Why have 50 St Albans charter market traders filed a formal complaint?

Charter market poster

Fifty St Albans charter market traders have filed a formal complaint against a Lib Dem councillor. - Credit: Charles Thomson

Fifty market traders have filed a formal complaint against a senior councillor, alleging she has made a series of misleading claims to justify unpopular changes to the historic St Albans Charter Market.  

Their complaint is against Lib Dem councillor Mandy McNeil, who has repeatedly made the case for a cost-cutting switch from traditional market stalls to gazebos. 

Traders say claims made by Cllr McNeil gave a false impression that residents and businesses supported the change. 

Mandy McNeil, St Albans Council's lead member for business, said the authority's officers were worki

A group of 50 charter market traders have filed a formal complaint against Lib Dem councillor Mandy McNeil, alleging that she has made a series of false or misleading statements to justify changes to St Albans charter market. - Credit: Archant

They have also questioned the council’s financial case for the overhaul. 

Former market insiders, who are liaising with the traders and have spoken to the Herts Ad, say they do not believe the market is losing the sums which the council has claimed. 

The traders behind the complaint – who represent a sizeable majority of the current market – say they believe the council’s plan will ultimately destroy the market, taking down surrounding businesses in the process. 

They also claim the council is pretending to be open-minded whilst really trying to force the changes through. 

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In a Cabinet meeting in March, councillors said the changes would only go ahead if a pilot scheme was successful. 

But the staff who erected the old stalls have already been made redundant, before the pilot scheme has even begun. 

Income from a planned housing development on the market depot has been earmarked to deliver on an election pledge in the council leader’s ward, doing up the Fleetville Community Centre. 

Some traders are now considering legal action against the council. 

Lib Dems have dismissed the traders' complaints as "conspiracy theories".

Market day in St Albans

St Albans charter market as it looked before the COVID-19 pandemic. - Credit: Archant

Why the change? 

For decades, St Albans Charter Market has lined St Peter's Street with more than a hundred of its trademark, uniform, blue and yellow stalls. 

But last Wednesday, August 25, the market consisted of around 40 stalls, each different in appearance, spread - “higgledy-piddledy”, as one trader put it – between the museum and The Entertainer. 

The only thing uniform last Wednesday was that so many of the stalls bore identical yellow posters declaring: “Save our Charter Market”. 

Since last September, battle lines have been drawn between traders – some of whose stalls have been run for over 50 years by multiple generations – and St Albans council (SADC), which wants to take away their stalls and replace them with gazebos. 

St Albans Charter Market this week.

How St Albans charter market looks since the pandemic hit. - Credit: Matt Adams

The council claims radical changes are needed because the market is haemorrhaging money. 

According to Cllr Mandy McNeil, in 2010 the market had 170 traders and generated £700,000 per year. 

By 2018, she said it was down to around 80 traders and generating £500,000 in revenue. 

A 2019 audit report said the market was “not currently financially viable without the council subsidising it”. 

“We went from a surplus to a deficit that exponentially snowballed,” Cllr McNeil told Cabinet in March, with losses at one point allegedly topping £180,000. 

“It’s not rocket science,” Cllr McNeil said. “If you’re losing revenue and you’ve lost half your traders and your fixed costs go up, you’re going to lose money unless you do something about it tout suite.” 

The History 

But some say the council is approaching the problem with the wrong attitude. 

The Charter Market, held every Wednesday and Saturday, has operated since 1553 and is one of the city’s key tourist attractions. 

How St Albans Charter Market looked before the pandemic.

How St Albans Charter Market looked before the pandemic. - Credit: SADC

“If you go to the town centre on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, it’s like a ghost town,” said Mark Tyler, whose family has sold fruit and veg on the market for decades. 

But on market days, St Albans is a popular coach trip destination – and traders say the visitors, from all over Herts, London and Essex, also spend money in shops, pubs, cafés and restaurants. 

“I have customers that come from Barnet every Saturday,” said Mark. “The market works hand in hand with the shops. It brings footfall.  

“I know an estate agent who says he has sold houses on the back of that market – how it looked, the atmosphere, the vibrancy. Where else can you go and see that now?” 

Conservative councillor Annie Brewster

Head of scrutiny Annie Brewster has raised repeated concerns over the handling of a public consultation about switching to a gazebo market. - Credit: Danny Loo

“Peanuts” 

Conservative councillor Annie Brewster, head of scrutiny, wondered why, if St Albans could subsidise museums to the tune of a million pounds, it shouldn’t subsidise the “iconic” Charter Market too. 

The alleged losses on its organisation, she said, were “peanuts” compared to the millions that its visitors injected into the local economy. 

“The other jewel in our crown, the cathedral, costs £3k a day to run, but that is not being replaced by a gazebo,” she wrote in an email to colleagues in February. 

The 2019 audit described the market as “a valuable community asset”, which “contributes to the vibrancy of the city centre”. 

The council could run it at a loss, auditors said, if it deemed it a civic service. 

But, said the Lib Dems: “The council does not have the money. COVID wiped out its reserves and it is facing a deficit. As a result, officers proposed a market restructuring as an alternative to cutting essential services.” 

When Cllr Brewster got wind that the administration planned to scrap the city’s famous market stalls and replace them with gazebos, she raised it with her scrutiny committee, which demanded the public be consulted. 

What happened next, she said, left her astonished. 

The Public Consultation 

“The survey didn’t ask the question that scrutiny wanted to be asked,” said Cllr Brewster. 

When the questionnaire went live, it did not ask whether residents would prefer to keep the stalls or switch to gazebos. 

The survey instead started from a position of switching to gazebos and asked residents which designs they would prefer. 

How the Charter Market might look in the future by Sarah Gillow.

How the Charter Market might look in the future by Sarah Gillow. - Credit: SADC

She emailed the council’s CEO, communications team and head of service. 

“Is this a mistake?” she asked. “This is not what the scrutiny committee called for... I fear, on multiple levels, this survey lacks comprehensive detail and ask for it to be withdrawn, remodelled and reissued.” 

But the survey was never fixed. 

Instead, Cllr Brewster received a reply less than an hour later, saying her comments had been “recorded as a response to the consultation”. 

The Results 

A report presented to the Cabinet after the consultation ended said over 700 residents had responded. 

“Approximately 90 per cent of comments were supportive of the market change,” the document claimed, whereas only 10 per cent “commented on retaining the stalls or made other comments around operations.” 

This claim was repeated at an overview and scrutiny meeting on June 17, after Tory councillor Frances Leonard complained: “There was a consultation which basically said ‘do you want yellow gazebos or yellow gazebos’. There wasn’t a question about ‘do you want the original stalls back’.” 

“That’s partially incorrect,” replied Mandy McNeil. “In the survey there was actually ample room for comment and in the comments we got an overwhelming amount of people saying that they preferred the gazebos to stalls.” 

Cllr Mandy McNeil promoting safe shopping in St Albans

Cllr Mandy McNeil promoting safe shopping in St Albans city centre. - Credit: Daisy Cooper

The Lib Dems claim there were 73 comments “explicitly against” gazebos, 67 “explicitly in favour”, and 28 which supported them “with qualifications”. 

But traders say that even if that is true, only 95 people expressed support for gazebos - whereas the council had claimed it was 90 per cent of more than 700.

The Recount

But Conservative councillors dispute the Lib Dems' figures.

They demanded copies of all the completed surveys and arrived at a different conclusion. 

On their analysis, 90 per cent of respondents had said nothing at all about the issue of “traditional stalls versus gazebos” – most likely because the survey never asked. 

Conservative councillor Mary Maynard said she combed through the general comments and counted 74 respondents who expressed an opinion on the issue. 

Of those, she said 62 commented in favour of traditional stalls, compared to just 12 in favour of gazebos. 

Cllr Mary Maynard.

Cllr Mary Maynard. - Credit: Archant

"There is currently some discussion amongst councillors as to how the response to the consultations should be interpreted," said Joe Tavernier, the council's head of service with responsibility for the market.

This is one of several discrepancies which form the basis of the complaint traders filed last week against Cllr McNeil. 

They say the council has persistently misstated facts and figures to bolster the case for the change. 

Another example, they contend, is several claims which have been made about the traders’ position. 

The Traders 

On March 18, Cllr McNeil told Cabinet that at a meeting in spring 2020, traders backed the change to gazebos. 

“We had a show of hands,” she claimed. “I think there were about 60 traders that were present... and the majority of them were happy with that." 

