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With the council-owned wholesale fruit and vegetable market off Capel Street now all emptied out, Dublin City Council has been readying to move to the next stage: inviting other parties to bid to run it in line with conditions that it’ll set out.
Plans for the Victorian market building note that half the space is to be used for a wholesale market, and half for a retail market.
But councillors fear though that if the costly renovation and operations are farmed out to a private operator, they’ll price out affordable and small-scale providers of fruit and veg, and wholesalers will struggle to return.
The council shouldn’t go ahead with the tender, said a motion from Green Party Councillor Sophie Nicoullaud at a recent meeting of the council’s economic development committee.
That motion wasn’t voted on in the end. Instead, councillors are waiting for the findings of a working group set up in January, to look deeper into what to do with the market.
It is up to the council management, rather than the elected councillors, to decide whether to go ahead with the tender.
Who Should Run It?
In September, Dublin City Council published a notice of plans to seek tenders from private companies to do up and run the market.
The council would be “seeking a Market Operator to redevelop and refurbish” and operate the market, the notice said. That would include recruiting traders, and promoting the market.
The council wants the market to become “a centre for food activity in Dublin”, the notice says. It should be a “hub for quality food and local produce”. “It will become a tourist attraction in its own right demonstrating traditional Irish food skills and production methods with strong eco credentials,” the notice says.
A private provider will, naturally, be seeking profits though, say some councillors. To reap those, and recoup money spent doing up the old market building, they’ll need to charge traders a high rent, they say.
If the council brings in a private company as a “middle-man” that will undermine security for traders, drive up prices, and small local producers won’t be able to afford a pitch, says Nicoullaud , the Green Party councillor.
It’ll shape what kind of market it is too, she says. High rents, in turn, will result in “trendy, touristy-oriented markets”, she says.
Her motion at the economic development committee asked “that Dublin City Council does not go ahead with the tendering process for the Fruit Market and that DCC takes control of managing the market in order to keep the market fully public”.
Sinn Féin Councillor Janice Boylan, who says she has consistently opposed the privatisation of the market, seconded the motion. Independent Councillor Anthony Flynn said he too is against the current plan.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council says that it will stipulate several conditions as part of any tender, to ensure that it gets the type of market that allows local fresh food producers to flourish.
“It would be direct producers. It will have eco-credentials. It will support start-ups, direct sellers and farm producers,” says the spokesperson. They also said: “Markets are driven by what the market will pay.”
Nicoullaud’s vision is for a publicly run market. Like the kinds of municipal markets you see in France, she says.
There, because they are publicly run, councils can keep rents low for traders. And traders, in turn, can sell at reasonable prices, says Nicoullaud. “That is why they are successful and keep alive thousands of family businesses.”
French markets are aimed at locals doing their shopping, but also attract tourists curious about how locals live, she says. “Authenticity, character, a sense of local place, that is what attracts tourists,” she says.
The France Ireland Chamber of Commerce is willing to organise a tour of French markets for councillors, she says.
Local and central government should be moving to protect local growers at a time when they are threatened by Brexit and family farms are struggling to stay in business, she says.
She wants to see a “real food market”. One where local producers can sell fruit and veg as well as flowers, chicken, potatoes, bread, honey, jam, and other local produce at reasonable prices.
“Gentrification doesn’t need to happen if there is the political will to stop it,” she says. “The people are saying enough is enough.”
A Dublin City Council spokesperson says that the council can control the cost of the rent charged to the traders. “We can control those things by way of contracts like we do with our car parks,” she says.
Some local producers have very profitable businesses, they said. But also, “there will be space allocated for ones that may not be profitable so they will be included in the market.”
The council is working with a group of councillors on what should be in the tender documents to ensure the best possible outcome for the market building, the council spokesperson said.
Nicoullaud is in that working group. It was set up after she first attempted to table her motion to the full council last November, the Green Party councillor says.
In the Plans
Back in 2017, the wholesalers in the fruit and vegetable market – some of whom had traded there for generations – were resisting efforts to move them out.
They’ve since accepted compensation and left, though.
“The market is finished, the spirit of the market is dead,” says Andrew Ruiter, who runs Newbarn Farm, which hosts a restaurant, in Ashbourne.
He used to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables in the market near Capel Street. Since the wholesale market closed last year, he struggles at times to source locally grown produce to supplement the food he grows himself for the restaurant, he says.
Ruiter knows most of the wholesalers, he says. Some found other premises nearby, while others moved further out of town. Some of the new tenancies were insecure and some of those traders have now gone out of business, he says.
Under the current planning permission for the market revamp, roughly half of the market has to be kept for the wholesale distributors who traditionally traded from it.
How does that tally with plans for a commercial operator to turn it into a retail market?
The planning permission “allows for a little more than 50 percent to be used for food, retail, market. It allows for the rest to be wholesale,” said a council spokesperson.
The council’s intention is to develop the market in line with the planning permission, but so far no wholesalers have said they want to return, they said.
If any do wish to come back, they will have to apply like the new retail vendors, said the spokesperson.
Ruiter says he thinks wholesalers do want to return. “A lot of those guys grew up in that place. They would love the opportunity to go back.”
“The government needs to get back to the stage of promoting fresh, high-quality food and veg that doesn’t come from too far away,” he says.
Food Traders vs Fast Food
While it’s unclear what will be in the final tender for this market, there are other markets in Ireland which seem to be closer to publicly run. The English Market in Cork, for example.
That works because it is controlled by Cork City Council, says Toby Simmonds, who owns the Macroom-based Real Olive Company, and has traded from the English Market since 1993.
The council employs the private conglomerate Aramark to manage some aspects of the operation, he says.
Simmonds says he can’t understand why Dublin City Council wouldn’t operate its fruit and veg market itself, and employ someone with the expertise to manage a market.
“Retail food requires expertise in a market setting,” says the council spokesperson. “So that is why we need an operator.”
Small producers from all over Ireland would really like to be able to access an outlet in Dublin city centre at affordable rates, says Simmonds.
Simmonds says he just can’t see how a private company would pump money into the building and then still offer stands at reasonable enough prices to be viable for most local food producers.
“I fear that the emphasis on tourism, food consumption on the premises and provision of restaurants is detrimental to the real goal of providing a very solid foundation to buy and sell fresh foods in Dublin in a market setting,” he said, by email.
Fast food is generally more profitable. Over time, the retail market could get pushed out in favour of fast-food outlets paying higher rents, he says.
Some food outlets should be allowed, but not at the expense of other market uses, he says.
A Dublin City Council spokesperson said that the new market will be “a mix of food, for now, food to go, and is still open to wholesalers”, she says. “Price is not always the driving force, we have direct producers that are very profitable.”
The companies who tender will suggest a financial model and will also have to work within the criteria laid down in the tender, said the council spokesperson.