A MARKET town without a market – that is the sad future facing Darlington.

Scores of independent traders spanning generations have plied their trade in the Covered Market but new budget proposals, revealed by The Northern Echo yesterday (Thursday, February 4) point to the very real possibility that it will close down.

According to financial reports, the Victorian building needs at least £4 million of investment to ensure the ageing structure is fit for the future – money that the council does not have.

One option considered by the council was to take out a loan to refurbish the market, but that would mean increasing traders’ rents by about 60 per cent to help cover the repayment costs.

This option is not being pursued due the “excessive” rate increase proposed, coupled with the expense of having to employ people with the relevant skills to oversee the project.

Instead the council is favouring a second option of seeking a private investor to take the building off its hands.

Existing market traders will be given the first option to join together and make an offer; a situation that the budget report describes as ‘giving existing Darlington businesses the opportunity to develop ‘their’ market’.

The market traders, who were told of the situation at a meeting at the Dolphin Centre on Wednesday afternoon, will be given three months to make a proposal that must demonstrate sustainability, investment, risk and clear arrangements for whatever commercial or voluntary model they intend to follow.

If the traders cannot - or choose not to - submit a viable proposal, then private investors will be given the chance to buy, lease or rent the building including all the shops within it and the old town hall.

Robin Blair, vice chairman of Darlington Retailers and Stallholders Association, said: “We are trying now very hard to save our market and the response from the public has been absolutely fantastic."

Mr Blair, whose family have run a fruit and vegetable stall in the market for more than 145 years, added: “I am sure that we will be putting proposals towards the council later in the month to try and get the running of the market back to us, the market traders.”

The iconic clock tower would be excluded from any commercial deal, however the future use of the market building and shops will have minimal restrictions to allow maximum flexibility for potential buyers.

The report states that at present the covered market generates just £18,000 in revenue for the council once direct costs are covered, and this does not take into account any outstanding repair costs.

The council had allocated £500,000 to fund building repairs, but work is yet to begin and a structural survey made it clear that much more investment was needed.

Due to the fact that the council is not legally obliged to provide a market for residents, there is virtually no chance that it will receive any further funding from the authority so its future lies elsewhere.

The report states: “Members will appreciate that such an approach to the commercial sector means that should it be successful, it is extremely likely that the nature of Darlington markets will change to enable investment to be achieved.

“Should the approach prove unsuccessful, members will have to seriously consider the future of the Covered Market given the investment required to make it sustainable.”

So unless the existing traders can come up with a way to save the market, it could be closed down or sold to the highest bidder who will then dictate the future of one of the historic jewels in Darlington’s crown.