9 August 2002

Farmers ready to fight for Northampton market

By James Garner

A GROUP of angry farmers has vowed to save Northampton Market after the sites directors announced it will close in less than three months time.

Shocked farmers learned the disastrous news at the markets summer sheep fair last Friday. It is one of the countrys biggest cattle auctions and employs 35 people, who have already been handed their notice.

The directors of Northamp-tonshire Auctions blame mounting debts of £1m and the restrictions placed on markets since the foot-and-mouth outbreak, such as the 20-day rule.

Andrew Cowling, chairman of the company, says: "The market has suffered continual losses month after month and the board is not prepared to accept this.

"Farmers have not supported the market since it reopened. We used to have 8000 head of stock pass through the market every week. Since F&M we have had fewer than 2000 – that is not all down to the 20-day rule."

But local farmer and market shareholder, Richard Sawbridge, has resurrected his campaign to save the market and claims farmers are right behind the consortium.

"A lot of farmers backed the consortiums bid in January to take over the site and turn it into a farmers mart. When Mr Cowling rejected that and decided to run the market again with the same team, he lost a lot of support."

Over 250 farmers sponsored the original proposal and pledged £2.4m to save the site. Since the recent announcement, Mr Sawbridge says many more farmers are behind the campaign and are willing to offer cash.

But, according to Mr Cowling, the original bid fell short of the sites true commercial value and, after taking account of the debt, left little return for the shareholders. The market cost £1.5m to build six years ago, and he adds that shareholders have a right to a return on their investment.

But Mr Sawbridge believes local farmers are being betrayed by the auction firms redevelopment plans.

"Mr Cowling thought his shareholders would benefit if the site was redeveloped and he talked about finding a new greenfield site for the market. But the problem now is if the market is closed then it will lose continuity and where will the farmers go after the end of October to sell their stock? What is he doing to help the farmers after then?"

Mr Cowling claims that the facts and figures of the markets turnover show the true story, rather than peoples opinions. "Farmers have voted with their feet – their support has not been shown in the turnover figures of the market. This is a profit-making business and not one to subsidise farmers. Clearly the market provides a social forum, but it has to make money."

One local producer says a deal has been agreed which will value the site at about £4m if planning consent is granted. This means that battle lines to save the site will be drawn on whether it is granted permission for change of use. As yet no application has been submitted to the local authority.

"Our best chance of saving the site is if local planners and councillors think the market should be kept," says Mr Sawbridge. &#42