It is nearly time to put my X on a piece of paper again. Whereas I should be proud that I am able to do this at all, this particular X on a piece of paper type exercise has even less meaning for me than usual. This is because it is a local election, and whoever I vote for, IF they win, will end up on Darlington Borough Council – an organisation that I have very, very little respect for. Recently I was asked to put some of my experiences into writing for a councillor seeking re-election, so here goes.
I mentioned in my last blog post about the Coffee Festival and how it was all done *despite* the council, not because of them. The original idea was to hold a few coffee themed stalls in the market square along with a latte art competition. So, since I wanted the market square, on a Saturday when the normal market is on, I asked the Markets Team. They immediately told to talk to the Town Centre manager. She sounded enthusiastic, but told me to contact the Events Team. The one person I met from the Events Team was also very enthusiastic, but then got me to fill in all the paper work. To hold a ONE DAY EVENT, which, lets face it, was never going to attract hordes of people anyway, I had to write an entire Event Plan, complete with risk assessments (“people may spill hot coffee on themselves. Risk allieviated by not selling to STUPID PEOPLE”?!), fire safety plans, and a to-scale plan of how I wanted my stalls laid out. I also needed to find a qualified first aider, and have a plan for Crowd Management, and then they sent my plans back wanting me to mark on where the public toilets would be (erm, it’s your town centre/market square, do you not know where you put the loos?). Then to cap it all, they wanted me to prove I had TEN MILLION POUNDS of public liability insurance. I have £5m for my cafe and from when I used to trade on the market, but that wasn’t enough to actually organise an event. I phoned round and phoned round and couldn’t find any company willing to cover me for that amount, for a one-off event. So I called the council back and threatened to cancel the whole thing, and suddenly, they “realised” my £5m cover might be enough…. Even then though, my ‘Event application’ still had to be approved by the committee, and they also wanted me to get back in touch with the Market officers to find out how the actual stalls were going to be erected and insured…
At this point, I really was ready to give up – wouldn’t you be, dear reader? But I did contact the market officers again, and they said “why don’t you just add the stalls on to the end of open market?” that way, all the risk assessments/insurance etc would be covered by them. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH. That is of course, what I ended up doing, but had they just said that SIX WEEKS PREVIOUSLY when I’d first asked, it would have saved me so, so much time, effort and stress!!! And typically, they still charged ALL the stall holders £20 for the stalls even though I’d pointed out numerous times that this was a charity fundraising event, AND they stuck us right up on Blackwellgate out of the way with little passing trade. All in all, the council did not help one iota with any publicity for this either, so if either the markets or the events team claim ANY credit for this in all their promotional stuff for the election… HEADS WILL ROLL.
All this shows that the council departments DO NOT TALK TO EACH OTHER. There is a ludicrous amount of red tape and very little common sense to the point where it seriously discourages anyone from doing anything out of the ordinary. Most importantly, when it comes to events and the markets in Darlington (which supposedly attract tourists etc) there is little initiative within the council itself – no one seems to have the ambition or imagination to do anthing to regenerate the dying market or hold any new events themselves, and yet when members of the public try and do it for them, they are met with the above level of unnecessary, soul-saping bureaucracy. More to the point, it shouldn’t be up to us to design these events for them – surely, this is the job of the market officers and events team themselves!?
I have traded on the open markets with two different stalls – my Cyberllama business selling Peruvian jewellery in 2005-2006 and with my Dr Coffee van from 2009 until just after Miranda was born last summer. Neither was a particularly successful venture, but I do maintain that both would have been infinitely more profitable had I attempted them outside of Darlington. Darlington open market is NOT the place for unusual jewellery and not even the place for high quality coffee. I was told repeatedly with the coffee van that my coffee was pricey – I was still undercutting Starbucks/Nero/Costa by between 50p and £1 per cup, but the average market customer expects Ne$cafe instant in a polysterene cup for 50p. Highest quality direct-trade espresso is not really appreciated by people just after something Hot, Wet and Caffeinated. This is an issue with my business model, I accept that, but even so, I am still confident I would have done better in another town, and that is mainly due to the way the markets are “organised”.
