Last night saw a turbulent meeting end with a request from market traders for a ‘Plan B’ after saying ‘changes’ to the People’s Market could threaten the Butchers & General Markets too.
Representatives from the town’s three indoor markets sat in on the meeting, which aimed to review the regular ‘Markets Performance’ reports. The public gallery had several other traders who had turned up to watch the Councillors examine the figures.
The meeting started with Councillor Neil Rogers bluntly refuting claims by some traders the figures in the reports to be discussed were inaccurate, adding they were also not indicating markets were loss making. Mr Rogers added the report “is not a ploy by the Council to say the People’s Market is in debt to aid the development of the Arts Hub.”
Usually such meetings do not allow questions or interaction from members of the public, with some traders asking us before the meeting if they would be able to ask questions. The Chair, Councillor Bill Baldwin was asked if questions could be asked, and was very accommodating, which enhanced the quality and usefulness of the debate.
The first question from the ‘public’, or traders as it was in reality, was to re-challenge the figures and point out what issues they felt caused lower performance. The figures are relatively complex, covering third party expenditure on maintenance, service charges, rents, recharges of Council time, rent , rates and the like. Added complexity comes with some markets having higher costs due to scale, with some apportionment between all three markets. Further, some elements are paid upfront and others are now in arrears.
Councillor Rodney Skelland pointed out the difficulty to scrutinse without a breakdown of expenditures to look at, with only overview totals given in the report. Cllr Skelland said such data was “imperative to understand whats going on” adding it was required “to make a good judgement”. Councillor Geoff Lowe agreed, saying the data was needed, and to not have it made Scrutiny appear it was “not on the button”.
The reply given by the Council Officer was that the figures were not provided as they were not requested. Luckily Cllr Rogers had a copy, and the Markets Manager left the meeting to photocopy the information for all.
At this point a trader alleged that deliberate action was taken to prevent stalls being filled in the market, a view that Cllr Rogers firmly denied saying had had issued no such instruction, nor had Officers and adding if this was before his time he was unaware of it.
The discussion that followed challenged this view, with no direct orders or policy changes, but agreed actions essentially being paused due to potential future plans with the Arts Hub.
At this point a mini history lesson is useful for the context of the disagreement and accusations, with decisions and plans back in 2012/13 and the ‘Quarterbridge Report’ making various recommendations to reinvigorate the markets. Plans kicked off in 2013 with improvements ongoing and new, with the arts hub proposal entering the fray early last year. In a report from back then there is references to the then new Marketing Manager having her ‘feet kicked beneath her’ due to new plans.
One specific element mentioned last night revolved around the plan to make a better food offer in the People’s Market, which would require various investments including bringing food chillers to the market. Again it was mentioned the ‘rug has been pulled’ as the uncertainly over the future of the market meant renting the chillers was axed, they are usually leased for three to five years and therefore if the changes to the market were significant Wrexham Council and/or traders could be left with unusable expensive equipment.
Councillor Phil Wynn picked up on the point, saying his understanding was that the plan was to increase the food offer as part of the market improvements: “My recollection was all quite upbeat, it was agreed profits would be reinvested and the markets would build on themselves and make them a more attractive place to shop. I was pleased at the time that the product mix in the People’s Market was to be improved, and to increase footfall we needed to get food in there. It was mentioned at one meeting that was the council intention.
“At same time the Arts Hub appeared on the scene, and it was it the Arts Hub that prevented the chillers going in there that would have generated footfall.”
The Markets Manager confirmed this, saying progress was not made due to the uncertainty, ‘we would have been left with the chillers we would have had to pay for if the markets were not there’.
Other elements of the Quarterbridge recommendations were highlighted by traders, who queried why there is still no permanently assigned Markets Manager. We are told current post is roughly 10-20% time allocation, working out at around 1 day a week. Although critical at times of the Council, traders themselves were keen to stress what work by the Markets Manager they see is positive, and essentially they want ‘more of a good thing’.
At this point, around twenty five minutes into the scrutiny meeting, the photocopying of the financial breakdown was circulated on warm A3 sheet to all councillors as well as members of the public who attended.
While debate was ongoing some Councillors appeared to be working through the newly produced figures. Councillor Dana Davies asked for information on the service charges stated and Councillor Wynn asking for clarification on his mathematical deductions.
What followed was several detailed replies on the ins and outs of how the service charges work, what values are reassigned, along with details on how the income and expenditure for the markets work.
This was a calmer discussion, with both Councillors, Traders and Officers appearing to gain from the information shared, with the Council offering to sit down and run through the figures with anyone at a later date if anyone wanted to. One more lighthearted moment was a logic bomb explanation, where Cllr Wynn was told of a quirk of public sector accounting where sometimes a positive figure is a negative one, and a negative is a positive.
