Long-established market traders in Leighton Buzzard are threatening to quit, while others fear for their future livelihoods after the town council decided to move stalls to just one side of the High Street.
In the latest confrontation, some stallholders say the town council has also effectively decided to shrink their selling space as the new layout has around 40 pitches, but no-one will now be allowed to operate more than three pitches of 3m x 3m or 3m x 2m.
However Leighton-Linslade Town Council, which took over the running of the market from Central Beds Council in 2012, say the changes lined up for mid-August, which include the introduction of more gazebos, have been well researched and are being introduced to tackle decline.
They insist the move is aimed at making the market work for all traders and have pledged to have one-to-one conversations with individuals to iron out concerns ahead of the relaunch.
The Retail Group was commissioned by the council at a cost of £12,000 – from a market relaunch budget of £113,000 – to analyse the current set-up and provide recommendations.
Those findings were then talked through with traders, before the final changes were agreed at a council meeting last week.
In their report, The Retail Group stated the market was presenting an “underwhelming customer experience” and not acting as the anchor it could be for the town.
The report specifically made reference to “the confrontational relationship between trader representatives and market management” and added “management is holding back performance and growth”.
It said having stalls split on both sides of the High Street had reduced the customer experience, and said 70% of traders were using traditional steel frames and tarpaulin and that more gazebos and branded canopies should be used.
But vocal stallholders with decades of experience in Leighton Buzzard, say they simply can’t operate from the Boots side of the street where stalls are in the sun more.
A Facebook page ‘Leighton Buzzard Market Supporters’ has been set up this week to gauge public reaction to the changes, while on Saturday a leaflet entitled ‘Save and Help our Market’ was handed out from the market stalls.
Paul Harris, who has run the fruit and veg stall with his brother for 20 years on the same pitch by Dillamores, said he would be forced to quit if the council insisted on moving him across the street.
He said: “If it’s a day in the heat like the other day, then my goods will just melt. I try to sell the best quality. We are shaded by the buildings and don’t get the sun until 3.30-4pm.
“We have been asked where we’d like to trade on other side, but we would not be able to trade the other side because of the temperatures. There will also be ill feeling if we get put where someone else is.
“There are 10-20 of us on our side of the street, the clothes stalls may not mind moving but the butchers, pet food, fish man can’t go there due to the heat. I would say 90% of traders feel the same.”
He added: “Morale down there is so low. I feel like I am being bullied. We have no issues with the stalls being split on both sides. People know where we are, we’ve been here 20 years.”
Mr Harris said he was also not a fan of the gazebo plan. “Wind blows in these gazebos so I’m not sure how long they’d last,” he said. “You also can’t get anything out on show.”
He added: “They want to relaunch it soon, everything is rush, rush. If it goes ahead I will be out of work and probably homeless.
“We do deliveries for hotels and restaurants but we couldn’t survive on just that. I think 40% of traders will walk. If we are not there a lot of people will not come down.
“It’s beyond belief what they are trying to do and I can’t see what the benefit to the town would be. We’ve got to fight this.
“We weren’t asked by the consultants if we wanted to go to the other side, if we had been everyone would have said ‘no’. They then came up with this recommendation to move us.”
Paul Hopwood started on the market 15 years ago and lasted a day on the sunny side of the street, before his fish stall was moved across to the Wilko side due to all his ice melting too quickly.
He said: “I have to adhere to certain Environmental Health rules about temperatures. With the sun beating down on the stall it will be hard to do that. I’ve told the council this, but they’ve not paid any attention. There’s no way I can move, I won’t be able to work in the sunshine.”
Paul, who also works Tring and Princes Risborough markets, also criticised the move to gazebos. “They are dangerous. There’s a lot of wind and they just flip up in the air if they are not heavily weighed down. The council want the market to look good but it’s not practical.
“The consultants know nothing about running markets, we are the ones working on them for a number of years. I don’t know anyone who is for moving it, apart for one person. I don’t think the council will listen to us however.”
Karen Young, of Turner’s Nurseries flower stall, situated outside Rosehill Pharmacy, said she was also fiercely against the changes and she feared ill-feeling when new pitches were allocated.
She said: “All the traders could get disgruntled saying ‘they might get a better pitch than the other person’. It might cause friction. We don’t know if we’ll stay on the same location.
“Everyone has got their position, people know that is your pitch, they are not going to wander around the market looking for you, especially if you’ve been in this position 60 years.
“This is our livelihood. We do three days a week at markets, two of them in Leighton. We are long serving, we’ve been here 60 years, personally 25 years, my husband 30, and his father and uncle before that.”
Mrs Young added: “We’re only allowed three gazebos maximum. We pay more rent and they shrink our space. If we don’t display our goods properly, they won’t sell. Nobody is saying we don’t want gazebos but why cram us in and shrink it? The majority of traders are not happy. There have been consultations, we have said our peace and they did not listen.
“There’ll still be the farmers market on the Wilko side once a month, and the craft market once a month, and any new stalls will go there.
“Why cram us in. What about pedestrians when it’s all down one side. When it’s busy, people can be 4-5 deep waiting to pay and you won’t get buggies or wheelchairs through.
“We don’t want change. We are quite happy, the market is running quite well as it is. Why are they trying to mend something that doesn’t need fixing? It could cause problems setting up with the amount of vehicles in a more confined space. I’m going to try to get an online petition going.”
The town council this week told the LBO that the new layout (see map) would create a defined, tighter space which would attract people to enter a specific market area directing footfall past trader stalls to the benefit of all.
It would enable a food court type area to be established and had identified a clear space for future expansion.
The spokesman said on a good Tuesday there could be up to 25 traders, while a Saturday the figure could reach 30 and that these numbers would comfortably fit in to the new layout.
And the spokesman defended the credentials of The Retail Group, stating they had worked on many other market projects and alongside the National Market Traders Federation.
“We wanted them to help us an identify what we could do to give the best opportunities for all traders,” said the spokesman. “That’s how we grow the market. Clearly market traders are not faring well compared to retailers, so what can we do to improve it and give them a chance?
“At the moment we have holes everywhere and it just looks loose. How something is presented is important to customers. It is untidy and doesn’t create a critical mass and that’s what having one side will do and every traders gets an opportunity of their stall being seen.”
The spokesman challenged how many of the stallholders were actually against the changes, adding: “There is a vocal group of traders but we there will have to be some one-to-one discussion with them. We need to talk individually on their individual needs.
“We have challenged, changed and adapted the findings of the report before we went to consultation.
“The decision has been made and the council is committed to it. All we are wanting to do now is to have those conversations with traders on a one-to-one basis.
“We need the market to succeed, we have our loyal customer base. We will be promoting it better on Facebook, a dedicated website and looking at click and collect. On the launch date we will have signage to show where regular traders are.
“As for the idea that they can’t trade in the sunshine... other markets do it, they do it in Europe. They have their views, but essentially you can operate in the sun.”
The council added that the changes would be reviewed after a period of time and if necessary tweaked in the future.
Victoria Harvey of South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth was one of three people who spoke at last week’s council meeting claiming the move to one side of the street would be detrimental to key market traders and hence risk the whole market.
“We are risking losing some fantastic market stalls that provide high quality produce, some from local farmers at very affordable prices and are our key part of our community.
“It is simply not viable for these stalls to sell fish, high quality veg, cheese and meat from the sunny side of the market. And the changes in stall size could also really harm key traders. Of course, we support the town council producing better covers and promotion for the market as we have been campaigning for this for years.”
Will the changes be a help or a hindrance? Email your views to firstname.lastname@example.org