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Covent Garden Market Bill

Volume 640: debated on Tuesday 9 May 1961

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Again considered in Committee.

[Mr. GEORGE THOMAS in the Chair]

Question again proposed, That "outside" stand part of the Clause.

I was at the point of saying that this Amendment is designed to delete the word "outside" and to substitute the word "inside". I had sought to distinguish between the bulk storage facilities required for goods to be sold, and the storage facilities required for empty containers.

Not only is it desirable that this storage space should be inside Covent Garden, but it should also be remembered that there would be a great increase in costs if lorries had to move from one place to another, as they would have to do, if the containers were stored outside the area. The experience of foreign markets is that storage facilities for containers should, as far as possible, be inside a market.

No technical difficulties arise out of doing this because this is a diminishing problem. I have been able to get some figures on this subject which show that in the last four years the number of returnable wooden boxes has declined by 50 per cent. in the Covent Garden area, and inevitably this trend will continue. Not only do buyers prefer non-returnable boxes—because they are far less trouble, as is the case with canned beer, the sale of which is expanding because the cans can be disposed of, while bottles must be returned—but the growers are willing to meet the demands of the buyers.

Further, non-returnable cases will become cheaper, compared with their returnable wooden counterparts, as the packaging industry develops and as cartons and laminated wooden containers, which are extremely light, become cheaper. In the Covent Garden area twelve large companies announced during the past year that they would no longer use wooden returnable containers.

For the reasons I have advanced, I hope that the Minister will distinguish between storage for one purpose and storage for the other.

6.15 p.m.

I must first of all answer the points that have been raised by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) who urged me to differentiate on the one hand between the storage of empty boxes used for home produce, and the storage of imported produce in bulk on the other. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not laying down or imposing too rigidly on the Authority what it should do with one, as opposed to the other.

We are saying that the Authority should provide storage facilities, so far as is practicable, outside the area. We have also pointed out that empty containers represent a fire risk to the Covent Garden area and should, as far as practicable, be stored outside, along with bulk produce. But we have not differentiated between the two. I agree that the trend is away from returnable boxes and towards the non-returnable types and that more and more firms are coming round to that point of view.

The hon. Member for Lincoln gave some figures. I should like to give some more. Two years ago the floor space in the Covent Garden area occupied by empty boxes was 8½ acres. In the last two years that has fallen by 25 per cent. and it is still going down. But the space occupied by empty containers is still quite formidable, and it also represents a considerable fire risk.

Although I agree with the hon. Member for Lincoln that the trend is away from returnable containers, and that the need to store containers in any quantity will not be as great in three or four years' time as it is to day, it is nevertheless necessary to realise the considerable fire risk, about which the L.C.C. has been very concerned.

We must grapple with this problem and, at the same time, we want to ease the pressure in the Covent Garden area. The figure of 8½ acres of floor space for the storage of containers show that there is a considerable waste of important space in the centre of London. The storage of containers still creates a problem which will be with us for a good while to come, and it is better that they should be stored outside, rather than inside.

This brings me to the point made by the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans). He seeks by his Amendment to substitute the word "inside" for the word "outside"—in other words, to ensure that what storage is possible should be done inside. We say that, "so far as practicable", it should be done outside. In our view, the hon. Gentleman's approach runs counter to what we are aiming at here. We are trying to relieve pressure on Covent Garden. We see the need to keep the market there. We should like it to become much more a market dealing in samples, if than can be done, so that the amount of ground covered may be smaller and so that fewer vehicles will have to go into the area. So far as possible, we wish to decrease the pressure on the Covent Garden area.

It would completely change the whole trend and gist of our thoughts and intentions if we were to accept the Amendment and to impose on the Authority the obligation to keep as much of its storage as it could within the Covent Garden area. The Amendment represents a fundamentally different approach, and I must tell the Committee that I cannot recommend it.

The extent to which storage is made available will, of course, be something which it would be wise to leave to the Authority to decide when it looks to the future and takes all the advice that it can. It is not something which we should lay down. Nevertheless, I think it is right in principle that the storage facilities we are considering here should be outside the area. We have not forced the Authority to go outside the area. There is the saving expression "so far as practicable" which, I think, protects the Authority from being forced to go outside for all such purposes. However, the inference is there that the object of the Clause is that, when the Authority establishes its storage facilities, it should in doing so relieve pressure so far as possible within the market precincts and the Covent Garden area.

I hope that the hon. Member will, on reflection, be prepared to withdraw his Amendment.