Further planned improvements were enquired about, with the Arts Hub plans not being blamed for the lack of WiFi installation. It was explained that this was still a desire to encourage internet based trading from inside the markets, however due to the physical nature and signal black spots which would have to be fixed and paid for from the service charge it was decided ‘by all’ not to proceed.
The meeting was told that the Quarterbridge report was negative about the future of the People’s Market, thus the recommendations to improve it. It was noted several suggestions were included, which one was the Arts Hub itself. Citing the ‘horrible and difficult time’ for traders that have ensued it was clarified that Officers were only doing what Councillors had asked for, saying: “You are damned if you do, and damned if you dont”.
The meeting was asked what was going to happen if the Arts Hub did not get the go ahead in January or if funding did not materialise, with Cllr Davies specifically asking for details of a ‘Plan B’ for the markets. The meeting was told that the plan would be to basically go ahead with the original plans that stemmed from Quarterbridge, but have been unofficially paused or affected due to the Arts Hub plan.
After 45 minutes of being able to analyse the photocopied figures the question was asked that if the Arts Hub went ahead would the Butchers and General Markets survive due to the People’s Market financial contribution appearing to be ‘key’. Initial reaction from the Council was to say they are ‘committed to the markets’ , but a trader fired back asking: “If the Council is committed to the markets why not start with ‘Plan B’ now?”
A Markets representative echoed some Councillors queries asking: “If the People’s Market does turn into an Arts Hub, what happens to the other two markets as from the accounts it seems they are not going to survive? What is the Plan B? We need to know now, all this wasting time and negativity since Quarterbridge got involved is killing us.”
Cllr Skelland said: “The Markets Manager was doing a good job, with the aim of a 21st Century market. We were thrown completely by the Vibrant and Viable Places money coming out of the blue. Officers have done the best job they can.”
Mr Skelland went on, querying who made the Arts Hub decision, stating: “We already had the Oriel with a cafe and the upstairs not being used. Who had the idea when we could not run the cultural centre we already had? Officers have done their best, and it is us politicians who have put the cat amongst the pigeons.”
Councillor Dana Davies asked about the Vibrant and Viable Places money allocated to the Arts Hub project, with a figure of £772,000 mentioned: “Is the money limited to the Arts Hub or can it be used on the markets, and is it time limited? Do we lose it or can it be used to regenerate the markets?”
The initial reply stated there was very tight timeframes to spend the money, which is a government grant. If it was not spent the money would effectively disappear and could threaten confidence in the VVP programme from the Welsh Government.
Persisting for an answer Cllr Davies reasked if the money could be reallocated to the markets, and was eventually told it could, however would be a complex move.
Cllr Wynn queried why VVP money was being spent in this way, highlighting his initial perceptions on what the VVP was for: “The idea was to spend money on things to create jobs, sustainable developments. The decision was made somewhere by someone to deliver an Arts Hub. I dont think anyone on this committee saw that coming.”
One trader summed up their views by saying: “It is becoming clear that everything proposed was because of the OW (Arts Hub plans) coming onto the scene, with anything to do with the People’s Market then being put on hold. Why? The Markets Manager could go forward and we would not be having this meeting, but everything is relating to the OW.”
The meeting Chair stated he thought progress was being made in the meeting and things were moving forward, with the trader responding: “The Chairman is saying we should be going forward, but we are stagnant, or even going backwards.”
A trader suggested formalising a ‘Plan B’ to enact if the Arts Hub does not happen, which either way could then be used to support progressing the Butcher and General markets.
Roughly an hour and a half into the meeting the freshly photocopied finance figures had cooled, but had then been more fully analysed by some, with a markets representative themselves citing the number before them stating that the General and Butchers market would be ‘under threat’ if the People’s Market ‘changes’.
The meeting ended with more questions being raised than usual, and the debate being enhanced by the interactions from the public gallery, often pointing Councillors to scrutinise in perhaps more different directions. Overall the meeting appeared useful to all involved, and after a tempestuous start ended with more specific and beneficial debate than has appeared for a good while.
(We have a copy of the A4 document with the income/expenditure figures from 2012 through to 2016. We will upload a copy as images, but have asked Wrexham Council for a digital copy as that would be easier to read, if that is not forthcoming image version will appear.)
UPDATE August 29th 2017: Buried in the bottom of a draw we have found an A3 sheet from this meeting. A digital copy was not forthcoming, so we have quickly grabbed a picture of the main figures and summary: