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Local Government: Markets

Volume 709: debated on Thursday 26 March 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what advice they are giving to local authorities to promote the development of markets as an alternative to high street shopping.

My Lords, the Government recognise the valuable contribution that markets can make to local choice and the vitality of town centres. They complement high street shopping and add to diversity. Our policy remains that local authorities should seek to retain and enhance existing markets or to reintroduce or create new ones and invest in their improvement.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of the Wellington Market Company plc, which operates 25 markets in the sector, with around 2,000 markets nationally and a combined national turnover of probably £4 billion per year. We received our royal charter in 1244; I was not chairman then, but sometimes it does feel like it.

While the British public love markets, too many local authorities, sadly, do not always share that appreciation. Unfortunately, too many local authorities have failed to invest in their markets over the years, both in financial terms and in terms of quality of personnel. Will the Minister encourage local authorities—some very successful markets are operated by local authorities—to joint venture or similar with the private sector to develop more successful markets?

Yes, my Lords, the British people do love markets and they love them for very good reasons. They are part of our heritage and part of the character of what makes our towns really successful and our communities inclusive. We are all in favour of markets. Local authorities also want to cherish and support them. Our planning policy statement 6 makes it absolutely clear that local authorities should seek to retain and enhance markets, as I have said, and to create new ones wherever possible. They should be part of a very clear vision of what the local authority is offering to the community. The idea of joint venture is a very good one.

My Lords, I begin, on behalf of the whole House, by congratulating the Lord Speaker on her birthday today.

My Lords, it is a birthday that I share but, sadly, 24 years on.

Recognising the revolution on the high street and in marketing, there is a real need for the Government to have a strategy to ensure that newcomers to the business—very often one-man or small businesses—receive adequate training and guidance. The supermarkets, department stores and large institutions are capable of providing assistance, guidance, training and skills but, all too often, the small, one-man business struggles in the environment of today. Can the Minister assure us that that need is on the radar of the department?

My Lords, I congratulate both the Lord Speaker and my noble friend on their birthdays today. Clearly, it is a big day for birthdays in the House of Lords.

My noble friend is absolutely right. Certainly, markets are under threat from supermarkets and internet shopping, and people are shopping in different ways. I do not think that that is a particularly good thing, because it is so isolated, and markets offer a real social opportunity, particularly for older people. He is also right that markets can do more to train and encourage new stallholders. There is 75 per cent occupancy in the 1,150 retail markets in the UK. I am sure that there is a lot more that we can do. A Select Committee is looking at this, and I am sure it will take up this opportunity.

My Lords, I am doing the City of Westminster Bill, which deals with street trading. I declare that as an interest. It is very important that we retain street markets and street traders and that we differentiate between street markets and vast covered markets, which suit some areas but not all. Does the Minister agree that street trading markets are very much a part of the London scene and should be retained?

My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Baroness. There is a role for covered markets, which have long histories, as do our street markets. They serve different purposes, different specialist communities and different ethnic communities. There is definitely a place for both.

My Lords, although what my noble friend said about markets may be correct in principle, the Question refers to giving advice to,

“local authorities to promote the development of markets as an alternative to high street shopping”.

Does my noble friend agree that such advice from central government would be daft in principle and that, when we advocate decentralisation of power, we should really let local authorities decide what is best for local people and not give them that sort of daft advice?

My Lords, I did not address that part of the Question because I do not agree that they are alternatives, for the very reason given by the noble Lord. In planning policy statement 6, our policy on town centres is to encourage the vitality of town centres in all their different ways. Through guidance and so on, we help with town-centre management, but of course it is up to local authorities to decide how best to serve their local communities in their town centres.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the positive statements made and the encouragement given to markets. Clearly, they are very important. In this day and age, they provide staple products, such as fruit and vegetables, at competitive prices. They also provide diversity: ethnic communities are able to sell their products. Notwithstanding what has been said about local areas, there is a concern that some councils, within London and elsewhere, see tidiness as important. Can the Government ensure that they do all they can to give publicity to the real importance of markets in providing diversity, encouraging tourism and so on? They attract people of all sorts.

Yes, my Lords, as I said, it is in our planning policy statement. When we come forward with a revised planning policy statement, which will bring together many of these issues, I shall ensure that the prominence of markets is once again demonstrated. I think the Select Committee report, which will be put forward in the House of Commons, will also draw attention to the many benefits of markets.

My Lords, in any advice that the Government give to local authorities—I appreciate that this should be a local decision—I ask that they do not forget the importance of farmers’ markets and their ability to sell the best of British products, particularly now when we are considering food security as well.

My Lords, rural and urban farmers’ markets are one of the great successes of recent years, particularly in the way in which they address some of the urban food deserts that we have by providing fresh, affordable food and ensuring that it is locally sourced. That is good news. We have 800 farmers’ markets and the number is growing all the time.

My Lords, my noble friend has already acknowledged the very important role played by markets in our towns and cities throughout Britain. In autumn of this year, the All-Party Group on Markets will launch the first ever national markets framework document, incorporating the markets’ knowledge-based databank. That will be invaluable to Government and to local councils in making policy decisions on markets for many years ahead. Will my noble friend agree to meet the group and all the partners who are working to complete this very important document to talk about the document when it is published in the autumn?