I follow the Minister's line of thought, and, substantially, I agree with him. We wish, so far as practicable, to take away bulk produce from Covent Garden. I accept that approach to the matter. At the same time, the Authority, while aiming at taking bulk produce out of Covent Garden so far as practicable, will have to provide storage facilities for a great range of different items of produce and for some containers for a long time to come. I am sure that the market tradesmen, the dealers and the buyers, will expect the Authority to provide adequate storage facilities for certain items of produce which may come in and go out quite quickly—perishable or valuable items which normally are not in large bulk.

In order to encourage the Authority to give an adequate service in the Market while that service is required there, we should leave the Authority with the choice, encouraging it to keep inside those things which have to be kept inside and, of course, all the time leaving it free to use its own judgment in doing it so far as practicable.

However, I can see the Minister's point and, basically, I think that he may be right. If the Amendment were accepted and the word "inside" were inserted, the Authority might, perhaps, take that as meaning that it should do very little in the way of shifting bulk produce outside. In the light of the Minister's explanation, I think that my hon. Friends will agree that the sensible course is for me to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move, in page 11, line 7, at the end to insert:

"but not in any circumstances within the Metropolitan Borough of Islington".

I think that it would be wise to consider with this Amendment the Amendment in Clause 19, page 14, line 16, at the end to insert:

Provided that this Act shall not confer on the Minister or on the authority any powers of compulsory acquisition of land in the Metropolitan Borough of Islington.

Yes, Mr. Thomas, I think that would be very convenient because the two Amendments hang together.

As the Committee will appreciate, these two Amendments have been put down because a matter of vital concern to the inhabitants of the Borough of Islington is raised by them. It is necessary to say that and to tell the Committee a little of the history of the matter, for this reason. For some years, there was a risk that Covent Garden Market, or at any rate part of it, that is, that part with which we are now dealing—sometimes referred to as the annex—might be moved to Islington to the site or part of the site owned and occupied by the City Corporation for nearly a hundred years used as a cattle market. It was subsequently used as a pedlars' market. The Committee may be surprised to learn that the site covers an area of about 43 acres in the heart of London. Approximately half of it has remained derelict since the end of the war, the other half being used for abattoirs and allied purposes.

For a long time, it has been the hope and desire of the people of Islington that the whole of that site should be acquired from the City Corporation and used for social purposes requiring very urgent attention in Islington, partly for housing, partly for schools and partly for open space. Recently, the planning officer of the London County Council said:
"Islington is the second lowest deficiency area of London for open space. Islington is short of 400 acres of open space …. The potential changes which can take place in Islington concern over 48 acres of a most blighted part of London, or rather a most disgraceful part of London under modern requirements".
He added:
"The housing position is so severe that in a comprehensive piece of planning here over 1,650 people can be rehoused".
He was opposing any suggestion that any part of this area should be used for any purpose connected with Covent Garden requirements.

This matter was the subject of considerable controversy on a Bill debated in the House two years ago. I shall refer to that in a moment, but I feel it necessary to introduce the matter at this stage because Clause 16 has been amended by the Select Committee. When the Bill came before us on Second Reading, certain words which are now omitted appeared at the end of subsection (3). After the words "Covent Garden Area", the subsection then read as follows:
"but they"
that is to say, the Authority—
"shall not, without the sanction of the Minister, provide them"—
that is to say, the facilities—
"elsewhere outside that Area than on the Finsbury lands".
6.30 p.m.

As long as those words were in the Bill, any risk that part of the Covent Garden Market operations might be transferred to any part of Islington was nil. I hope that there is no such risk, but I move the Amendment in the hope that the Minister will be able to give the people of Islington, who are very concerned about the matter, the assurance which they seek.

It is necessary to refer to the history of the matter for this reason. I could quite understand the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Cliffe) in seeking the deletion from the Bill of any specific reference to the Finsbury lands, but my hon. Friend gave evidence before the Select Committee urging, quite properly, why he and the people of Finsbury thought that the Finsbury lands should not be specifically designated. What disturbed me was part of my hon. Friend's evidence which appears on page 148 of the Report of the Select Committee. He was asked to give reasons why the Finsbury lands should be deleted and whether he thought that any better site than the Finsbury lands was available for the annex. I quote from page 148 of the Select Committee's Report. My hon. Friend was asked:
"Can I get this agreement from you, Alderman Cliffe, that it is going to be very difficult for anybody to find the ideal site?"
My hon. Friend's answer was:
"I think it is going to be impossible in Central London, but I think that there are other places considerably better than the one now being proposed.
Then came the following questions and answers:
"Q. Which do you suggest are better? Well, I think—
Q. The Barking one you have referred to?"
My hon. Friend replied:
"Caledonian Market, for example."
My hon. Friend gave reasons why he considered Caledonian Market the appropriate site for the annex.