But the Herts Ad has spoken to numerous traders who attended that meeting and insist this never happened. 

St Albans Charter Market traders are protesting against the council's COVID restrictions.

St Albans charter market traders protested last year over changes imposed by the council. - Credit: Archant

"They’re saying things that are not true,” said flower seller Vince Lanza, who has traded on the Charter Market for over a decade. 

“If there was a room of 60 traders there, are you trying to tell me that they all fell asleep when this vote was taken?”

The Lib Dems sent the Herts Ad a quote from a trader who said they had attended the meeting and did recall a show of hands, but would not give the trader’s name.  

Cabinet 

Traders said this was not the only time they had been wrongly described as supporting the change. 

Several said the first they ever heard about a permanent change to gazebos was in September 2020, when Cllr McNeil told a Cabinet meeting it was “not expected that the market would revert to the use of stalls in future”. 

The recording of that meeting has disappeared from the council website, but the minutes survive. 

“Market traders had expressed a number of disadvantages presented by the traditional stalls,” they record Cllr McNeil as telling colleagues. “The traders had generally been in favour of the gazebos.” 

When the Herts Ad reported on the meeting, many traders were baffled, saying they had neither known of nor expressed support for a permanent change. 

Richard Curthoys

Richard Curthoys was told he could not see notes from council meetings with traders, because it would breach GDPR rules. - Credit: Richard Curthoys

"Not yet consulted” 

Civil servants had been hosting regular meetings with market traders, to discuss the gradual reopening after COVID-19 lockdown. 

Conservative councillor Richard Curthoys asked for officers’ notes, to see whether they reflected the claims made to Cabinet. 

After initially being told he could not see the documents because it would breach data protection rules, he obtained them under Freedom of Information laws. 

Officers’ notes from September 25, 2020 – five days after Cllr McNeil had claimed most traders favoured the gazebos – stated: “St Albans district council have not yet consulted [traders] regarding gazebos, but intend to.” 

The notes from the meetings showed traders had been told in July 2020 that the gazebos were to stay for the three or four months, not forever. 

The Trader Consultation 

When traders were eventually consulted, they, like residents, were given no choice between stalls and gazebos. 

They were only asked who should be responsible for supplying or storing the new gazebos. 

A minority of traders responded to that consultation. 

Since then, they say, Cllr McNeil has made repeated comments about a “steering group” or “strategy group” which was representing traders and helping to sculpt the council’s plans. 

Last week, it emerged that this had been a stakeholders’ group which only included one Charter Market trader, who has since abandoned the market. 

St Albans Charter Market traders are protesting against the council's COVID restrictions.

St Albans charter market traders protested last year over changes imposed by the council. - Credit: Archant

When the Herts Ad surveyed 45 traders this May, 31 said they wanted a return to the old stalls. 

Just eight preferred the gazebos. 

“The majority are anti-gazebo,” said Sharon Herd, who has run a baked goods stall for over 30 years 

“Why can the council not put it to the traders? Why can we not have a vote on what the traders want – gazebos or stalls?” 

So many traders have already quit over the change, said fabric seller Jonathan Keizer, that any saving on stall erectors may be negated by the loss of income. 

He said working on the market now felt like sitting in “God’s waiting room”. 

“They are not listening at all,” said Munib Islam, who runs a phone accessories stall.

Munib Islam sells phone accessories on St Albans charter market

Munib Islam, who sells phone accessories, said he did not believe the council was listening to traders. - Credit: Charles Thomson

What’s the problem with gazebos? 

After the pandemic lockdown closed the market, the council said it could only reopen again as a gazebo market, as the stalls could not be erected in a Covid-secure way. 

“It was either that or no market,” said the Lib Dems. 

But traders were told they would have to spend their own money – or government grant money, intended to compensate them for their loss of income – on gazebos. 

That cost was only one barrier. Another was the practicality. 

Sharon Herd already uses a gazebo on other markets, but said she was opposed to the change in St Albans because of its impact on other traders. 

“St Albans has lots of little old ladies trading out of cars,” she said. “They can’t put them up on their own. It’s too hard. It’s a two-man job.” 

Lots of traders put their stock in their cars, market stalwarts said, and set it up on the pre-erected stalls. 

