A Market Traders Perspective - By Alice Young
Our Aim and the Importance of Freedom of Speech
The current aim of this website is to inform the Public of St. Albans and its environs about what has been really happening to St. Albans Charter Market, before, during and post-pandemic. It is vital now that the Public do understand what has been and is occurring as we are at a critical point in terms of where we are with the planned demise of the traditional Charter Market.
We must do everything within our power NOW to safeguard its future. We have seen over 100 traders lose their beloved positions and trading opportunities and between 14-16 stall erectors lose their livelihoods – some of whom were father and son teams who had worked for over 40 years erecting stalls. The stalls sit in the depot along with all of the equipment unused while traders struggle against winds and rains with unsafe gazebos and unresolved issues re. health and safety and insurance policies. A drastic change of working conditions including time consuming manual labour which takes up precious time traders should be using to sell their goods, and non-provision of equipment, have not been recognised by a decrease in rent which still remains the highest in the country and despite the clear denial of this being the way forward for St. Albans Charter Market (which was one of the best markets in the country up until 2 years ago) by the National Market Traders Federation, we are told there is to be a pilot scheme of 20 gazebos this June (mid-summer) which will not represent a winter at the market as it is.
A pilot scheme for what purpose? Will it fail? Where will these gazebos be positioned and who will erect them? Traders are not insured to erect Council or other’s property. Are the nearby shops and the Public protected by insurance should there be any accidents? Currently gazebos are erected at different times from 5.00 to 9.30 and dismantled from 3.00 to 6.00 which means many vehicles are on the pavement for long periods. This is dangerous for pedestrians and looks a mess.
The Current Political Situation in St. Albans and the situation over the last two years
This forum is not a political tool – however references to the current administration and any that is in power are relevant and as the market’s predicament is down to a small number of Council staff who failed to share news of changes or indeed decisions made before and during the pandemic, relating to the market with other members of Council and the Public, the current administration and its policies (if any) are detrimental to the market’s future, which is now in jeopardy.
There is cause for serious concern regarding the dismissal / deliberate lack of adherence to the democratic processes which should at all times, be strictly followed as part of the English constitution. These include, no public consultation or survey regarding the non-return of stalls to the Charter Market or for local businesses which are also affected by the shabby appearance of large non-uniform tall gazebos/stalls constructed with tarpaulins and scaffolding or just plain tables - with no branding plonked infront of their elegant shopfronts when they pay rates based on footfall and the reputation of a successful Charter Market City. Emergency situations are for short term use even if really necessary. A plethora of different excuses for not returning the stalls after lockdown 1 in early June 2020 is odd in itself and points to a pre-Covid strategy well thought out, Covid being a useful opportunity which presented itself at just the right time for a small number of Councillors calling themselves Liberal Democrats, despite the fact that they are resembling more of a dictatorial government by the day, and the District of St. Albans seems to form the Versailles-style court of Louis XIV rather than a modern day politically correct local authority.
There seems to be institutional thoughtlessness and certainly discrimination regarding the lack of consideration for minority groups such as traders who are frail and older, traders with disabilities and traders alone who need help to erect their gazebos. Public/trader concerns have not been clarified or addressed regarding insurance issues, health and safety assessments and equality impact reports and the licensing committee has not been consulted regarding the new Terms and Conditions being forced upon the traders. Council protocol has been ignored and a court-style regime using ‘kremlinesque’ tactics such as spying and harassment at the market directed to those traders who speak against the regime seem to be de rigeur. Fairness and the The Nolan Principles which local authorities should adhere to at all times are being completely disregarded in the pursuit of whichever goal is in mind. Notably this goal is kept secret by the Political Party concerned until the very last moment.
The Charter Market is an integral feature of the City’s medieval heritage and in the same way as the traders should not be affected by different political parties which may come and go, the Charter Market should be left respected, preserved and intact for future generations to enjoy in the same way it has been for centuries.
As a concerned trader, I approached both Conservative and Labour Councillors to help our cause and prevent the push by the so called ‘Liberal Democrats’ to develop as quickly as possible the ground floor of the Market Depot in Drovers Way. Having watched the meeting of 11 February 2021 where just the Liberal Democrats were desperate for this development to take place I could not help wondering what their plan was for the Charter Market. Especially when traders knew that stalls were sitting there unused while there was no clear plan and still is not as to whether uniform gazebos might be purchased and stored. Where would they be stored if the depot is to be developed or was the development of the depot the REAL reason behind the absence of stalls and the subsequent redundancies of stall erectors? This would force traders to purchase their own equipment under the guise of Covid and stall erectors not being allowed to touch the equipment (which did not make any sense anyway as the construction industry including scaffolding erectors worked all through lockdowns) Instead erectors were furloughed it seemed and then made redundant while many employees were still on furlough as late as lockdown 3
For over two years atleast the market has seen dwindling numbers of permanent traders being allocated permanent pitches. Instead there were increasing numbers of casual traders often travelling long distances in the hope of trading, with no guarantee they would be allocated a pitch. This has been the traditional method of running the market for decades and worked well. With a point system in place, those traders who worked all weathers and attended regularly would finally be rewarded with a permanent position often at the top end of the market with the hope of slowly moving down what has been always known as ‘the golden mile’.