I must say, I was surprised to read that. Evidence given before a Select Committee obviously does not receive as much publicity as do proceedings in the House of Commons. It is therefore desired by my constituents and by those of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) that we should try to get the position concerning Islington clear. The best way to do that would be to add words to the Bill expressly denying to the Authority the right in any circumstances to acquire land in Islington—by that, of course, I mean the Caledonian Market site—for the purposes of the annex.

In view of the chequered history of the negotiations over the last few years, I do not particularly want to be put off by certain assurances that it is not the present intention, either of the Authority or of the City Corporation, to make the Caledonian Market site available for the annex. I appreciate that it has been stated—I want to quote it to have it on the record—that at the moment it is not intended to use the Caledonian Market site.

On two occasions, however, the City Corporation promoted Bills in the House of Commons, in the 1957–58 and 1958–59 Sessions, to enable the Corporation, among other things, to have statutory power to use the Caledonian Market site for the storage of empty containers and of fruit and vegetables in bulk to be sold by sample. Those Bills had a curious history. The first was dropped because of certain opposition to it. The second Bill, in the 1958–59 Session, contained in Clause 9 a request that Parliament should give the City Corporation powers to use the Caledonian Market for these purposes, unlimited in time according to the content of the Bill when deposited. That Bill was opposed by the London County Council and by the Islington Borough Council.

The then Minister of Agriculture had certain observations to make about it. He took the view that it was desirable that the Caledonian Market, belonging to the City Corporation, should be used temporarily for the purpose of storage of containers. Further negotiations followed and the then Minister subsequently changed his mind. Despite the opposition of the London County Council, the Minister suggested to the City Corporation that it should use part of the Caledonian Market area not only for the storage of containers but also for the storage of fruit and vegetables to be sold in bulk.

It was said by the Minister at that time that it was intended merely as a temporary provision. It was opposed by the traders on the ground that it would have been inconvenient for them to move temporarily to the Caledonian Market. They therefore brought pressure to bear with a view to the Caledonian Market site at Islington being used, not temporarily, but permanently as the annex.

Those propositions were vehemently contested in the House of Commons by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West and by myself, as well as by others. Although considerable pressure was brought by the London County Council at that time because the council thought that some temporary accommodation in Islington was desired, eventually my hon. Friends and I withdrew our opposition to parts of the City Corporation's Bill in a compromise which is now contained in the City Corporation Act and which provides that, in so far as the City Corporation has power under its 1959 Act to provide market storage facilities on any part of the lands in the Borough of Islington forming part of the Metropolitan Cattle Market, those powers shall cease on the expiration of four years from the passing of the Act. That was the agreement reached in 1959, that if there was to be any use of the Caledonian Market site for temporary storage facilities, it should be deliberately confined to the period of four years from 1959, two years of which have already expired.

Subsequently the Minister found the Finsbury site and designated it as the annex in the Bill. There may well be objections to this site, but as long as it was designated the people of Islington had no more worries. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) well knows the requirements of the people of London and he knows that Islington is starved of housing accommodation and open space, and that these 43 acres are ripe for development.

Subsequently, there was an application by the City Corporation for permission to develop part of the site, and there was an inquiry by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. The City Corporation's application was turned down, and in his report the Inspector said that the land in this area was needed for the recreational, educational and residential needs of the district. He said that this is one of the largest areas of land, disused or not used to capacity in Islington, and indeed in the inner area of London, and that it affords a rare opportunity for large-scale comprehensive development. In the interests not only of Islington but of London it would be a tragedy if it were thought that there was any possibility of this valuable site of 43 acres in the middle of London not being used for comprehensive redevelopment for social purposes.

I want to draw a distinction between the City Corporation and the Market Authority. I acknowledge that the City Corporation has this theoretical right for another two years, but it has stated to the Select Committee that it has abandoned any claim to use any part of the Islington site. It is desirable to have that on record. Mr. Geoffrey Lawrence, speaking with the full authority of the City Corporation, as reported in column 294 of the Minutes of Evidence, said:
"Before I come to that, I should just wind up what I want to say about the Islington site, because it is important, I think, that the Committee should know it. We have now come to an agreement"—
that is, the City Corporation—
"with the London County Council on the subject of the abattoir. We have agreed that if a new site for the abattoir and its allied trades can be found at Maiden Lane, which Mr. Dockeray referred to the other day…and satisfactory financial terms can be agreed, we shall be prepared to hand over the whole of the Islington site to the London County Council. Negotiations are still in progress but I have to say that the Corporation has now, in the light of what has happened, given up all idea of using Islington for market storage purposes."
That is satisfactory as far as the City Corporation is concerned. We do not want to find that, although the City Corporation has abandoned all idea of using the Islington site, the Market Authority comes along and thinks that it has some right to do so. The Minister may tell me that I am worrying about nothing. If he does, so much the better, but I have learned in the last three or four years that one cannot be too sure about all these things and that it is better to take every possible precaution.

