Markets in Northumberland were a cost burden to the county council for the first time last year, amid tough trading conditions for all retailers.
This is despite the efforts set out in a five-year strategy, which was agreed last July and aims to ‘create a diverse, vibrant market experience that has a positive economic, social and cultural impact’.
An update on progress to Wednesday’s meeting of the authority’s communities and place committee revealed that income from council-run markets has steadily declined over recent years, from £151,539 in 2015-16 to £115,533 in 2018-19.
Even in 2017-18 though, the service ran at a surplus of £23,500, but last year saw the markets incur a net operating cost of £9,500, ‘which is met from other front line service budgets’.
A report to councillors said this was due to ‘rising operating costs, including previously centralised utility costs now being accounted for in the markets budgets (utilities and business rates), and the increase in overtime costs for staff setting up and taking down market stalls in Ashington, a decision made to improve the presentation of Ashington Market following the redevelopment of Station Road’.
Coun Glen Sanderson, the cabinet member for local services, said: “The bottom line for me is that I think market towns should have a market.
“I think the county council should be involved in that. The issue is that the council should not be subsidising them to too high an extent.”
The report explained that of the 24 action points in the strategy, 16 have been completed and another seven are in progress, with only one not having seen any progress and this is because it relates to an issue – a balance of trade policy, to avoid duplication of products – which has not arisen as yet.
The committee chairman, Coun Jeff Reid, asked: “Does it worry you that you have delivered so much of this and it’s not working?”
Coun Sanderson responded: “No, because a lot of it is working. Many markets are profitable, I think there are two that are not. Given the background, I’m not unhappy, but we don’t want to over-subsidise them.”
A review of the current operating model is to take place this year, to see if it is possible to reduce costs further or generate additional income, while alternative operating arrangements will be explored with a view to improving provision or ‘better aligning markets with their cultural offer or their local communities’.
Coun Ian Swithenbank said: “We are in the middle of a process and no one knows where it’s going to end up in relation to the high street.
“From my point of view, if the council has to support a couple of markets financially for a while, I would rather that than lose them completely. We need to look at the direction of travel and track that.”
Coun Wendy Pattison described some of the measures outlined in the report as ‘forward-thinking’, while Coun Christine Dunbar added: “What this report demonstrates is Northumberland County Council is not giving up in markets and is trying to improve them.”
The county council runs the markets in Ashington, Bedlington, Berwick, Blyth, Hexham and Morpeth. Those in Alnwick and Amble are run by private organisations.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service