“So even if the council supplied the gazebos, they can't get all the tables and everything in their cars,” a trader said. 

“We’ve had traders here who came by bus,” said Steve Matthews, who has run his framing business on the market for 28 years. “New businesses haven’t got the investment for a gazebo.” 

“We are paying the same as when they supplied and built the old stalls, but now you get nothing. You supply everything yourself,” another trader complained.

 

St Albans at his frames stall on St Albans charter market

Steve Matthews, who has run his framing stall on St Albans charter market for 28 years. - Credit: Charles Thomson

Safety Concerns

There are also concerns over how the stalls will hold up in adverse weather. 

“I’ve seen hundreds of gazebos blow away,” said Sharon. “They are not safe. Even with weights, they can take off. But I’ve never, in 35 years, seen a market stall blow away.” 

Until the pilot scheme is completed, anchors are unlikely to be installed in the city centre to hold the gazebos down. 

In a trader meeting last week, Joe Tavernier said that meant traders would be going into this winter without the proper infrastructure. 

“We are not going to be having tie-downs in place this calendar year and so there is an increased or comparable risk of cancellations due to weather,” he admitted. 

Each cancelled market amounts to a lost day of income for the traders. 

Fatima Ibrahim, who sells blinds, only joined the Charter Market two years ago – and the fact that the stalls were provided informed her decision. 

“It takes about 40 minutes for me to put the gazebo up,” she said. “Previously, everything was just there. The lighting was also provided, but now we’re going to have to buy our own lighting for winter.” 

Asked whether she would join others in leaving if the gazebos became permanent, she replied: “I will stick it out as much as I can. That’s about as much as I can say. But hopefully they will start listening to us. We can only pray.” 

Fatima Ibrahim at her blinds stall on St Albans charter market

Blinds seller Fatima Ibrahim said she chose St Alban charter market because the stalls were erected for sellers, but now has to spend 40 minutes struggling to erect her own gazebo. - Credit: Charles Thomson

“Intimidation” 

When traders thought the gazebos were a temporary COVID-19 measure, they were prepared to either forfeit trading or put up with the change. 

But when they learned the plan was for a permanent switch, they began to organise. 

Since then, several told the Herts Ad, they have felt “threatened”, “intimidated”, “harassed”, “bullied” and “spied on” by the council. 

On two occasions, large groups of traders have nominated particular stall-holders to represent their anti-gazebo position. 

Both times, the chosen stall-holders were then suspended from the market. 

One was suspended for parking a van next to their gazebo, which they said they had done on a windy day out of fear it might blow away and injure somebody. 

“Other people have done the same thing and haven’t been suspended,” they said, saying they did not wish to be named for fear of reprisal. 

The next chosen representative was antiques dealer Alice Young, who said she was then suspended after another, pro-gazebo trader approached her stall and provoked an argument. 

Her suspension was overturned on appeal. 

The pro-gazebo trader was never suspended over their part in the spat. 

SADC said it “does not like suspending traders and only does so under very specific circumstances and, in most instances, where there has been repeat behaviour”. 

Politics 

Since battle lines were drawn between the council and the traders, traders have been asked to sign new agreements banning them from discussing “political views” on the market. 

The suggestion came as a shock, given that members of the Lib Dem administration have previously manned stalls on the Charter Market promoting membership of the EU. 

St Albans for Europe spoke to Remainers at St Albans market

Lib Dem councillor Danny Clare (right) is pictured at a pro-EU stall on St Albans charter market - but traders have since been asked them to sign agreements banning them from discussing 'politics' on the market. - Credit: Archant

Cllr Curthoys labelled the contracts “draconian”, asking in a public meeting: “Is this code of conduct also for bricks and mortar traders who operate premises in the district which the council owns? Or is this just an attempt to totally control market traders?” 

Cllr McNeil told Cabinet in March that the new terms had been drawn up “in consultation with the National Market Traders’ Federation”. 

The federation declined to comment for this story, citing the “sensitivity” of the issue, but the Herts Ad has seen evidence that it wrote to councillors in April this year to express “disquiet” about the “new terms and conditions”. 

“The NMTF has serious concerns as to the proposed changes being workable and adhered to by the traders and we strongly support the traders in their concerns,” wrote chief executive Joe Harrison. 

