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Town markets matter more than free markets

4 min read

People in Oldham are market fundamentalists. But they’re not obsessed with free markets - they talk about Tommyfield market, which used to be pride of the town centre.

It was home to the country’s first chip shop, and attracted visitors and traders from all corners of Manchester. Now it’s a pale imitation of its former glory, and locals prefer to hop on the tram to the Arndale in the city centre or drive to the spruced-up town centre in neighbouring Rochdale.

Onward’s work on levelling up has shown us how important town markets are in restoring civic pride. They boost local economies, creating outlets for local independent retailers and allowing consumers to spend their money closer to home. They strengthen the social fabric, providing public spaces for communities to come together in a collective activity. And they can underpin an area’s identity.

When Onward ran focus groups in Oldham we asked people what made them proud of their area. One told us “Oldham used to be the place to come to”, another that it was “the hub of the North West [and] the market used to be buzzing”. The vibrancy of Tommyfield said something about who the community were, who they are now, and what they aspire to. 

Councils need to loosen regulations on public spaces to unlock the potential of town squares and cobbled streets

Nearby Altrincham offers hope. Although the area has a more affluent population, in 2010 its centre was a ghost town with one in three shops vacant on the high street. The local council took radical action, investing £1 million in the refurbishment of their Grade 2-listed market house and transformed it into a gastronomic food hub. The market now draws over 7,000 people a week and in 2015 won Observer Food Monthly’s award for best market. 

Markets will look different across the country to cater to local communities. In Longbridge, on the outskirts of Birmingham, the newly opened Herbert’s Yard houses trendy independent food retailers in a building using fixtures and fittings from the old MG Rover factory. Morpeth in Northumberland was granted a market charter in 1200, and now hosts monthly farmers markets and an annual food and drink festival to celebrate their heritage.

So, what does pro-market policy look like? Councils need to loosen regulations on public spaces to unlock the potential of town squares and cobbled streets. Covid regulations prompted efforts to support outdoor dining, but as restrictions ease some councillors are returning to their risk averse ways.

National funding bodies need to work with local community groups to restore heritage spaces, matching public grants with private financing to restore former market houses. And there needs to be greater support for a wider range of entrepreneurs in setting up their stall, to ensure markets reflect the youth and diversity of Britain’s towns. 

There doesn’t need to be a trade-off between town markets and free markets - at their best, both are pro-enterprise and involve communities flourishing with limited state interference. They are Conservative bread and butter. But as the government turns to the daunting task of delivering levelling up, town markets offer two big political advantages.

First, they appeal to different wings of their political party - including “red wall” politicians looking to restore left behind areas, traditional county and shire Tories wanting to strengthen a sense of community, and even small state MPs who are worried that levelling up means bigger government. 

Second, and more importantly, town markets offer a visible and tangible example of levelling up that can be delivered by the next election. Town markets with independent traders and local produce will make people feel their area is improving, giving everyday meaning to the government’s big political promises.

They will have to be followed by real transformative change, in line with the 12 national “missions” set out by Michael Gove. But for a government embarking on a bold national plan, there’s no shame in starting with small steps.

For people in Oldham, the restoration of Tommyfield won’t feel small at all.


Adam Hawksbee is Deputy Director of Onward think tank and former head of policy to the Mayor of the West Midlands.

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