A CONTROVERSY-hit firm charged with improving Darlington’s historic indoor and outdoor markets has defended its actions after being accused of overcharging traders and failing to introduce changes.

Raymond Lynch, managing director of Market Asset Management (MAM), faced a grilling from Darlington Borough councillors following traders raising a litany of concerns following the redevelopment of the Victorian market and the relocation of the outside market from the High Row area to the market square.

Traders have repeatedly accused MAM and the council of leaving them out on a limb away from the main shopping area and of poor management of the markets, and have cited declining numbers of stalls at both markets.

A meeting of the authority’s communities and local services scrutiny committee heard the multi-million pound revamp of the indoor market was progressing well, apart from a delay following the discovery of asbestos.

Mr Lynch said the first phase of the redevelopment was due to open in June, featuring six street food outlets, 200 covers, a bar, a stage featuring family-oriented events such as quizzes as well as live music, toilets and a new wood pellet powered biomass boiler heating system.

He said his firm was helping traders to refurbish their stalls and the shop floor and entrance improvements would be completed by summer. He added the final stage of the revamp, the basements and temperate gardens, would make a bold statement for Darlington and was scheduled for completion by Christmas.

The council’s assistant director Mark Ladyman said the indoor market would be “a real pearl”. He added: “While providing a high quality venue for local people, we also wanted to make it a regional attractor as well. We understand that apart from what Durham has there is very little facilities of this type within the Tees Valley, North Yorkshire and south Durham.

“We want people to make that conscious decision to come to Darlington for the day or even two days.”

However, the meeting heard concerns the indoor market would not attract enough traders, as entrepreneurs were being put off by MAM’s terms and conditions, which one councillor described as “unreachable for smaller businesses and distracting for larger businesses”.

Mr Lynch said charging food outlets 20 per cent of their turnover rather than a fixed rent would be mutually beneficial, helping businesses during lean times and also covering MAM’s costs. He also admitted the firm’s charges may not suit some firms.

The meeting heard a masterplan to improve conditions for struggling traders on the outdoor market had been a long time in coming.

Councillor Libby McCollom said the only reason the outdoor market had shown a recent revival was due to the traders “being incredible at what they do” and creating a good atmosphere.

She said: “What they’re not getting is support from this council and I dare say a strategy would go a long way towards that.”

Mr Lynch replied that MAM was “gearing up for activity on the outdoor market from May”.