Steve Bamber (2nd left) and Julie Wassmer (right) with market traders
Bombshell disclosures from market traders at public meeting
When is it unacceptable for a council to cite “declining income” figures for a popular market it seeks to disband? Answer: when the same council fails to mention that it hasn’t invoiced market traders for their pitch fees!
At a packed public meeting, held on Friday 29th July to discuss Canterbury City Council’s plans to “boot out” the historic street market from Canterbury, bombshell claims were made by traders that figures used in an important council report to demonstrate the market’s “declining income” are in fact due to the council failing to invoice and take payment from traders for market pitches.
I organised this meeting in support of market traders which took place in a large hall in The Canterbury Primary School only 24 hours after the council’s ruling cabinet members voted unanimously for its plans to disband the market. The vote followed the publication of a council report showing a table of “declining income” figures for Canterbury Market.
Only last week, the local Kent Messenger newspaper reported that a recent council consultation showed that a large share of respondents want traders to remain in one market location and not to be scattered to pitches across the city – as the council plans to do. However, the report on this consultation claims the market is failing to meet the council’s net income budget of £80,700 for street trading. Page 24 of this report (above) duly shows a table of figures reflecting a healthy market income of £89,136 for 2019-20 (well above the council’s net target of £80,7000) followed by a figure of £16,569 for 2020-21 with the explanation that this low figure was “covid affected”. The figure shown for 2021-22 of £47,457 is indeed far lower than the council’s budget target – and has presumably been used to predict a further low estimate given of £66,200 for 2022-23, but, importantly, nowhere does the report mention what a market trader in the audience revealed at our public meeting after I asked why these figures should be so low – namely, that the council has failed to properly collect pitch fees for market traders for the past 2 years and has not invoiced them at all for the current tax year commencing April 2022.
Steve Bamber, Chairman of Canterbury Market Traders’ Association who joined me as a panel member at the meeting, together with market trader Babs Singh and meeting chair, Dr Ian Jasper, then confirmed that despite the repeated requests he has made to the council to collect pitch fees from his traders, the market traders have been asked only to pay occasional sums and have not been invoiced, or paid anything at all, for this current tax year, beginning April 2022.
Steve Bamber says “Since 2020, the council has given the excuse to us that it has some kind of problem with the WorldPay card machines it uses, so payment could not be accepted – even though we offered to pay in cash. In April this year we received an email from the council’s market manager stating that this problem has been ongoing and “has meant that at times it has not been possible to collect pitch fees.” The email went on to inform us that from April 2022 we would be invoiced “on a monthly basis” and asked us all to submit full details so the council could invoice us. The same email also warned us that the council would be “looking to recoup any fees that are due prior to April 2022”. We have continued to submit to the council all the details requested of us in that email, but, despite all my own requests, we have still not been invoiced for payment.”
Steve also explained that the council’s conduct, with respect to its failure to collect pitch fees in a proper and timely manner, has felt to traders like a form of “intimidation” from the council. He said: “I advised all market traders to keep their uncollected pitch fees ready for payment for whenever the council demanded them but as time has gone on, the sums have become substantial, with the uncollected total running into tens of thousands of pounds. Consequently, it has been a great worry that this has been hanging over us for such a long period of time, while also knowing that collection could be demanded of us, in full, whenever the council finally decides to charge us. We also became concerned that non-payment of the fees might possibly weaken our rights to trade, so our national body, National Market Traders’ Federation (NMTF) was informed and is fully aware of Canterbury council’s failure to collect our pitch fees. After having seen “declining figures” quoted in the council’s report – in effect giving an impression to the public and to the cabinet councillors who voted on this last Thursday, that the market is a failing asset – a trader spoke up at our public meeting in answer to Julie Wassmer’s question, and we are pleased that the council’s failure to collect payment or invoice us for pitch fees has now been exposed, because the public have a right to know what’s been going on.”
The reason I called for this Public Meeting is because the public get precious little chance to have their say at council meetings. As I put forward in an earlier Whitstable Views piece on this issue, I have absolutely no faith in democracy at council level. After all, members of the public have only 3 minutes to have their say at any city council meeting and too often they have to do so while councillors lounge around in the Guildhall—talking or even laughing together—in effect, paying scant attention or respect to a well-informed speaker before a councillor or a salaried council officer states something entirely inaccurate – to which members of the public have no right to reply. What follows is the councillors’ often pre-planned vote—and the results for residents are appalling autocratic decisions such as these.
