

But with some traders claiming resultant rent rises of several thousands of pounds per year would force them to quit their stalls, the council introduced a loyalty rent reduction based on length of service on the market.

They also decided that casual traders should pay £4 more per pitch than regular stallholders, and that the additional charge per square metre over and above the standard plot size should be reduced from the previously agreed £2.10 per sq metre down to 50p per sq metre.

A FoE spokesman said of the letters: “The increases are graded over 24 months and so both the market trader representatives and South Beds Friends of the Earth hoped that a compromise would be found before traders would have to leave.”

“A stall the size of the card stall in Leighton Buzzard market which presently costs £30 will cost £66 in 12 months time whereas at Flitwick market it would be only £15 or at Chesham only £20, or a large stall in Moreton in the Marsh is two thirds of the cost of a large stall at LB. These three markets are big thriving markets with Flitwick market having grown from 10 stalls to 23 stalls in two years. All these markets are all making a profit and not needing taxpayer subsidy.”

Roy Walker of South Beds Friends of the Earth who was organising the letter writing opportunity, added: “The market is getting smaller and if we lose more stalls it will be a slippery slope of decline like Dunstable market.

“Many people who wrote letters were very concerned that the market was getting smaller and felt very strongly on the issue.

“It is ridiculous our town councillors are forcing some traders to leave due to rent increases when they have spent over £120,000 of taxpayers’ money on the market, and the taxpayer subsidy to the market is increasing because there are less stalls and so less income.

“Where are all the new stalls we were promised by our councillors? Other markets such as Flitwick, Chesham and Moreton in the Marsh are all large thriving markets that make a profit and so do not need taxpayer subsidy yet have much cheaper pitches for large stalls.

“Flitwick has grown from ten stalls to 23 in two years. If we lose more permanent stalls the evidence of the last few months shows that they will not be replaced.

“A smaller market will attract less people and then a slippery slope of decline starts. Leighton Buzzard is a market town yet the town councillors who are up for election next May have spent over £120,000 of taxpayers’ money on the market and are pricing out our regular traders. There was a lot of anger against the town councillors. People feel very strongly about their market.”

> Response from Conservative Group of Councillors and Cllr Mark Freeman (Independent)...

Individual Councillors have recently been subject to an orchestrated campaign of pro forma comments, primarily organised by one individual, complaining about the system of rents for the town’s Tuesday and Saturday Markets.

We are extremely concerned and frustrated by this organised activity as we believe...

> It is based on wholly misleading information

> It ignores the lengthy period of consultation and discussion together with the heavy investment made in the market by the town council for the very reason of trying to safeguard its future.

> The town council has no current plans to increase the rents.

> The adverse and negative publicity being generated with wild claims of losing the market is potentially very harmful to the town, the market (including the attraction of new traders) and our residents

> A recent independent survey has shown the overwhelming majority (88%) of traders surveyed to be satisfied. Over the past year many rents have actually reduced as the new system addresses highly unfair anomalies which previously existed. They have also benefitted from the abolition of fees for stall erection and waste removal.

> The three traders that have left have not done so because of the changes or fees.

> The rents now being charged are highly competitive on a national and ‘like for like’ basis and we believe they are fair to the traders and to the residents who already contribute a considerable sum through their Council Tax to support the market’s continued existence.

> The examples that have been given of other markets are not comparable to that of Leighton-Linslade and seem to be based on anecdotal evidence. In the case of Flitwick Market, which is held in the grounds of the village hall, it does not have any of the overheads associated with a street market. Moreover, a recent visit found only 11 stalls and not the 23 being quoted.

> Our pitch fee is less than that quoted for Chesham and to describe Moreton in the Marsh as large is disingenuous.

> We have not previously discussed any individual case, but since the card stall has been used as an example and is thus in the public domain, there are a few things that need to be made clear. 
The card stall was paying £30 for a stall that was larger than stalls who were also paying in the region of £30. That said, he was not the only trader paying less than the tariff. The relaunch addressed the anomalies of the rents for all traders. The £30 was considerably less than should have been charged. Based on our pre-relaunch tariff, it would have been £60. This particular trader received two new canopies to help freshen up his stall. In addition to this, he received in-depth professional marketing and presentation advice at the town council’s expense.

The extent to which advice was taken is unknown as he chose not to share the advice report with council officers, which is his choice.

He also benefits from long-service discount recognition, which has further reduced his new pitch rent. He has two years to incrementally achieve the full pitch fee which will be £59.

The recent informal survey of traders shared with council officers, indicated that some traders have seen an improvement in income due to the review of rent. Some also like the new stall equipment and look of the market and have at least acknowledged that the rents are now fair. It is clear that his personal views do not represent those of the majority of the traders.

In conclusion, as Town Councillors, and unpaid volunteers, we endeavour to act in the best interests of the town and make our decisions after due consideration and acting on the best advice available.