What I learned about our city council while trying to save Canterbury Market
(Twenty minute read)
In May last year, I asked the simple question “Why can’t we have a market?”
My question echoed that of many residents in response to Canterbury City Council’s decision to close the city’s popular twice-weekly market to make way for what it dubbed “Environmental Improvements”.
These widely disputed “improvements” were part of the council’s plan to spend a staggering £1m in uprooting 5 mature trees while planting 14 more and installing some new block paving and benches in the market’s location in St George’s Street.
Throughout the last year, in discussions with Canterbury’s market traders, across correspondence with council officers and during an hour-long meeting with the Leader of Canterbury City Council, Ben Fitter-Harding, I came to confront a number of grave concerns about the council and its inability to function properly for the benefit of those it has a responsibility to serve.
The issues of my concern include the following:-
- The council’s failure to properly engage with market traders on the closure of the market, consultations and other related issues.
- The suspension of an important consultation and the failure to include its comments within the next.
- The council’s failure in its duties to collect monies owed.
- Misleading figures given in an important council consultation report.
- Failure of the local press to report important facts concerning that report.
- Bulldozing council policy through at the expense of stakeholders.
- Shocking delays in response to important correspondence.
- My meeting with council leader Ben Fitter-Harding in deserted council offices.
As an environmental campaigner I was first made aware of the council’s plans to close the market as far back as December 2020 when I had taken up an invitation to speak at a cross party protest about the uprooting of the existing trees.
A resident’s petition had quickly gathered thousands of signatures to oppose the trees’ destruction, and this, coupled with successful lobbying from local opposition councillors had resulted in Kent County Council blocking Canterbury City Council from destroying them. The existing trees had been saved – but the market was still to go.
I wanted to know why.
COUNCIL’S FAILURE TO ENGAGE WITH STAKEHOLDERS
In May last year an old press story, concerning a petition to save Canterbury Market, gave me the name of Steve Bamber as the Chairman of Canterbury Market Traders’ Association. Concerned by news of the market’s impending closure, I contacted Steve to ask why he thought our frequently dubbed “cash-strapped” council had decided upon costly plans in order to create what appeared to be a soulless and wholly unnecessary “boulevard” – the cost of which had already risen to £1.2m from an original figure of £630,000.
As a Canterbury Market trader for 26 years and Chairman of the Market Traders’ Association for 13, Steve Bamber pointed me towards press comments from the now-deceased city councillor, Barbara Flack, which had reflected disdain for the visual aesthetics of the market area. As the portfolio holder for the policy, Councillor Flack had been quoted in the local press as saying: “Many will agree it is not the first impression we want visitors to have when they arrive in our gorgeous city.”
This comment seemed absurd as Canterbury Market had long been established in its central location of St George’s Street and was widely recognised by visitors, and local people, to be a vital and vibrant feature of the city’s heritage.
Coupled with that, the market traders’ petition had amply signified the popularity of the market with over 3,000 signatures gathered—both online and on paper—within only a short time of the petition going live.
However, a report put together by council officers in February 2020 for the attention of elected councillors, had also referred in a derogatory way to a need to “de-clutter” the area, while mentioning that potential new tenants of Canterbury’s Whitefriars Shopping Centre were being put off renting units within Whitefriars due to the presence of the market. River City, the operator of Whitefriars, had been quoted in the local press claiming the market represented a “primary risk to the operation of the shopping centre as it is seen to be detrimental to the area.”
Interestingly, the Whitefriars Shopping Centre is actually owned by Canterbury City Council which of course begs the question of whether this costly plan to rid the city of its market was in fact the council’s way of protecting its own “asset”?
Certainly, Ben Fitter-Harding, Leader of Canterbury City Council, told the press in November 2021: “The scheme offers many benefits, including the value it brings to the council in terms of improvements for its asset of Whitefriars – potentially increasing future rental values”.
In fact, the decision to disband Canterbury Market put at risk not only the market traders’ futures but the futures of the family members who financially relied upon those traders and/or who worked alongside them – and some had done so for generations. One would therefore expect that Canterbury City Council would have given due consideration to this, and, at the very least, offered adequate and sensitive notification to the traders of such radical plans. Instead, shockingly, Canterbury’s traders were to learn of the council’s scheme, along with the rest of Canterbury, via a front page press story in the local Gazette:-
COMMENTS “DISCARDED” FROM THE COUNCIL’S FIRST CONSULTATION
When councils make decisions that are likely to impact local people and communities – including business communities—they usually give voice to those affected by way of a consultation. Consultations are used by councils to learn what residents, partners and stakeholders think about specific issues that affect them. In short, they are important mechanisms for gathering the views of local people before decisions are made and set in stone.