The council said its audit team had twice recommended new terms and conditions be introduced, “to help improve the market’s stability”, “safeguard traders, residents and staff” and “enable the council to run the market in a modern and professional way”. 

“They are similar to terms and conditions of well performing markets across the country, which have been relatively few in number throughout the pandemic, with St Albans as a good exception,” said Joe Tavernier. 

Ulterior motive? 

Rumours and theories abound on the market as to potential ulterior motives. 

“It all seems to be about depleting the market and selling more food and beer,” said Alice. 

Alice Young and her antiques stall on St Albans Charter Market

Antiques dealer Alice Young was chosen as a representative for dozens of St Albans charter market traders, then hit with a suspension. - Credit: Charles Thomson

“All they want now is coffee shops and food stalls,” agreed foam seller Paul Chilton, whose family has traded on the Charter Market since the 1950s. 

In June, Cllr McNeil introduced a report at a regeneration and business committee meeting, seeking to alter the rules surrounding the Charter Market, to permit more al fresco dining. 

Rules currently ban restaurants and bars from putting out tables and chairs on Charter Market days. 

Denise Parsons, manager of the St Albans Business Improvement District (BID), appeared by video link to advocate “a change of policy to pavement licences... to allow more additional seating in our city centre, especially around market days, and look at the mix of the market as well.” 

In other words, the Charter Market would shrink so restaurants and bars could encroach on its current space. 

Cllr Beric Read said this had been considered before but rejected “because if we were putting seating in, we were going to be losing stalls.” 

Chairman Robert Donald replied that it was “accepted” that stalls would be lost. 

Not Consulted 

Cllr Read suggested this was self-sabotaging, explaining: “If we are putting chairs out during the day... and we are losing market stall space, then there is a cost to the council – because we are not getting money in for the market stalls.” 

Cllr McNeil claimed market traders supported the plans for extra seating and “have a view on what the mix should be of the market, and whether it should be rebuilt back up to capacity or whether it should be something that’s symbiotic and helps flow footfall”. 

Traders who spoke to the Herts Ad disagreed, saying the first they heard of the proposal was weeks after the June meeting, when the council launched a consultation. 

“I’ve never been asked,” said Jonathan Keizer. 

“We’d never been asked,” agreed Chris Hardwick, who has traded on the market with wife Anita for 29 years. 

“We only work here two days a week. The other businesses are here seven days a week. Why are they making a fuss about our two days? Why interfere with the charter? It’s like harassment.” 

Jonathan Keizer on his materials stall at St Albans charter market

Fabric seller Jonathan Keizer said the planned switch to gazebos had driven away lots of traders. - Credit: Charles Thomson

The BID 

The BID, lobbying for the new pavement policy, features strongly in market traders’ concerns. 

Councillors were told earlier this year that the market last turned a profit in 2016 - the last year before the BID was born. 

As a business within the district, the market is charged a levy by the BID – an outgoing which contributes, albeit in a small way, to the operational losses now being used to justify the switch to gazebos. 

It has also – in traders' opinion – systematically undermined the Charter Market by hosting rival markets which charge significantly less for pitches. 

One runs every Friday and costs £20 per pitch. 

A pitch at the Wednesday Charter Market is £40. Saturdays are £51. 

“It allows people to undercut the Charter Market,” said Sharon Herd. “If they haven’t got to pay as much, they can charge less.” 

She said she knew of traders who had moved to the BID markets because they were cheaper. 

“There’s too many markets for the town,” said Chris Hardwick.  

“The BID is undercutting the Charter Market. It feels like they are trying to kill the Charter Market, which was here even before any shops were here.” 

Rival markets 

Councillors have also identified this issue. 

In March, Cllr Leonard told a scrutiny meeting: “I’m a little bit concerned about the relationship with the BID... Will that affect the profitability of our market going forward, if some of our traders decide to go to the BID [and] pay less? The council doesn’t get any income, by the way, from the BID market. The BID gets it.” 

Cllr Frances Leonard

Conservative councillor Frances Leonard said the public consultation had failed to ask the most important question - whether residents wanted the traditional stalls, or new gazebos. - Credit: Danny Loo

The 2019 audit did not address the impact of the BID's rival markets on the Charter Market’s viability. 

