FEARS have been raised about the death of Stroud High Street if a new operator is appointed to take over the town’s award-winning farmers’ market.

Many stallholders, shopkeepers and local politicians have reacted with fury after Stroud District Council announced it was putting the contract to run the town’s flagship market out to tender.

One bookstore owner has warned of a ‘devastating effect’ on the town centre if the farmers’ market, which was judged the best in the country this year, falls into the wrong hands, while another trader believes the tender process could spell the death of the High Street.

The sudden decision by SDC to invite new bidders to run the Saturday market after 14 years has provoked anger and disbelief among stallholders, who have rallied to the cause of the current operator Made in Stroud Ltd by setting up a petition in support of its owner Gerb Gerbrands.

Mr Gerbrands founded the farmers’ market with the proprietor of the Made In Stroud shop Clare Honeyfield back in 1999 with assistance from SDC.

Now in its 14th year, the market, run in Cornhill and the adjoining streets, typically hosts around 50 stalls each week selling a range of fresh, local and regional produce.

The farmers’ market is widely viewed as essential to the town centre’s economic wellbeing and is seen as the golden thread in Stroud’s rich and colourful social fabric.

It has also won several awards.

In 2010 it beat off competition from 120 other contenders from across the UK to win the title of Best Food Market in the BBC Food and Farming Awards.

Earlier this year it won the Farm And Retail Markets Association’s Farmers’ Market of the Year award jointly with Surbiton market in London.

Although SDC insists it is obliged to get the best value for money for taxpayers, the authority’s decision to put the contract out to tender has upset shopkeepers, who say they cannot risk the demise of a market which is vital for attracting shoppers to the town.

Maggie Mills, who runs Mills’ Cafe with her husband John, blasted the council’s decision, describing it as ‘incomprehensible’ and saying: “If that farmers market dies, I’m pretty sure the town will die too.

“It’s a very difficult time for traders at the moment and the last thing we need is the farmers’ market to go down the pan.”

She added: “Gerb is doing a really good job. It is award winning. We all know it’s fantastic. He started it and it’s his business as far as I’m concerned. It is surely in the council’s interests to keep things as they are.”

Vice-chairman of Stroud Chamber of Commerce Ron Cree, who owns R&R Books in Nelson Street, said: “I think the council would be opening itself up to allegations of favouritism if they just gave the contract to the same person every year but I think Gerb has got a fantastic track record.

“It would be a shame if the wrong people took it over. It could have a devastating effect on the town if that market went downhill.

“We already know that Gerb is up to it and it would be hard to envisage anyone else running it. It won farmers market of the year last year so what could possibly be done to make it any better.

“We wish Gerb good luck and we hope that the district council makes the right decision.”

Helen Brent-Smith, who started the petition to illustrate the groundswell of support for Mr Gerbrands among stallholders, sells freshly squeezed apple juice at the farmers’ market every week.

She said Day’s Cottage Apple Juice, the family-run business which she started with her partner Dave Kasper, relied on the market for a sizeable chunk of its income.

“All of the stallholders are unsettled by this happening so suddenly after 14 years. We are all very happy and so are the customers,” she said.

“The market has won numerous awards, it is crowded every week and it has done a huge amount to help revitalise Stroud. What on earth is this about?”

Stroud’s deputy mayor John Marjoram, a Green Party district councillor, said SDC’s decision to run an open tender was ‘very disturbing’.

“You can’t understand why they are doing it when it is such a good quality market. I worry deeply that if it falls into someone else’s hands it could be destroyed and if that were to happen it would certainly sound the death knell for Stroud itself.”

Mr Gerbrands did not wish to comment at this stage.

But a spokesman for SDC, said: “We agree wholeheartedly that the Stroud farmers market is a very successful one and are determined to see it continue in this way.

“We’re also fortunate to be starting at a high standard with the current market. We have to ensure that we act responsibly when letting contracts which can earn individuals or companies hundreds of thousands of pounds.

“ Currently, the council tax payer funds all costs, such as utilities, cleaning and maintenance for the market whilst the operator has the potential to bring in revenue approaching £100,000 a year.

“Councils are under increasing financial pressure to get the best value for money for our tax payers and the tender process will ensure that the market continues to be of a high quality and delivers good value for the public as we recognise its importance to local people and the local economy.

“ Put simply, it’s a great market now and the only way for any provider to win the tender is if they offer a service which is as good as, or better than, at present.

“The quality of the operator is just as important as the financial criteria in our assessment. With years of experience running the market, the incumbent has a number of advantages and is in a good position to make a strong bid.”