The plans to disband Canterbury Market clearly impacted all those who worked there—and all those who used this historic market. A consultation was duly begun by Canterbury City Council early in 2020.
Aside from the thousands of signatures gathered for the market traders’ petition, Canterbury Market’s popularity was evidenced by the number of positive comments that were made by the public via the council’s consultation. In consideration of that, one could be forgiven for thinking that this might have prompted the council to give pause to these plans – and indeed, the first consultation was halted—but the reason given by Councillor Flack for this suspension was that life had “changed” due to the Covid crisis.
The portfolio holder was quite right on that point – not least because the pandemic had caused more people to rely on shopping in an outdoor market – not only for health reasons but due to the economic difficulties many local people were now beginning to face. But rather than put plans to close the market on hold, the council now forged ahead and launched a second consultation – one in which none of the public’s original comments were to be included.
Why were the previous supportive comments discarded?
On a post on the council’s website a statement still explains that the original consultation process had “stalled and wasn’t completed due to Covid-19”. It also states that the original responses to that consultation needed to be “discarded” because the council was “unable to identify who has already responded.”
Why should that be? I have no idea—but the market traders and their supporters justifiably suspected that the exclusion of so many positive public comments in support of the market could only help the council with their plans to close it.
Furthermore, traders now feared that having had comments discarded from the first consultation, residents would now lose faith in the process and so fail to respond a second time around. Some even suggested that the council might even be inclined to keep “consulting” – in effect wasting everyone’s time – until Canterbury City Council finally got the result it wanted.
In short, rather than provide a useful listening exercise, Canterbury City Council’s consultations were now considered to be nothing short of box-ticking exercises – a demolition of democracy.
Importantly, as was to be pointed out in a speech later given by Steve Bamber to Canterbury City Council, a report on this second consultation, authored by a salaried council officer, William (Bill) Hicks, the Deputy Director, Place, gave no explanation for the public, or councillors, of the crucial difference between a market trader and a street trader – or their needs – and neither were traders given sight of important sections of that report
Once it did go public, Steve Bamber then duly pointed out, not only to the council’s market manager but to the Deputy Council Leader, Rachel Carnac, that while some market traders had invisible disabilities in the form of literacy skills and a lack of fluency in English, no Helpline had been given on the consultation and neither was the document available in other languages.
As the traders’ responses to forms were related to their livelihoods, Steve Bamber quite rightly pointed out that he could not take responsibility for completing these on the traders’ behalf, and that neither should anyone else who wasn’t properly qualified to do so. Nevertheless, a council employee did take it upon himself to assist in the completion of those forms – and this continued for two days beyond the official deadline of 11th July – even though local residents were not afforded the same deadline extension.
How could this “assistance” not have been considered a conflict of interest when the council was actively involved in helping vulnerable traders to complete forms about a council policy that clearly impacted their livelihoods?
COUNCIL’S FAILURE TO COLLECT PITCH RENTS
In our very first discussions, Steve Bamber made clear to me that he was reluctant to either attract, or rely on political interference in this important issue, as politics tends to polarise views. However, he was willing to accept support from customers and other concerned members of the public and we soon struck up a good relationship in our roles as market chairman and community campaigner.
The market traders’ petition was no longer live, so with Steve’s permission I began a new petition to register support for the market traders and to help give voice to the public on this issue. Immediately, comments of support came flooding in, all of which can be read on the following link to the petition:-
In the summer of 2022, Steve also gave me a comprehensive interview for Whitstable Views, outlining what had been happening so far and why the council’s new consultation was considered to be a “sham”. The interview can be read here:-
Having learned what the market traders had been going through in their dealings with the council, especially with the council’s failure to recognise the unviability of alternative market trader pitches, I was keen to get the market traders’ position out to the public. However, I kept in strict confidence a crucial fact with which Steve entrusted me at that time; namely, that for some time Canterbury City Council had been failing in its duties to properly collect market fees from the traders.
Steve confided that since 2020, the council had been giving the excuse to market traders that due to some sort of problem with the council’s WorldPay card machine, pitch rents could not be collected – even though the market traders had offered to pay in cash!
Steve also explained that the council’s failure to collect these pitch fees in a proper and timely manner, had felt to the market traders like a form of control being exerted – a Sword of Damocles forever hanging over their heads.
