Lucy Tomlinson finds all is not well at the Arndale Market
There is a mural inside Arndale Market by street artist Hammo. A group of diverse people, picked out in fresh shades of turquoise and green, smile cheerfully holding placards which read: “we listen”, “we work together”, “we recognise strengths", “we build better lives”.
The mural isn’t all that popular with traders in the market. Not because they dislike Hammo’s work but because of the irony contained within those motivational signs. For, according to traders, in recent months the market has been run in such a way that means they have not felt listened to, recognised, or co-operated with and the feeling is that lives are getting worse.
Ever since we're trying to build it back up, but, starting right from the bottom, we've got halfway and just can't seem to push it anymore
Some quotes from traders we talked to recently include: “I’m not motivated at all”, “I shouldn’t have to get up in the morning and think, God, do I have to go in again?”, “We are just trying to survive now”.
The Arndale Market is familiar to every Mancunian and quite a few visitors. While it’s had a few inceptions over the years (many will remember it being split across levels), its current form dates from 2006, when it reopened after a three-year hiatus. The idea was to recreate a Borough-style farmers’ market, with charcuterie, specialist cheeses and organic produce, complemented by a range of food stalls selling things like “farm-fresh soup”. At the time, market manager Mark Legomski told the Metro he would like people to “buy a glass of champagne, have some sushi and soak up the atmosphere.”
The vision of a Boden-esque farmers' market soon gave way to something a bit more vibrant and urban. Over time the Arndale Market evolved into its own hectic, brilliant self. The butchers, fishmongers and fruit and veg stalls remained but street food venues came more to the fore, with bright, Instagram-friendly branding.
The food is good – quick, affordable and international - a polyglot affair of Thai, Japanese, Greek, Yoruban, Mexican and more, all jostling together to tempt workers out of their offices on a lunchtime. Compared to the rather more corporate offerings of the Arndale Food Court, it’s a lively success. Soaking up the atmosphere with a glass of champagne seems less likely than it did in 2006, but gorging yourself on katsu, burritos or jollof rice for well under a tenner is a definite possibility.
So, a city-centre success story then. But a few weeks ago, Confidentials received an email from a concerned resident. Becky has been living in the city centre for over 12 years and in that time has got into a regular routine of buying produce from Arndale Market as she favours independent suppliers but can’t afford to always shop at some of the smaller, more expensive delis in town. She is particularly reliant on G&H Butchers for quality, affordable meat and Strawberry Gardens for its range of fresh fruit and veg. She had been horrified to hear that the butchers was closing and that other stalls were considering following suit, unable to afford to trade at the market anymore.
Becky wrote to Confidentials: “In a world of ‘shop local’, ‘support small businesses’, ‘think about food miles’ etc, this seems shameful. Surely they have some kind of duty to ensure that City Centre residents can buy decent quality food? I know meat-eating isn’t especially cool anymore, but I find Tib St Butchers unaffordable so now my only option is plastic packed from the supermarkets. These local stores also stock plenty of ethnic/non-hip products not readily or conveniently available elsewhere in town – goat, oxtail, chicken feet, offal, various fruits/vegetables.
"Yes, much of the city runs on Deliveroo and restaurants right now but given the cost of living plenty of people will soon need to resort to low cost, good quality food options and the loss of these retailers seems devastating.”
Since receiving Becky’s tip-off, we have been speaking to customers and traders and trying to get information from the Council to find out exactly what’s going on at the Arndale Market. A point for clarity - the Arndale Market is owned and run by Manchester City Council under the aegis of a body called Manchester Markets. The rest of the Arndale Centre belongs to M&G Real Estate and is managed by CBRE.
Something that was mentioned consistently was was the recent increase in rent and charges. The rent itself is capped, and so Manchester Markets is not allowed to put it up beyond a certain amount, but the service charge suffers no such restriction.
When asked about the service charge, a spokesperson from Manchester Council said: “The rent has not increased. It remains at £7.12 p/m2. The Service Charge has gone up from £16.84 p/m2 to £19.00p/m2 in April 2022. We have tried to minimise the rise in service charge as much as possible.”
In fact, the initial raise for the service charge proposed last month had been hovering around £21 per square metre per week (an advert for a vacant stall that ran in February shows that initially the proposed service charge for 22/23 was £21.20) but a group of traders lobbied the management team about the increase and it was then reduced to £19.
So, for a typical small stall of around 10m sq this results in a rent of around £75 per week but a service charge of £195 per week, according to the market's most recent advert for a vacant stall. That's over £10,000 per year just for the service charge. For a larger stall occupying a few units this can be more like £30,000. A number of stallholders were keen to point out that the service charge for shops and outlets in the Arndale Centre itself is much lower, despite receiving the same or better services, though this figure varies from unit to unit so it is not easy to draw a direct comparison.
