Lib Dem proposes Charter Market u-turn after stalls vs gazebos meeting

Charter Market gazebos vs stalls

A St Albans council meeting heard from experts, traders, shop-owners and residents about whether the Charter Market should be made up of gazebos (left) or traditional market stalls (right). - Credit: Archant/Matt Adams

A major U-turn over the future of St Albans Charter Market will mean the district council will have to hire staff and begin erecting market pitches again, even if a decision is made to switch from stalls to gazebos.

Lib Dem Robert Donald announced the apparent change in policy during an almost three-hour meeting on Tuesday night, September 28, over the future of the city's historic market.

Cllr Donald is the chairman of a working group which has been set up to “reconsider” a planned cost-cutting switch from stalls to gazebos.

The working group had until now been meeting in secret but, following a series of special reports by the Herts Ad, Tuesday’s meeting was opened to the public due to “intense public interest”.

It heard from market experts, stall holders, residents and shop-owners.

Among the speakers was Alice Young, an antiques trader who, last month, submitted a formal complaint on behalf of 50 traders over the council’s handling of the proposed changes.

She told councillors that a proposal to have stall-holders bring and erect their own gazebos discriminated against traders who would struggle with that, including older traders, sole female traders and disabled traders.

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“It requires at least two people, often more,” she said.

Clothes seller Steven Green told the meeting that several “great traders” had already deserted the market “purely because they didn’t want to put a gazebo up”.

He said the loss of those traders – including a fish stall and a fruit stall – was “massively detrimental” as they were the sort of stalls “that pull people to the market”.

Mrs Young said asking sellers to bring and erect stalls would also exclude traders who travelled to the market by car or public transport and could not carry the necessary equipment.

Antiques dealer Alice Young

Antiques dealer Alice Young said requiring traders to bring and erect their own gazebos discriminated against those not wealthy or physically fit enough to do it. - Credit: Charles Thomson

The old stalls were erected by 14 staff, who have already been made redundant by the council during the COVID-19 pandemic, in pursuit of a cheaper gazebo market.

But after hearing from traders, Cllr Donald was asked whether, if the gazebo switch went ahead, the council would assume responsibility for the “infrastructure” as it had done previously.

He replied: “I think, out of the discussions we’ve already had and out of this evening, the answer is yes.

“As chair of this working group, I’m saying that. It’s got to be the decision of the main committee. But as far as I see it, that would be our recommendation, I expect, to make to the main committee.”

Cllr Donald was asked by resident Angela Cronin whether there was any possibility the gazebo switch could therefore end up costing taxpayers more, not less.

 “We haven’t discussed that yet because we are simply taking evidence this evening,” he replied.

“So it could not be cost-saving?” Ms Cronin asked. “It could be more expensive in the long-run?”

“Well, who knows yet?” said Cllr Donald. “We haven’t had that discussion.”

Cllr Rev Robert Donald

Lib Dem councillor Robert Donald said that based on the evidence he had heard, he believed the council would have to resume responsibility for providing and erecting stalls. - Credit: Archant

The meeting heard conflicting expert testimony about the potential cost.

Graeme Pattison, who worked for decades behind the scenes on the Charter Market, revealed that the council had already considered a switch to gazebos in 2016 and, after a year-long investigation, ruled it out.

He described how it had taken staff four minutes to put up each traditional stall, whereas the best offer the council had been able to obtain for a gazebo market would have taken nine minutes, “which would mean we would either have to start two hours earlier or employ twice as many people”.

But Gary Saunders, who runs a company called Saunders Markets Ltd, said he had done some preliminary workings-out and believed he could erect St Albans Charter Market, as an all-gazebo market, in two hours with one manager and four staff.

Other speakers included Denise Parsons, from the St Albans Business Improvement District (BID), who said a recent survey had found local retail businesses favoured a “uniform gazebo market”.

But BID board member Phil Corrigan, manager of The Maltings, said he had surveyed businesses and found most wanted traditional stalls.

Maltings manager Phil Corrigan

Maltings manager Phil Corrigan spoke against gazebos, saying they were not good enough for the historic St Albans Charter Market. - Credit: Archant

He said one shop was so annoyed by the stall popping up outside its premises that it had offered to pay the pitch fee to get rid of it.

“I don’t think gazebos are good enough for the 1553 Charter Market,” he said. “Please do not destroy or deface our unique Charter Market.”

Robert Osborne, from St Albans Civic Society, said numerous members wanted to speak in favour of the traditional stalls, but none wanted to speak in favour of gazebos.

For more, read:

Further questions raised over accuracy of Charter Market consultation

Why have 50 St Albans Charter Market traders filed a formal complaint?