“I didn’t like the fact that we weren’t fully paid up for our pitches so I advised all market traders to keep their uncollected pitch fees ready for payment for whenever the council demanded them. But as time went on, the sums became substantial, with the uncollected total running into tens of thousands of pounds. Consequently, it was a great worry that this was hanging over us for such a long period of time, all the while knowing that at any moment, collection could be demanded of us, in full, whenever the council finally decided. We also became concerned that non-payment of the rent might possibly weaken our rights to trade, so our national body, National Market Traders’ Federation (NMTF) was informed and remained fully aware of Canterbury council’s failure to collect our pitch fees.”
A council failing to collect monies owed for two years? How could this be? Could we possibly imagine this ever happening with council tax or parking fees? And what kind of “problem” can there be with a card machine that prevented payment being taken for so long? As Steve explained, the traders themselves used these same card machines to take payment on their stalls – and as council leader, Ben Fitter-Harding was to comment to me much later; they are on sale at WH Smith!
In July 2022, the second council consultation was completed and a report drawn up for consideration by the Cabinet councillors who were due to vote to approve the market being disbanded. That report, authored by the Deputy Director, Place, Bill Hicks, showed a table of figures evidencing “declining levels of income” from Canterbury Market. Of course it did—the council had been failing to collect pitch rents – but there was no mention of that in Bill Hicks’s report.
I decided that a public meeting was required to let the public know – and to question what was going on.
MISLEADING FIGURES IN THE COUNCIL’S CONSULTATION REPORT
Question: 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 disband the market, a market trader bravely spoke out to reveal that the figures used by Bill Hicks in his council report as evidence of the market’s “declining income”, were in fact due to the council failing to take payment from traders for pitch rents.
This disclosure was important because only 24 hours before, the council had actually pushed through its own plans at a meeting of its ruling Cabinet members following the publication of Bill Hicks’s report to them. See Page 13 on the following link:-
The local Kent Messenger newspaper had reported that the council’s consultation had shown that a large share of respondents wanted traders to remain in one market location and not to be scattered to pitches across the city.
Importantly, the same article had also mentioned that Bill Hicks’s report claimed the market was failing to meet the council’s net income budget of £80,700 for street trading.
However, page 24 of this report (above) 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 had presumably been used to predict a further low estimate given of £66,200 for 2022-23.
Importantly, nowhere does Hicks’s report cite as a mitigating factor that the council had failed to properly collect pitch fees for market traders for the previous two years and had not invoiced them at all for the tax year commencing April 2022.
Steve Bamber joined me as a panel member for the public meeting, together with another market trader. Dr Ian Jasper, a senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, had kindly accepted my invitation to chair the meeting only to have some pressure put on him by the university to withdraw. Ian refused to do so but instead gave a statement in which he made clear he was chairing this meeting in the interests of local democracy.
“I am chairing the meeting on Friday 29th of July and I am looking forward to doing so. There is a real need for discussion in local politics. I have been asked to make it clear that I will be chairing the meeting in a personal capacity and in no way as a representative of any other institution or organisation.”
Yet again, Canterbury City Council made no attempt to engage with market traders as stakeholders, or with the many members of the public who turned out that night to fill the hall in which we met. In the interests of a balanced debate I had invited no fewer than 11 council representatives to take up the offer of 2 spaces available on the meeting’s panel. I personally invited salaried council officers (including Bill Hicks), the council leader, Ben Fitter-Harding and his deputy, Rachel Carnac, and other elected councillors and officers involved in pushing through this policy. Councillor Fitter-Harding replied to me stating categorically: “I will not be attending your meeting” while Councillor Carnac informed me she had a prior engagement. Others, including members of Canterbury BID, declined to attend.
Perhaps, having voted through the council’s policy only the night before, the powers-that-be at Canterbury City Council now believed their policy was a done deal – a fait accompli. Certainly, councillors in the ruling Cabinet had expounded at their own meeting that relegating the historic market to street trading pitches might now lead to the kind of markets they personally enjoyed in France, the ones that sold artisan cheeses rather than the goods sold in Canterbury Market which Ben Fitter-Harding had already dubbed “poor quality”.
Listening to the audio recording of that council meeting I was reminded of a comment made on our new petition by the writer, Chris Stone, which had perfectly summed up the social prejudice and pomposity of a council so removed from its constituents:-
“When council leader, Ben Fitter-Harding states 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… There should be room for everyone. There should be a market – in one place: St George’s Street.”