Listings on the BID’s website suggest it holds upwards of 90 markets per year, with more planned, including a Bangladeshi market, a Black History Month market and a Young Traders market. 

Cllr McNeil has also spoken of plans for a new indoor market. 

When an update on the 2019 audit was presented to the audit committee in April, chairman Julian Daly asked: “There’s been a bit of a running issue with how the charter market fits in with the BID markets, given the BID markets under-pricing the Charter Market. Has that appeared as a risk on the risk register?” 

Officers said they didn’t know, but they didn’t think it did. 

Cllr Julian Daly

Audit chairman Julian Daly raised concerns that the St Albans BID was undermining the charter market by hosting cheaper, rival markets. - Credit: Archant

Self-interest? 

The BID came into existence in late 2016.  

In late 2021, its five-year term will be up and businesses will have to vote on whether to continue paying the levy. 

If the majority opt out, the BID must find alternate income or close down. 

As SADC pays money to the BID, councillors have tried repeatedly to audit it and check whether it delivers value for money, ahead of the vote later this year. 

But each time councillors have ordered an audit, civil servants have cancelled it. 

In July, when the audit committee asked why it had been once blocked again, a civil servant replied that they had discussed it “with the chief executive and we felt it wasn’t necessary to audit it at this time”. 

Councillors and traders say they fear favours are being done for the BID, at the council’s expense. 

Tories speculate that renting out hundreds of market pitches per week – with minimal running costs, if stall-holders must erect and dismantle their own gazebos – might generate the income required to survive an adverse vote. 

They also suggest that Cllr McNeil might have a personal reason for wanting to do that. 

Conflict of interest? 

In March, Cllr Read told a Cabinet meeting that concerns had been raised that Cllr McNeil had a conflict of interest. 

As portfolio holder for business, her role included liaising closely with the BID. 

But according to the BID website, Cllr McNeil was simultaneously serving as the co-vice-chairman of the BID board. 

Moreover, he said, there were “rumours” that she had a personal relationship with the BID manager. 

“There’s been some rumours, and I just think it needs clarifying, that the new BID manager also works for the portfolio holder’s business, or used to work for the portfolio holder. Rumours like that don’t potentially look good,” he said. 

Beric Read

Cllr Beric Read raised concerns that Mandy McNeil had a personal relationship with the BID manager. - Credit: Beric Read

“That’s no rumour,” replied Cllr McNeil. “That’s a fact... Denise used to work for me. She also is a friend and she also no longer works for me.” 

Cllr McNeil added: “I was not involved in the BID manager’s appointment. I disqualified myself, recused myself.” 

In May, she also told the Herts Ad she was no longer involved in the running of the BID. 

But as of last week, Ms Parsons was still listed as a team member on the website for Cllr McNeil’s insurance advisory company, Mandy McNeil International, and Cllr McNeil was still listed as co-voice-chair of the BID board on the BID website. 

Conservative councillors say that even if Cllr McNeil recused herself from Ms Parsons’ appointment, there was a potential conflict in her running a portfolio which involved a service operated by her good friend and former colleague after she was appointed. 

BID Response 

The BID told the Herts Ad that it “actively promotes and supports” the Charter Market, as it is “at the heart of the St Albans story and is a huge attraction for locals and visitors”. 

It said it had to adapt after COVID-19 “changed the way that people shopped and rapidly accelerated the trend for online shopping”, so it created a Friday market “as a safe shopping experience”. 

Crescent trustee Denise Parsons and chair of trustees Mark Andrews with the world aids day awareness

St Albans BID manager Denise Parsons. - Credit: Archant

Ms Parsons said the BID was “apolitical” and “democratically elected”. 

“As a not-for-profit entity, the BID operates their markets on a cost recovery model to benefit everybody,” she said. 

“For hundreds of years, the Charter Market and High Street have been interwoven, with businesses starting on the market before moving to bricks and mortar premises. 

“The new pop-up markets have helped save many businesses from going under but have also created additionality, with many traders now on the waiting list for a spot on the legendary charter market.” 

The Lib Dems’ Response 

The Lib Dems said that far from undermining the Charter Market, they had worked to reopen it amid COVID-19, “much better than most towns which closed their market”.

They said the plan to introduce more al fresco dining was “part of the central government Levelling Up plan, which local authorities are expected to implement”. 

