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Council at 'breaking point' as demonstration rumours lead to suspension of market

A town council has said they are at "breaking point" due to the abuse they have received regarding the suspension of a market after talks of a "revolt" appeared to surface.

After seeing social media reports of a demonstration at Downham's market this Friday, the town council has taken the decision to close the stalls for the next two weeks.

But the council has been accused of overreacting by a borough councillor and traders who told the Lynn News there was no real evidence of a demonstration.

Downham Market's market will be closed for two weeks after reports of a demonstration allegedly surfaced on social media. Picture: Phoenix Events
Downham Market's market will be closed for two weeks after reports of a demonstration allegedly surfaced on social media. Picture: Phoenix Events

Town clerk Elaine Oliver said: "It was very clear a lot of people know about it [planned demonstration]. A borough councillor was encouraging people to go to it. One of the traders berated me yesterday and was actually quite abusive.

"It has been very high profile on social media and at one point the word revolt was used. We have heard this on the market as well.

"We have worked extremely hard working overtime to get the market functioning. We started with five food and drink stalls for the first two weeks but three of the traders did not turn up.

"I have personally been abused about it which is not fair as we are working so hard to get the market back including free masks and hand gel. Of course we want the traders back.

"We are quite near breaking point; to be berated and shouted at when we are trying to do our best to comply as well as the other markets have like Swaffham which have a much, much wider area. We are very restricted."

The town council released a statement yesterday saying they had intended to continue with phasing in more stalls over the next weeks. Mrs Oliver said there would have been seven to nine stalls this week.

However, the statement added: "It has come to our attention that a demonstration is being planned on Friday to protest against the safety measures that have been put in place and calling for the market to return to pre-Covid times.

"It would appear organisers are encouraging people to come to the market to demonstrate.As it stands public meetings of more than six are not allowed and with limited police presence in Downham. We have a duty to act in the interests of public health, and have a duty as an employer. This means that the market will be shut for the next two weeks.

"Over which time we will undertake a big review, liaise with the traders, and come back with a plan and a newly formed constitution.

"We want our market to stay, the town council are putting time and effort to make it bigger and better and for Downham to be known for its market."

West Norfolk councillor Shimit Patel, who represents Downham, said: "I want to see the market back functioning when it is safe to do so but I cannot see why a few people would want to protest and jeopardise traders being able to trade that were already back. It would be prudent for the Downham Town Council to review measures it has taken in light of the latest government announcements.”

Mr Patel, who runs a convenience store in the town, added that he is pro-business and wants to see traders keeping the town going.

West Norfolk councillor Mike Howland described the response to the demonstration as a "storm in a teacup" and said traders he had spoken to just want to get on with their livelihood rather than taking part in any protests.

Mr Howland said: "The town council are stopping these traders, that is not democracy. There were thousands of protestors in London demonstrating and pulling down statues. This is a storm in a teacup."

The town council said they have been communicating with traders over the phone regarding the suspension.

But trader Mike Howard, who runs the Rain Wizard Catering stall, said he was at his "wit's end" over the decision and had not been personally aware of any demonstration.

Rain Wizard Catering
Rain Wizard Catering

Mr Howard, whose products include local honey, chutney, pickles and gluten free cakes, said: "It's like a huge family at the market but we all feel like we have been locked out.

"The camaraderie at the market is special, it's the hub of the town and it's lovely to be a part of. It's not just our livelihood but our pride as well. I have got 100 products out and I love what I do so why would I want to jeopardise my reputation?

"All the traders want to go back peacefully to our living and they are putting obstacles in the way. It costs a lot of money to run a stall including the tarpaulin so it's almost like we are being punished.

"I can hand on heart say I have not seen anything about a protest or anything. The first time I was aware of it was when I was alerted to the council's statement on Facebook saying it was being closed for two weeks. There has been no explanation or anything."

Rain Wizard Catering
Rain Wizard Catering

Mr Howard, who is also a development chef at St Matthew's Primary School in Cambridge, said he had already been preparing his food products for Friday including the gluten-free cakes, so he was going to be at a loss.

"We do feel like they don't want us at Downham Market any more," he added, before highlighting how one of the traders has been selling pet food for more than 30 years with a loyal following.

The town council had contacted its insurers who instructed them to close the market due to concerns over a demonstration.

And the town clerk said the stalls have had to be phased in with restricted hours "to make our community to safe, our traders safe and our staff safe."

Another stall holder, who did not wish to be named, said there was no indication or evidence of an actual demonstration, and believed reports of it were merely "hearsay".

He added: "All along, it seems to the traders like they are going out of their way to put obstacles in our way. They put so many stipulations in so that the fruit and veg could only trade for four hours.

"Some of the food stalls have been trading for 30 years with a high turnover of customers so to be told they could only have two customers at a time was not viable."

The trader believes there was supposed to be a meeting for the traders to discuss the issues, and that this week's announcement to close was suddenly made without any warning.

He continued: "It's very frustrating. We just want to get our market back. It's a popular and wanted commodity.

"I have never seen so many barriers in my life as what they have been putting up. If you do space the stalls out, people will use their common sense. There is no reason to shut. I understand from a safety point of view if there was going to be a demonstration but I can't see it happening. I think they are using it as an excuse."

The town clerk emphasised that the council want the market back to return in a safe way, but said that due to being a small market, they have had to keep the walkway clear.

Mrs Oliver said: "There is something proper in place with free masks and hand gel, as well as a group of safety stewards. We have done all we can do but we are in difficult times.

"I have told everybody the market will not be the same as it was in March. We have to have community safety and the regulations in place. The world is not the same so we can't go to the way it was in March."

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