Liverpool Council boss says city had ‘literally no option’ but to close market

The leader of Liverpool Council has said the city was left with “literally no option” but to close St Johns Market amid the ongoing row over unpaid rent.

Cllr Liam Robinson, speaking exclusively to the LDRS, said the situation between the council and traders “wasn’t of our making” and it was no longer viable for the local authority to put off a decision on the future of the market.

Traders said they were shocked by the move to close the site last week despite an initial request for £1.7m in unpaid rent being made last October.

Cllr Robinson said it was “sad the way it’s panned out” but council payers expected the city to collect revenue it was owed.

Last Autumn, Liverpool Council said it would seek to recover three years’ worth of arrears from the dozens of businesses located within the historic city centre market. After months of negotiations failed, traders and shoppers were left shuttered out of the site last Monday.

Speaking for the first time since the market shut, the Labour group leader – who was in France at a regeneration conference at the time of the closure – said it was “very sad” that it had led to the doors being locked. He said, “We’d be the first to acknowledge that it’s a sorry state of affairs that it got to this stage.

“Over many months we’ve been trying to bring forward a process by which the traders, the businesses could engage with us to pay the arrears which are outstanding, which aren’t insignificant and resume rental payments. Very disappointed we weren’t able to get to that proper engagement which would lead to a way forward.

“After a number of letters back and forth between the legal representatives, we were clear that if a practical way didn’t come forward, we would have to start the process of closure of some of those businesses and that’s where we ended up last Monday.”

Traders have reacted angrily since the shutters were brought down, claiming the council had entered into “managed decline” of the site since a botched £2.5m refurbishment back in 2016. Former Mayor Joe Anderson apologised for his part in that but said the move to shut the market was the right decision.

Cllr Robinson said the move had been dictated ultimately by finances. He said: “Obviously a sad way that it’s panned out but literally we were left with no option because at the end of the day, we’re in the situation where the market cost us £1m a year to run, we’ve got £1.7m in outstanding arrears, the council can’t afford that.

“More fundamentally as well, council tax payers expect us to be bringing in all the revenues we can that are due to us. The only time we’ve written debt off is when individuals have died or companies have liquidated so from that perspective we’ve had to work our way through all of this and it wasn’t viable to keep putting this off, we had to take the action that we did.”

The LDRS learned last week that the process is underway to ensure all stock is removed from the market by the end of the month. A demonstration is being prepared outside St Johns later today (Weds) in opposition to the decision to close while opposition groups have called for senior figures to apologise.

Cllr Nick Small, cabinet member for growth and economy, told BBC Radio Merseyside on Monday how it shouldn’t have been a shock to businesses that they would face closure, a position his group leader supported. Cllr Robinson said, “There were a number of legal letters going back and forth, that’s why it shouldn’t have been any kind of surprise.

“The letters were quite clear that if there wasn’t any meaningful engagement in repaying the existing arrears – because that’s outstanding debt we need to recover – and also resume payments of rent at the proper rates, then it would lead to the closure. It was the days prior to Monday that those final things were happening, after the final exchange of letters.

“I’ll be the first to acknowledge it’s sad that we’ve ended up in this position, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that it’s where it would have led.”

The Kensington and Fairfield member – who is approaching a year at the helm of the local authority – said the future of the market was not something “we want to leave hanging for a very long period of time” and said plenty of options could yet come to the fore, but did not want to preempt when a decision could be made on long-term plans.

He said, “We’ve not taken a full final decision on the market itself, it’s an absolute key space for the city, we will want to look at all options and we’re doing that. We want to work really closely with St Johns Shopping Centre, which we need to remember is doing pretty well in the current economic environment.

“I think the bit we’ve got to acknowledge is that we’ve had to take the action against the individual businesses, they have forfeited their leases so we’ve got to keep working through any legal processes, but this wasn’t of our making at the end of the day.”

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