SOUTH Down’s MP has called on the local council to carry out an urgent review of its policy on street trading. Chris Hazzard says the change implemented by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council has been “an abject failure”, leading to many local independent street traders seeking financial support. Mr Hazzard this week met with more than a dozen sole traders who are increasingly concerned that council’s approach to trading pitches will not only put them out of business but is ultimately bad for local ratepayers also. He was asked to fight the case of sole traders after Cabra’s Stephen Shimmons, who operates a mobile coffee business from a converted horsebox at the Bloody Bridge car park near Newcastle, contacted him about the plight he and fellow traders face. In an interview with the Mourne Observer earlier this month, Mr Shimmons explained that steep hikes in pitch fees, introduced by council, could force him and other sole traders out of business. The local man told how he had been advised that he would have to submit a tender of at least £4,000 by the end of this month to secure the pitch for the season. Having taken on the site during the pandemic, and mid-season, he had initially paid out £940, which at the time was the full amount required. The inflated pitch fee arises as the council has a number of what are, effectively, licensed trading pitches for food, coffee and ice-cream vendors. Some of these sites, including that at the Bloody Bridge 40-space car park, fall under the council’s tourism department remit and have seen increased fees. Speaking on Monday morning, shortly after writing a letter to the council’s chief executive Marie Ward, outlining the concerns he shares with these traders, the MP said he believes the approach adopted is grossly unfair for these traders, many of whom are district ratepayers. He said he believes the council’s decision “was designed to favour the large, multinational hospitality business at the expense of small, local sole traders.” Mr Hazzard continued: “In 2021 council decided to categorise a number of supposedly popular trading pitches across the district as lucrative ‘tourism’ pitches. Locations including Bloody Bridge, Tyrella, and Murlough, amongst others, were quickly identified and fees were hiked from £940 per annum to more than £4,000. Moreover, where a trader could pay monthly previously, that flexible option would no longer be available.” The MP has said the situation is “farcical”. “Council’s latest business marketing strategy tells us to ‘Keep it Local; Keep it Newry, Mourne & Down’”. The Sinn Féin representative added that, as a result of this policy change, “a number of these supposedly lucrative tourism pitches remain vacant – as they are economically unviable.” “No trader can afford £4,000 for a pitch with less than eight weeks trading, and in reality, much of the high season trading remains inconsistent at best.” Noting the rising overheads facing these businesses, Mr Hazzard said it is inevitable that their customers will feel the effects too, with increased prices. “One former trader I spoke with this week had to relinquish a pitch because the previous fee was simply too expensive to operate in today’s economic climate. Yet council responded by hiking the fee for that pitch to £4,000; unsurprisingly the pitch still lies vacant. This is illogical; a lose-lose situation where a local trader has lost a business opportunity, and visitors lose out on a popular service. “Like many sole traders across South Down, the last few years have been very challenging for these traders, with the price of fuel and produce at record highs. “The decision then to demand payment in full from these ‘tourism’ pitches, with no ability for traders to pay in instalments, like other street traders in the district, is also unacceptable. “Many traders have been left with no choice but to put prices up – some traders talk about a single cup of coffee now £1 more expensive because of the hike in fees. Again it is the visitor – many of whom are local ratepayers – who are also losing out as a result of these illogical policy changes.” Concluded Mr Hazzard: “Council must listen to the concerns of local traders – many of whom have a lifetime’s experience. This policy change has been bad for local traders; and bad for local ratepayers. It must be urgently reviewed before the next financial year.” In response to the MP’s statement, a council spokeswoman said: “Following approval at Newry, Mourne and Down District Council’s meeting in March 2021, three procurement processes for mobile vendor provision across the district have been undertaken. Terms and payment conditions were set out clearly in tender documents and licence agreements. “The council currently has eight mobile vendors in place at various locations across the district, with agreements reviewed annually up until 2024.” She added that council “will review sites which are currently vacant as part of the annual review process.
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