Photo: Steve Bamber and Julie Wassmer
Julie Wassmer interviews Steve Bamber (Chairman of Canterbury Market Traders Association) about council plans to disband Canterbury Market
Julie: Very many thanks to you, Steve, for allowing me to interview you about Canterbury City Council’s plans to disband Canterbury Market in St George’s Street. Can I begin by asking how long you have been a trader and the chairman of the traders’ association?
Steve: Sure. I’ve been a Canterbury Market trader for 26 years and Chairman of the Canterbury Market Traders’ Association for 13 years.
Julie: So, if anyone knows about Canterbury Market it’s you! I note that in 2020, Canterbury City Council announced plans to remove the market by January 2023 in order to embark upon an expensive redevelopment of St George’s Street, where the market is based. Can you tell me when the council first informed you of this?
Steve: Shamefully, the council never saw fit to inform us of this before they went to the papers. The first we heard was from reading a front page in the local Kent Messenger newspaper on 20th February 2020.
Julie: Shameful indeed. And that news story, headlined High Street Boulevard, states that council officers had prepared a report about the need to “de-clutter” St George’s Street – notably because they said “potential new tenants” for the Whitefriars shopping centre (which is actually owned by the same council) might be “put off” taking up units due to the market? This news story also said that the operator of Whitefriars, New River, had claimed the market was “a primary risk” to the shopping centre and “detrimental to the area.” Why do you think the market was described as “detrimental”?
Steve: I can only tell you that the market was never considered that way by our local customers or by the many Canterbury visitors who flock to us. Visitors to a city always love a market—but at that time, council officers were only talking about the need to protect the “council asset” of Whitefriars “against a background of changes to the national picture…resulting in reduced footfall.”
Julie: Hmm. Perhaps the council and New River might have considered lowering the unit rents at Whitefriars. That might have improved their chances of securing more tenants in that shopping centre?
Steve: I’m sure you’re right. But it’s pretty ironic that those council officers were writing about offering a “high street experience” for visitors and the local community, a “focal point for social interaction, encouraging visitors to dwell for longer” – without once recognising that this is just what a street market provides!
Julie: Exactly! It must have been very frustrating for you to read that, not least because you had learned of these plans from a newspaper rather than being given any proper warning by the council? After all, the market is your livelihood as well as an important resource for locals and visitors.
Steve: I think we all felt that way.
Julie: So, what happened then? Presumably you had meetings with the council about a way forward for all the traders?
Steve: At that time, Richard Moore, the council’s Head of Transportation and Environment, was in charge of the proposed new developments for St George’s Street and I met several times with him, and with Cllr Barbara Flack, a Conservative councillor who was then Chair of the Regeneration and Property committee. The understanding was that market traders would surrender their market pitches to trade from alternative sites close to the market’s existing base, and on that understanding I was asked to draw up plans for alternative pitches close to St George’s Street. I did exactly that and came up with alternative sites in the High Street. Richard agreed that this was a good location for traders due to footfall.
Julie: So far so good?
Steve: Until January this year when I contacted Richard Moore for an update on those plans—and found he was no longer in place. He informed me that he “needed to step back from these issues” but assured me that someone else would be coming on board to help traders secure their future.
Julie: And who was that?
Steve: Another council officer by the name of Bill Hicks. But I was told Bill wouldn’t be in place until the end of February—which then meant more delay. In fact, it wasn’t until March this year that I got a finally got a meeting with Bill Hicks.
Julie: Further frustration for you?
Steve: Yes, but it also meant that traders were left with several more months of uncertainty—of having no idea of what was going on. There were plenty of sleepless nights about our futures and a lot of worry and stress, not just for us, but for our families. I was also under added strain because the traders I represent were looking to me for information and I wasn’t getting any from the council.
Julie: Were you hopeful for some positive news from Bill Hicks?
Steve: At that time, yes, because Richard Moore had previously told me that the plans I had submitted were good and that he wanted to work with us to secure a future for market traders.
Julie: Am I… right to sense a “but”?
Steve: You must be psychic! And I wish I was, because the council then failed to share their plans for alternative pitches with us until the current public consultation went live on 30th May!
Julie: You’re referring to the new consultation launched by the council asking for views from residents, and also from any existing and potential new traders about the pitches the council plan to offer if/when the market is closed down?
Steve: That’s the one. There’s a council news story here: https://news.canterbury.gov.uk/news/article/316/street-trading-consultation-opens-for-views And residents have to click on this consultation link to give their views about street trading but if they were to click on this link (for all questions) they can actually see the location of the pitches the council are offering to traders.
Julie: I can’t believe the council didn’t consult with you properly or discuss these pitches before the consultation went live?
Steve: Believe me, they didn’t. I received an email on Tuesday 24th May from the council’s Market Manager, David Harte, telling me “The council wishes to ensure that market and street traders are aware of this consultation and you have an opportunity to see and comment on the consultation document before it goes live next week.” We were offered a meeting for the very next day, Wednesday 25th, and in spite of the short notice, we managed to attend, only to then be informed that the consultation papers were not available – so, in effect, this was a total waste of our time.
