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Why Covered and Street Markets are Crucial to City Center Vitality

Bury market: social leveller or social segregator?
The Stag and Hounds, in Bristol's Old Market, prides itself on being one of the city's top music pubs. It has another claim to fame that most regulars won't know: it was home to one of England's longest-lived Piepowder Courts.
Piepowder Courts (from the French pieds poudres, or 'dusty feet') were established in mediaeval times to oversee traditional markets, dispensing summary justice to pickpockets, thieves and cheating travelling merchants. Bristol's Piepowder Court continued to sit until 1870.
Sometimes, though, the cursory consideration of a few local dignitaries was not enough to keep the markets and fairs running smoothly. In Nottingham the city's annual Goose Fair, a huge event that would draw crowds from across the midlands, became the scene of the famous Cheese Riot of 1766.
Thomas Bailey's Annals of Nottinghamshire, published in 1852, describes how irate crowds ran amok after complaints that traders were overcharging for cheese, grabbing cheeses from the stalls and rolling them down the streets. 'The mayor, whilst endeavouring to quell the disturbance, was knocked down by a cheese, hurled at him by one of the mob, and severely stunned,' Bailey recounts.
I came across the story of the great cheese riot while researching my book, How to Save Our Town Centres. Since then more than one reader has suggested a re-enactment of this historic occasion. Others might argue that these days the equivalent of the cheese riot is Black Friday in Tesco, while traditional markets have become a haven of decorum.
There are other conflicts over our markets, though, that should worry us more. Some are over the cost of trading and the rents demanded by private (or local authority) owners: Brixton and Oxford have both seen disputes over rents in recent years. The closure of Sheffield's Castle Market and its relocation to a new building on the other side of the city centre has attracted complaints that both traders and traditional customers are being priced out.
What is at stake is not just the markets themselves but the character and vitality of our town and city centres. Go to Bury in Lancashire, home of the black pudding, and you'll see one of the most successful traditional markets in England. Every year up to 1,500 coachloads of visitors descend on this former mill town to sample the wares at nearly 400 stalls. Market traders boast that you can get everything you need from cradle to grave. There's even a man who'll do your headstone.
But at the other end of town, the new Rock shopping centre is stretching Bury's retail core, offering a glass-and-concrete panorama of Marks & Spencer and Superdry, Costa Coffee and River Island. In between, at the 1990s Mill Gate shopping centre – itself a replacement for a 1960s precinct – every other shop is a discount store and there's an acne of 'to let' signs.
Bury's planners, it would seem, like planners across the UK, have swallowed the myth of 'retail-led regeneration', imagining that shiny new shopping centres will revive their towns. In the process the traditional markets are often left behind, physically distanced from the new developments and reduced to either a throwback to a bygone age or a curiosity, providing a retail diversion for people with plenty of disposable income and time on their hands.
Places that used to be social levellers, providing something for everyone and where well-off and hard-up would rub shoulders and exchange banter, are now becoming socially polarised. At the same time an economic segregation is dividing successful from unsuccessful towns, as high-end retailers concentrate their brands in prime locations and struggling locations become dominated by pound shops and charity shops: a lifeline to the hard-pressed, but a signifier of failure to investors and planners.
In my book I argue that we won't get town centres right until we start thinking about what creates good places, not just about how retail can work better. To think about placemaking demands an understanding of how places can work for everyone, not just those with money to spend. I discuss how we can create places to be, not just places to buy.
There are two ways in which we can think of 'the market' in that context. One is as a gathering place: a place of trade, but most of all a space for relationships and connections. I use the example of the ancient Greek agora: buying and selling was just part of the mix. It was where justice was done, athletic contests were held, children were schooled and religion was practiced. As the urban historian Lewis Mumford commented, it was 'above all a place for palaver'.
The other way of thinking about the market is purely as an economic construct: a place where people act according to narrow financial self-interest and where value is equated only with rates of return and capital gains. This view of the market prizes and privileges development-led 'investment' and focuses on the big numbers of jobs generated in construction and retail without considering what is being displaced. And inevitably, the capital and revenue flows accrue to those with the wherewithal to join in a game in which the price of entry is increasingly high.
Questioning and challenging such ideas of investment is not anti-business. What it does is to highlight that there are different ways of doing business, different views of value within business communities, and different ways of envisaging what it means to thrive and prosper. How to Save Our Town Centres aims to bring some of those questions to the surface.
• This post first appeared on the Quarterbridge blog in May 2015.
How to Save Our Town Centres is published by Policy Press and available at or

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