Christmas markets ‘huge drain’ on Derry’s coffers

Derry's Christmas Market in Guildhall Square back in December 2013.
Derry's Christmas Market in Guildhall Square back in December 2013.

Derry’s Christmas Markets have proved to be a “huge drain” on the city’s coffers and were not well supported, the local council has said.

At last year’s market in Ebrington Square, some traders reported that they hadn’t made a single sale nor earned even a penny in a full day’s trading.

In light of this, this year will see the Christmas markets reduced to a series of “smaller chunks” weekend events.

The Council’s Head of Economic Development & Marketing, Linda Williams, told Tuesday’s meeting of Derry & Strabane’s Business and Culture Committee that there would be four markets run over the weekends leading up to Christmas.

Two of these will be staged in partnership with the Inner City Trust and will take place at the Craft Village. The other two will take place at Guildhall Square, one in conjunction with the community sector.

Ms Williams was speaking as she delivered a paper on the future of Christmas markets, requested by members of the committee last month.

The first Christmas market in Derry was established in 2012, but the committee was told that there had been “multiple issues” from the outset.

Opposition from permanent retailers; limitations to trading hours and offering; restrictions to enhancement opportunities due to old by-laws; and low footfall were among the issues indentified during the first two years of operation at Guildhall Square.

Ms Williams added that while Belfast’s market could attract one million people within a 25-mile radius, “we just don’t have that gravitas”.

While in 2012 a private company had delivered the market, Council in 2013 spent £70,000 on the Christmas market, £48,000 through rates and additional £18,000 income from traders and £4,000 income from the bar.

It is difficult for any of us to spend ratepayers money on what has clearly been a failure.

John Boyle, SDLP Derry City Councillor

In 2014, the budget for the Christmas village at Ebrington Square was £111,032, with ratepayers having to pay £47,639 towards this.

Speaking about last year’s offering, Ms Williams said: “The opening weekend was a real success with people applauding Council’s vision, the set up and variety of the offering. However, following two crisp winter days on the first weekend the weather turned miserable and resulted in the village being a wash out.

“The site had to be closed on a number of days due to high winds (this affected both Belfast and Edinburgh markets as well) and the site was deserted except for the indoor elements of the ice rink and the bar.

Ms Williams said total visitor numbers recorded across the four weeks was 12,000, “which was quite poor”, with traders reporting “as little as £0.00 income on certain days”.

“Whilst predominantly the markets are welcomed and there is no doubt they add festive warmth to the city, in reality they are not well supported and to date are a huge drain on both finances and resources,” she added.

Committee chairman SDLP Councillor Gerry Diver said the report made for “stark reading”, but said it was important to face up to such realities.

His party colleague John Boyle said that the report highlighted the challenges not just in staging such projects, but also the challenges facing the business community in the north west.

“The Belfast market is appealing to probably two million people within an hour and a half away,” adding that the outdoor markets were also exposed to the “vagaries of the Irish weather”.

Colr Boyle said: “The report basically supoorts what we all suspected: without public support the market was always going to be a challenge. It is difficult for any of us to spend ratepayers money on what has clearly been a failure.”

Sinn Fein Councillor Patricia Logue said there were multiple factors which contributed to the lack of success, including the smaller catchment area population.

On a more positive note, she added, the council have hit on a great opportunity by bringing in the private and community sector.

Colr. Logue called for more involement and partnership work with these sectors, particularly with the community, and said a sepaparete decision by the council this week to set up a new working group to help develop festivals would also make a positive impact going into the future.

DUP Councillor David Ramsey said the council should be careful in ruling out Ebrington Square and said the weather had played “a major, major part” last year.

Responding to a suggestion from Colr. Boyle to look at a marquee for the forthcoming markets, Ms Williams said that this idea was already being developed.