Julie: What then?
Steve: The council then agreed to a meeting on Thursday 26th May, designated for street traders (as opposed to market traders) and to which market traders did not go as we had been given no consultation papers the previous day. So, I then rang the David Harte on Friday 27th and finally got sight of the consultation—but it failed to show a breakdown of the pitches—no sizes of pitches were given or whether gazebos could be used!
Julie: So, in spite of your livelihoods being at risk and the time you had spent drawing up plans for Richard Moore and Cllr Barbara Flack, you only got to see the important details of the pitches on offer when the consultation actually went live to the public?
Steve: Exactly so.
Julie: I’m so sorry you have been treated with such a lack of courtesy and respect by Canterbury City Council.
Steve: Thank you. That’s exactly how it feels to us – but to me in particular—as I represent the market traders and that fact doesn’t seem to have been acknowledged by the council at all.
Julie: What did you think when you did finally get to see the siting of these new pitches?
Steve: That was the biggest shock and disappointment of all! The council knows full well that there are differences between market traders, street traders and their individual needs. I also pointed some of these out in a letter published by the Kent Messenger’s Gazette newspaper on 9th June. Crucially, market traders operate from gazebo pitches that are much larger than street trader pitches, and although there are currently over a dozen market traders operating in Canterbury Market—and only 3 street traders—the council’s plans in this consultation show 41 small pitches suitable for street traders (available in good positions from Canterbury West station to the clock tower at the end of St George’s Street) but no gazebo pitches for market traders other than in Iron Bar Lane – a derelict area with no surrounding retail outlets – and Station Road West; “a million miles from St George’s Street” as described by market customers.
Julie: So, it’s fair to say the plans featured in this consultation favour street traders over market traders like yourself and those you represent – even though there are far fewer street traders in the market?
Steve: That’s right. These pitches bear no relation to the plans I drew up, which had been welcomed by Richard Moore. We’ve had no prior sight of the council’s choice of sites, or any proper discussion about them before the consultation went live, and having looked at the consultation questions put to the public it seems to me these are skewed towards the council being able to interpret responses in a way that will favour only their own plans.
Julie: I’ve also taken a look at the consultation questions for the public and it certainly doesn’t explain about any difference between market and street traders – or that a market trader needs to trade from a gazebo – the only mention is of “street traders”.
Steve: That’s right. And if the council gets the responses it’s looking for with this consultation, in future there will only be street traders in Canterbury because market traders will not be able to trade from the sites they have been allocated.
Julie: Steve, the words “up” and “stitch” come to mind….
Steve: To us too. This isn’t a consultation but a done deal – nothing short of a betrayal really because I trusted the officers I was dealing with, and Cllr Flack, and the consultation produced is not fair on market traders and clearly plans to rid Canterbury of us, replacing us with street traders operating from small lone pitches scattered all over the city, while the market disappears for good.
Julie: And for what good reason? So that an obscenely expensive and wholly unnecessary development can go ahead in St George’s Street? In my own article on this issue in Whitstable Views I suggested snobbery on the part of the councillors who voted for this development; certainly Cllr Barbara Flack was quoted as saying of the market: “This is not the impression we want visitors to have of our gorgeous city.” Why on earth not? Street markets are a magnet to visitors!
Steve: The St George’s Street development makes no sense. Its estimated cost has kept increasing from £630,000 to £1.2m while, as you mentioned in your letter to the press, the council is meant to be “cash strapped”. Not only that, but the mature trees that were needed to be felled as part of the development have now been saved by Kent County Council (KCC).
Julie: Yes, I spoke at a protest to save these trees in December. That was planned by a local resident and the Green Party but other parish councillors and a few Labour councillors were there including Cllr Mel Dawkins, who did good work liaising with KCC on saving these trees.
It’s clear that KCC would also have noted the fact that a petition to save the trees had been signed by thousands of local people – otherwise I’m sure they would no doubt have backed a fellow Conservative-led council like Canterbury. An extra tree is now going to be planted!
Steve: Yes, I saw that. A complete U-turn!
Julie: And I note that the elected Conservative city council leader, Ben Fitter-Harding, was quoted in the press saying: “There is always time to reconsider things”, while Cllr Barbara Flack backtracked saying the councillors had “taken a fresh look at the entire scheme”. If that’s the case, they should surely do the same regarding the market?
Steve: Of course they should. But it looks like they care more about the council’s own retail “asset” of Whitefriars than a market which is not only a vibrant part of the city’s appeal and heritage, it also provides an important resource for local residents during the current cost-of-living-crisis, as pointed out recently in letters to the press from Lillian Metcalfe and yourself, Julie. You are both right on that score. But the market also offers a chance of safe social interaction at a time when people most need it – after the Covid lockdowns—and in a way that a retail unit in Whitefriars never could.