WHY DID THE LOCAL PRESS FAIL TO REPORT THE MISLEADING FIGURES?
Since first announcing the council’s policy in 2020, the local Gazette newspaper, part of the Kent Messenger group, had regularly published a number of highly informative articles on the plans to disband Canterbury Market, including a piece that had actually referenced Bill Hicks’s consultation report claims that the market was failing to meet the council’s net income budget of £80,700 for street trading.
At our public meeting, concerned attendees, including members of local parish councils and residents associations, had asked if the press would be informed of the situation regarding the misleading figures in the council report. I confirmed that they certainly would be. Straight after our public meeting I drafted a press release for the Gazette about the market traders’ “bombshell disclosures”; citing the council’s failure to invoice pitch rent payments and the fact that this was not at all mentioned as mitigation for the “declining” market income cited in Bill Hicks’s report – the same report which had gone to councillors and been voted on the night before our public meeting.
The Gazette failed to report this or to make any further enquiries of me about this – an extraordinary thing in the opinion of everyone concerned by this issue.
Residents who had attended the public meeting then wrote letters to the Gazette referencing the misleading figures in the consultation report and questioning why the council had failed to properly collect payments for such a long period of time. Only one of those letters was published, but all references to the misleading figures in Hicks’s report, and the council’s non-collection of pitch fees, were edited out.
I duly wrote a “Breaking News” piece for Whitstable Views which did report all this for the public:-
Once these disclosures were firmly in the public domain, I assumed the local paper would be more willing to report them so I sent a copy of that article to the Gazette. I was wrong; the newspaper continued to ignore those two important facts—until the inevitable happened; as the council vote had now taken place to disband the market, and the market traders had blown the whistle on the council’s failure to collect pitch rents, the council now began invoicing the traders for arrears.
This had always been expected once the whistle had been blown but the traders had not only taken the initiative by doing that – they had also quite rightly seized the moral high ground by publicly revealing the arrears that had accrued from the council’s refusal to accept payment.
The Gazette then did report that the traders were being invoiced – enormous sums too – many of which were incorrect, but the paper continued to ignore the crucial point that it had been the traders themselves who had disclosed the arrears and they had done so to highlight the misleading figures in the council report.
Without those facts included, the result, an article by reporter James Pallant, would appear to readers only as a report about a group of whingeing traders, grumbling about finally being billed for monies owed – with no explanation how they had actually revealed the council’s failings in this affair – or how the failure to take payment might have impacted on the recent council vote.
In sympathy with the traders and troubled by the possibility of any censorship of the full facts, I then wrote to the Gazette – referencing that the council’s press officer, and the spokesperson quoted in this same news report, was none other than Leo Whitlock – the former editor of the Gazette. As it was Leo commenting on the council’s behalf in the Gazette’s piece, I explained how I had to “assume” that the Gazette may have omitted certain facts due to influence put on its reporting.
I sent my letter to the editor of the Gazette, Joe Walker, and copied in other Gazette reporters, in the hope that my “assumption” was wholly incorrect and that any potential censorship of the facts would be refuted. My letter follows here:-
“This is just to let you know that while market traders were very pleased that the Gazette was going to make public the council finally invoicing market traders for pitch rents, everyone was most disappointed to see that important facts central to this story had been omitted; principally, that the invoicing only took place once the council’s cabinet had voted on the council report, which showed the market suffering “declining levels” of income, which, in turn, did not mention the non-invoicing or the fact that payments had not been taken properly since 2020 – and, most notably that this matter only came to light because the market traders disclosed this at a public meeting on 29th July.
Consequently, the market traders and I are sad to see how the story has attracted critical comments from readers, unfairly, we believe, since the full facts of this issue are not included – or the fact that a senior Conservative councillor (a former mayor and Sheriff of Canterbury) Colin Spooner, is now supporting the market traders in this campaign to keep the market as a unit in the heart of Canterbury.
I do see that Leo (Whitlock) was the council’s spokesman on this issue for the Gazette and I know Leo well from his time as an editor of the Gazette when he ran many stories on campaigns I was strongly connected to (eg keeping a Crown Post Office in Whitstable and against the move of the Royal Mail sorting office to Canterbury, to name just a few.) Leo always gave full and balanced coverage to local people fighting these important issues and so it’s particularly sad for me to see statements from him seemingly taking precedence in James’s story over important facts which, by their omission, has allowed the market traders to attract those critical comments from the Gazette’s readers – unfairly in my view – but most importantly, in theirs, because I sense they will be reluctant now to talk to the Gazette again on this issue.
