The closure of the market hall of the People’s Market was contrary to ongoing promises over the last 18 months, so we tried to discover who made the final decision and when, having to resort to a FOI for the answer.
On the 7th December after it was revealed that the market hall would in fact be closing during the arts hub / market development, we queried with Wrexham Council when the decision to close was made and by whom.
At that point the decision to retain traders inside the market hall had been agreed after being discussed at length in various Council meetings, Town Centre Forum meetings and informal meetings between traders and the Council.
Local media had been invited to a photo-op with the new contractors on the 3rd of November where that position was clearly reiterated by both the contractors and Wrexham Council. However there was a u-turn from that position three weeks later – thus our query.
A statement was released at the time (which we published here) which did not mention who made the decision or when. Reasoning for the decision was given that included noting the increased disruption to traders under new plans and the lower number of traders who had indicated they wished to remain.
As we were unable to get an answer, on the 9th December 2016 we submitted a Freedom of Information request to Wrexham Council for copies of all correspondence, digital or otherwise, both internal and external in relation to the People’s Market and/or People’s Market OW in a 34 day period between 2nd November 2016 and 6th of December 2016.
We then declined an invitation from Wrexham Council to ‘refine’ the request and to focus more ‘on the distinguishing characters’ as we felt it was specific and reasonable already.
The FOI response was received while we were part of a media tour of the Butchers and People’s Market on Tuesday 10th January, and gives further insight to the decision making process, reasoning and some other interesting insights to the markets. We re-asked the questions at that ‘tour’ with Cllr Hugh Jones telling us he felt the FOI was not necessary as the answers were very straightforward, and an Officer there referred us to the FOI response.
The FOI response includes an email on the 16th of November which sets out the Officer work inside the markets and asks the respective lead members (Cllr Hugh Jones and Cllr Neil Rogers) for support for the proposal to close the market during the construction period.
The reasoning will be familiar to anyone who has read the press release in early December, however the detail in the FOI response also adds that the move would mean a ‘considerable cost saving’, ‘in that the phasing to work around the traders in the People’ Market would no longer be required‘. The cost saving would not mean an overall project cost reduction, as ‘some other costs have increased and any savings identified will help bring the project back within budget’ adding ‘this opportunity presents itself as a saving that has no material impact on the end product‘.
Clarification from the two councillors of their support is requested, summed up as “…support the full closure of the People’s Market during the construction to reduce the overall disruption to the affected traders in that they will not be trading from a construction site they can move for the full 12 months and return when the building works are complete, that they will be trading from a fully operational market rather than temporary space which would be challenging in the short term”
It is also noted that such a move would mean the construction time would be reduced from 48 weeks to ‘nearer 44’.
Currently we are unsure if that timing still stands, as it appears Spring 2017 is the likely opening date rather than January – making the voice over on our video just over a week ago redundant already.
The email in the FOI ends with a note mentioning that traders were wanting to know what the arrangements would be for them during 2017, and that Officers were keen ‘to start discussing this with them’.
Cllr Jones replied a few hours later to say that ‘subject to what Neil has to say, I am happy to support the full closure of the People’s Market”.
A day later Cllr Rogers replies saying: “I agree with what you are suggesting ‘full closure’ it makes sense”.
The long winded method to get the answer to the questions we posed has resulted in quite straightforward answers; that the decision was taken by lead councillors after considering officer advice on the 16th/17th of November.
One issue raised by traders and the Town Centre Forum Steering Group Chair has been over the signposting of the new locations of traders in the town, and pointing out that the ‘south mall’ will remain open.
Such an issue was noted in the documents, where a council officer says they would like to see. The email notes: “We are NOT CLOSING’ signage, and “something quite large on the bottom of the south mall across the double doors, something like a 3D model or a large printed board – this is how the new market and OW will look – a viewing area so people could come and have a look, which would hopefully boost footfall?
