Dr Myfanwy Taylor, University of Leeds
On Monday 17 September, Dr Sara Gonzalez and I held two workshops as part of the National Association of British Market Authorities (NABMA) annual conference in Stratford-upon-Avon. We wanted to understand market managers’ perspectives on the community value of markets and how it can be enhanced, the key features of traditional retail markets and the role of local authorities. Around 30 market managers attended the two workshops, bringing their experience and insights from the local authority sector, private operators, charitable trusts and the wider industry. These discussions confirmed the variety and diversity within the UK markets sector, revealing a wide range of understandings about the community value of traditional retail markets held by market managers working in different places and organisations. This blog post provides some initial analysis of the managers’ workshops, which will be further developed and extended in the course of the research project, and brought into dialogue with findings from interviews with key actors shaping the debate on markets nationally in the UK and from similar workshops with traders and campaigners in the coming months.
Defining community value
For many market managers, the community value of a market referred first and foremost to the community of customers and/or traders served, encompassing both customers and traders. Some workshop participants felt a market had community value if it served the local community, whilst others stressed the role of markets in serving particular sections of the community such as low-income groups, older people, refugees, migrants, ethnic minorities and marginalised/vulnerable/isolated people. While some participants felt that a broader role demonstrated a greater community value – suggesting the percentage of the local population visiting the market as a possible measure of success, for example – others stressed that markets serving particular groups also had community value. Participants also highlighted market traders themselves as part of the community served by a market.
For other participants, the community value of a market related to the specific qualities of the market environment itself. Participants stressed the importance of a market as a safe space for all, being a non-threatening, free, accessible and friendly place to meet and talk. These qualities were felt to be particularly important for some of the specific groups mentioned above, notably older, impoverished or vulnerable people relying on the market for social interaction, to reduce heating/electricity bills or a place where they could go shopping with their dog, for example. Participants spoke about the opportunities for social and cultural interaction, to learn life, social and business skills and to start a new business offered by markets, highlighting the potential for innovation and creativity generated by bringing together different cultures and communities in markets. For some people, the community value of markets related to the ways in which they differ from supermarkets, shopping centres, online shopping and the wider retail sector, in particular through direct feedback, social interaction and trust between customer and trader, as well as keeping money circulating in the local economy. Others stressed the value of markets in providing good value and quality fresh and healthy foods to local communities, as well as a wide range of products, including specialist goods not easily found at mainstream retail outlets.
A third aspect of community value revealed in the workshops was the provision of dedicated community space, events and services within markets themselves. Several market managers explained that they let space for free to charities and community groups, put on dedicated events to attract the local community into the market and/or partnered with other local authority teams and service providers to deliver events and services targeting communities served by the market. Such initiatives seek to incorporate, build upon and make use of the intrinsic community value of markets already mentioned (e.g. serving marginalised or vulnerable groups; space for social interaction), whilst also further contributing to their community value through the provision of formal community spaces, events and services. Going further, some participants spoke about the market as a vehicle for realising a wide range of objectives, including community cohesion, local economic development, regeneration, place-making, promotion and tourism, seeing these broader agendas and goals as part of the community value of markets themselves.
In both workshops, participants agreed that community value differed from place to place, depending on the wider town or city and the market itself, and could change over time in response to demographic change. They also discussed a number of cases in which different aspects of markets’ community value might be in conflict with one another. One example was Fleetwood Market, which Wyre Council officers suggested was a successful tourist attraction but did not serve the local community. Both in the workshop and in a later plenary session, we heard about a number of initiatives to attract the local community into Fleetwood Market, including reminiscence sessions, dementia awareness training for traders and community singing. The workshop also revealed very different perspectives on the community value of Borough Market, with some participants feeling the market was more of a tourist attraction while others stressed its public purpose as a charitable trust, which it served by providing reduced-cost trading spaces, training and start-up schemes for young traders, partnerships with local colleges and universities, and family events. Other participants spoke about mixed reactions to changing markets, mentioning cases in which markets had shifted from serving a predominately white British local community to Asian or Afro-Caribbean communities as local populations had changed. One market manager explained that some people locally felt the market no longer served ‘the community’, even though it had simply adapted to serve the changing community. Interestingly, one participant suggested that a sign of community value was whether the local community was engaged in the market, saying that if the community want the market, they will fight for it. These discussions started to reveal some of the conflicts and tensions too often hidden or glossed over within the notion of community value, raising questions about who defines community value and underlying debates about who markets serve and for what purpose.