One of the largest stalls in the whole market belonged to G&H Butchers. As the butchers was the stall that had prompted Becky to get in touch, we visited it at the end of March – only to find they were already dismantling equipment and packing up to leave. We talked to a couple of staff members, who had some colourful theories about what as going on but nothing concrete, so after a good chat about lots of topics (including driving a taxi in Salford - a whole other story), we left them to breaking up boxes and putting away all manner of implements.
While it might seem like the butcher's stall has been part of the market forever, it has in fact been acquired only recently, with current owners of the butchers taking over only 18 months ago. In that time, their rent and service charge has nearly tripled.
When asked about the decision of the butchers to leave, a Manchester City Council spokesperson said: “In terms of the butchers, they have been struggling for around two-three years and they occupied a large part of the market (four large units, plus storeroom and prep room) the larger the space, naturally, the charges reflect this.
“The butchers leaving the market was a result of a number of factors. Some of the factors at play were: the large space they occupied; the business not performing well; the costs going up. The traders were also in discussion with the market to streamline costings and receive support where possible. Their decision to leave the market was an amalgamation of the above factors and we can't say it was entirely because of one or the other.”
Far from a sad but inevitable "amalgamation of factors", the owners are now considering legal action against Manchester Markets and have a precise idea of the reason they have not been able to make the business work.
According to the owners, the market managers claimed that there had been a mistake on the lease which had transferred from the previous owner and they owed much more in rent than was initially proposed
Indeed, the spokesperson is correct to point to the fact they had taken over four units as a factor – the fact that rent and service charge is calculated per square metre meant that this “mistake” resulted in a huge unexpected cost to the owners, who had done due diligence based on the original figures supplied to them when they purchased the business.
The owners have written to senior members of the council who have some input and responsibility over the markets but have not heard anything in response. They have also requested copies of the leases but so far these have not been supplied.
G&H Butchers are now settled in a new site in Pendleton.
The saga of the lift
So what services can traders expect for their money when they are paying these charges? A functioning goods lift doesn't seem to be among them, which for businesses which rely on shifting heavy boxes of stock around all day is a problem
There are two sets of service lifts for the Arndale Market – one on the east side which is owned and serviced by Manchester Markets, and one on the south side, which is controlled by the Arndale Centre itself. The traders are primarily meant to use the east side lifts, which open in the vicinity of the fishmongers. This way food is close to its intended destination and traders are not lugging heavy items through the east side of the market.
The east side lift is essential to the smooth functioning of the market. For all the increased service charges, the lift has been out of order since October.
In order to get round the problem with the lift, food traders have been dragging goods underneath the Arndale to the south-side lifts and bringing them back round again. That was until an emergency phone line in the lift was out of order, meaning that traders were not allowed inside that lift either. Instead they were allowed to send goods up in the lift while the traders themselves had to use the stairs. The stairwell connecting the goods basement to the market place is 72 steps high.
Furthermore, they had to contact the Arndale’s security staff to open the goods lifts for them – sometimes resulting in a wait of 20 or 30 minutes. This was adding hours of labour on to the traders’ days. This issue has now been fixed by CBRE but the fact is that traders should not have to rely on their lifts in the first place.
Some traders reported that cleaners were also using the staircase and inevitably this meant there were occasionally spillages on the steps. Never mind the chronic health and safety issues regarding manual handling that traders, previously used to having a lift, were not trained in. A fall on a flight of 72 stairs could potentially be lethal.
Confidentials requested a copy of Manchester Markets’ Health and Safety policy but the Council did not provide one.
A spokesperson from CBRE confirmed that the company gave the Arndale Market management team the option of using another lift that could take goods and passengers, but that they did not know if this was ever communicated by Manchester Markets to the traders.
The traders report that they have been told that a new lift has been requested but that it has to be approved by the Town Hall.
We contacted the procurement officer and the council press office responded: "A lift at the Arndale which is for use by market traders and managed by the Council broke down late 2021 - and has required various repair works in the last year. Unfortunately, the issue has proven significant and due to the cost of the repair work the contract had to go through a formal procurement process. This has now been agreed and work will begin as soon as possible. However, we are currently waiting for repair parts to become available, which could take a number of weeks."
Currently, there is no record of any tenders for new lifts or lift maintenance registered by Manchester City Council on The Chest – the portal for public procurement in the North West.
Salt & Pepper
So, if the council owned lifts aren't working - how about the extraction system? So many street food stalls together must be producing quite a large amount of steam and cooking smells.
According to a Resources and Governance Scrutiny Committee document, the most recent renovation of safety and ventilation issues in the market was completed in 2019 and feedback was “positive”. Yet earlier this month, one of the marketplace’s most popular stalls, Salt & Pepper, moved out of the market due to issues with the extraction system. The popular stall did a brisk trade in Chinese takeaway classics, elevated by the brand's youthful outlook and energy, and attracted many customers to the market.
The Salt & Pepper stall was located in the south side of the market, which traders claim was originally meant to house only beauty, clothing and electrical goods. But since street food became a more popular option, food stalls have encroached on that side of the market, causing complaints about phone covers and clothing items smelling of food and being returned.
