By Kevin Peachey
Consumer affairs reporter, BBC News
Balloon sellers are a common sight on High Streets and beaches
Some consider pedlars as the harmless traders in helium balloons at seaside resorts.
Others think pedlars, selling items such as pashminas, sunglasses and hats, are a blight on legitimate High Street trade who take advantage of grey areas in the law.
Traditionally, pedlars moved door-to-door selling their handicrafts under rules set by law in 1871.
But more recently the numbers operating in town centres have swelled, causing concern for local councils and prompting occasional clashes with other street traders.
Half a dozen local authorities in the UK are trying to curtail their activities by attempting to secure private acts of parliament to clear them from busy shopping areas.
Now the government has commissioned research to find out whether a new nationwide law is needed.
So before any decision is made, I decided to find out how easy it was to become a pedlar and explore both sides of an increasingly bitter debate about the future of the trade.
Tinker, hawker ...
The 1871 Pedlars Act defines a pedlar as "any hawker, pedlar, petty chapman, tinker, caster of metals, mender of chairs, or any other person who, without any horse or other beast of bearing or drawing burden, travels and trades on foot and goes from town to town or to other men's houses, carrying to sell or exposing for sale any goods, wares, or merchandise, or procuring orders for goods, wares, or merchandise immediately to be delivered, or selling or offering for sale his skill in handicraft".
Police checks are carried out before a pedlar licence is granted
But the days of door-to-door chair mending are long gone.
With doorstep sales often considered a dark art, pedlars trade mainly in busy shopping streets, fairs and resorts.
With their numbers swelling they have occasionally clashed with street traders who often consider their competitors to have an unfair advantage.
A street trader travels to trade, setting up a stall costing up to £100 a week after paying another few hundred pounds for a licence from the local council.
Pedlars trade as they travel. They can only stop in one place for a maximum of 15 minutes and sell only what they can carry or cart around. They need a licence from the local police, which costs just £12.25 and can be used for a year almost anywhere in the country.
There is some confusion when it comes to these licences, not least from those issuing them.
DEFINITION OF A PEDLAR
Any hawker, pedlar, petty chapman, tinker, caster of metals, mender of chairs...
Without any horse or other beast of bearing or drawing burden, travels and trades on foot and goes from town to town or to other men's houses...
Carrying to sell or exposing for sale any goods, wares, or merchandise, or procuring orders for goods, wares, or merchandise immediately to be delivered...
Selling or offering for sale his skill in handicraft
Ensuring I was free of "a horse or other beast", I visited four local police stations in a bid to secure my pedlar's licence.
Each suggested at first that I try the local authority, until I explained the law and they tapped away at their computer for confirmation.
Finally, one efficient community support officer who was on top of the rules, fetched her manual, admitted she had never issued one before, and joked about how many hoops I'd have to jump through.
Police checks, references, photos, proof of address and nationality would all be required.
"It would be easier to get a shotgun licence," she joked.
Application form in hand, I gauged the views of stallholders at a nearby market. They made it clear that they had paid good money to be there, and wouldn't be best pleased by a pedlar's presence.
The market officer said I would be banned anyway by a local by-law.
Rules and regulations
Local authorities across the country, including Nottingham, Leeds and Reading, are trying to replicate these restrictions on pedlars' operations.
The local council in Bournemouth is prepared to spend £100,000 as it seeks a private act of parliament which would allow it to set up a town centre exclusion zone and powers to seize pedlars' goods if they flout the rules.
Mark Smith, head of tourism at Bournemouth Borough Council, says having more than 20 pedlars in the central area on the busiest days is simply a nuisance.
"The idea of these pedlars being fledgling businessmen could not be further from the truth," says Mr Smith.
If their goods, often from the Far East, are a safety risk, there is only a small window of opportunity to stop the "here today, gone tomorrow" pedlars from selling them, he adds.
Similarly, consumers struggle to get their money back for shoddy goods.
Proving that pedlars are breaking the rules by staying in one place, rather than moving, requires camera surveillance which costs thousands of pounds and leads to fines of far less in the courts, he says.
Bolton MP Dr Brian Iddon wants a national agreement on the issue
His views are echoed by Dr Brian Iddon, the Bolton South East MP, who wants national regulation of pedlars.
He argues that some goods and licences are counterfeit, enforcement is ineffective and some pedlars - working in teams - view fines imposed by the courts as "merely a business expense".
He says that legitimate pedlars should still be allowed to operate outside of city centres as the original provisions defined.
But key to his argument is a perceived unfair financial advantage pedlars have over "taxpaying" town-centre traders.
"Their activities are damaging local markets and the surrounding small businesses, which are subject to greater regulation and overheads such as business rates and rents," he says.
His chief opponent in the Commons is Christopher Chope, who has spoken against various bills aiming to restrict pedlars.
He argues that councils are simply trying to protect income made by charging street traders.
Pedlars, he says, go through a series of checks before they receive a licence; they have to have a fixed address and be of good character.
They do not undermine street traders because they can only sell the little that they can carry, he adds.
"This is complete overkill by the regulatory authorities," says Mr Chope, whose interest was prompted by a constituent - a pedlar who claimed he was being harassed by other traders.
"Many people will be amazed that [Dr Iddon] and his supporters seem to be more concerned about removing the freedom of pedlars to sell helium balloons to children than about stamping out the sale of illegal drugs to children in our town centres," he once said in a Commons debate.
Which way the wind blows these balloon pedlars will become clearer by the autumn.
The government has asked experts at Durham University to talk to pedlars, councils, police, street traders and consumer groups about the issue.
"This research will take a careful look at whether new national legislation might be needed to help local authorities tackle problems with street trading," said a spokesman for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
"It will provide us with much clearer evidence on the nature and extent of problems."