Street traders and local producers are facing a crippling rise in fees in August for operating in Perceval Square as Comhairle nan Eilean Siar moves to implement a policy change which was voted through several years ago.
A report for the Policy and Resources Committee, which meets next on Wednesday, says the use of Stornoway Town Centre for market trading has increased and diversified over the past number of years. “Over this time, and especially since the introduction of the Civic Hub in Perceval Square, it has become evident that greater control is required over the letting of areas.”
In 2012 the Comhairle approved a Policy for the Letting of Comhairle Land within Stornoway Town Centre which said it should showcase Hebridean culture and produce and to accommodate the showcasing of other cultures and entertainment.
This moved away from the policy of supporting the development of local produce sales and is in line with latest CnES policy elsewhere which, for instance, will see the demolition of the Castlebay building, also owned by the Council, which is used by local producers on Barra.
The new draft policy for Perceval Square came out early last year and was subject to five weeks consultation, which ran from 26 August to 2 October 2015. Those responding included Stornoway Amenity Trust, Veggie Box, Lewis & Harris Horticultural Producers Group and Gourmet Street Food.
Councillors say the policy is aimed at controlling commercial use of the space and that charities are exempt. However, none of the existing users are charities.
Matt Bruce, of Lewis & Harris Horticultural Producers Group, which was originally encouraged and supported by the Council and other public agencies, says the Council report makes clear that if you are selling for profit you have to pay the charges. “So I feel that LHHP will have to pay the charges since we are not a charity and we sell things to try to make a reasonable return …which means a profit.
He points out that LHHP is a producers group, which gets income from membership and charging a commission on each sale. “It relies on people donating their time to run the stalls - no one is a paid person. And sales are affected by the weather – last year the weather was so bad that LHHP income was half the previous year's income.”
On Saturday, the LHHP had at least four stalls, selling eggs, plants and other products. Next to them is the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association stall, the establishment of which was also encouraged by CnES when it wanted to encourage street markets.
The present charge is £1 a day per square metre of selling space and a 50% discount from that if you book a 3-month term.
So if LHHP has two stalls each 8ft by 4 ft that would be 5.7 square metre so £6 a day or £3 a day if booked over 13 weeks. Under the new proposed system the charge would be £40 a day, an increase of around 1000 per cent.
Stallholders will also be hit by ban on trailers from the square during working hours is clumsy and a requirement to wash down the square after every use.
Matt Bruce says: “The idea of running a street stall for local produce was guided by the Comhairle back in 1999 or so and has changed over the years but no local producer makes enough money to get a wage out of it. It is a hobby or obsession about growing things that makes people do it. “
It also fulfils ideas like local seasonal produce is best, reducing food miles and cutting carbon as well as the health benefits of exercise, he says.
The stalls were originally in Point Street outside the Town Hall but all market activities are now banned from the narrow streets of the old town for safety reasons and to stop them obstructing the business of other shops. The new letting policy also bans the use of Council-run car parks for other purposes, like funfairs, except at the time of the Lewis Carnival and the Christmas Lights switch-on.
The proposed letting policy states: “A commercial let is defined as being one where a hirer plans to use the let for the purposes of making a profit through admission charges or the sale of goods/services.
The commercial rate is £20 per pitch for each day. This charge is applicable whether the full day, or only part of the day is used.”
The policy also covers how traders can be excluded from the square by major events – related to the Hebridean Celtic Festival or the Mod, for example - and where the entire area of the Civic Hub in Perceval Square is booked a fixed charge of £200 per day will be applied. This does not include utilities costs. A number of changes have been made as a result of the consultation including reducing the stallholder minimum age to 18.