Everyone we spoke to was keen for the blame not to land on Salt & Pepper but to point out that the extraction system and market layout are just no longer fit for purpose. The impression among some is that the council saw an opportunity to lay the cost of upgrading the extraction on a very popular stall, and that the while cost of upgrading the system – reported to be over £100K – would not be charged to Salt & Pepper up front, it would be amortised onto their lease.
The Council advised Confidentials that they had not renewed Salt & Pepper’s lease due to Health and Safety issues – specifying that the lease could not be renewed due to the large amount of smoke produced by the stall, which was a health and safety risk for other traders, but had supported the company by giving them an extension on their lease while they looked for new premises.
They stated that Salt & Pepper were not asked to pay for the extraction system, saying: “We have been working with the company since late 2020 to try and supply an improved extraction system. Manchester City Council deny the claims that Salt & Pepper have been asked to pay £100k for this.” Again it should be noted that the council did not supply a health and safety document or, when asked, point to which particular health and safety regulation has been breached.
Salt & Pepper are now happily settled in the Black Dog Ballroom. There is a sense among stallholders though, that Manchester Markets perceive themselves to be in a position of power when it comes to accommodating traders needs. The attitude seems to be that stallholders can be easily replaced.
These stories are just the standouts in a litany of rumours that we have heard since venturing behind the scenes of the smiling faces painted on the wall so optimistically by Hammo. We’ve heard about unnecessary lights being installed which, when traders’ electricity bills are going up by over 80%, rubs salt in the wound.
We’ve heard about stalls that barely break even and are kept on by their owners because they so desperately need the storage space below the Arndale for their other businesses. More than one source told us that market managers would pressure traders to remove perfectly good signs – ones that had cost them thousands of pounds – or threaten to alter their leases.
We’ve heard about pitting stalls that have similar offerings against one another and writing a version of an NDA into leases so traders are not allowed to say anything negative about Manchester Markets while still trading. We’ve heard that access to the Christmas markets – perhaps the most lucrative of all pitches – will be denied to anyone who speaks out.
But the thing we have heard most, from every person we’ve talked to is a variation on this statement: "They don’t give a [choose your own expletive] about traders."
Wider economic issues
Manchester is a charter city, which means the council has the sole right to operate markets of any kind within the City of Manchester. Anyone operating a market, even for a charity event, without permission is subject to legal action. There are independent markets, such as Levenshulme Market, that must apply (and pay) for a licence from the council with strict conditions. Permission to operate the market is only granted once all associated fees are paid.
So, rightly or wrongly, the market game in Manchester is under the tight control of the council.
To be fair, we should look within a larger framework. The Christmas markets are the powerhouse of Manchester Markets, and their loss in 2020 was keenly felt – to the tune of £1.673 million in lost income. The overall shortfall across all markets in 2020 was £3.465 million. It makes sense that the council is desperate to recoup some of that lost income.
While conditions for trading couldn’t fail to be better than they were during tiers and lockdowns, traders say that revenue and footfall have not improved to a level they need.
Confidentials asked the Council for a footfall figure for the market, but one was not supplied. Anecdotally, the traders say that even before the pandemic fights and stabbings were having an effect on footfall but that COVID “decimated” it. “Ever since we're trying to build it back up, but, starting right from the bottom, we've got halfway and just can't seem to push it anymore,” one trader told us.
Many traders say that unless conditions improve they can’t see a future at the market. Many have put their lives and life savings into these businesses.
One trader told Confidentials: “We’ve put a lot of money into everything and we are just figuring out how to survive now. You feel like crying. I’m going home and I’ve got literally nothing left. By the time I pay the staff. By the time I pay the rent. By the time I paid for everything else, there's nothing left.”
An update (5 May) with a response from the council:
Right of reply: A Manchester City Council spokesperson said:
"We believe that the market management have a good working relationship with traders at the market and there is an open and transparent system for traders to raise any concerns they might have.
"However, we have not received any complaints or had issues raised with the market management directly - but we would welcome traders to talk to us and we can work together to try and find a solution to any problems they might be facing. "
A Manchester City Council Spokesperson said:
“Arndale market is one of the more accessible food markets in the city centre and it is a brilliant spot for local and small business owners. The central location of the market and the reasonable city centre rents make the space an attractive option for independent and small food traders to grow and develop their business.
“A large portion of our traders have been on the Arndale market for many years and have been trading happily. We try and keep costs to traders as reasonable as possible and we understand the impact that increased costs will have.
"One of our main priorities is to ensure our traders have a rewarding experience trading on Arndale Food market and we aim to support our traders who are facing financial difficulties.
"We understand that all businesses are facing tough economic circumstances currently, and we have avoided increasing rents at the Arndale Market his year."
Read next: Hyper-local politics, Clean Air Zone, Trans rights - Greater MCR local elections May 2022
Get the latest news to your inbox
Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email by signing up to our mailing list. This is one of the ways that Confidentials remains free to our readers and by signing up you help support our high quality, impartial and knowledgable writers. Thank you!