For the record, I would point out that the City Corporation's right under its Act to use the site temporarily for the next few years does not extend to the Market Authority. It is not transferable. It was a right given by Parliament to the City Corporation, but it cannot be transferred to the Market Authority by lease, tenancy or in any other way. That should be stated. It was given to the City Corporation to use and not to grant a lease for someone else to use it.

I want these words added to the Bill to make it quite clear that the long-fought battle which has been waged to save the Caledonian Market area for the benefit of the people of Islington will not be lost and that there need be no fear that the Market Authority in this amended Bill will purport to have a right to look at this site as a possible annex. For those reasons I hope that the Minister will accept the Amendment.

6.45 p.m.

I am sorry to intervene at this stage when the Minister was about to reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), and I will be brief. We regret that we have to take the Committee's time on this matter. It is a local matter, we agree, but my hon. Friend reminded the Committee that the struggle over the use of the Islington cattle market site took place two years ago and that, as a result of long discussions in the House and in Select Committee, a decision was reached.

We were given by the Minister at that time an assurance that he did not intend to use the Caledonian Cattle Market site for the storage of produce and containers. Following a Question put to the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, a representative of the Ministry told the Select Committee two years ago that it was not the intention of the then Minister to use this site in connection with Covent Garden. That definite assurance was given two years ago.

The assurance was given by somebody from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Select Committee which dealt with this Bill that the Caledonian Cattle Market was not to be considered for this purpose. I quote from page 221 of the Minutes of Evidence. Mr. Norman Robert Culmore Dockeray, who I understand is one of the Minister's chief advisers, told the Select Committee,
"do not think there is any prospect whatever of the Caledonian Market site being made available for this purpose."
That is, the purpose of the storage of produce and containers. He added,
"It could be used, of course, for a short period up to, I think, 29th July, 1963."
We know that this is so under the powers granted to the City Corporation. The next question was,
"But nobody would feel justified in spending a large sum of money in building any permanent storage there, because in the long term it is generally accepted that it is to be used for those other public purposes you referred to?"
He replied, "Yes". Those other purposes are for houses, schools and so on. We have thus twice had from the Ministry a definite assurance that there is no intention of using the site of the Islington Cattle Market for the purposes of storage in connection with Covent Garden.

It would save us a lot of concern, it would save the Minister a heated battle, which he would have if he were ever to contemplate taking that site, and it would save the new Authority much pondering about the matter, if he would now either accept the Amendment or give the assurance, which has been given on two previous occasions, that it is not his intention to approve any move by the new Authority to take the Islington cattle market site for storage purposes.

I have been quoted as saying that it might be a good idea if the Caledonian Market were reconsidered. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) has taken my remarks a little out of context. Compared with the Caledonian Market, it would be perfectly ludicrous to choose for the site the junction of Old Street and City Road. It would be ludicrous to consider that a more suitable or desirable site. I repeat what I said before, that as an alternative to that site Caledonian Market obviously would be a much more suitable place. I simply refer hon. Members to what was said on the matter in the Select Committee.

In Shoreditch and Finsbury we did not adopt an entirely parochial attitude towards this, as a matter affecting Shoreditch and Finsbury only. There was no serious objection from that point of view. Wherever there is a civilised community nowadays a market is an acceptable feature of normal life. It was the site suggested to which there was the strongest possible objection. That was why we raised the objections we did and went to the lengths we did.

I support the contentions which have been submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher). His borough is adjacent to my constituency, and I know the difficulties there have been in that borough. I know that there they have had to introduce a certain housing policy, which few of the other London boroughs have had to do, because of scarcity of land. I hope that the Amendment will be accepted because there is a desperate need of land for other purposes than this.

The attitude taken by hon. Members opposite intrigues me. The hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Cliffe), now that he has got his lands in Finsbury struck out of the Bill, is quite prepared to accept an Amendment to ensure that on no account should the site be in Islington, but when the Finsbury lands were at risk what was his attitude? It was, "What is wrong with the Caledonian Market? That will be perfectly all right." I agree that it was not as a member of this Committee that he said that, but under the synonym of Alderman Michael Cliffe.

