Michael Newton has run his business from St Johns Market for the last 32 years.
His Pets Parlour stall will have caught the eye of many visitors over three decades, but he may serve his last customer next month. He explains his lease is coming to an end and is uncertain of the financial viability to continue
He tells the ECHO we’re only the fourth person to approach his stall throughout the day, which is now late into the afternoon. Not all of those who stopped by were paying customers.
Mr Newton added: “I don’t want to leave but may have to. I had 26 really enjoyable years where we had the most fun in the market. But we’re deflated with the way it has been going. I really hope it’s not the end.”
In October last year a consultation was launched by the council inviting residents, businesses and organisations to have a say on the future of the city’s markets. One of the markets in question was St Johns Market, run by the city council and situated within St John’s Shopping centre.
The findings of the consultation have now been published and form the council’s ‘Future of Markets’ strategy. The main takeaway from the findings is a series of ‘quick wins’ to help improve the visibility and facilities at markets across the city.
£920,000 has been committed to improving digital marketing and signage among other improvements set to take place over a two year period. For St Johns specifically, there’s hopes for opening the market up to new traders.
Currently there are a large number of units in the space that are shuttered and vacant. Traders claim no new tenants have been able to move in for a number of years.
But unlike the other markets in the city, these quick wins cannot yet be delivered at St Johns. This is because traders and the council are currently locked in mediation talks over backdated rents and service charges. The council says it can only carry out the works once an agreement has been reached.
The stalemate stems back to 2016 when a “botched” £2.5m refurbishment led to a significant drop in footfall, leading to then Mayor Joe Anderson suspending rents in 2017.
The market closed when the pandemic hit in March 2020, reopening again in August of the same year after traders had a row with the council over an inability to return to their stalls. But tensions worsened when the council outlined it was looking to reintroduce full rents and service charges in order to sustain the costs of the market – which is said to have cost the council almost £1m in rent reduction and unpaid service charges between 2017 and 2020.
The reintroduction of rents was signed off by cabinet in January 2021. Traders are now receiving bills of up to £30,000 for service charges, but many feel promises to improve the market and generate footfall have not been fulfilled – therefore they remain unpaid despite letters piling up.
‘It’s the last chance’
Speaking to the ECHO, Colin Laphan, chair of St Johns Market Traders Association, said he is “hopeful” a resolution will soon be found and the quick wins can be implemented – citing ambitions that the market’s best days can be ahead of it with the right changes and guidance.
He explains how in a short time St Johns could follow the success story of Borough Market in London, undergoing a similar transformation with a distinct “Scouse Flavour”. He reiterates that traders are willing to pay a fair rent but the numbers due to low footfall don’t stack up.
He said: “Some days traders take £5. That’s not a business. That’s not even a hobby. You couldn’t even pay for your own travel expenses to be there.”
While Mr Laphan is “excited about the opportunities” and vision within the ‘Future of Markets’ plan, he questions if the current council management team should be those to oversee the improvements. He added: “In which case it’s the last chance for St Johns and some of the other markets in the city.”
Speaking to traders inside, there’s no sense of celebration that they are the remaining tenants of Liverpool’s most historic and once cherished market. Many appear worn down by what they say are long days with little to no trade.
These include Kanta Rume, 33, who’s run her ‘Tango’ stall since 2012, selling a wide array of household items. She tells the ECHO how she is having to work cleaning shifts in the morning and the evening running her market business between.
Her working day stretches from 6am to 8.30pm “purely so she can afford to eat,” she explains. She says her partner passed away last year and needs to continue looking after her son who is below 18.
In a bid to cut down on travel expenditure, she recently purchased an electric scooter. But fatigue led to a crash that placed her in hospital. Luckily she has now recovered.
Looking at the empty row of units in front of her stall, she says it’s a “depressing” sight to see when she’s putting so much into keeping her own business afloat. But she has not given up hope on the market.
She told the ECHO: “It’s like a baby for me. When it’s going well I don’t need to do the jobs. For a single mum this business is good. I’m convinced it can be brought back. I have a belief that it can be good again.”
Around the corner there’s similar deflation at the Bronx clothing stall. This is run by Jeera Husain who’s been a fixture of St Johns for nearly 40 years.
“Can you spot a customer,” he asks, sitting on a deckchair by his two units. He adds that things have gotten worse since the ECHO last visited in January this year, when the picture already seemed bleak for some traders.
Asked if he’s confident the new strategy can reverse the fortunes, his positivity is lukewarm. He said: “I’m hanging on by a string and we’re being told if you keep hanging on you might get saved.
“I’m invested here. All this stock. I can’t get out of it. My reputation is on the line. I’ll pay the money if I have to do taxis and get another job.”
He says he is still receiving backdated bills totalling more than £30,000 for his two units in the market. “I can’t pay that back, “he explains, “I would end up going bankrupt.”
It’s a similar story of Sam Kayani, who runs the Power Pack stall and equally not blessed with a flow of customers through the afternoon. Asked what keeps her coming each day, she references her father’s legacy, who built up his business “from one stall, to three to four.”
Her father sadly passed away in the first lockdown of 2020. “I can’t just walk away,” she says, noting the emotional weight as well as the large amount of stock packed into all four stalls.
She added: “I think it’s the last chance to get it right in the market. But I don’t think it’s going to survive two years like this.
“What are people coming in for? They used to have bedding, make up, shoes, they’re not letting anyone in at the moment. There is potential if they advertise it.”
‘The whole thing is a mess’
Jon Dixon has worked in St Johns Market since he was 14 and still runs a deli counter in the row of butchers. He’s witnessed the market’s heyday, periods of decline and subsequent rebirth. But its current fate is the most testing he’s seen.
In January, he told the ECHO how morale in the market was low. Asked if there’s been an uplift since then, he fears the mood is worse. “People just have no passing trade,” he explains.
Looking out from the top floor of the market, which is now completely vacant, he sketches out where the market could be overhauled if a redesign could be put in place. He and many of the traders lambast the ‘garage’ style units that are largely defined by their closed shutters.
Speaking about the findings of the consultation, he remains hopeful but believes the plans need to go further if St Johns is to be shocked back into life.
He told the ECHO: “Don’t just make the same mistakes as last time. Make new ones at least. Rather than focussing on opening to get new people in, I’d like them to take newer structures down.”
Mr Dixon suggested a large space could be put to use to host “events”, an idea he believes will help generate more footfall. He added: “I think we can get a viable market. But we need to change the offer. To have a business in the centre of town, you’re going to need to offer experiences and events.
“Coming to buy four pork chops isn’t going to cut it. [St Johns Market] needs to modernise, it needs to be transformational.”
The consultation findings include other actions that go beyond the next two years. One of these is to draft a master plan for a new ‘destination’ city centre market – one that would either involve the redevelopment or refurbishment of St Johns’ current site, or a new market being developed in a new location.
It notes that putting this plan into action and delivering a new city centre market is a ‘long term action’, which could take up to 10 years if it received financial backing and approval. But inside the current St Johns, all eyes are on the immediate future – which still seems uncertain despite the findings of the consultation.
Mr Dixon added: “The whole thing is a mess. When the council has a mess they don’t seem to grasp the nettle, they leave it in a corner for years – which is what they’ve done here.”
Responding, Assistant Mayor, Cllr Harry Doyle, said: “The city council is currently working with traders as part of a mediation process.
“It is hoped a resolution will be reached in the near future and we can move forward with our ‘Future of Markets’ action plan which was agreed by Cabinet earlier this month. This will see a series of improvements made to our much-loved markets.”