However permanent traders noticed over the past 2-3 years there were more and more casual traders being allocated preferred stall allocations regularly while permanent loyal traders were left in less desirable positions. Slowly there were increasing numbers of empty stalls ready for casual traders to use. This was not how things used to be. It seemed that the market was becoming a ‘casual trader’ market which ties in with what followed next!
Next, traders noticed that the original 170 stall arrangement was slowly diminishing with stalls not being erected here and there until finally a significant total number of stalls infront of the museum and down Market Place where I first stalled out regularly had completely disappeared.
Slowly these stalls were replaced with stalls selling food and bringing their own Gazebos or vehicles.
It was clear to me that there was a deliberate intention to diminish trader numbers and stalls and there was some kind of long-term strategy at play which has since been confirmed by the ex Council staff.
Suddenly on February 19, 2020 when Covid was only whispers in China with no cases yet in this country and no public knowledge, traders are invited to Council Chambers for a meeting to discuss new Terms and Conditions and a pre-payment plan. Approximately 50 traders attend the meeting which is headed by an officer Sarah Torrance (no Councillor was introduced to us). We were advised of a pre-payment plan to be implemented at relatively short notice; it would mean that all stalls were paid for 4 wks in advance, however for those traders who had double pitches this would have amounted to a considerable sum to be paid upfront, especially if trading twice a week (£728 per month). With such short notice of this commitment and no full understanding of re-imbursements relating to weather or illness, this was just too much for many traders to accept. We showed clearly that this had not been thought out properly and there were many issues on the market that needed to be addressed. In retrospect, this to me seemed like a first serious attempt to drive off traders.
We stated should we commit to anything, we in turn would need some commitments re. our working environment and pitch allocation etc. and the general poor running of the market with casuals being allocated all the best positions regularly which was unfair on long-standing ‘all-weather’ traders.
A guest at the meeting was seated in the front row as part of the audience. She spoke turning her head to the traders and when asked who she was, she stated she was from the BID. We asked what the BID was and she explained. At no point did she mention she was Councillor Mandy McNeil and was infact the Portfolio Holder. We found this out months later. It was as though it had been kept a secret from us.
Traders were alarmed at the plan which showed little consideration of timeframe and our concerns and we decided to begin organising ourselves as a group so that we could share information and ideas. For me there had already been warning signs that a long-term strategy was being carried out.
Dubious Claims and deeply worrying statements from Councillor and Council Staff
Later Cllr Mandy McNeil and the officer Sarah Torrance told the Public and fellow Councillors in a Council meeting held on 18 March 2021, that traders (with a small ‘t’ repeatedly emphasized by Cllr Chris White) that in a ‘show of hands’ a vote was made for Gazebos at that meeting of February 19, 2020 THERE WAS NO VOTE TAKEN and had it even been suggested that our beloved stalls might disappear there would have been outrage among traders and public.
WHERE ARE THE MINUTES TO THIS MEETING??????? IT WOULD APPEAR THERE ARE NONE – PLEASE ASK THE COUNCIL FOR THOSE MINUTES AND WATCH THAT COUNCIL MEETING.
It was also claimed at the Council Meeting of 18 March that all payments for stalls, prior to pandemic were made in cash. Why is this claimed when so many traders have bank statements detailing card payments for stalls dating back years? Another FALSE CLAIM. When faced with the later onslaught of insults to the market which seemingly blamed traders, as though it was our own fault - from Cllr Mandy McNeil relating to the cost of the Charter market to the taxpayer and the market ‘bleeding cash’ and losing money, traders asked the administration at traders monthly meetings if there were records of all the monies paid by traders dating back. We were told there were no records and that everything was done based ‘on trust’. Why was the existence of these records being denied, hence the claim that stallholders only paid cash for stalls prior to Covid.
When presented with an unexpected draconian style 27 page contract in an unexpected presentation on 29 January (co-incidentally the day after a pivotal breakthrough regarding the development of the market depot) we were told clearly thereafter in what were described as ‘drop-in sessions’ for traders to ask about the contract, that if we did not sign it during lockdown 3 we would not be able to return to work. I asked Mr Joe Tavernier, Head of Community Services if he did not think this was ‘unethical’ during a Global Pandemic to put us under such pressure. He replied he did not think it ‘unethical’. When I questioned the legality of how the traders had been treated and that legal action may be the right path for us, this was brushed aside as not advisable and not taken seriously at all.