Enhancing community value
Workshop participants offered a range of suggestions for how market operators and managers could enhance the community value of markets. For some participants, enhancing community value involved targeting new communities in order to widen the community served by the market. This might involve adjusting opening times, repurposing infrastructure and holding events designed to attract tourists, for example. For others, community value could be enhanced by improving the way in which the market served existing specific customer groups, for example through dementia awareness training for traders, in order to make the market a more comfortable environment for older people with dementia. Likewise, other participants highlighted the potential to enhance the community value of markets through support and encouragement for both established and new traders, for example, mentoring schemes, youth markets and financial incentives.
Others stressed the importance of undertaking basic maintenance and promotional activity to enhance the community value of the market environment itself, such as keeping markets safe and clean, promoting social interaction and integration and recognising and supporting activities and initiatives which may already be taking place in markets, such as knitting circles. Another popular theme was the provision of free space for charities and community groups, programming dedicated community events and activities and locating specific community facilities such as digital hubs, arts centres or Citizens Advice Bureau branches within markets. Building on this theme, some participants stressed the potential for market operators to link up with other local authority departments and public sector actors to provide access to advice, information and services through markets, to partner with regeneration teams, housing associations and artists, and to position markets within broader place shaping and town centre management strategies.
A number of participants suggested that particular management models were best suited to enhancing the community value of markets such as becoming a charitable trust, development trust or community-run market. More broadly, one participant suggested that market operators needed to work more closely with communities by, for example, working more closely with community and campaign groups, giving up control and letting communities shape the direction of the market to a greater extent and facilitating community-run markets.
These discussions highlighted how important it is to firstly understand and define community value, before thinking about how to enhance it. Different perspectives on community value are likely to suggest different options for enhancing community value. Conversely, plans and proposals for enhancing community value may be supported by some and opposed by others, depending on their understanding and view of the existing community value of a market.
Defining traditional retail markets
Unfortunately, due to lack of time, it was only possible to discuss participants’ understandings of traditional retail markets in one of our two workshops. While some participants strongly associated traditional retail markets with the past and with heritage, suggesting that they were somehow timeless or unchanging, most felt that traditional retail markets were resilient and adaptable markets, albeit ones operating with a certain continuity and regularity, for example, operating for a long period of time, in the same place, and on the same day of the week. Interesting discussions were had about the function of a traditional retail market in relation to household provisioning, even as the specific commodities sold there changed, highlighting it as a space of everyday shopping, a place to purchase the perennial necessities of life, a ‘provisions market’, as one operator put it. Relatedly, participants felt that traditional retail markets offered value and quality pricing, were affordable for low-income groups and were often located in ‘under-served’ communities. Traditional retail markets were inclusive to all; they did not serve niche products for niche groups, they were distinct from specialist food markets, farmers markets or specialist markets. Here, again, debates were had as to whether such as Borough Market or La Boqueria could or should also be understood as traditional retail markets, given their particular success as tourist attractions. These discussions provoked important questions about the particular value of traditional retail markets and what makes a successful traditional retail market today.
The specific role of local authorities
Having discussed managers’ understandings of the community value of traditional retail markets and how it can be enhanced, we asked workshop participants to think about the particular role of local authorities. We heard a very wide range of views. Some operators felt local authority management of markets was a product of history only which made no sense today, suggesting private operators were better placed to run markets commercially, or recommending market land be held by a charitable trust. Others felt local authorities had a specific role to play in relation to markets that would not be commercially viable within the private sector, urging local authorities not to give up on struggling markets and to find solutions. We also heard from managers who felt local authorities had a much wider role to play, moving away from a narrow focus on regulation, enforcement and rent collection towards a broader role in realising the social value of markets through curation, partnership with other service providers and place-shaping, as well as facilitating and supporting community-run markets. Discussing the rationale and purpose of local authorities’ roles in relation to markets therefore reopened earlier questions about the community value of markets and how it can be enhanced.
The two workshops included participants from Aylesbury Vale District Council, Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council, Borough Market, Bury Council, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council, Cirencester Town Council, Covent Garden Market Authority, Geraud Markets, Grimsby, Kirklees Council, Limerick Milk Market, Manchester City Council, Mid Devon District Council, Northampton Borough Council, Northumberland County Council, Oswestry Town Council, Real Deal, Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, Stockport, Wendy Fair Markets and Wyre Council.