Jan Royall on the health, social and economic benefits of thriving local markets
I always enjoy visiting local markets. The experience is quite unique - the sights, sounds and smells are a treat for the senses.
Our country has some illustrious market towns but we are also seeing new markets pop up. Old or new, a thriving local market cannot be underestimated – they promote local produce, encourage enterprise and support the local economy. Markets however, like so many industries, are struggling with the impact of the current government’s policies as the cost of running a business has made trading untenable for many.
The National Market Traders Federation – a terrific organisation established over a century ago to champion the case for markets – estimates that the industry has shrunk by a staggering 25% in five years. Hundreds are just waiting for support which, if provided, could transform the lives of traders and communities alike. Mary Portas has described markets as an “untapped resource” but if we are to unlock their potential then there are health, social and economic benefits to be had.
As food prices rise and real wages fall, finding good deals on fresh produce is vital. It is here where farmers markets come into their own, often selling goods at cheaper rates than supermarkets. We know that price is an extremely important factor in people’s decision to eat healthier so it is a win-win situation. Moreover, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that local markets are an ‘important site of social interaction for local communities’.
From an economic perspective, the Federation for Small Businesses has reported that for every £1 spent locally, between 50p and 70p goes back into the economy compared to only 5p when spent out of town or online. This is what is happening in Chesterfield, where the market hall has almost full occupancy and drives trade into the town centre. Plus tourist numbers are up year on year.
The case for establishing successful markets is clear but we need to actively promote their development and persuade local people of the benefits. It is made more difficult by larger retail sectors and outlets being more able to provide a rounded customer experience – free parking, wi-fi access and regular cleaning and maintenance. Crucially, local authorities regularly report that they have little capacity for strategic development over markets. But one way of promoting greater autonomy is to ensure that people have the powers necessary to bring about local change. Developing a network of Regional Banks and working with Business Improvement Districts would do just that.
Labour are also committed to taking on one of the primary concerns of traders: business rates. Like food, gas and electricity prices, these have also risen under the Coalition. We will cut and then freeze rates for small business to help support traders. Reflecting on this, Gwen Sangster, Operations Manager of Darwen Market in Lancashire has said that she believes this policy “could be the difference between survival and closure for lots of businesses … and for those doing well, it could persuade them to take the plunge to expand, and create the one or two jobs that, if replicated throughout the country, could make a big difference to the economy.”
To invest in a market is to invest in a community, in the talents of local people, and the long histories of local towns and villages. Indeed, it is for the benefit not just of market traders and local communities but our national economy.
Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets@LabourRoyall
Published 23rd July 2014