Long ago, I boycotted such council meetings as the pantomimes I believe them to be – but that does not mean that we do not have an effective “right of reply” to the usual council panto “villains”. We have a perfect right to stage our own meetings – public meetings – at which everyone can have their say. I duly invited no fewer than eleven of the elected councillors and salaried council officers, involved in this council policy, to join us at the public meeting, including the author of the report, William Hicks, but not one council representative took up that invitation – nor did any representative from Canterbury BID.
The acronym, BID, stands for Canterbury’s Business Improvement District – an organisation described on its website as “an independent, business-led, not-for-profit initiative” whose ethos is to support the local business community. A market is certainly a “business community”, so I invited two leading figures from BID to the meeting – Simon Jackson (Team Leader/Ambassador) and Lisa Carlson (BID’s full-time Chief Executive). As mentioned, both were no-shows but it was interesting to hear at the public meeting how, around 2016, a well-meaning council officer, Caroline Hicks, having the best interests of the traders at heart, suggested that Canterbury’s market traders should join BID and benefit from the organisation’s support. Local businesses pay a “levy” to BID, so market traders duly contributed, with the major part of £400 being given by Steve Bamber himself. It was hoped that being accepted by BID would result in better representation for market traders, who are small business people trading in the heart of the city, but Steve Bamber related how BID went on to keep most of the money donated – while, in effect, “kicking us out”. It was a shame that no-one from Canterbury BID came along to Friday’s public meeting, either to learn about that – or to take issue with it. Perhaps they would like to do so after reading this account – or showing some support for the traders when they most need it – now.
While council and BID representatives remained as scarce as hen’s teeth on Friday, local parish councillors did attend, together with Labour councillor, Mel Dawkins, and the leader of the Lib Dem group, Cllr Mike Dixey. They, and all the members of the public present at the meeting bore witness to the traders’ shocking disclosures and though I am not a lawyer, I am aware that councils have what is known as a fiduciary duty to those they represent – the council tax payers. They also have a duty to obtain best value and to collect monies owed for the council’s budget – council tax and market fees alike – but the traders’ comments clearly indicate that the council has not been doing that.
Importantly, it seems wholly reasonable to assume that the failure to collect or invoice tens of thousands of pounds of market fees over a considerable amount of time should account for the extraordinarily low figures given in William Hicks’s council report – which in turn has provided evidence for the council’s statement that: “the market has seen declining levels of income over a number of years and income levels have not recovered since Covid”. Without proper collection of market pitch fees, there is indeed a very good reason for those declining levels but it is certainly not given in the report – though Covid is mentioned for 2020-2021. Why would it not be given?
The important question that now has to be asked is whether Canterbury City Council may have wilfully contrived to exclude this fact from its report in order to show, to the public and council cabinet members alike, that the market is not a financial asset and is unable to reach the council’s net income budget of £80,700.
While the council report goes on to admit that its own plans to disband the market “may result in a temporary drop in income” it also states that it anticipates an “increase in the long term” – in plain terms, disbanding the market will lose money – but somehow the council expects this won’t always be the case. It also clearly stresses that the figures quoted showing “declining levels of income” for the market promise a “shortfall of £20,000 for 2022-23 if no changes are made.” Really? Considering the fact that those “declining levels of income” in the report are in no way balanced by an admission from the council that they do not include unpaid and un-invoiced pitch fees – how on earth can the council come to this conclusion?
In fact, the only “shortfall” that I, and others, now see is the one that Canterbury City Council has created with the figures it has produced on its own report – without once mentioning its failure to invoice and collect payment from traders.
It is important to note that Canterbury City Council has also failed to invoice market traders in Herne Bay which has led to further concern among Herne Bay residents, traders and market customers that the council may also be planning to close Herne Bay Market. As with Canterbury Market, the council has been failing to renew pitches when they become available for new traders – another example of the council failing to develop its markets – while decreasing their income. It’s widely known and was even commented on in a recent conversation between Steve Bamber and Cllr Rachel Carnac, (deputy leader of the council and councillor for Reculver in Herne Bay), that market days in Herne Bay attract people from all over Kent, which increases footfall in local shops. The same is true in Canterbury which is why support for the market to remain in one central location is not only strong – but growing.