That is not strictly true. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to point to any record of my making a statement like that. Can he point to any record of my saying that it should go to the Caledonian Market?

It was what the hon. Member read out from some column of the Report of the Select Committee's proceedings which is not readily avail able to me. What he said was some thing very near to what I said he said. I do not think that I have misinterpreted—

—the aims, speeches or methods used by the hon. Member. So there we are.

The hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), moving the Amendment, made, I thought, as is his wont, a speech of considerable advocacy which would have been very much in place had it been at an inquiry as to whether or not a site to which the Authority might like to go should be designated for its purposes. Of course, then it would not have been so readily available to his constituents as was the one he has made today. A very good one it was, too, but with great respect to him, I do not think that this is the time he need bother to make such a speech.

Why so? For this reason. What happened upstairs was a discussion on whether the annex was or was not going to Finsbury. Upstairs, the Select Committee took out all reference to Finsbury lands and put Finsbury on all-fours with every other borough. That is what happened. That was the object. The object of the Select Committee would be completely thwarted if we were to accept the hon. Member's Amendment and therefore put one borough in a different position from the others. I do not think that this Committee would want to be too much mesmerised by the hon. Member's advocacy to the extent of accepting his Amendment, which would make Islington different from a lot of other boroughs which equally, I am sure, feel very strongly about this. Yet the Amendment would do just that. It would run counter to the spirit and intention of the Select Committee. I do not think that that is what this Committee as a whole would want.

What is really behind this is not just Islington as a whole. What the hon. Member really means is the Caledonian Market. That, really, is not for me. It is open to the Authority to apply in the normal way for planning permission for wherever it may choose to want to go. I cannot give the hon. Member an assurance here and now as to what will be built on the Caledonian Market. It is not my place to. It is not the Government's place to. This will go through the normal planning procedure.

What I can tell the hon. Member—this is only the information I have acquired from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government—is that, as I understand it, the L.C.C. has already submitted proposals to my right hon. Friend for the use of that market for the purposes as he says, of open spaces, schools, and housing. I can only say, from what I have heard, that it seems very unlikely that it would be used differently. I say that from what I have heard, but I do not think that we can write that into the Bill or say in the Bill that the site should not be in one borough or one place. The hon. Member need not fear therefore that the site will necessarily be in that particular market, but he will understand that it is not for me to give an absolute, flat assurance as to what will be there. From all the information I have received it looks to me very unlikely that it would be in that particular place.

The right hon. Gentleman ought not to get so excited about the attitude of my hon. Friends, nor should he be surprised, because it is typical of Labour Members to fight for their constituencies and their constituents' interests—although I should like to get it on the record that I do not agree with very much of what my hon. Friends have said today. However, no one living in Islington or Shoreditch or Finsbury can be anything but proud of his Member who represents him here.

My hon. Friends' line, quite frankly, is this: "We do not care where this goes so long as it does not come to Islington or Shoreditch or Finsbury". The Amendment is moved to protect Islington's interests. I admire my hon. Friends for that, but I shall not support them, I say frankly, because what would the Amendment mean in effect? It would mean that this site could be in any other Metropolitan area—perhaps my own—where it might be equally unwise to put it.

There is reason in what my hon. Friend is saying, but surely he cannot object to the Minister's reaffirming the statement made about the cattle market by his predecessors? All I am asking is that the Minister should reaffirm the statement, which has come from the Ministry on two occasions, that it is not intended to use the Islington cattle market for storage purposes.

7.0 p.m.

I do not mind what the Minister reaffirms if it helps my hon. Friend. All I say to him is that I do not believe that an Amendment of this kind is of any benefit to the other twenty-six Metropolitan boroughs. We all have the same deep-rooted objection. If the Authority decides to have an outside annex then it has to go through a great deal of procedure. I repeat for the record that I warn the Authority that most of us in London regard it as terrifying that any land which is needed for housing and for the rest of London's problems should be used for this purpose. I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw the Amendment. If he does not, then, acting in the name of the constituents of Bermondsey, I will oppose it.

I have listened carefully to what the Minister said. I am not in the least intimidated by what my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) has said. I appreciate the technical difficulty of putting an Amendment in the Bill which appears to make an exception of a particular borough. However, I think that the Amendment has served its object. It has at any rate served the object that I had in mind. It has ventilated the matter and has extracted from the Minister what I regard as a useful statement of the position. Therefore, with the consent of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans), I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.