Mandy McNeil also claimed in a press release on Lib Dem letterhead that I had agreed to all the Terms and Conditions of the Contract and so had the majority of traders. This is untrue.
Return to work after Lockdown 1
After Lockdown 1 was over mid-June 2020 we awaited news of returning to work. Boris had confirmed markets could re-open. We heard nothing. Finally I called the ex-market manager and finally he got back to me to say I was ‘one of the traders who could return to work’ as long as I bought a gazebo 3x3m and signed an agreement, gave proof of address and my passport details. I returned and was given a spot to trade and signed a sheet of white paper with no Council letterhead, agreeing to be moved at the manager’s discretion. This was the contrived beginning of the destabilization of permanent trader’s rights to their pitches and the laws relating to their rights to earning a living. From this point on most traders had to wait for the manager to allocate them a pitch which could be different every time and was not necessarily the same as before Covid. This was very time consuming and costly again for the trader as the manager was not at work until 7.30 am and then we had to wait until he reached us to allocate us the pitch. Lost time trading aswell as the erection of the gazebos to deal with. Clearly these were the instructions he was given. However there was a small number of traders who were exempt from this treatment and always pitched up in the same preferential spots!!!!!! Why so? This preferential treatment was unfair and caused friction between traders.
We slowly tried to return to normal, dealing with very low footfall and the fear of the public and indeed our own fears – not an easy environment to trade in but nevertheless we got on with it taking precautions and trying to ease our customers anxieties when touching goods and re. close proximity to stallholders etc.
The market given the circumstances was growing but many traders were not invited back, their calls not returned and of course had vehicles too small to accommodate equipment. Some could not lift the equipment and some did not have the money to purchase it. This was very sad as they would turn up and watch others trading.
Handed a Rota with one week’s notice
Out of the blue once again, we were handed a rota with a list of names of all the traders trading at that time – telling us that as of the following week we would only be working alternate days so essentially cutting our workload in half. We had just gone out and bought the equipment that we needed to trade and now this? Traders were angry and again disgusted at this lack of foresight and also what was the aim here - to half the market again? Each tactic seemed a fresh attempt at cutting trader numbers using some sneaky pretext with no long-term plan made public. We kept asking when the stalls would return and were told the erectors could not erect them due to Covid.
Traders arranged on a whatsapp group for some of us to gather outside M&S to discuss the situation, socially distanced and what we should do about it all. Council staff came down and spoke to us and the rota was disregarded. We returned to work.
Monthly Trader Meetings
After the gathering, the Council agreed we should have monthly trader meetings to discuss issues relating to the market. There were many and still are. The meetings were held at the end of each month and Cllr McNeil was often present with Head of Community Services, Joe Tavernier and traders who could make it. I tried to co-ordinate the traders as a democratically elected group and we managed to elect with 35 votes a long-standing trader as our market representative whose father had worked before him at the market. This seemed fitting for a Charter market and although a Committee might be a way off – it could be imminent.
One week after his vote, he was suspended without written notice for an insignificant matter. Some weeks late another strong voice was also suspended for an insignificant matter without written notice. Meanwhile many traders were committing the same parking offence ie. Bringing a vehicle onto the market too early on a weekly basis and still do but are never ever penalised. The suspended traders by co-incidence are long-standing traders who clearly have a right to speak up having worked the market since they were just children. I too have been suspended for having a disagreement with another trader. This was exaggerated by the trader in a deliberate attempt to bully me off the market and the administration whom I do not trust with my grievances has been encouraging this kind of behaviour on the street so that stronger voices of traders with insider information might not speak up about the real situation of the market. The divide and rule technique of Machiavelli comes to mind! It would be good to see this Council behave in a fair and just manner in tune with most other Councils in the country. I feel they are rather behind with the times in their attitudes and behaviour!
It seemed apparent that the administration was deliberately trying to humiliate the stronger voices in the trader group and weaken them despite all our efforts to build a group so we could safeguard our businesses and protect the market. I was told by the Portfolio Holder at the time that more representatives were needed. This is funny as it is not up to the administration how we traders choose to co-ordinate OUR democratically elected group. Again a dictatorial approach from the regime.
We continued to attend our monthly meetings but our questions were left unanswered. They seemed a formality and I was often muted when I spoke and raised serious concerns relating the new markets which were being held on the Friday by the BID and how they were charging just £20 and erecting and providing new gazebos, with Charter market traders being invited to trade on those days and often renting a BID gazebo or weights from the BID for Charter days. This seemed very wrong and unfair. The legality of the Friday market in terms of risk assessments, health and safety etc and its conflicting interest with the Charter market was and is questionable. We were told at one point the depot had been ‘sold’ and that ‘the stalls are up for sale – does anyone want to buy them?’