Julie: There’s no need for a shopping centre and a street market to be in competition with each other. They could successfully co-exist.
Steve: And they have done—for years. Whitefriars can’t possibly feel threatened by a twice-weekly street market in St George’s Street—least of all when the market has been whittled down in the last year by the council failing to renew pitch rentals. If it does, then it’s hardly going to be revived by a “makeover” involving some new paving stones and benches. And if New River feels that Canterbury Market somehow lowers the tone of St George’s Street, why doesn’t the council simply invest in Canterbury Market, expand it and improve what we have to offer to both residents and visitors – and save the council taxpayer the best part of £1.2m at the same time?
Julie: So, what now, Steve?
Steve: I feel I have no option but to write to Bill Hicks at the council and explain that in spite of working in all good faith with the council for the benefit of all the traders, I now have no faith in this consultation as it stands because the sites designated for market traders seem to have been chosen precisely in order to see us fail. I am absolutely sure the council are aware that market traders could never survive a move to a location such as Iron Bar Lane or Station Road West and so we must assume they never wanted us to survive – even outside the market.
Julie: It’s a shocking indictment of the council; both of salaried officers and elected councillors who have failed to give market traders like yourself due respect, courtesy and compassion for the situation in which they have placed you, by threatening to deprive you not only of your established base in St George’s Street, but of a valid alternative. I can tell you that I am appalled by the prospect of losing Canterbury Market – especially as we have lost our own market in Whitstable – and the market in Herne Bay is hardly secure. So many local people feel the same way, Steve, which is why I started up a petition which has already gained hundreds of signatures in less than a week.
Steve: Yes, the public are becoming aware of what’s at stake and as well as the petition, there have been letters in the press, including your own, Julie, articles and an editorial in the local Gazette. The council have back-tracked on the trees in St George’s Street and if they had any sense they would do the same about disbanding the market.
Julie: There’s still time for them to see sense, Steve. The current consultation doesn’t end till 11th July and hopefully this interview will inform people what’s been going on. It’s high time the council officers, council leader and elected councillors gave market traders like yourself the respect and courtesy that’s been sadly lacking on this issue for the last 2 years and realised that the best place for Canterbury market traders is actually in Canterbury Market. Instead of investing in you and allowing the market to thrive it seems they have run it down as an excuse to disband it. It’s so short-sighted.
Steve: I agree. Scattering traders across the city to pitches where they cannot survive would be a loss for everyone. The council have now introduced a ticking clock with their consultation deadline of 11th July but I’m still willing to engage with them on viable alternatives.
Julie: You and the market traders have been treated appallingly and I know I speak not only for myself but for many people right across Canterbury constituency who have expressed their desire and their need to see not only the trees remain in St George’s Street – but the market too. You can count on that support, Steve, but I can’t say the same for the councillors concerned when the next council election comes round.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:-
Sign this petition: https://www.change.org/p/save-canterbury-market
Share this blog article with a request for others to do the same.
Write to your city councillor and inform them that you want them to endorse community action on this and you will not vote for them at the next council election if they allow the council to go ahead with these plans. You can find your councillor here: https://www.canterbury.gov.uk/councillors-and-meetings/find-your-ward-parish-and-councillors/
DON’T VOTE for the councillors who voted for this action at the next election. They are:
Rachel Carnac (Reculver) Barbara Flack (Blean Forest) Mark Dance (Seasalter) Georgina Glover (Sturry) Colin Spooner (Seasalter) Ian Stockley (Beltinge) Jeanette Stockley (Beltinge) David Thomas (Heron)
Please also remember that the leader of the council can only “lead” if he remains a councillor so if you live in Chestfield’s ward you might try voting for someone else other than the current council leader, Ben Fitter-Harding. Remember, city councillors often assume their positions on the council with fewer than a thousand votes—they are not permanent fixtures—and neither should they be.
- Look for more news and upcoming actions on the Whitstable Views Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/430604921349396
AND spread the word!
I would very much like to share this comment from Heather Roblin who says:
“Jeb and Jane at the fruit stall near Fenwicks have become special friends, during the pandemic they went out of their way to deliver fruit and veg to many of us. I am now only able to walk with a 4 wheeled trolley and can just reach their stall. Jeb goes to market to buy delicious fruit and veg at very reasonable prices and I would be lost without them. Please do not cancel the market.”
This is a clear example of how the loss of Canterbury Market will impact residents like Heather. Please keep signing and sharing the petition to raise awareness of this issue.
Steve Bamber has been a Canterbury Market Trader for 26 years and Chairman of the Canterbury Market Association for 13 years,
Julie Wassmer is a TV drama writer, author and campaigner. Her Whitstable Pearl crime novels, and the TV series based them, are set in Canterbury and its neighbouring town of Whitstable, where she has lived for 23 years.
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