I know very well that a number of local residents wrote to the Gazette following the market traders’ disclosures at the public meeting on 29 July about the council failing to invoice them, but we noted that only one letter was published and it edited out the same facts. I assumed this was due to some legal concerns, however, the issue of the non-invoicing resulting in artificially low figures for market income stated in the council’s Cabinet Report written by William Hicks, is now firmly in the public domain following my own article about this in Whitstable Views, and three public speeches being given about it at the council’s scrutiny sub-committee meeting on 15 August.
Sadly, I can only now assume that the Gazette has somehow been “leaned on” to omit important facts and to ignore important questions—something I actually find easy to believe because the same thing happened to Dr Ian Jasper who experienced pressure to stand down from his chairing of my public meeting for the market traders on 29 July. However, in Dr Jasper’s case, he stood firm and went ahead with his role and continued as chairman, for which I remain most grateful.
Should you find it impossible to print the facts in a news story due to this, I would be most grateful if you could publish my letter here which tries, respectfully, to set the record straight and pose relevant questions on this issue. I have included a link to James’s story below it.”
As mentioned, I also offered a letter for publication which set the facts straight. The Gazette failed to publish it. I received no reply to my email.
In that same email, I also referred to a “scrutiny sub-committee meeting” that had taken place at council on 15th August. This meeting had been the result of the council’s Cabinet decision being “called in” ie formally reviewed – by the opposition.
I do not usually attend council meetings because I have little, if no faith in the council’s “democratic” process, but at the market traders’ request I went along and spoke on the issue – as did Steve Bamber and market trader Lynn Thomsett. Our three speeches all cited the figures in Bill Hicks’s Cabinet Report as being unreliable and therefore misleading. Steve Bamber also publicly stated:-
“The council failed to collect pitch rents properly from us since 2020 – the year it announced these plans—until that news was exposed on July 29th – a day after the council vote. Last week we were finally invoiced for the full 5 months of this tax year. No doubt a rush job because the invoices are not correct.”
Some invoices were even sent to the wrong address.
Bill Hicks did not attend that meeting therefore could not respond. Again, there was no reporting of those facts by the local Gazette newspaper.
However, you can listen to the 3 speeches given at 11 minutes in, on the following link:-
DELAYS IN RESPONSES – A CONSERVATIVE COUNCILLOR COMES ON SIDE
In the weeks that followed the council’s Cabinet decision, and the vote of ruling Conservative councillors against the “calling in” of that decision, I worked almost daily in helping to draft correspondence for the market traders relating to problems with street trader pitches that the council had offered them with a view to get them all transferred over to street trader status ahead of the “improvement” works beginning in January 2023.
I was horrified by the delays from the council in replying to correspondence and the lack of courtesy and respect afforded to this group of hard working people who still feared losing their livelihoods due to the council’s plans. The replies that sometimes did eventually appear were often cursory and followed what seemed to be a pattern of procrastination that had been in evidence for some time, and which had previously forced Steve Bamber to go public after he had sent time-sensitive correspondence to Bill Hicks concerning the consultation, requesting a reply within seven days, only to have heard nothing three weeks later.
I suggested that Steve Bamber should ask for help from his local ward councillor, Colin Spooner.
Councillor Colin Spooner had been a former police officer, a Sheriff of Canterbury as well as Lord Mayor, and to his credit he had come over to support our campaign to save the market after having initially voted for the “improvements” to take place in St George’s Street. Colin had actually worked on a street market as a young man and he had given me a statement explaining his support, which was published on Whitstable Views. It can be read here:-
Following our publication of that statement, Colin Spooner then found himself reprimanded by council leader, Ben Fitter-Harding, who issued him with a number of questions to answer, including the following:-
“Why did you not seek clarification of your confusion around the market decision from the Whip / myself rather than Ms Wassmer?”
“Why have you lent your name to an article that actively seeks to damage the reputation of the Conservative Group and Conservative Party?”
Colin replied that he had been responding to a request from me for clarification of his position on an issue that directly affected at least two of his own constituents, and he considered that it was actually the council’s policy that was in danger of damaging the party’s reputation not the “article he had lent his name to.”
Warned of the prospect of disciplinary action, Colin Spooner remained firm and continued to lend us his support.
Recently, as reported in the national press, Colin Spooner resigned as a Conservative councillor after Ben Fitter-Harding suspended him for stating that the council leader had “lost the plot” concerning a “bonkers” traffic plan for Canterbury. He is now part of the Independent Serve to Lead group (ISLG) with three other former Conservative councillors, standing against the Conservative party in the upcoming May council elections.