The party said Ms Parsons was a former council employee who had worked in services under the portfolios of Cllrs Beric Read and Salih Gaygusuz. 

“In terms of personnel, people often employ good people they know, and in this instance, Denise Parsons was well known to many of the BID board, who hired her and to whom, she reports. Cllr McNeil recused herself from the appointment process for the current BID manager,” a spokesperson said. 

They added: “The BID markets are break-even at best.” 

Loss-making? 

Questions have also been raised over the figures being used to justify the changes. 

When traders and councillors obtained copies of the market’s accounts, they found the council employed multiple full-time staff – with a £98,000 salary bill – to run a two-day-a-week market. 

Foam seller Paul Chilton, who runs Thame Market when he isn’t trading in St Albans, said that expenditure was unnecessary. 

“Running a market is not rocket science,” he said. “It’s easy to do.” 

Paul Chilton at his foam stall on St Albans charter market

Foam seller Paul Chilton said he ran a market in Thame and felt the council's alleged costs for running St Albans charter markets were unnecessarily high. - Credit: Charles Thomson

The most recent figures, from 2019/20, still showed the Charter Market bringing in £443,263. 

“If you can’t make a profit out of that, you’ve got to be an 18-carat idiot,” said Mark Tyler. 

Yet the accounts recorded an overall loss of almost £190,000. 

 “If these people worked for me, I would sack them,” he added. 

The Accounts 

In a statement to the Herts Ad, SADC said: “The market has been costing the council more to erect the stalls than is received in pitch fees for many years.” 

But traders dispute that. 

The accounts for 2019/20 showed roughly £167,000 spent on wages for market staff, £58,000 on casual labour and overtime, and £25,000 on pension contributions - a total of roughly £250,000 (or £350,000, including officer salaries), compared to £443,263 of income. 

Other outgoings fluctuated wildly. For instance, rubbish tipping fees in 2014/15 were just over £2,000. By 2017/18, they were over £30,000. In 2019/20, they were just under £20,000. 

“If you’ve got roughly the same number of stalls in the same street, how does the tipping cost go up by 10 and 15 times?” asked one trader. 

Stallholders later learned the figures they’d been given were not specific to the Charter Market and included outgoings on Christmas markets and farmers' markets, which they described as loss-making “white elephants”. 

The launch of the St Albans Christmas Charter Market. Picture: Stephanie Belton

Traders say the losses attributed to the St Albans charter market actually included expenditure on a loss-making 'white elephant' Christmas market. - Credit: Stephanie Belton

“The council keeps telling us how much money we’re costing the public, but they’re charging us for Christmas markets we have nothing to do with,” said one. 

But the biggest concern were the monies being paid out by the council, to the council. 

In 2019/20, the market paid £93,000 in "recharges” – meaning payments to other council departments, and over £110,000 in "rates” – which the council pays to itself. Some of the rates are paid to central government, but are then recycled as grants to local authorities. 

These two figures alone totalled £203,000.  

The market’s alleged “losses” that year were £188,383.02. 

The Sex Shops 

According to former market insiders, the charter market’s alleged losses are attributable to a landmark legal ruling involving Soho sex shops. 

In 2012, a group of sex shop proprietors won a High Court legal action against Westminster Council, on grounds that it was profiteering from the sale of trader licences and could only justify 10 per cent of its fees. 

According to sources who had intimate knowledge of the running of St Albans Charter Market, the case rang alarm bells at SADC, as the market’s income was much higher than its outgoings. 

Only one of the insiders was willing to be named in this story. He was Jeff Smyth – market officer from roughly 2004 to 2014. 

Left to right: Jeff Smyth and Kevin McGlue

Former market officer Jeff Smyth (left), pictured in 2011 handing a bottle of whiskey to long-serving trader Kevin McGlue, said he was asked by St Albans Council to make its charter market look unprofitable. - Credit: Archant

“The sex shop owners were looking for repayment,” said Mr Smyth. “That sets off a panic in any kind of licencing in local authorities because, frankly, there was a lot of profiteering on these things.” 

According to Mr Smyth, he and others were tasked with making the market appear less profitable, to head off any copycat lawsuits by groups of Charter Market traders. 

“We were in profit quite considerably,” he said. “Somewhere about £300,000. So we were looking at trying to find ways to redistribute it.” 

