New plans hope to reverse fortunes of loss-making Charter Market

St Albans Charter Market has had to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.

St Albans Charter Market has had to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. - Credit: Archant

Fierce debate continues to rage over plans to replace stalls with gazebos at St Albans Charter Market - part of a concerted bid to ensure it makes a profit for the first time in a decade.

The market has accumulated more than £600,000 in losses in the last five years, with the bulk of costs blamed on the existing market stalls according to the Lib Dem-controlled district council.

Market profits have been in decline for many years. In 2013-14 the combined income of the twice-weekly Charter Market and loss-making monthly Farmers' Market was 36 per cent lower than 2012-13 and 46 per cent lower than 2011-12.

In a bid to stem the decline, the Conservative-run administration introduced a five-year Market Development Plan in 2015, which included the introduction of foodie stalls in Market Place and proposals for pop-up stalls, but despite efforts, losses snowballed out of control over the following years.

Subsidies of approximately £200,000 per annum have been pumped into the market, but with council revenues in decline due to the pandemic, continuing this approach is no longer considered viable.

Cllr Mandy McNeil, portfolio holder for business, tourism and culture on the district council, explained their strategy: “Once we get through the next few months, we hope to have lovely uniform gazebos, which is how medieval markets were often run.

"There is selling space on three sides during warmer weather for increased sales opportunities for traders and to help with social distancing, and the market traders are much happier with the colour scheme. We also have an enhanced marketing and promotions strategy to deliver footfall for our traders, plus a waiting list, including some of our local pubs and restaurants, all keen to operate on the new gazebo market. It’s also cheaper to run.

St Albans Charter Market.

St Albans Charter Market. - Credit: Archant

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“The Conservative opposition has complained about these changes, which is ironic, given the catalyst for the restructuring stems from their poor management oversight of market finances and operations, and failure to implement their own plan.” 

She said moving to a permanent gazebo market, with fixed pitches, will save up to £500,000 a year through a combination of reduced fixed costs and no longer having to fund a deficit.

"We can, very rapidly, turn what was being subsidised, into break even, or potentially, back to being profitable, such that the profits can be reinvested in marketing and promoting the market, which increases footfall.

"We will future proof our market through the use of gazebos and setting up an online market offering, because pandemics are not going away.  Reserves can then be built up and then the gazebo decision can be revisited in the next few years."

Last year the council moved from a cash-based collection system for pitch fees to near cashless, and from April will be implementing pay-in-advance fees, consistent with the majority of other markets around the country, to discourage empty pitches when it rains.

Contracts for fixed pitches will be entered into with traders, and a lease secured with market land owner Herts county council, in a bid to remove most of the £112,000 annual business rate expense.

A business rate appeal is also underway to hopefully recoup a portion of the £235,000 annual rates paid since 2017, a figure higher than some London markets.

Cllr McNeil added: "Our initiatives will turn market finances around. These are initiatives which could have been implemented under the previous administration if they had implemented the objectives and recommendations in their own Market Development Plan. 

"Had they done so, our market would have been better placed financially to face the pandemic and the new paradigm. We might not have had to cut services like free green waste disposal for residents either. 

"Our new market structure combines prudent financial management, with innovation, and will deliver increased footfall to our vibrant city centre, at a lower cost, for the benefit of our traders, businesses and residents."

  • Plans to redevelop the market depot in Drovers Way have been recommended for further examination by SADC's planning, resources, housing and commercial scrutiny committee when the Charter Market consultation is concluded.