“Then all our publicity around the Arts/Market Hub could say ‘visit the south mall to see the latest exciting plans’ ”
Those suggestions were made on the 8th of December, however we only spotted the first signage in January which was not as extensive as those initial ideas. It has since been stated that the timing of the signage was due to last minute finalising of the details for the new and ‘temporary’ locations for traders.
On Tuesday we asked Wrexham Council Leader Mark Pritchard about the communication and signposting over the Peoples Market, he told us: “I am under the impression that the consultation and communication is good and working well. To the best of my knowledge everything is ok.”
The FOI response was over 250 pages of email communications, which has given some insights to the project itself, the wider People’s Market, and even our own reporting on Wrexham.com! Below is a summary of some of what we have found….
- There are several emails discussing the online branding of the arts hub, with questions asked internally if it should be the OW People’s Market, Oriel Wrecsam PM, OWPM and so on. It appears finally settled on ‘OW Peoples Market’, with a note ‘…we need to start strengthening the message that this is the OW with a market not the other way around’. This contrasts with a comment made in the Town Centre Forum meeting in March 2016 when Cllr Rogers, a relevant Lead Member, said “Both me and Hugh have made it clear that its a market primarily” during a discussion with the Project Manager and Nora Lucas (representing local MP Ian Lucas), on what the name for the centre will be.
- A mobile phone mast has been previously mentioned as a possible revenue source for the project, with discussion with one provider documented. As of November that plan appeared in early stage planning as new power supplies and access issues were being discussed.
- A common theme in the internal documents is reference to antisocial behaviour in the People’s Market. Markets staff explain how toilets could be taken out of use until the next day due to a wait for cleaners, but add as that can take too much time for the ‘likes of vomit etc in the middle of the market we do it ourselves‘. In mid-November in one email it is recorded ‘just to let you know that the cleaners almost filled a sharps box on floor three stairwells this morning‘. Attempts to lock doors and patrol stairwells appear to fail as doors are kicked in, with two markets staff recording ‘…we have removed drug abusers/homeless on 4 separate occasions today in addition to cleaning vomit and human excrement in the market hall‘.
- An email citing serious concerns over the safety of the market was in the FOI response – with a cause attributed to staff cuts when the previously responsible attendants were made redundant. A member of Council staff states numerous issues, concluding “I am very concerned over these issues, because if a real emergency happens the markets team are not in the position to respond effectively” and requests an ‘urgent meeting’. The email sent in October outlines seven ‘real concerns’, prompted by a fire alarm activation where there was only one staff member on site but in a different market and thus did not hear it. An enforcement officer was nearby and contacted a member of staff who was in a meeting at Eagles Meadow who then immediately returned to the People’s Market and then procedures were followed. Samples of the seven issues include, ‘no member of the office staff has actually received any formal training on evacuation procedures’, lift release training was cancelled half way through as the trainer ‘felt it was unsafe to continue due to a number of issues’, plus questions raised if markets office staff were not on site and security staff were attending an emergency instead if they were properly trained. It is also stated that some members of the markets team were not confident even if trained on responding to an emergency, and that they had stated they did not want to be put in such a position.
A Council Officer email writing up their version of the Town Centre Forum meeting where it was first revealed the change in plans for the People’s Market is also included. At the meeting we asked questions (you can see our line by line write up here) but the Officer wrote ‘it felt very staged by Wrexham.com’. For the record we had not spoken with either of the two traders who attended.
It is also noted in the internal report of the meeting that the traders who did attend left after the discussion on the markets, “….clearly not interested in finding out any further information in relation to the town such as events, trading conditions, rates revaluation etc“, although the new Forum format is to encourage people to attend, and attend for items that interest them solely.
The email recounts a post-meeting discussion where the Officer reiterated to us that the trader in question did have an alternative location, and it accurately notes our reply that we pointed out ‘thats not what he said’.
Thankfully at the same time this email was being sent we were updating our article with the line by line exchanges, so hopefully the Officers concerns that “I am sure that Wrexham.com will not reflect these discussions as it appeared they were there to get the ‘story’ rather than the reality” was nullified.