Downham and Swaffham: A tale of two markets during the coronavirus
While one Norfolk market has been flourishing and receiving plenty of praise, it has been a different story for another which has been subject to a petition.
Swaffham’s market was selected to appear in a government video highlighting how outdoor markets can be run safely amidst the grips of the pandemic.
The Saturday Market has been running with a number of social distancing measures since the beginning of May, while a Friday indoor market and auction have also been popular.
Mayor Jill Skinner said: “Our market is an important feature in the town. It’s a Swaffham tradition dating back 800 years and I’m pleased to say it is still up and running whereas many town markets are not.
“The stall holders are fantastic, there is a lot of comradeship, and I think the market is a great asset to the town especially in these difficult times.”
Such positivity has not always been so apparent in Downham however, where traders have expressed their anger over the initial decision to erect barriers in the market place.
The town council has said these have since been replaced with a walkway and planted containers, but some traders and councillors believe the damage had already been done.
West Norfolk councillor Don Tyler, who represents Downham, said: “I am saddened by the breakdown in relations between the town council and the traders.
“As a result of these disputes other businesses have been damaged by the lack of footfall between the market and Wales Court.
“In recent months the number of stalls has been drastically reduced and remains so as a result of decisions made wholly by the town council.”
A ‘Save our market’ petition calling for a vote of no confidence in the town council will be considered at the next full council meeting. Fears have also been expressed over licenses being revoked and the Covid rangers at the market.
Town Council insists traders will be met half way
Downham Town Council has insisted it is “trying very hard” to address traders’ concerns although discontent continues to be voiced.
A trader of five years, who did not wish to be named, questioned why there have been Covid rangers at Downham when Swaffham has managed without them.
She claimed the money spent on them would have been better spent on the Christmas light for the town.
The trader added: “In all my years I have never known so much disarray with the market.
“Traders have been moved from pillar to post which is disgusting. You go to Swaffham and it is flourishing and everyone seems happy, yet in Downham it has been an absolute hellhole.”
Downham town clerk Elaine Oliver said: “We will speak to all traders one-to-one to hear concerns about the licence.
“There is constant dialogue and we are still trying to do that. We are willing to liaise the whole time.
“We are trying very hard to offer meetings and we have to meet half way or it won’t work. We need to get to grips to understand the problems rather than through Facebook comments.”
She added that the market is in fact seeing new traders and the new licenses will be starting from November 15.
During a meeting in August, councillors agreed to revoke the existing byelaws and licenses inherited from the previous administrations which were deemed “not fit for purpose, unfair and outdated”.
Lee Martin, owner of Norfolk in a Box, has a stall at Swaffham market but lives in Downham.
He sympathises with the town council in Downham who have received plenty of flak despite its best intentions. Regarding Swaffham he said: “Things are lovely, we just need people to continue to support us. I think the council has done a good job but there is always more that needs to be done.”
Swaffham's Breckland and county councillor Ed Colman said: "What Swaffham Town Council has done really well is that engagement and connection with traders so that the community is using the market. Along with the district council and regular teams it has been a real collective effort which is paying dividends.
"The market has been vibrant and busy which is testament to the hard work of people over a period of time."
This weekend, there will be a special American theme to the market on Saturday with traders and customers invited to take part in Halloween fun, and Mr Colman said officials have been flexible and eager to adapt in order to keep the market going during the pandemic.
Breckland councillor and market organiser Fabian Eagle said: "It's a strange scenario where being too successful is a concern because space is limited if everyone comes at the same time.
"It's a nice situation to be in but there are still worries and concerns because of the situation. Along with the regular market meetings, there has been constant liaising with the mayor, deputy mayor and clerk because it is constantly evolving."
Mr Eagle said he has heard many customers saying they are grateful the market is still receptive to cash payments so that they "do not feel like a pariah" as can be the case elsewhere.
Initially, there was a one-way system and chains for the market, but constant tweaking has ensured shoppers can continue to buy their produce "as quickly, efficiently and safely as possible".