The Insiders 

One insider recalled Mr Smyth joking that he’d had a very successful afternoon, as he had “managed to get rid of £100,000 in an afternoon”. 

Asked whether he recalled making that comment, Mr Smyth said he did. 

“It’s in-house budget manipulation,” he said. “We just went to departments and said, ‘How much can you charge us?’ 

“You might bung central services some cash. So you pay one figure to central services for things like IT, stationery, phones – but then you also put in separate budget entries for IT, stationery, phones. 

“It wasn’t illegal. It was just considered pragmatic to deal with this issue prior to it coming to a head – before the Westminster issued was finalised: get rid of the money fast and spread the jam a bit more thinly. 

“None of this money was actually going outside of the council. It was just shuffling the money about the council.” 

After this exercise, said Mr Smyth, the market appeared on paper to be either break-even or making a far smaller profit. 

He and other were rewarded for their efforts in 2014 with redundancy. 

That financial year - 2014/15 - officers added £56,286 in redundancy costs to the Charter Market accounts. 

In 2013/14, it had made a profit of over £50,000. In 2014/15, it made a loss of almost £113,000. 

Broken 

When he saw in the Herts Ad that the council was using alleged losses as a reason to switch to gazebos and sack stall erectors, Mr Smyth said he felt compelled to speak out. 

In his opinion, the turnover in both staff and councillors over the past decade means the mission he was given has been forgotten, and to the current crop, the market just appears on paper to be losing money. 

“I think there is a lack of institutional knowledge or memory,” he said. “I live in St Albans. It’s my town. I’ve been watching the market come and go for many years.  

“They are saying things like the market was losing money and I’m looking at it, saying, ‘Well, I don’t see how because nothing has changed’. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.” 

He believes the planned changes will “destroy the Charter Market”. 

“I think it’s going to be a next to impossible task to actually rebuild it,” he said. “They’ve broken it so badly.” 

St Albans Council

St Albans Council said it had been transparent and that councillors were still deliberating over the charter market's future. - Credit: Google Streetview

The Council 

SADC said market erectors were made redundant at the end of 2020 “as they were no longer needed at that time”. 

“The council’s regeneration and business committee will be considering the establishment of a councillor working group at its meeting on September 2 to consider the future arrangements for the market,” said Joe Tavernier. 

“The council is transparent in its undertakings and uses standard public sector accounting practices. The way the market budget is administered remains the same as has been the case for many years. Charging overheads centrally is standard practice. 

“The council’s accounts are audited by an external company annually. The external auditors attend an audit committee meeting each year to highlight their findings and recommendations to councillors and to answer any questions. These accounts are published and available on the council’s website. 

“The council pays business rates to the government on the charter market. Rateable values are set by central government.” 

Cllr McNeil 

Cllr McNeil did not respond to the Herts Ad’s request for comment. 

After emailing her, the Herts Ad received 13 emails from businesses - some in the city centre, others from elsewhere in the district - saying they opposed the Charter Market traders’ complaints about Cllr McNeil and felt she was doing an excellent job. 

Cllr Mandy McNeil

Cllr Mandy McNeil did not respond to the Herts Ad, but 13 businesses wrote in to defend her. - Credit: Archant

Two of the emails came from different businesses but were identically worded. 

Four came from market stall holders. 

One couple, who asked not to be named, wrote: “As far as we are concerned Mandy McNeil has been supportive of the market and especially during the global pandemic when she fought for us traders to continue with our business with our own gazebos.  

“She always looks for solutions and does not create problems as many of the market traders seem to. 

“She arranged for some support for some traders who were having some difficulty with cash grants, so gazebos could be purchased, she arranged for BID gazebos to be used by traders to help them out. 

“We do not believe that Mandy should be sanctioned in any way and should in fact be commended for all her hard work, during a very difficult year.” 

Another, who also asked to remain anonymous, wrote: “Mandy has provided unwavering support for local businesses including the Charter Market, throughout the pandemic.  She has made a real and positive difference over the past 18 months. 

“Archant, a newspaper company, should be shouting about our market, not looking at ways to bring it, and the people who work hard on it and support in, into disrepute.” 

Other businesses which wrote in support of Cllr McNeil included a pub, a boutique, a flower shop and a security firm. 

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