The council’s rationale for scattering market traders to outposts across the city is that it plans a £1.2m development of its current location in St George’s Street, with some new paving, benches and “a boulevard of trees”. What an obscene waste of money when local people and tourists in Canterbury want to see a thriving colourful street market – supported and developed by its local council – as all street markets are when under the control of intelligent councillors and officers.
Tragically, our own city council is currently being run more as an autocracy than democracy – and its own meeting last week to rubber stamp its policy on the market was nodded through with votes from only 4 councillors: council leader, Ben Fitter-Harding; his deputy, Rachel Carnac; the Seasalter councillor, Ashley Clark and the portfolio holder for this policy, Barbara Flack. Two other council cabinet members Cllr Joe Howes and Cllr Andrew Cook, were no-shows. What a farce – especially since voting followed speeches riddled with self-aggrandising pomposity, betraying the kind of social prejudice already astutely noted by Whitstable Views editor, Chris Stone, in a comment on our petition to support the market – which has now gained 1,000 signatures.
Chris wrote the following: “When council leader, Ben Fitter-Harding says on social media that the market sells “poor quality products”, he really means cheap and working class. The councillors who voted for these plans clearly want to replace the old working class market model with middle-class farmer’s markets selling organic produce at inflated prices- and craft stalls, beyond the pockets of most people. That’s what this is really about. They want to make the city centre in their own image, full of faux rustic produce, sourdough bread and unpasteurised cheeses: the sort of place they can feel at home in….Flavoured olives and organic meat at Waitrose prices. Not that there’s anything wrong with organic meat, but we need to be given a choice. There should be room for everyone. There should be a market – in one place. St George’s Street.”
There are scores of other comments from local people who have signed the petition including these:-
“I am sick of “consultations” being used as a fig leaf for developments that are about making money for private interests while degrading the public environment.”
“Everyone needs a market. Close a couple of supermarkets instead.”
“Moving the market around the city is a ridiculous idea; this will kill the market. Keep it together, keep them safe, let them have an income.”
“Canterbury is a ghost town, there are already boarded up shops, astronomical parking costs and the heart of the city has gone. Why on earth take out one of the only highlights left, to put in a soulless “Boulevard”? Think again councillors and spend the money where it’s needed; don’t create a problem where there isn’t one!”
“Street markets bring colour and life into our city. Without them there is only drab commercialism and no humanity.”
“I often visit the market all the way from Oare/Faversham! It’s superb! It provides a wonderful “service” to local residents and us visitors. So, without the market I (and others) will not visit the museums, have cups of coffee or a lunch….”
Councillors ignore the views of the people at their peril. They do the same by underestimating our collective intelligence in the face of consultations that are easily recognised, as above, as a “fig leaf” for development.
By refusing to engage with the public at meetings, while rushing through its own cabinet meeting the evening before, the council has ensured that its cabinet members now appear fools, or worse, for accepting a consultation report the figures of which now require urgent scrutiny in the light of the market traders’ revelations.
One could warn those cabinet members to “be more careful of your vote” – but that is equally true of us all – particularly when applied to the election of councillors in Canterbury and elsewhere. At Friday’s meeting, I met Thanington parish councillor, Dave Smith, who, while referring to Ben Fitter-Harding and his ruling councillors, left these words with me to quote: “Arrogance and self-confidence, coupled with a lack of competence is a dangerous combination.”
Steve Bamber and I will be taking up legal advice we have now been offered and we expect city councillors to press for answers on the issue of the report’s figures and the non-invoicing of market traders. We also expect all city councillors to now act with honour and in cross-party cooperation to investigate these disclosures – and to act accordingly – while “calling in” last Thursday’s cabinet vote.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Please sign and share the petition: https://www.change.org/p/save-canterbury-market
Please write to your councillor and insist they investigate this issue.
Please write to the local Gazette with your views (up to 200 words) to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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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