My Cyberllama stall was actually on the Market Square, back in the days pre “Pedestrian Heart scheme” when the market had a proper home. But, the infinite wisdom behind the decision to redo the high street and pedestrianize it meant that all the bus stops moved away from the Market Square itself, and suddenly, there footfall in the market decreased dramatically, killing off quite a few of the stalls in the process. I had given up by the time they decided to move the market up on to High Row. I started the coffee van on High Row, and was squashed on the end in Blackwellgate, which not only gets minimal passing trade, it also never gets any sunlight, and acts as a wind tunnel in bad weather. My coffee van is tiny – this was not the best, most visible spot by a long way. Then it got worse. With the absolute bare-minimum consultation with the stall holders, the Monday market was moved down to the bottom of Northgate. The decision was actually made by the Council before it was properly discussed with the traders. To be fair, there is higher footfall in Northgate, but there is not a lot of space. The market is crammed in and looks squashed and untidy because the street in narrower, and worse, it is completely hidden from the main high street meaning you have to know it is on to go there, it is not going to get accidental visitors. I went round with leaflets for my business around all the shops on Northgate after the market officers informed us they’d consulted with the shops there, who were happy that the market was moving. I quickly found that the majority of shops on Northgate had absolutely no idea the market was moving and had not been privy to this consultation at all! After all this, I only ended up doing two more stalls on the Mondays. The reason being, my new pitch was right outside Starbucks, and only 100 yards from Costa. Even though my coffee was cheaper, (and certainly higher quality and more ethical!) I couldn’t compete with fashionable, established huge brands, and not with having warm places to sit down! One time I took £17 all day, not even enough to cover the stall fee. I did ask if I could move my pitch – it wasn’t going to happen. They just weren’t interested enough in the stalls to support individual traders.
The stalls are also prohibitively expensive. I had to pay £25 per day to park my van on the market. It was *just* for parking it. I had to get my insurance independently and provide my own generator and fuel for it because the required. They also charge you for the full day even if you don’t stay all day. Because I was “mobile” and “self-contained”, I also never got a gazebo like all the rest of the stalls. This was NOT fun, especially in mid winter or when heavily pregnant. One day it was raining so hard, all my cakes and jars of tea got soaking wet, no one was about and I hadn’t made a single sale all morning, so I packed up and went home. I STILL got charged the full £25 even though I’d only been there for 3 hours and hadn’t made a penny!! Not impressed. I had several days getting utterly drenched and selling nothing, because no one wanted to stay and drink coffee in the pouring rain. I asked repeatedly for a gazebo, but they could only give me one if it was on the end of a row of stalls, and there was never space for this apparently. I feel strongly that £25 a day is too much for a stall even with the perks of a cover, given the terrible location, the lack of passing trade and the total lack of promotion of the market done by the Council. When you are selling coffees for under £2 a cup, that is A LOT of sales before you make any money back from it!
I had a long discussion with MP Jenny Chapman about the markets prior to the general election. With the best will in the world, she had little clue of what trading on the market is actually like. Her solution to the falling trade in the market was to encourage market traders to get card machines to enable them to take payments by debit card. Obviously she has no idea how expensive and unreliable those machines are to use – and really, people aren’t going to put £1.65 for a cappuccino on their card, are they?
This is, of course, just my experience and personal opinions but I am very aware that I am not alone in these views. Again, my personal circumstances dictated that I either did my market stalls or signed on the dole: I’d really expect the Council to support fledgling small businesses like mine, and actively encourage enterpreneurship instead of making starting a business harder and even more complicated than it needs to be. The markets need a shake up. To my mind, it needs to be moved back to the market square where it is at least visible, obvious and attractive. It needs investment – the stall fee needs to be reduced, and the costs of running it need to be subsidised by the council without those costs being passed on to the stallholders. Most importantly, it needs to better advertised and promoted around the region. More ‘special’ markets need to organised – the market officers and events team need to come up with some more unusual festivals to draw people in, and if members of the public have ideas for events, these should be far, far, easier to achieve with councillers supporting the event planning, rather than just bogging us down with red tape or charging this ridiculous “rival market” fee (another story altogether!). On a smaller scale, the market officers need to justify the stall fee, by actually taking an interest in the stalls, helping and supporting individual traders when necessary especially new start-ups. Darlington is traditionally a market town, but it is going to lose its market entirely if something isn’t done to regenerate it very soon indeed.