THE future of an outdoor market which can trace its history back to medieval times is being threatened by a misguided ambition to hold it in a market square, it has been claimed.

Darlington outdoor market traders say their takings are up to 70 per cent down on the same time last year and that a third of the regular stallholders, including greetings card, women’s fashion, groceries, underwear, rugs, cheese, perfume and gluten-free products had stopped coming in recent months.

The traders say they some of their older customers are shielding, but the sharp decline in business since the market reopened following lockdown in June is overwhelmingly due to Darlington Borough Council moving them from the positions they had outside shops on High Row and Northgate to the town’s Market Square.

Third generation Darlington outdoor market trader Ronnie Clark said trade on his greengrocers stall was the worst he could remember in 50 years due to the lack of passing shoppers in the Market Square, where he said the Conservative Party had pledged to move traders to before the last elections.

He said his takings were 50 per cent down on last September. Mr Clark said: “We are keeping hanging on to see if we can move back to our original stall sites. If not, I think a lot of us will be packing up as it involves long days. I start work at 2am and get home at 7pm.”

Traders said most market days now saw an average of ten stalls. but on some days it could be as low as two.

The outdoor market was moved earlier this year amid concerns over traders and shoppers’ ability to social distance in High Row and Northgate, but traders say they undertook a risk assessment of their former site in May and found there would be five metres in front of stalls and seven metres behind them for shoppers to social distance. 

Fellow trader Angela Smedley said the traders and the chief executive of the National Market Traders Federation had written to the authority about the risk assessment’s conclusions, calling for a rethink, but they had received no response to the assessment’s findings. 

She said: “The government acknowledges that outdoor markets are the safest place to shop and Darlington outdoor traders wish to demonstrate they can safely do so within the pedestrian heart where footfall is greater. Our market heritage is at risk.”

The federation said many outdoor markets, such as the one at Redcar, Northallerton and Stockton were thriving post-lockdown, and the traders at Newcastle’s Quayside had reported trade doubling. The federation’s president Mike Nicholson said Darlington’s traders were struggling as they had been “stuck out on a limb”.

He said: “Darlington Borough Council won’t talk to us. When we wrote to them  we didn’t even get an acknowledgement.”

But the authority’s economy portfolio holder, Councillor Alan Marshall said it was “untrue” that officers had not responded to the traders’ concerns.

And he disputed traders’ claims over the number of stallholders declining. He said before lockdown there had been 24 traders a week and at the end of August this figure had risen to 25, adding “more are promised”.

He said officers had assured him that both they and the firm managing the market, Market Asset Management (MAM), had “engaged with traders to explain our rationale” for the relocation to the Market Square.

He said while it was recognised the number of people visiting the market had dropped, the authority remained committed to the move as it was the safest option to maintain social distancing.

Cllr Marshall said: “We recognise that current trading conditions are challenging and council members have raised this with regular communications with MAM and they are committed to a focused action plan to develop outdoor markets in the Market Square. MAM are committed to increasing the number of traders in the Market Square.”