Market forces take their toll as a shopping jewel in the crown begins to lose its lustre

One of Liz Laughton's earliest memories is playing with live eels behind the counter of her family's fish stall in Leeds Kirkgate Market.

Weekends and holidays were spent cleaning bags of whelks and chatting to the many regular customers who had been shopping for years at the stall first opened by her grandfather in 1911.

Liz never intended to take over the business and, after leaving school, she trained to be a nurse. However, 30 years ago she found herself back behind the counter full-time.

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"My husband became ill and I needed to take over as the main breadwinner," says Liz, who in those early years saw history repeat itself. "When my son Joe was born, there was no childcare available, so he came to work with me. It can be freezing in here in the winter, but luckily I knew the woman who ran the towel stall. She was the only one who had a heater, so Joe would sit underneath her counter in his Moses basket and she'd shout whenever he woke up.

"God knows what health and safety would say about it now. It wasn't ideal, but you make do. I honestly thought I'd be here no longer than six years. I'd seen too many of my family develop gnarled arthritic fingers from working with all the ice, but things didn't work out that way and there's something about this place which makes it very difficult to leave."

While Liz looks back fondly on those early years, her memories from more recent times are not quite so gilded. Although 2011 will mark the centenary of R Bethell's, many of the family businesses which Liz knew as a child have disappeared and there's a palpable air of uncertainty around the market. The top half, housed in a listed building, is still relatively thriving, but elsewhere many of the units are vacant and with the shutters down it's becoming increasingly difficult to persuade customers to browse down largely empty aisles.

Traders blame a combination of factors. They say a back-dated rate increase introduced a number of years ago was the final nail in the coffin for some and the continued talk of redevelopment, including plans to possibly reduce the size of the market, has made it difficult to attract new businesses for the long-term. What's certain is relations between some of the traders and market management has deteriorated and in some cases is non-existent.

"The high turnover of businesses is not good for anyone," says Liz. "Some of our customers have been coming to us for years, they know what we sell is good quality and value for money, but without that kind of continuity people don't have the confidence to buy.

"I guess we feel that we've been sidelined. Rents have gone up and yet we don't see any improvements being made and we don't see shoppers being encouraged into the market. The cost of parking is a real issue. If you end up having to pay the same amount for parking your car as you do for a bag of groceries, I can see why people would head to a supermarket.

"If the council allowed two hours' free parking, it would instantly encourage people into the market. At the moment, it's almost as though they are being taxed to support local businesses. We desperately need some common sense thinking."

Kirkgate remains one of the largest covered markets in Europe and its current problems can be traced back to 1975, when a fire destroyed much of the fabric of the building. The replacement units had little of the historic glamour of the original and rumours about a possible restructure have surfaced regularly ever since.

With doubts over its future, a new group, Friends of Kirkgate Market, has recently been launched to help ensure its future and put pressure on the council to increase investment in what members say should be a jewel in the city's crown. According to information obtained by the group under the Freedom of Information Act, the number of empty stalls increased from 45 in 2005 to 70 last year and they believe the market has become the poor relation of the city centre's designer shops and revitalised arcades.

Over the past 10 years, they say, the council has spent just 760,000 on repair and maintenance – the equivalent of around one year's income from the service charge paid by the indoor traders, while around 7m has been spent on repaving and improving the surrounding city centre streets and pedestrianised areas.

"It's great the centre of Leeds has been transformed, but somewhere along the line the market has been forgotten," says Friends founder Megan Waugh. "To let such an historic market slide into obscurity just doesn't make sense."

Unsurprisingly, the council disputes the bleak picture painted by the group and some of the traders. It says the number of empty stalls stands at 58, the cost of all improvements to the site since 2000 totals 14m and they have been working hard on raising the profile of the market.

"We are working on a dedicated website for Kirkgate, highlighting the many and varied businesses which trade there," says Cath Hollins, who took over as head of city centre management at the start of the year. "We have produced a guide for newcomers to the market and after successful familiarisation visits for school parties we are looking to extend the project to students.

"In the summer, Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food will open a unit and we are encouraging traders to take part in the Leeds Love Food Festival by holding, say, demonstrations of how to fillet a fish or to cook a piece of beef.

"These have been difficult times and with big high street retailers like Borders and Woolworth closing, it's natural that small independent businesses have also felt the pinch, but the market still represents incredible value for money and we are committed to doing all we can to improve and promote it.

"The future of the market is a good one, it's just a pity some of the traders don't see it that way."

The council has pledged to invest 250,000 into the market over the next two years and Cath points to the How Bizaar project as evidence it is committed to attracting new business. The project, funded by Sharing the Success, gives new traders the chance to take up units rent free for 12 weeks, in which time they can test their ideas without risking their own money. One early success story has been Sarah Miller. She opened Mimi's Couture six weeks ago and, having been inundated with orders, has had to draft in extra-dressmakers at short notice.

"It's been overwhelming really. I did look at other spaces, but the rent was just too expensive for someone starting out. This way I get three months to establish myself and check there's demand for what I do." Only time will tell whether the new life injected into the market by How Bizaar can be sustained. However, existing traders staring closure in the face feel denied a similar lifeline which might just keep them afloat.

After nine years of trading, Debra Walton recently handed in her notice. Her alterations business is no longer viable and she expects to shut up shop for the last time in August.

"I have a lot of regular customers and they don't want me to go, but there's not enough passing trade any more," she says. "What I find really sad is that no one from the management has asked why I'm going and whether there is anything they could do to help me continue. I'm not asking for special treatment, but it does feel like some of us have been left out in the cold."

At R Bethell's trade remains brisk, but Liz knows there may be

difficult decisions ahead. Eventually she would like to pass the business on to her son Joe, who has been working with her since leaving school at 16. However, he would need to secure a loan to buy her out and with banks only likely to lend on businesses whose future prosperity is guaranteed, the continuation of the family company and Liz's own retirement is far from assured.

"I was thinking about how to mark the centenary next year," she

says. "For the 75th anniversary, we ran a promotion selling fish at 1950s prices. We couldn't afford to do anything like that now. We'll do something, it's still an achievement, but there's a lot of uncertainty."

It's a sentiment echoed throughout the market. Some fear the promise of investment may be too little too late and the only possible solution is for the council to give the market back to the traders.

"Some of us have survived not one, but two recessions," says Cliff Hocken, who runs Haye's Seafood with his wife Michelle. "We know what we're doing. We've tried to put forward positive suggestions about a

way forward, but every avenue has been exhausted and it really now comes down to one thing. Give the market back to the traders, ring

fence the budget and allow us to get on with what we do best."

TRADING FIGURES

n The origins of Leeds Kirkgate Market can be traced back to the early

19th century.

n Most of the market is now listed by English Heritage due to its special architectural and historical interest.

n Some 1,029 traders work in the market and there are 420 indoor units alone.

n More than 200,000 people visit the market each week.