A CLASH WITH COUNCIL LEADER, BEN FITTER-HARDING
Throughout the considerable public discussion that took place on social media about the council’s ambitions to disband Canterbury Market, Council Leader, Ben Fitter-Harding often contributed his own comments—as did his Deputy Leader, Councillor Rachel Carnac.
In August 2022 Ben Fitter-Harding replied as follows to a resident after comments I had made on a Facebook discussion:-
“Julie has no interest in the truth, sadly, and continues to misrepresent the facts.”
I responded with a warning to Councillor Fitter-Harding:-
“I need you to know that I have taken advice from my solicitors today and that as I am a writer, author and journalist you are now in danger of causing me “reputational damage”. Please desist from any further imputations concerning my honesty or I will be forced to take further action.”
The council leader then “blocked” me from Facebook which prevented me from viewing any further comments he may have continued to make about me.
After I reported this on Facebook, local residents then helpfully began re-posting the following message from me to explain the situation to others:-
“Message from Julie Wassmer: It appears Canterbury City Council leader, Ben Fitter-Harding, has blocked me on Facebook. I would be grateful if people would let me know if they see any comments he may make about me (effectively behind my back) following my warning to him on my own page to “desist from any further imputations concerning my honesty or I will be forced to take further (legal) action. Please share this. Many thanks.”
I then received an email from Councillor Fitter-Harding asking me to “stop posting about me on Facebook” and accusing me of “hurtling (sic) abuse” at him.
In an email response I pointed out to him (and to a council legal representative he had copied in to his own email) that it was local residents who were posting a non-abusive message on my behalf—in response to his own statement questioning my honesty. However, if he apologised for his comment and agreed “not to publicly impugn my honesty in future,” I would explain that to my supporters.
Councillor Fitter-Harding did not do so, and I am still blocked to this day, but he suggested that I meet with him when he returned from a holiday he was about to take. I agreed.
DESERTED COUNCIL OFFICES AND NO CHIEF EXECUTIVE
On the day of that meeting, I arrived at the council offices in Military Road to find the building closed. I then learned from the council leader’s assistant, who came to meet me at the locked doors, that the council offices had actually closed when the Covid pandemic first hit in 2020—and have never opened to the public since.
It was an extraordinary experience to find myself being led through silent corridors of what had once been a busy municipal building. Passing rows of empty seating in front of deserted customer service pods, I asked how residents were now expected to gain help or information from the council? The answer—by phone. Staff were still working from home.
I was to meet with Ben Fitter-Harding in an office I believe had once been occupied by Colin Carmichael – the former Chief Executive of Canterbury City Council. Colin Carmichael had held that important position for 25 years before retiring in March 2022.
No-one has since been appointed to the role – which, of course, begged the question:-
Why did we pay Colin Carmichael a six figure salary for over two decades to be Canterbury City Council’s Chief Executive if we did not need a Chief Executive?
Carmichael’s expenses had also been featured in an article in the Telegraph about council bosses’ use of credit cards for “lavish lifestyles”.
Surely someone must have taken over the role Carmichael had assumed for a quarter of a century—and at such great public expense? It appeared not – and it also appeared the decision for that had been down to Ben Fitter-Harding. A statement made jointly by all the opposition parties in January 2022 had described this decision by Ben Fitter-Harding as a “reckless action” and claimed that to try to “run an organisation of over 400 staff with budgets of £200 million…without a Chief Executive is something no sensible business would contemplate. Yet that is exactly what Conservative leader Ben Fitter-Harding is proposing. Worse, he is doing so without bothering to assess or understand the risks involved, without proper planning or consultation, and with no idea about what to do if the reckless experiment fails….”
So who had filled the vacuum?
All I had been able to discover was that a salaried council officer, Tricia Marshall, appeared to be sharing Carmichael’s old responsibilities with the elected council leader himself—Ben Fitter-Harding – though whether either of them was adequately qualified for this important task, or receiving any extra payment or expenses, was anyone’s guess.
MY MEETING WITH BEN FITTER-HARDING
I viewed my meeting with Ben Fitter-Harding as an opportunity not to discuss old social media battles but to put the case for market traders and their customers while commenting on the state of affairs at that point in time.
