Doncaster Market traders fear planned transformation may be too late to halt decline
Anxious stallholders at Doncaster Market fear it may be too late to reverse its 'horrendous' decline, despite plans for a Â£5.1m overhaul.
They have told how the historic market is haemorrhaging traders as plunging footfall coupled with 'ridiculous' rents hit profits.
Quarterbridge, the company credited with breathing new life into markets from Blackburn to Brixton, has been brought in by the council to transform its flagging fortunes.
But traders are unconvinced the firm which famously brought oysters and champagne to Brixton market can work its magic in Doncaster.
Tony Wagstaffe and his family run a glass and china stall which has been operating at the market for more than 80 years.
But he claims falling custom and 'constant' rent increases could force them out of business within months if things do not improve drastically.
"It's going downhill every year. The main concern for most traders is the fact the rent is impossible. We pay Â£177 a week and with trade the way it is we're not making that sort of money," he said.
"They're coming up with ideas to improve the market but they don't seem to realise it's too little too late.
"The council's always talking about the market being the jewel in Doncaster's crown but if they want it to survive they need to give us a fighting chance against the big boys.
"There's talk of rents being frozen but we would like to see them at least halved. That's the least they could do."
Mr Wagstaffe added that shoppers used to be drawn to markets because they were so cheap but it was now almost impossible to compete with supermarkets, out-of-town shopping centres and online traders.
A fishmonger, who asked not to be named, said: "I've worked here since I was aged 11 and I'd like to think they can turn it around but they need to do more to support traders.
"I think rents need to be reduced and they need to introduce some form of free parking, even if it's only for the first hour, because otherwise people will just go to the supermarket.
"We used to be here until 6pm every day but yesterday I was the last one out at 4.15pm because there were so few visitors. Around a third of the stalls are empty, and we've lost another three in the last fortnight. The morale is incredibly low."
Ash Hanley, who runs Penny's English and Continental Seafood, said: "Rents are ridiculous and the council doesn't offer us a lot in return.
"It's hard to compete with the supermarkets. The quality here is much better but not enough is done to advertise the market.
"As things are I don't think I will see the back end of the year here unless there's a drastic turnaround."
The market's history stretches back to when locals would gather outside the walls of the Roman fort to trade with the garrison stationed there.
In the early 20th century it played host to the composer Elgar, who conducted the London Symphony Orchestra there, and to a young Winston Churchill, who recounted his experiences in the Boer War.
It is only two years since the collection of shops, stalls and stands, which are fully open every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, was named the nation's best food market by the BBC.
Doncaster Council says it is working hard to support traders, having reduced rents last year and frozen them this year.
But that has not prevented numerous stallholders leaving in recent months and many of those remaining saying they could be forced out by the end of the year.
Market traders are divided about when its decline began but those we have spoken to agree the downturn has been particularly pronounced in the last two to five years.
Les Cains, who first worked at the market aged 12 and today owns a fruit and veg stall, said it was no good modernising the market if the council was going to ignore fundamental flaws.
"The council is spending all this money revamping the market but it won't help. It needs to introduce free parking to get people into the town centre or they will continue to go to supermarkets," he said.
"The rents are extortionate and the footfall is almost non-existent. We can't hold out much longer because it's no longer viable.
"I think the decline started about five years ago but the last two years has been really horrendous."
Tailor Jill Featherstone, who runs Ace Alterations, has already taken the decision to jump ship.
She made the short hop last month to a shop in Bowers Close, where the rent is more than Â£230 a month less than she had been paying and includes a parking space.
She says it was a hard decision to leave, having hugely enjoyed her 23 years at the market, but she felt she had little option.
"I really loved working there and I would never have left if it hadn't declined the way it has," she said.
"There's no footfall going through any more. The scaffolding, which has been up for about two years, hasn't helped, nor did the decision to segregate the market when they did work to the exterior.
"I really would like to see it thrive again and I think if they bring in people who know the market rather than people who are sat in offices it could work.
"They need to create better parking and the need to bring all the rents down. At the moment they're offering three or four months of free rent to attract traders but the new stallholders are leaving after that period ends because they can't make it work."
The initial plans for the revamp include moving the current Irish Middle Market into the existing market hall building so the car park site can be extended to attract more visitors.
Doncaster Council says this will improve views of the Grade II-listed Wool Market building and increase the opportunities to provide food, entertainment and evening trading.
Quarterbridge's managing director Raymond Linch is no stranger to the site, having designed and built the fish market more than 20 years ago.
He said: "I am delighted to be back in Doncaster after all these years and despite a challenging trading environment, the town-centre's market estate continues to provide the good folk of Doncaster with a significant retail offer.
"Our intention is to re-model the market itself and change mind sets so that Doncaster Market can be truly considered as one of the most important retailers in town, with an irresistible food retail and catering (street food) offer."
The council has promised to consult traders over coming months about the changes and how they can adapt to help the market thrive again.
Doncaster's mayor Ros Jones said she was 'delighted' with the progress so far on the transformation project.
"We are doing all we can to support traders and we want to ensure the market is a success for all," she added.
"The rents were reduced last year and this year we made the decision to freeze them for all traders.
"We want to see a thriving and vibrant market area and to ensure that the market offers a profitable trading environment for everyone and is fit for future customer needs."