Tommyfield Market traders upset by ballot system for move to Spindles

Reporter: Charlotte Hall, Local Democracy Reporter
Date published: 21 March 2024

A huge change is on the horizon for Oldham’s Tommyfield Market.

Traders are currently figuring out how they’ll be moving to a brand new market hall due to be completed at the Spindles shopping centre next year, with the old market set to be demolished at the same time. 

The project is supposed to mark a turning point for Tommyfield’s small business owners, many of whom have seen several decades pass by framed through their densely-hung stall fronts.

In recent years, what they’ve seen is footfall taking a nose-dive - especially since the Covid-19 lockdowns. 

Up until recently, hopes in the hall were high regarding the move.

But a recent set of decisions has put a damper on the prospect of Oldham market’s modern revival. 

“It feels like we’ve been s**t on,” said the owner of a pet stall.

“Our hopes have been dashed.”

The shift in feeling is a response to the recent results of an application process that many stall holders have spent several months preparing for.

The process saw stall holders across Tommyfield having to re-apply to secure their position in the new centre. 

The applications work off a points system, with each stall scored out of 100 by an ‘independent panel’ made up of Oldham Business Team and Oldham Market Team.

Those with the highest scores are highest on the ballot.

That means they’ll get the first pick of stalls at the new market hall. 

Councillor Fida Hussain, Cabinet Member for Business, Employment and Enterprise, said: “The application process was designed to be as fair and transparent as possible for everyone.

“All the criteria were laid out within the application and workshops were offered to everyone, where they could receive guidance and advice on their applications.”  

But the process appears to have pitted stalls against each other.

A number of traders that spoke to the LDRS felt the process hadn’t been handled “fairly”, with ‘trendy’ and ‘young’ stalls prioritised over established businesses - though the council does not name these characteristics as part of their criteria. 

The worry for traders is that with business sizes varying widely, those lower down in the ballot could be left having to dramatically downsize - or risk losing out on a stall entirely. 

Feelings on the ground are mixed.

On a recent visit to the market, an oppressive atmosphere presided over the quiet humdrum of the market. 

Many traders declined to comment, claiming they were concerned about how it would affect their chances to improve their balloting positions or were worried about upsetting other traders who were lower in the ballot. 

Most of those who did speak out wanted to be kept anonymous, such as one trader who said: “I think we’ve all been unfairly treated - the way it’s been decided who will get the first pick of the stalls in the new Spindles centre. 

“We’ve had to reapply to get in and it’s gone off a points system.

"And some of the newer traders who’ve not been here five minutes have got better scores than the traders that have been well-established here for years.” 

The stall holder had been at Tommyfield for more than 20 years but said they were “already looking elsewhere in case it doesn’t work out”.

“It’s our future and our livelihoods,” they said.

“I have no faith in how the council has dealt with this.”

Ian and Nicky, a father-daughter duo who runs the card stall Best Wishes, agreed. 

Ian said: “[The consultants have] chosen to prioritise all the young trendy stalls because they want to change the atmosphere.

"But I don’t think it’s going to work.

“The demographic of market shoppers is older people - that’s not going to change.”

He felt the application process had been “unfair”, with business owners forced to market themselves in a way which fit the ‘concept designs’ of the new venue. 

“You can’t make fish sexy,” he gave as an example, suggesting the paper-based application process benefitted certain types of stall over others. 

“No one’s actually come to see the stall,” he noted.

“On paper, they probably look at our stall and think - ‘oh, cards, that’s a bit old-fashioned’.

"When in actual fact we couldn’t be any more modern.” 

The worry for stalls like Best Wishes, which employs six people and currently takes up four stall units at Tommyfield, is that they would have to cut down in size.

With limited stock on offer, Ian was concerned about being able to make a living at the new venue. 

He said: “We’ve got to put our futures in their hands.

"But the future doesn’t look so good for us.” 

Not everyone was feeling pessimistic after the ballot results.

Another stall holder who wished to stay anonymous said: “Tommyfield market is a goldmine.

"But that place in Spindles? That will be a diamond mine - just you watch. 

“This is the best thing to happen to Oldham.

"People say the highstreet is dying, but this is really going to change things.”

The trader, who scored comparatively highly, thought that those unhappy with the balloting system were ‘stuck in old ways’ and relied on a customer base that was steadily “dying off”. 

The business owner pointed out that Tommyfield has struggled to fill empty stalls in the market in the last few years - the market clearly needed a new direction if it wanted to survive.  

“Change is a part of life,” he said.

“People have to move with the times.” 

Others thought it was simply too early to tell.

“We don’t know if it will be good or bad til we get there. We’ll just have to wait and see,” a hardware trader told the LDRS with raised palms. 

Cllr Hussain said the council “would like to reassure all our valued traders that no decisions have been made as yet.

“Traders now have time to appeal their scores to the Council, who will review and make final decisions.

"If the appeal reflects that the application was stronger than another business, the score will be adjusted."

He added: “I’d encourage everyone to shop local with our brilliant market traders and keep the local pound here in Oldham.” 

The council claimed scores were based on criteria like ‘customer offer’, rent payment history and environmental health.

The new market, which will sit across two mezzanine-style floors and feature an events space, a food stall section and a place for fresh produce, will include around 4,600 square metres of market space.

It’s a part of the £65m project for the Spindles mall, which the council purchased for £24m during the pandemic in 2020. 

As part of the project, the upper floor was also converted into office space for Oldham Council and local services.

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