Traders and councillors clash in Liverpool market debate

Traders and councillors clashed over the controversial shuttering of St Johns Market in a highly charged session at Liverpool Town Hall.

More than two months on from the doors being locked at the city centre market hall, fiery clashes were on show as the future of the site was the subject of an intense debate. Last Autumn, the city council said it would seek to recover three years’ worth of debt from the traders that occupied the market.

The public benches were packed out by traders and campaigners as all parties traded blows on the way forward.

The special meeting was convened at the request of the opposition Liberal Democrat group, who were seeking the authority to reopen the market as a matter of urgency. The motion put forward by the group also cited a 2016 refurbishment of the trading hall.

At the time, £2.5m was spent to renovate the site but proved unpopular, even with then Mayor Joe Anderson, who initially offered traders three, then six months free rent as an incentive to stay and increase footfall. Around £1m a year was being spent to subsidise the market by the city council.

Cllr Carl Cashman, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said traders had tried to negotiate with the council “time and again” and were being left in limbo. He accused the authority of riding “roughshod” over the traders and there had been “managed decline” of the market.

Cllr Cashman said the Labour benches should be ashamed of themselves and were closer to Margaret Thatcher than Clement Atlee.

Addressing the meeting, Cllr Nick Small, cabinet member for growth and economy, said arrears incurred by dozens of businesses had risen from an initially established £1.7m to £2.1m after new investigations by the authority. It is understood the additional money identified by the council is made up of arrears accrued by a small number of traders.

This is made up of some leaving the market before the end of their official agreement with the council and some businesses occupying two units while only being officially listed as operating one. Cllr Small, who heckled by traders, said the council had an “unwavering commitment to getting best value” and no meaningful offers had been made by traders.

The City Centre North councillor added how the market was “not sustainable” and the debt jeopardised other services. Cllr Small said nothing had been ruled in or out on the future of the markets and the city wanted to take all its traders forward.

The meeting heard from traders including Gerald James (pictured, lead image), who ran Kavanagh’s Cafe. He said businesses had been portrayed as “rent dodgers” and “beggars” but had faced “managed decline” of the market since 2007. He said owing to the failure of toilets on site, elderly market users had faced visiting a nearby Wetherspoons pub to use their facilities.

He said the closure had been a “shameful act,” adding, “All we’ve got is each other.”
Council leader Liam Robinson said he was “sorry to hear some of those stories” and £500,000 had been spent on maintenance since 2017. He said the closure should not have come as a shock to traders and some had not responded to letters from the council.

He added, “The harsh reality of the situation is, it gives me no pleasure to say, a number of businesses were not paying their rent. It’s very sad but frankly what other option did we have?”

Cllr Tom Crone, leader of the Green Party group, said the debate was a “sad and shameful day” for the council and called the closure an “undeniable failure”. He added, “Traders are not the problem, it’s the botched refurb in 2016, the council made a hash of it.”

In a tubthumping speech, Cllr Alan Gibbons said the closure was akin to the action of a “slum landlord, not a responsible council”. He said St Johns was “not a one off, it’s symbolic of years of failure”.

The meeting got off to a testy start when Cllr Joe Hanson used a point of order to question a £20 donation Lord Mayor, Cllr Richard Kemp, made to the St Johns Market Traders Association’s legal fund. Cllr Kemp was also forced to defend sharing political tweets by the Liberal Democrat group.

Cllr Mirna Juarez was also questioned over her meeting with legal representatives involved with the efforts to challenge the council’s move to close the site as the Labour group attempted to raise a point of order regarding her involvement in the debate.

Image: Gerald James

Why not follow birkenhead.news on Facebook, Twitter, and Threads? You can also send story ideas or letters to the editor to news@birkenhead.news