Market traders in Oldham have hit out at the council for 'playing with our livelihoods' after being told they must pay three months full rent despite being unable to trade during lockdown.
Tommyfield Market in the town centre has been closed to the public since March 23, and won’t reopen again until Monday, June 15.
But stallholders claim the town hall has offered no support – and instead is chasing payment of rent for the period it was closed to shoppers.
They say the financial burden, on top of the existing pressure of running a market stall amid dwindling visitor numbers, could put them out of business.
But council leader Sean Fielding said that rent payments are ‘essential’ to keep the market running and for building maintenance, and they cannot afford to offer rent holidays.
Rehan Aslam, who runs the Kandy Kingdom stall in the covered market, said it feels as though the council as ‘playing with our livelihoods’.
Speaking on behalf of the Tommyfield Market Traders Association, which represents seven different stallholders, he said they have been pleading with the council for a support package, to no avail.
“We can’t afford it, we might as well close up and do something else but there are no jobs about,” he said.
“There are traders in there that have gone, given their notice in and taken all the fittings and fixtures out because they know it’s not going to be affordable.
“We were hoping to get a rent waiver for the months that we haven’t been able to trade and get a little bit of a reduction to help us get back on our feet.
“A lot of the traders in there, some of them are quite young, single parents and this is their only source of income. Business won’t be the same for a long time.”
Many of the Tommyfield traders had qualified for a £10k small business grant to support them during the pandemic.
But Mr Aslam said that the entirety of his grant went on outstanding costs that were owed before COVID-19 struck, leaving nothing to pay the £3,000 he owes in rent – the price for a double stall for 12 weeks.
“That £10,000 – hand on heart I didn’t use a penny of that to feed myself,” the 35-year-old said.
“At first I thought it’s a grant worth hanging on to and maybe help me to set up my business again but that’s gone.
“There is nothing left of that at all. A lot of the other traders are all in the same situation.”
Mr Aslam has another stall at Bury market but added his experience with Bury council has been quite different.
“The thing that is getting to me personally is that Bury council has waived the rents at Bury market,” he said.
“Even yesterday I got an email from the manager of Bury market saying the council are looking to see if they can reduce rents further when we go back into work.
“The decline with Tommyfield market over the last few years is because the council haven’t put anything into it because they are looking at a wider regeneration plan.
“I’ve been there for 15 years, it’s a huge community hub but we don’t feel like we’re being supported at all. We feel like we’re being hung out to dry.”
Coun Fielding, who is also cabinet member for economy and skills, said: “We are working closely with traders and have written to them to explain our position on collecting rents.
“The pandemic has had a massive impact on council finances and we have had to make some very difficult decisions to ensure that what funding we have was delivered to front line services like health and social care.
“Rent payments are essential to keep the markets running. Not collecting them would take money away from necessary building maintenance, existing contracts, and measures to re-open the market, such as extra staff to manage social distancing.
“We cannot draw upon the council’s already tight budget – and we cannot afford to squeeze it further when we know the virus is far from over and the effects of it will be felt for years to come.”
He added that many traders would be entitled to the small business grant funding which provides a £10k cash grant to support businesses with overheads.
And there is a discretionary grants fund which is also open to provide support to eligible businesses.
“We encourage traders to explore these grants if they haven’t already done so, as well as other financial packages introduced by government,” Coun Fielding added.
“If any traders need support with this, the council’s business support team is happy to help.
“Finally, I would encourage the public to support traders as much as they can when Tommyfield Market re-opens on 15th June. They need your custom now more than ever.”
Keep up to date with all the latest local and national developments here: https://www.