I put it to the council leader that his Cabinet councillors had voted on the disbanding of the market using a report that referenced totally inaccurate figures because these failed to include tens of thousands of pounds of un-invoiced pitch fees. Furthermore, I knew that Ben Fitter-Harding was quite aware that these figures were incorrect as he had made the following admission in an email to one of his own Chestfield constituents:-
“the current year’s figures, affected by the card machine issue, were not included in report”.
I made clear that local people had considered it staggering news that market traders had not been allowed even to pay in cash when what had gone into that council report was a figure that in no way could have represented “declining levels” of market income. Whether this had been done by Bill Hicks from inefficiency or efficacy (ie it may well have served to get the “job done” in respect of the Cabinet vote) I considered it had done no favours at all to Ben Fitter-Harding—or to Barbara Flack who had been left, in effect, holding the can at a council meeting Hicks had failed to attend.
Ben Fitter-Harding and I had both contributed to a report on BBC Radio Kent in which he had stated to presenter Anna Cookson that his Cabinet councillors “may not have been depending on those figures to vote on”. However, he now admitted to me that it had been “an interesting experience” to learn about the card machine issue – and the fact that there had been “only one”. When I suggested this excuse appeared “ludicrous”, not least because there had been plenty of time to buy another machine, it was Councillor Fitter-Harding himself who then pointed out: “they could have got one from WH Smith.” Indeed they could. The question remained why hadn’t they?
I told the council leader that I believed his officers had acted “unprofessionally” regarding the market issue – particularly with their lack of attention given to time sensitive correspondence – and I couldn’t be sure this wasn’t actually a modus operandi that was being employed by the market manager, David Harte, and Bill Hicks himself. I also confessed it seemed the market traders were considered to be some kind of “fly by night” characters, as I understood they had been told that if they didn’t like the way they were being treated they could always “go somewhere else – like Ashford.” I didn’t consider this to be acceptable because some traders, like Steve Bamber, had been trading in Canterbury Market for almost three decades.
Councillor Fitter-Harding admitted that what I was telling him was a “sad assessment” and that he believed a lot of work had gone into securing street trader pitches to which the market traders would transition. He maintained that not only had the best trading environment been established for them outside of St George’s Street but that the market itself could “come back for consideration, hopefully, in less than a year’s time”. I warned this might be too late for those who could not survive in problematic pitches and reminded him that not one market trader had yet confirmed acceptance of the street trader pitches offered and, as people of principle, neither would they until they were confident they were all being treated fairly – a case of “all for one and one for all”.
I also explained that due to ill health on my part there had been a hiatus in the public campaign and though I was aware that local people wished for the campaign to continue and were asking me for updates, I personally considered this to be a good time to attempt some constructive negotiation – which is why I had accepted the council leader’s invitation to meet. Ben Fitter-Harding reiterated that the council’s ambitions to regenerate St George’s Street meant that the market traders needed to be re-homed via “the street trading process” but he gave a commitment that he would discuss the issues I raised with Bill Hicks.
My response to this was to give a warning that if agreement could not be reached for suitable pitches for all market traders, the campaign would restart because I had no intention of leaving the traders unsupported. Together with members of local residents’ associations and parish councils, we would simply continue to lobby for market traders and their customers – and I confided that I was sure the council leader had quite enough on his plate to deal with as he was experiencing firm opposition to the Local Plan as well as a controversial new traffic plan for the city.
Councillor Fitter-Harding then shared his ambition for both of those plans, expounding on “creating a legacy”, “protecting heritage”, providing “the best housing for the future” and “unlocking potential” for the district way into 2045…
He also described his “vision” for the future of Canterbury’s street trading as comprising “more seasonal markets”, a vegan market like one that had existed near Westgate, a “proper farmer’s market” and “special markets” to feature at different times of the year – such as Easter. His view was that street traders would be a “staple” of this, with a few “clusters” of stalls – selling “vegetables” or items “new in”. What did I think about this?
My response was that markets should offer diversity not uniformity, and that a “cluster” of “vegetable stalls” would only create unnecessary competition between traders and deny customers the enjoyment of the very essence of street markets; a variety of goods. I then suggested that the best people to be having this dialogue with were the market traders themselves, and that the council and its leader could, and should, be consulting instead of dictating.
I also made clear that this wasn’t a case of a campaigner declaring “let’s fight for something we cannot have” but one local community supporting members of another who were fighting for their livelihoods and a right to make a good life for themselves. Ultimately, the council would have to come to some proper negotiation with the traders, so why not now?
