Further questions raised over accuracy of Charter Market consultation
- Credit: Archant
St Albans council has been hit with further allegations that it manipulated a public consultation over the city’s historic Charter Market.
Conservatives say data released last week shows negative comments about a proposed cost-cutting switch from traditional stalls to gazebos were counted as expressing support.
That alleged support was then cited by the council to justify the scheme.
The council’s Lib Dem administration has claimed the Charter Market is haemorrhaging money and sacked the staff who erected the stalls.
A gazebo pilot scheme was due to be held this autumn.
Last week the Herts Ad reported that 50 traders had filed a formal complaint over what they said were a series of misleading claims used to justify the gazebos.
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They said a public consultation never gave residents a choice between stalls and gazebos, instead just asking residents’ opinions on gazebo designs.
Lib Dems claimed a general comments box on the survey provided “ample” opportunity for respondents to object to the switch.
Out of more than 700 respondents, they said 95 residents made comments supporting gazebos, whereas 73 made comments objecting to them.
Conservatives disputed those figures, saying they counted 62 people who favoured stalls, but just 12 who favoured gazebos.
In an effort to rebut the Tories, Lib Dems published a table of all the general comments and how civil servants had counted them.
They wrote: “The Conservatives, according to a recent Herts Ad article, say that these figures can be interpreted differently. However, you can see the raw data here and judge for yourself.”
But Conservatives said the move had backfired, as the data showed massaging of the figures.
Residents commenting on gazebos’ designs, as requested, were counted as preferring gazebos to stalls.
One example comment, counted as supporting the switch, was: “Yellow attracts the bugs in the summer. I love it, but all yellow could see stall holders complaining they are inundated."
Another was: “I would prefer them to be blue and yellow stripes, the same as the old stalls. Why change traditional colours?”
Residents whose survey responses made no comment about stalls and gazebos were also counted as supporting the scheme.
Comments like, “Improve layout to avoid pinch points,” and, “It’s a great market and maybe more live music,” were counted as expressing support for gazebos.
Tory Mary Maynard said: “We only counted it if the resident actually mentioned the issue of gazebos versus the old stalls.
“Based on this data, it seems like if a resident had said, ‘Can we have more pink jam on the market’, they would have counted that as support for gazebos.”
Tories said other comments counted as supportive actually appeared to be critical.
One resident wrote: “I think it would be a real shame to introduce a ‘smart’ corporate look and destroy the current character of the market.”
Another wrote: “None of the suggestions look particularly good. There’s nothing wrong with the market as it is at present. Council gazebos are a wasteful expense.”
A third wrote: “If a uniform style of gazebo is introduced it will be very difficult to see what each stall is offering unless you are very close to it as there will be no branding or signs on the roof of the stalls.”
All of these comments were counted as preferring gazebos to stalls.
“It’s totally misleading,” said trader Alice Young. “It’s like fake news.”
Last week the council agreed a cross-party working group would hold a series of meetings behind closed doors over the market’s future.
Conservatives said the council seemed to be “backpedalling”.
Audio from a recent meeting between traders and civil servants captured a senior officer saying the council would reconsider “whether we go ahead with the trial or not, and the merits indeed of whether we go back to stalls instead of gazebos”.
Council leader Chris White said: “Within any large data set that includes compiling people’s written opinions and comments, there will inevitably be a small margin in which subjective interpretation comes into play. But to zero in on just a few responses out of more than 700 is nit-picking at best.
“Neither St Albans Liberal Democrats nor the council are seeking to hide anything – by publishing the survey responses we have in fact been very transparent, open and honest.”