All consultations are valuable, but some are more valuable than others.
Especially when the data they gather is so skewed as to be worthless.
That’s the thought that went through my mind the other week as I completed an online questionnaire seeking views on Colchester’s market and street traders. It’s an emotive issue, particularly for street traders. So far this year Colchester Borough Council has tried to evict them from their pitches in Culver Street in favour of more expensive new stalls on the High Street.
The traders also objected to the fact that the online consultation questionnaire was only live for six days. ““It all seems a bit cloak and dagger,” complained trader Shahid Zaman. “It seems like there is a predetermined outcome.”
When I completed the questionnaire I felt the same. So I posted the following on the Facebook page belonging to Quarterbridge, the company hired by Colchester Borough Council to do the consultation.
The first question is too complex, you’re asking people what their main purpose for visiting Colchester is (many of us live here already – or did you mean the town centre?), there’s a couple of questions that seem negatively weighted against the street traders because you can’t select ‘no’ when asked if there’s anything that would stop you buying from the street traders, (I hope the council isn’t trying to get rid of them!) or when asked what you would do to improve street trading, plus there are mandatory questions that some people might prefer not to answer. Can I ask whether anyone on the market or any of the street traders were consulted before you created this questionnaire?
I got no response, but I did begin to wonder what Quarterbridge’s background was.
According to the firm’s own website, it specialises in Retail Market development. “If you’re a market owner, operator, developer or trader,” it adds, “you’ve come to the right place for advice, design and business development.”
So far, so good.
But a bit of digging uncovered that Quarterbridge has three directors who are also directors of the Woking Market Company Limited, a subsidiary of Quarterbridge “set up to support the development of Woking Market Walk.”
Quarterbridge were originally appointed by Woking Borough Council to “advise on the letting and management” of its new market. As with Colchester, the development of the market caused controversy among street traders who felt they were being forced out. As the BBC reported:
Sarah Lewis, who runs Lewis Pet Supplies, said: “[We were] really excited about it, only to be given the information about three weeks ago that we will be having dramatic rent increases, possibly not even be selected to move, and we have to write these business plans.”
Pablos Moezi, who has had a watch and key-cutting stall for 22 years, said the rent, business rates and electricity bills were too high, and added: “It’s just like having a shop. It’s not like a market stall.”
Indeed, very few of the existing traders were offered space in the new market. It’s likely that many of them will go out of business. As one said: “After you trade here for 20 years and then you are out of a job, there is not much you can do about it.”
Quarterbridge subsequently took over the management of the new market.
Also of concern to me has been Quarterbridge’s involvement in a market relocation in Seven Sisters, north London. Their relationship with Haringey Council began in 2012:
Stallholders at Seven Sisters market are being offered the chance to help shape the design of the new market hall being planned for the site.
Grainger plc and Haringey Council have appointed Quarterbridge Project Management to work with existing traders to design the new Market Hall and help with the temporary relocation whilst the Seven Sisters Regeneration project is underway.
This project hasn’t run smoothly, at least in the view of the Friends of Queen’s Market. On this page, I discovered the following.
“Traders report increased harrassment from the council of late! Why has the market manager’s shifts been cut back? Why are toilets at Queen’s Market invariably closed? Why are retail units being left empty? Why is the market not being cleaned properly? Why has no lift been installed from market level to parking spaces above? Mr Jonathan Owen of Quarterbridge has now been hired by St Modwen to try to convince the market traders to capitulate to their will. Apparently he is currently engaged in a little divide and rule. No doub[t] the is hoping for a sizeable commission should this disreputable scheme get the go ahead. By all accounts he doesn’t seem too concerned about any possible impact on shoppers or local residents. http://www.quarterbridge.co.uk See if you can find out how many pieces of silver Mr Owen is going to be paid if he manages to ‘break’ the spirit of the traders and ‘deliver’ the market to St Modwen. No doubt Mr Owen will be only too glad to elucidate matters.”
Now, I don’t know the truth of these allegations, but I have discovered that Mr Owen and a fellow director are also directors of a company called Market Asset Management (Seven Sisters) Ltd. I don’t know what the company does or is for, but its title suggests it has been set up to manage a market in the Seven Sisters area. I will be watching how the situation in that part of London develops.
What worries me is that Colchester appointed a company to undertake a consultation on our market and our street traders which also has a track record in managing markets. I made this point at the most recent Colchester Cabinet Meeting, where I spoke as a member of the public rather than as a councillor. To me, the fact that Quarterbridge people are involved in taking over management of markets rings alarm bells – and I asked for a reassurance that the company has not been told it may bid for the management of our own market.
The Cabinet told me that no such assurances have been given, and the Chief Executive later confirmed that the tender process was open and transparent. I believe him, but I do not think the quality of the consultation Colchester Council bought was good enough.
As one local resident emailed me after I had spoken at Cabinet:
Just the sort of thing that opposition councillors ought to be probing… I think you touched a nerve.
Whether I did or not, only time will tell. I simply hope the street traders’ livelihoods are protected.