Instead of carping on about vision and legacy, I believed that what was needed was respectful dialogue with those at the heart of this, as well as some attention given to local shopkeepers who also wanted a market to remain in Canterbury because markets increase footfall for retail units. Street trading created a potential for fly pitching – which would surely lead to the very opposite of the council’s lofty aesthetics for St George’s Street.
I relayed how important opportunities for engagement with the market traders had been missed and that rather than establishing meaningful dialogue, council officers had in effect bulldozed this policy through, evidenced by the fact that traders had been warned in an email from market manager, David Harte, that if they did not “engage” with the council’s consultation and make a choice of the “street trader” pitches on offer, they would, in effect, go to the back of the queue when the market disbanded in January of this year.
However, market traders only got sight of the Terms and Conditions for those pitches after they had applied for them, so problems within those Terms and Conditions had only then become apparent and important time had been lost. I believed that the officers who had been ignoring correspondence and queries from the market traders had caused unnecessary stress and worry for these people. There were numerous instances of Bill Hicks and market manager, David Harte, failing to respond in an efficient and timely manner to these queries, which I found totally unacceptable.
During the meeting, Ben Fitter-Harding alluded to my participation in a previous campaign to oppose a controversial sale by the council of land known as the Oval Chalet site in Whitstable. He insisted that his early council experience of witnessing the wrath of local people, and their pursuit of a judicial review in that matter, had led to radical changes in council procedure.
He tried to assure me that following bad publicity for the council that had resulted from that campaign, lessons had been learned regarding the importance of “transparency” and “how council decisions can affect people’s lives” and that the battle with local people during the Oval Chalet campaign had been a “cautionary tale” for the council.
For my own part, I had witnessed no evidence of that in the course of my campaigning with the market traders. On the contrary, in my experience, throughout this campaign, Canterbury City Council had remained as aloof and distant from the concerns of ordinary people as it ever was, motivated by those whose ambitions concern their own “legacy” – rather than empathy for local people’s needs.
Canterbury Market was duly disbanded in January of this year and work continues on these “improvements” in St George’s Street, successfully blocking shop windows and providing potential obstacles for disabled residents and visitors.
Regarding the new block paving for the leafy new “boulevard” one might be forgiven for thinking the council had even run out of money – as one resident suggested when he sent me this photo showing mismatched paving:-
During the last few weeks, Ben Fitter-Harding’s Conservative group has now lost its majority on the city council due to the resignation of no fewer than four of its own Conservative councillors, including Steve Bamber’s ward councillor, Colin Spooner, and former Cabinet member, Ashley Clark.
This news comes less than a month before council elections on 4th May and I’m reminded of a statement I wrote in my very first article on the market issue, in which I informed market supporters that whatever the outcome of this campaign, we would always retain an opportunity to protest against the decision to close the market by exercising our democratic right not to vote for those who had supported these plans.
I duly gave the names of the councillors who had done so and I list them again at the foot of this piece. In Canterbury’s historic Guildhall, at the end of a council meeting last August, I still clearly recall how council leader, Ben Fitter-Harding, physically turned his back on market traders as they tried to protest at a vote that had just taken place on their futures.
At the ballot box on May 4th, we will have a chance to turn our backs on them all – including Ben Fitter–Harding.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:-
You can find local councillors on this link. Click on it and see who your councillors are:-
To take action against those who voted for this policy DO NOT VOTE FOR ANY OF THE FOLLOWING COUNCILLORS at the elections on May 4th—and urge others to do the same.
Those councillors are as follows:
Rachel Carnac (Reculver) Mark Dance (Swalecliffe) Georgina Glover (Sturry) Ian Stockley (Beltinge) Jeanette Stockley (Beltinge) David Thomas (Heron)
NB Colin Spooner was taken off that list as he reversed his decision on this policy and subsequently voted against his party, and in support for Canterbury Market, at the Overview and Scrutiny meeting on 16th June 2022. Colin Spooner also resigned from the Conservative group, as has Councillor Ashley Clark, both having spoken out against Ben Fitter-Harding’s Conservative leadership, and forming the Independent Serve to Lead group (ISLG).
Please remember that the leader of the council can only “lead” if he remains a councillor so if you live in Chestfield’s ward, vote for another candidate other than Ben Fitter-Harding.
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. We have the power to change things. Let us do that on May 4th.
Julie Wassmer is a Whitstable-based author, TV writer and environmental campaigner.
She has successfully fought a number of environmental issues, including fracking in Kent and tree clearances by Network Rail. Her Whitstable Pearl crime novels are now a major TV series, starring Kerry Godliman, with a 2nd season expected streaming from November 2022.
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