The Market House

Getting our facts straight

Like many things in Kingston, I have known the Market House for a very long time.

When I was younger it was a pet shop and that is about the last time a sustainable business operated out of the building - and we are probably talking forty years ago.

The problem is that over the years everything we have attempted has failed. Whilst I agree with everyone it would have been lovely to have had the tourist information back the reality is that it failed to attract anywhere near enough footfall to be helpful to visitors to the Borough.

The other problem is the upkeep of this building. Last year alone the Council spent over £560k on the building just to maintain it, but it will also require a lot more investment in the future. The current tenants rent barely covers the annual running costs of the building which are estimated at between £30,000 to £45,000 per annum. Couple the capital costs with a Council that is needing to maximise its income from as many sources as possible (people easily forget that we need to make nearly £40m savings before 2020 on a net budget of £140m, when most of the spend is statutory) and we start to have a problem. But the status quo is actually worse, because in effect we are currently subsidising the current tenant to be in the building - something I am sure every business in Kingston would love the Council to do - and we would be better just leaving it empty rather than continue with the current arrangements.

It is also not a big building. Upstairs has no disability access of any quality, other than a stair lift. We did look at whether the museum could be incorporated into the building but it is simply not big enough and frankly, if that had been a good idea, we would have done it years ago.

So, we have a building that is expensive to maintain, not currently covering its costs and, despite being a part of the Borough's history, has been demonstrated to be incapable of contributing to an understanding of that history as either an information centre or a museum. That said, it still is an important building and we should ensure we preserve it for future generations, even though the evidence is that few people ever go into it when it is open to the public.

The current tenants are in their on a short-term lease which was granted whilst we thought through what we were going to do with the building long-term. They were fully aware this was the case but I guess they have found being in a subsidised building in the centre of the town an attractive proposition - as I would if I was running a business. Last year a decision was taken to market it for rent at its full value. It was placed on the market with a guide rent of £150k per year and a full repairing lease. We had approximately 40 companies who came forward, the vast majority of which were for restaurants, including some very well known and high-end companies. The others were all for retail use. The current short-term occupiers did not appear to bid for the building. Most of those possibilities dropped out because they felt that the building either had too many constraints or because they felt the current market stalls were not appropriate to be in such close proximity to the building - the smells from the fish stall were one concern.

Let’s be clear, despite the comments by one resident group, we are not selling the building, it is still ours, and this agreement will enhance the building because the Council simply does not have the money to continue to maintain the building in its current form. We are not ‘selling the family silver’, that is ridiculous hyperbole. We are doing what we do with every other building the Council owns; renting it out.

Despite a very small number of residents always believing that every decision the Council takes is irrational, this is in fact a considered decision. We would all love to live in a world where Councils could spend money on whatever anyone wanted and where selling craft goods and cups of tea could make money, but the reality is sadly not so misty eyed. Every pound in rent we forego on this building is another pound we need to cut from caring for the elderly, looked-after children or the disabled. Some will argue they would ask for Council Tax to go up to pay for this? Well, we could do that, but to be honest when you see the list of competing demands for funding then subsidising a pop-up craft shop should never be one of them. Not that I wish to demean a pop-up craft shop, as I am sure there may well be other sites in the town they can occupy at a lower and more appropriate rent.

As it happens, this is not a political decision because all parties on the Council voted for this change to happen (to be fair one Lib Dem Cllr abstained, but he did not vote against!). Taking a new tenant is simply the best way of preserving the building and getting the maximum income for the Council as it faces the precipice of cutting services in future years to meet the austerity we face.

If you wish to see the report that took the decision to embark on this decision then you can see it here. This matter was also reported to Full Council at the budget setting meeting as a report from the Growth Committee.

Let’s turn to the petition. This has been started by the current tenants and their supporters because they do not want to lose their subsidised lease - as I have already said, I can understand why. The decision to give a new lease has already happened and this is now a planning application that has been submitted. Planning applications can only consider the planning matters and however many people sign the petition it cannot affect the planning application for as long as the issues in the petition do not address planning policy. The other issue in the petition is a concern about the building becoming a restaurant. Again, I have seen lots of crazy things being said on the petition, mainly be people who do not live in the Borough. This is not a fast food restaurant, nor is it a Pizza Express or Pizza Hut. It is described as a Cider, Pie and Pizza restaurant - but maybe that could be conceived as splitting hairs. What the Council should not be doing is making judgements about the business rationale of the restaurant business. I know nothing about how restaurants function but if an upmarket restaurant chooses to come to Kingston I believe we should be celebrating that and not trashing it because some”don’t believe we need any more restaurants”. That’s your view, but it is clearly not the view of the industry. Were it not to be the “The Stables” taking over it would still need to be someone else who can pay the rent and take over the steep maintenance costs of the building.

I too love the Market House and agree it is in many respects one of the few real heritage buildings we have left in the Borough. We certainly do not have anywhere near as many listed buildings as many might believe we have, although I have heard that Heritage England want to list the Travelodge opposite the Cattle Market - bonkers! Changing its use away from retail to a restaurant does not destroy it, in fact there are many fine examples of heritage buildings that look their best because of the way they have been adapted.

Anyway, enough of this for now. There is a planning application and that needs to address any planning issues, something the petition does not really do, and we will see where we are after that and we can then take some view on where this is going. There will also need to be a licencing application as well.