St Albans’ market traders condemn increase in pitch fees

Market Day in St Albans

Market Day in St Albans - Credit: Archant

Reforms to St Albans’ historic street market including increased fees have been slammed as a threat, with one trader fearing the number of stalls will drop as a result.

Market Day in St Albans

Market Day in St Albans - Credit: Archant

St Albans district council has brought in a raft of changes which it believes will help the city’s Wednesday and Saturday markets ‘flourish’.

But this has led one disgruntled trader of 37 years, who did not want to be named, to warn it is a “heavy-handed approach which threatens the future of St Albans market”.

He added: “Following notice of a change to contract between traders and the council, grave doubts about the viability of the market exist.

“While other markets in Hertfordshire have reduced rents, for example Hitchin, to keep and attract new traders, St Albans has opted for an increase. The plight of high street retailers has been much reported, but seems to have been missed by the market officers.

“Existing traders are now required to pay rent for 50 weeks of the year and are only allowed two weeks off. When most of the country gets four weeks holiday, this arrangement is detrimental to traders and their families.”

As the current fees have not been reassessed or increased for six years, the council has set out a new price with traders now being encouraged to pay by direct debit, which will drop the price of their pitch to about £2 less than those paid for by cash.

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From July 1 this year, traders selling on Saturday market will pay £49 by direct debit or £51 cash or cheque, up from the present £47.

Wednesday traders currently pay £37 and this price will increase by £1.50 if paid by direct debit, or £40 cash or cheque.

While those working both days have been paying £84 for their stalls, this will rise to £87.50 by direct debit or £91 cash or cheque.

By comparison, Hitchin charges licensed traders £21 for a 14ft stall on a Saturday.

Also, rather than allow traders to have permitted absences of up to seven weeks per year, a two week payment break will be given to St Albans market traders instead.

The council says the current trader absence rules are ‘untenable in the long term’ as short notice cancellations are a common occurrence.

Furthermore, a letter setting out the new terms to traders states: “this creates disadvantageous conditions for those traders who are present as empty stalls make the offer less attractive to our visitors.

“It also has a significant impact on market revenues as stalls not occupied mean losses in potential revenue. The consequence of reduced revenues is that it reduces the council’s ability to invest in the infrastructure and marketing that the market needs in order to grow.”

But the letter has been criticised by the annoyed trader, who told the Herts Advertiser: “A lot of people haven’t had any money since Christmas. It was a really miserable November and December last year, so people didn’t take in the money that they would normally have.

“The other market traders are really unhappy about this. One told me his stalls are barely viable, and those who are disadvantaged are going to pack up their stalls because the rules aren’t fair – sometimes we can’t trade because our suppliers have let us down.”

The man added: “Normally if a trader misses a day, the stall is let out to a casual trader. But under the new conditions the council will be paid twice for the same stall if the trader is away for more than two weeks.

“The council is under the impression that they had a successful marketing and PR activity to attract more visitors to St Albans. You only have to ask retail outlets in St Albans to find out there has been a dramatic reduction in footfall in the last 12 months.

“One trader with over 37 years service has moved on to a different market charging a much lower rent as he found it impossible to make a profit in St Albans.”

However, the trader agrees with efforts to encourage sellers to pay by direct debit as rent collectors should not “be permitted to walk the streets with a bag of money.”

The council’s portfolio holder for localism Cllr Beric Read said that following complaints about the two week payment break, this would now be extended to three weeks a year.

He said changes were made to “better organise” the market, particularly as paying by direct debit would be “a lot less work – otherwise we have security problems. Those concerned about the changes can give feedback to the council and we will have a look at that.

“Taxpayers have been subsidising the market traders as there are costs to the council in setting it up – every time they don’t turn up, that stall is being paid for by the taxpayer.”

A Royal Charter was granted for the market in 1553, but it has been documented as far back as the ninth century.