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Cambridge market traders warn new stall designs are ‘unworkable’

A concept design for a new-look Cambridge market square that could be approved for public consultation by councillors has been declared “unworkable” by stallholders.

It sweeps away the traditional stalls and replaces them with modular units that can be removed from the square to create a ‘performance area’ in front of the Guildhall. This would make space for public events such as theatre and cinema performances or outdoor dining, say the designers, who claim making the square more ‘flexible’ was their top concern.

But traders and shoppers fear that the removable, gazebo-style stalls could be flimsy, fail to protect them from the weather and could even collapse under the weight of produce on some of the food stalls.

An image from the Cambridge market square concept design report
An image from the Cambridge market square concept design report

And they have invited designers to spend some time on the market seeing how “unworkable”the new design is.

Julia Cox, of Emerald Foods, who trades on the market five days a week, said: “I have been able to see the concept design and I actually think it is totally unworkable. I do accept things need to change on the market but, for our business particularly – and I think I can speak on behalf of a few core traders, especially the ones here right now – we can’t run it from a flimsy, gazebo-type stall: it will be impossible.

“I don’t think they are robust enough. From what I have seen on the concept design, it looks similar to what we see at a German Christmas market. It won’t work for us. Our stall is 16 foot by eight foot and we have used every millimetre of it.

An image from the Cambridge market square concept design report
An image from the Cambridge market square concept design report

“The amount of weight we have on our stall is immense and looking at the fruit and veg stall opposite me, their operation is double the size. There’s no way they would be able to work from a gazebo-type stall.

“I personally would like the person who has put these designs together to spend a day of their life on the market and see how unworkable it would be. Our stall at the moment has been specially designed – we have welded shelves and benches.

“I imagine it would be great for a pop-up market but for serious market traders like ourselves, the fruit and veg man and the bike stall, it just wouldn’t work.

“It’s all been done as quietly as possible. It seems like they don’t want people to know about it so they can just pass it without a backlash like they have just had.”

Julia Cox, a market trader at Emerald Foods on Cambridge market. Picture: Keith Heppell
Julia Cox, a market trader at Emerald Foods on Cambridge market. Picture: Keith Heppell

She added that since the city council closed down the market with no notice on New Year’s Day due to Covid safety concerns, many traders had been unhappy about communication from the authority.

“The only topic of conversation has been this. People aren’t going to forget about the market being closed down. The council has no idea how much people love the market.”

She added that “core traders” who work at the market five days a week should be offered permanent stalls.

“For me, there are a certain number of core traders here who are the skeleton of the market, selling things like bread and fruit and veg and cheese, who are here a minimum of five days a week and turn up rain or shine.

“I think they should provide proper structured stalls for these people and for the traders that come and go when they feel like it or do one or two days a week, have pop-up stalls for them.

“I think they could turn half the market into a permanent structure like it is now, but a better one and still have their little seating area or piazza. And they could fill the rest of the space with pop-up stalls for the people who come one or two days a week.”

The idea that some or all stalls could be removed to make way for special events has many traders worried about losing revenue on certain days.

Glenys Self, who runs a jewellery stall and is the spokesperson for the Friends of Cambridge Market, said: “In this report, the market is being told to work around the events. It needs to be the other way around – the market should come first.

“This shows the concept design doesn’t respect the existing market’s modus operandi. This puts the continuity of the market business’s success under great pressure and duress. It’s an almighty ‘shove off’ to the market. If there isn’t more care to detail this will kill the market.”

Images from the Cambridge market square concept design report
Images from the Cambridge market square concept design report

She added that the traders need to know how often events would happen and who would be allowed to trade on those days. And she asked whether there would be compensation for money lost.

Suggesting the new stall design was “flimsy”, she added: “It’s obvious the canopies will catch rain then deposit it all over shoppers, traders and stock.

“Too many of this country’s markets have withered in the hands of market development companies.”

A report by council officers that will be considered at a committee on Thursday says of the new design: “The proposed concept design for the market square creates an attractive, vibrant and accessible multi-functional market and outdoor civic space, befitting Cambridge’s status as a global city, and maximising its ability to animate and drive footfall to the city centre; and thereby support the wider city centre ‘high street’ economic recovery post-Covid.”

And it complains that at present the fixed market stalls prevent the cobbled area of the market from being used for activities and says the market is “a source of anti-social behaviour at night”.

It adds: “The square is not user-friendly, lacking sufficient public seating and gathering areas; and is difficult to access for pedestrians, especially those with physical impairments, having an uneven central cobbled surface surrounded by a large tarmac highway with raised kerbs.

“The public realm quality of the space is considered poor for such an important civic space, with visually detracting street clutter, including the market waste compactor and bailer facility, and poor surface treatment.”

But this negative view appears not to be widely held by the public.

Shopper Robert Bloor was behind the 7,300-signature petition to get the market reopened after it was temporarily closed down from New Year’s Day due to concerns about crowds failing to adhere to social distancing.

An image from the Cambridge market square concept design report, showing a seating area
An image from the Cambridge market square concept design report, showing a seating area

He said: “I think everyone was surprised by how many people signed the petition. Stallholders were surprised that thousands signed. I think it has taken Cambridge by surprise what depth of feeling there is for the future of the market and the importance of the market.

“Who would have thought the market would have such an important role to play in the pandemic? It has been there for hundreds of years.

“Some people just don’t like it but it has turned out to be important to a lot of people for getting fresh produce every week and if we lose it, we lose it forever.”

He too was concerned about the design of the new stalls.

“Hopefully they will build some and get traders to test them,” he said, adding: “The Friends of Cambridge Market have real concerns about the market’s long-term future. They have seen what other markets around the country have had done to them and how that has worked out. The key to this is engagement. Stakeholders need to be consulted early and throughout.”

The council did invite some local groups to give their views on what improvements the market needed when the concept design by Sturton Street-based LDA Design was being worked up. LDA Design wrote the report with Essex-based market consultants Quarterbridge.

Glenys Self on Cambridge market. Picture: Keith Heppell
Glenys Self on Cambridge market. Picture: Keith Heppell

The report states: “The most crucial collaboration was achieved in the alignment of the design team with Quarterbridge, the market consultant that was appointed to sit alongside the design team. Quarterbridge have influenced the direction of the design significantly with invaluable benchmarking information and advice throughout the design process.”

A report by Quarterbridge is referenced in the concept design but has not been published.

John Preston, of the Friends of Cambridge Market, said: “The draft concept design report says that a review of other existing markets has been ‘undertaken’ and that ‘this information is supplemented by Quarterbridge’s report of how the existing market functions and future market opportunities’.

“This is the only mention, in all the papers to be considered by councillors on Thursday, of a report which is surely vital to the council’s understanding – or misunderstanding – of how the market functions and of the future potential of our market square.

“Reading about the devastating impacts of interventions on the character, viability and diversity of markets elsewhere does not inspire any confidence. The assessment of our market needs proper public scrutiny. This Quarterbridge report should have been included. The council’s failure to publish this vital report is, at best, is very disturbing.”

The city council was asked to provide a copy of the report but has yet to do so.

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