The leader of Darlington Conservatives has revealed the former council failed in a bid to regain full control of the town’s indoor market from its current operator.

Cllr Jonathan Dulston told a Darlington Borough Council cabinet meeting that the previous Conservative-led administration explored ways to regain ownership of the market, which is housed in the historic town centre building, but was restricted due to contractual issues. 

The current firm running the site, Market Asset Management (MAM), was tasked with improving the building in 2017 when the then Labour-led council relinquished responsibility. 

But it was after hearing the concerns of shoppers and traders over the past three years which forced the Conservative-led council to act, Cllr Dulston said. He has now challenged the Labour Party to fulfill its manifesto commitment, where it said it would explore ways of regaining control of the facility. 

He added: “The council under my leadership explored multiple options for bringing the Market back under council control but due to the really poor lease agreement that was signed off by Labour we were unable to execute the break clause without it costing the taxpayer significant money.

“I welcome the new Labour administration's manifesto commitment to bring the Market back into council ownership but fear that this is nothing more than a sound bite with absolutely no substance.”

Work is continuing to make the market fit for the future, the owners say, and it has benefited from millions of pounds in investment - but shoppers are now faced with a market which looks drastically different to the one when MAM took over, with several established businesses having left the site for good. 

Labour cllr Chris McEwan, cabinet member for Economy, confirmed the council intends to help shape the future of the Market and is in contact with MAM. “I was extremely disappointed when the last administration failed to exercise a break clause. There’s universal consensus that the Market is a jewel in the crown and I think it’s early days to be able to answer that question. 

“However, I have spent time there and there are some signs of progress. I think the Market is well worth a visit. There are people who want the traditional shops back but I’ve eaten there a few times and there’s some encouraging things going on there. For example, you can get a parmo. There are some positive signs going on and I can only encourage others to use it.”

Just months after launching its new street food aspect two years ago, market bosses were faced with finding replacement traders after several pulled out. Several other cafe’s and market traders have left the site since then, however the firm has also attracted new businesses at the same time. 

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A Market Asset Management spokesperson said: “MAM has a very good working relationship with Darlington Borough Council. We have had very early discussions with the council on how a possible development of the current working arrangements can be established.

"Just to stress this is very early days for any change in the current arrangement, but MAM are always open on how we can improve the market even further.

“It comes amid exciting times for the market now into Phase 3 of a multi-million-pound makeover to cement its place as a food, retail, and live entertainment – this includes stunning new designer boutiques and artisan stalls which will from November onwards will house around a dozen new artisans and traders such as barbers, beauticians, tattooists, traditional over-the-counter businesses, high-quality fashion, and delicious food.”