Many Chelmsford market traders are on the verge of going out of business, says a councillor, as a result of plummeting footfall due to a new working-from-home regime.
Chelmsford City Council has been called on to offer further financial assistance – given the sharp reduction in incomes – after months of rents being cancelled during the peak of COVID-19 and lockdowns.
Rents for the last week in March 2020 – as well as all through April, May, June and July – were suspended followed by a tapering back, which had been expected to go back to full rents by November 2020.
But further restrictions were imposed and rents were again suspended for December, January, February, March and April 2021.
They are now back to full rents but footfall has remained defiantly low – said to be largely because office workers have not returned – and may never return in large numbers – to the city.
At a meeting of the city council, Conservative Councillor Roy Whitehead, said: “Chelmsford market is a very valuable asset and has been much affected by the pandemic with footfall greatly reduced – particularly, the large number of people passing through it who work at County Hall and Chelmsford Council’s civic building. It is a small fraction of the usual number who use the market.
“Chelmsford Council did indeed reduce rents but these have now gone back up but the numbers of shoppers is still way below what it was before.
“In the interim – can the city council again assist the traders? As many of them are on the verge of going out of business – they tell us when we go down there.
“It would be helpful if we could assist them for a little longer.”
Cabinet member Councillor Rose Moore said the council is putting in place a range of initiatives to raise the profile of the market.
She added that the city council is looking to traders to raise the profile of the market – working with north and mid Essex authorities in collaboration to develop a business support scheme.
“But we need to attract new customers to that area of the city,” said Cllr Moore.
“We already promote and celebrate the market and a wide range of goods are available. But there is no indication from Essex County Council of a wholesale return to office working any time soon and that is the reality.
“It is not exclusive to County Hall, not to the city centre or main offices which I know creates much footfall in that area. The problem we are seeing now predates the pandemic.
“Weekly markets were already in decline nationally due to shifting consumer behaviour. Pre-COVID, the indoor market was running at 68 per cent capacity – only 80 per cent at its highest some years ago.
“This administration understands the need for long term investment so we might secure a future for traders.
“This will be challenging – we have supported this sector locally throughout the most turbulent period in decades and we are not about to give up.”
She added: “We have been doing everything we can to help.
“If the Government wants to help perhaps to make up council’s income shortfall that would be a start.
“As we learn to live with COVID and adapt to a new international trading laws and manage the impact of the climate crisis on our local economy I suggest local MPs to ask in Parliament as to how we and other local authorities should move forward in the light of this crisis and sizable reduction in our funding local authorities that predate Brexit and the pandemic.”