I questioned the legal issues regarding the Council’s behaviour eg absence of sufficient notice in writing and legitimate reasons for the drastic changes to our working conditions and the forced destabilization of our pitches.
During lockdown 3 we were presented with the 27 page contract and told we could not return to work without signing it. We alerted each other of the email which SOME of us received about the presentation. As it was lockdown many were not regularly looking at their email, some traders do not even use email. The ‘drop-in sessions’ were to begin the following week despite the fact that many had not been alerted of the email, read it or even received it. These sessions were to form part of the required ‘consultation’ process along with a survey to the public (700 people only) regarding gazebo colour. Despite the fact there had been no consultation whatsoever regarding the change from stalls to gazebo!
Frustration levels at these drop-in sessions were very high as they have been during all of the monthly meetings. Questions unanswered, no sense to the contract, no definite plan, just pressure to sign. Sign what?
Why this pressure? Yes – a new code of conduct would be appropriate and certainly pre-payment might be relevant if weather conditions and illness compensation is agreed to.
This was when I alerted Councillors as to what was going on and to my shock they had no idea about pretty much all of what had been going on over the last year. They were appalled and shared all of our concerns regarding the legality of the contract, the ownership of the land, tie downs, insurances, health and safety issues, equality impact reports. None of the relevant Committees within Council had been consulted such as the licencing committee and the employment bodies which should have been consulted re. the contract.
WE ARE NOW WHERE WE ARE AND WE URGE THE CITY’S PUBLIC AND LOCAL BUSINESSES TO RIGHTFULLY TAKE CONTROL OF THIS SITUTATION AND SAVE THE CHARTER MARKET
TRADERS CAN ONLY DO SO MUCH. DEMOCRATIC PROCESSES HAVE BEEN IGNORED COMPLETELY AND THIS HAS GONE UNNOTICED DURING THE PANDEMIC. PLEASE HELP!
Markets have returned to normal all over the country. Why is the Charter Market not erecting the stalls which are sitting in the depot with covers which were newly manufactured just two years ago?
We have been told there is a plan for an indoor market. Where is the plan? When will that happen? How will this affect the Charter Market? By law the Charter market has priority over any other planning application. Any judge will overrule any application for any construction/development which obstructs the Charter Market. It has happened time and time again and a precedent has been set in this regard. Court action may be required.
The Contract is a sly way of making the traders agree to providing, erecting and STORING their own equipment so that the Liberal Democrats can present the Council with the argument that Traders have agreed to this so the depot ground floor can be developed. Its no co-incidence that the adjacent redundant electrical power station has been the centre of some talks of purchase by the Council also. This would make a larger development. Who is benefitting from this? Not the City of St Albans and the Community itself. Why can’t they develop other buildings? There will be no going back and the little depot with the man who for 40 years has maintained the stalls and the equipment will be gone forever. This City is one of a few left in the country to own its own depot and is the envy of many other markets.
The Contract is also an agreement that all permanent stallholders agree to being moved at short notice. This is to do with events planned most likely on the square. I was told that the administration wanted to clear the square as much as possible. By signing the contract and agreeing to a ‘fixed-term pitch’ we are agreeing to the existence of a contract with a timeframe which may not be renewed deliberately – This was the reason for destabilizing us as we have ‘inferred contracts’ with the Council. Should an event be planned, this will take precedence over the Charter Market -although it should not!
The Contract is draconian and unrealistic and designed deliberately to facilitate the expulsion of any trader as quickly and easily as possible because it is barely practical to adhere to. It is too demanding of the trader and is another attempt at driving traders off the market.
Complaints should be made to the Ombudsmen regarding the above. Each and every complaint counts.
While Sir Captain Tom Moore was walking round his garden raising money to help the NHS during the Pandemic, members of the current administration were plotting the next step of stealing St. Albans Charter Market from the Public and furthering its demise by not replacing the stalls. This is fact. It has happened and there has been secrecy surrounding the whole situation and the burden has fallen on those few traders who really care about the Market, not those stalling out with large gazebos so they make more money and are intent upon snuffing out the voices of those who want the stalls returned.
A ‘democratic’ vote was taken by the Hertfordshire Advertiser and a clear overall majority of stallholders want the stalls returned. Gazebos will mean the market will be shut down much more with strong winds and is less safe so there will be no market often in winter. The stalls were much safer as were linked in long rows, so weighted down.
By Alice Young – A Market Trader
With the support of many Traders
And the support of many Customers and Members of the Public and Local Business Owners
Your help and support are invaluable and can be directed by email through this website.