Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good morning, everyone. Can I welcome people to the first session of the Select Committee's inquiry into travelling fairs and make one or two points to begin with. First of all, I would like to express the Committee's appreciation to everybody who sent in evidence. It is now published by the Stationery Office at a price of £10.60. You can find it on the internet at a considerably cheaper price, whatever your phone calls cost. So the evidence is there of all the people who got the evidence in on time. There are one or two people who sent in late evidence, that may appear, I am not sure, with the final version of our report. That is the first point. The second point is I would like to express the Committee's appreciation to everybody who helped with the visit yesterday. We went to look at one of the sites for winter quarters. We met some showmen and then we also had a chance to talk to officials and councillors from Bromsgrove Council. To those people I would like to put on record our thanks. Also, our thanks very much to Lichfield for the arrangements for this morning. I think everyone is aware that part of the purpose of this Select Committee's visit was to see the small fair which is associated with the Shrove Tuesday event. Our first set of witnesses are from the Showmen's Guild. Would you like to introduce yourselves, your names and positions?
  (Mr Ayers) I am Albert Ayers, I am the National President of the Showmen's Guild.
  (Mr Miller) Keith Miller, General Secretary of the Showmen's Guild.
  (Mr Downie) I am Graham Downie, I am the secretary of the Midland Section of the Showmen's Guild.

  2. Now, we do give witnesses a chance to make an opening statement if they want. Most people prefer to go straight to questions. If you want to say anything by way of introduction, we would be happy to hear from you.
  (Mr Ayers) I am quite happy that we go straight into questions. I do not think there is any need to say anything.

Mr Cummings

  3. What evidence does the Guild have to support the continued popularity of travelling fairs amongst the public?
  (Mr Miller) I think the best way of answering that, Mr Cummings, is to refer to rather an old document now, but nevertheless still true in its content, and that was a report commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive some 11 years ago. They commissioned the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to do a report on the risk assessment associated with our industry. It was written by a Dr Nigel Holloway. Part of his report determined, after thorough examination, that over 303 million people go to travelling fun fairs. I think that speaks volumes. Although I say this is rather an old document, indeed almost as old as our circular, nevertheless it is still true today that the numbers of people who go to fairs are considerable and they continue to be so.
  (Mr Ayers) I would add that the evidence that I could give you is that I am here. I am a fifth generation showman and I have got sons and daughters who are going to continue in this business, in this way of life. I do consider that I am a successful showman in the way that we operate several rides, pieces of equipment, we are lessees that lease out fairs and run fairs and we do something like 40 corporate events a year. I consider the fact that I am here as a showman is proof enough.
  (Mr Downie) Could I add, perhaps, Mr Cummings, that if you had visited certain grounds during the course of the last 12 months—events such as Nottingham Goose Fair, Stratford Mop, and, of course, more recently, the—at the moment—unique fair that was held in the Mall to celebrate the start of the millennium celebrations where they had over a million visitors in four days, you would see yourselves the evident popularity of fairs.

  4. Do you believe that local authorities across the country are in tune with the public on the popularity of fairs?
  (Mr Miller) We hope they are because obviously the main landlords of the land that my members use are local authorities so they must be in tune with what is required not only of the industry, the showmen who put the travelling fairs on, but I hope they take account of their council tax payers as well. Nevertheless it is true to say, and there is evidence to show, some local authorities just do not like fairs, the reasons you should best ask them. It is perceived throughout the country that there are some local authorities who do not enjoy the coming of the fairs. I am pleased to say they are in the minority but we still have to deal with them.

  5. It would appear that you are a very generous person because 50 per cent of the evidence submitted to the Committee expresses severe reservations as to the perception local authorities have of travelling fairs. Do you believe the fair brings any advantages to the locality in which it is operating besides the enjoyment of those who attend the fair?
  (Mr Ayers) Yes. I think that the fairs, besides having a traditional effect, do add to the community. There is a commercial interest there that if the fair is successful then obviously the parcel of land that the corporation is letting off, apart from administration costs, when you consider that probably football pitches and sports are subsidised yet the fair comes in and pays a site rent and they will get a commercial benefit from that as well as the community effect that we have. The families that attend the major fair now have got to live from that area. They move in as a family unit, they will do their shopping in the local area. We will buy our fuel from the local area. Any maintenance would be done on site while we are there. There are benefits and a knock-on effect generally overall.


  6. What about town centre management? My impression, the Select Committee did an inquiry into town centres some time ago, was a whole lot of town centre managers were keen to get certainly things like carousels and other bits of equipment into old traditional towns to bring shoppers back. Do you think that the fair can be one of those events which reminds people of their traditional town centres rather than out of town centres?
  (Mr Ayers) Yes. I have had personal experience of that. In actual fact, I do provide rides and things in town centres with town centre managers. It might be for special Victorian events, it may be for the whole of the Christmas period or the winter period. So there are benefits to bring people into the town centres where they have had large competition from big superstores and things like that. There are benefits to be had from that to the town centres.
  (Mr Downie) In our own area, Chairman, we have two very good examples of where a local authority has seen the use of a fun fair in a town centre as being a key part in a strategy to bring people into the town centres, particularly during the weeks running up to Christmas. One is Worcester where six years ago they started what they call their Christmas Fayre, which has been a tremendous success, so much so that they have had to extend the number of days that it operates in order to try and spread the load, as it were, because they are attracting so many people into the town centre. The other example is one where as a section we have played an important role, at the town of Hinckley in Leicestershire. The local authority together with the Chamber of Commerce, and I think that is very significant, banded together with the Showmen's Guild to put on an event a month before Christmas, again to promote town centre shopping. That event is now five years old. It is now a very established event and one that is extremely well supported and one which addresses to a large extent the problems that they saw in terms of reviving the town centre. They are so enthusiastic about it. One has to say that perhaps they are the exception to the rule. At a meeting last week with the local authority and members of the Chamber of Commerce the local authority said "We must expand this fair, we must give you more ground to put your amusements on". They were very positive.

