Charter Market rebellion over contracts and gazebos
Laura Bill and Matt Adams
- Credit: Matt Adams
Charter Market traders are saying 'enough is enough' over what they believe is a strategy to undermine the 1,200-year-old institution.
St Albans stallholders have finally spoken out following months of silence after being told to sign a 27-page contract requiring them to switch to self-erected gazebos instead of the traditional market stalls.
A coalition of long-term traders has blown the whistle on what they perceive as a move to grind them down and boost rival markets in the city centre.
They are furious that the characteristic market stalls are set to be replaced with gazebos and claim many well-established traders have been undermined by casuals with no loyalty to St Albans.
The gazebos are set to be piloted during mild summer weather, but many traders will have to pay for help in transporting and erecting them while pitch fees remain the same.
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In the agenda of a SADC cabinet meeting held on March 18, it was claimed there was overwhelming support for the gazebos from traders in a consultation meeting held prior to the pandemic.
The report read: "Approximately 75% (60 of the 80 permanent) traders attended the meeting. Among other things, a move to gazebos was suggested to save costs and return the market to break-even. A show of hands showed an overall response supportive of a gazebo market, contingent upon this not resulting in an increase in fees and, ideally a fee reduction."
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Antiques dealer Alice Young, speaking on behalf of stall-holders, said: "The gazebos were never voted for by traders, but we were told there was a show of hands in support of them following a meeting in February 2020. Where are the minutes for this meeting? No vote on gazebos even happened.
"If people had been told there and then that there would be no stalls there would have been outrage, but nobody thought this would happen.
"We were told to use the government funds which were meant to help us with our loss of income from the first lockdown to buy gazebos which we then had to erect, dismantle, transport and store.
"Many permanent or casual traders did not have cars big enough nor the strength for this labour intensive activity.
"The council blamed Covid for getting rid of the stall erectors, and claimed the market is losing money even though there were queues of traders wanting pitches after the first lockdown.
"This is about saving the Charter Market, and we feel due process has not been followed in making these changes."
The measures have prompted criticism from the chief executive of the NMTF (National Market Traders Federation) after it was contacted by members trading in St Albans.
Joe Harrison told SADC: "The NMTF has serious concerns as to the proposed changes being workable and adhered to by the traders and we strongly support [them] in their concerns.
"The overriding concern by both the NMTF and the traders is that all these changes are being proposed during what has to be and has come to be known as the worst and most difficult time in living memory for both the market as a whole and the individual traders."
Cllr Mandy McNeil, portfolio holder for business, tourism and culture, said the council had made discretionary grants available to traders to help them through these tough times, was promoting the market through TV advertising, and now had a waiting list of over 100 traders.
She told Mr Harrison: "There is plenty of misinformation being spread which has caused great distress to some of our traders. For example, rumours that we are going to close the market... that we intend on getting rid of traders and replacing them. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Conservative group leader Cllr Mary Maynard told Mr Harrison that Tory councillors were totally committed to the Charter Market, and see it as much more than just a commercial enterprise.
She suggested other city centre markets were being favoured financially and put in competition with the Charter Market.
"We also think the new terms and conditions that are being proposed for traders are unnecessarily draconian and possibly illegal. They would certainly be very difficult to legally enforce.
"We do not agree with the way the traders have been treated by the council... There needs to be respect and both sides need to listen to the other's concerns and issues and seek to develop a mutually agreeable approach."