Mr Cummings

  7. This leads on to the next question because we have received some very moving evidence from members of the Guild, one of them referring to Bradford Metropolitan Council, which the lady claims "... has lost us forever our spring and autumn circuit of fairs...". There is a reference made to Norwich & Eastern Counties Section of the Showmen's Guild who indicate that "Many councils in the country are no longer run by people who value the traditions of ..." local fairs and so it goes on. Can you be, perhaps, a little more specific in relation to the problems which show people experience in continuing to hold fairs on local authority land?
  (Mr Ayers) It does seem that in one way what we are going to say now is contradicting what we have said previously. It does seem that some established sites, traditional sites, seem to come under threat from local authorities and other organisations where a showman has been going for many years, he has kept his traditional fair going, the Norwich Christmas Fair, I know in Bradford I think it is a Mrs Wright of Marshall's Amusements has experienced these problems, but for some policy changes, and sometimes it can be political at the end of the day, they lose their sites. That is where we have tried to come in and mediate between the member and the local authority and even we have not been successful in some of those areas in persuading them to reconsider.
  (Mr Miller) Yes, I would agree, Mr Cummings, with what Mr Ayers has just said. There is no doubt about it that there has been a loss of fairs, as has been attested by Sandra Wright in her evidence, and also in my evidence on the loss of Norwich Fair, but it is very difficult to pin it down. As you rightly said, we do have a good relationship in the main with local authorities but if something happens along the line which puts their back up, for whatever reason, we find it difficult to continue sometimes a historic fair which has been going on for many, many years just because of this one glitch that has occurred and cannot be corrected.


  8. When you refer to historic fairs, is that charter fairs?
  (Mr Miller) Yes. Norwich is a good example because that has been going on for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. All of a sudden there is this problem which has manifested itself and with the best will in the world all the approaches to Norwich City Council have borne no fruit at all. They just do not seem interested in their history.

Mr Cummings

  9. Was there prior consultation before they acted?
  (Mr Miller) The section had meetings with them but local authorities in the main, and I am sure this is something we will come on to in planning matters, do not tend to go through a consultative process with the very people who put the fairs on, the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain. This is to be regretted.
  (Mr Ayers) There have been cases where we have held referenda and polls and the public, the ratepayers, have come out in support of the showmen. North Allerton, Tayne Fair, where there was a threat to take the fair out of the street and move in to a position which would not be viable, a position where we felt the fair would completely die, the public came out on our side and said no. That only highlights that some of these decisions are made by officers, perhaps, without thinking of the livelihood and the effect that the fair has on the local community, that they need it there.

  10. You are anticipating my next question which is why do you believe alternative sites offered by local authorities are often not very suitable?
  (Mr Ayers) This is similar to the high street store, there must be better positions than others. Obviously with a traditional street fair, you are part of the town, you are part of the community. It is where the people have come to see the fair in its actual creation. Some of the town centres were planned on that basis where there were big squares and wide streets. To start moving the traditional fairs out of where they are viable and to think they are going to be the same success in a field on the outskirts of town just does not happen.


  11. A lot of those squares and wide streets have been taken over by car parking.
  (Mr Ayers) Some have, some have made provision for the fair to still continue. Some have had street furniture put in and, although the fair continues, some of their members have had to lose part of their equipment. It is essential that the fair is kept in a viable position. At the end of the day we are businessmen and if we are taken out of the main position which we feel is viable—and we class ourselves as professional people, we know well if Oxford's St Giles' Fair was taken out of the street and put some way out in a field off the M42, we know that would not survive any more than two to three years—it will go completely.
  (Mr Miller) With great respect to the point just made, if the local authority took the trouble to consult with the profession this problem could be averted.

Mr Cummings

  12. Would the Guild wish to see a form of procedure relating to appeals against adverse decisions by local authorities relating to fairs and fairgrounds?
  (Mr Miller) Yes, we would. Why should we be different from any other corporate body or, indeed, the judiciary of this country? If you are not happy with a sentence passed on you by the High Court or a court of law you can go to the Court of Appeal. You can in planning, in planning matters you can go to appeal and have that reheard.


  13. I thought you had gone to judicial review? Was it Bolton who wanted to move the fair from the traditional site and you went to the courts and won, so surely you have an appeals procedure?
  (Mr Miller) We have, but why should we go to the expense and effort, Chairman, although the effort is important, the expense as well, but why should we have to go to a judicial process to get an appeal when the actual people who move us or refuse us ground that we have had for many, many years, why should there not be like an ombudsman within the local authority, an appeal within that system constituted by lay people who really look at the whole scenario and determine "Well, no, I think the local authority acted very unfairly here"? We do not like to drag our business through the courts if we can possibly avoid it. If there was a more immediate and simpler way of taking our problems to an arbitrary body or appeal, something like ACAS, something like that in industrial terms, I think it would solve a lot of problems that are occurring.
  (Mr Ayers) Just to elaborate on that, it would be beneficial also to the ratepayers because at the end of the day we are coming to the local town/city to give entertainment and it is the majority of the local ratepayers who would be attending that fair. To impose the expense of going through the courts when at the end of the day if the local authority lose it is the ratepayers' money that they are using and they are our customers, I think there would be benefits from an appeal system built in when we have problems with fairs.

Mr Cummings

  14. It has been put to the Committee that local authorities are not really receptive to proposals for new fairs, would you agree with that suggestion?
  (Mr Miller) It is a bit of a curate's eggs this, some local authorities will grab an opportunity to promote their town or their city. I can give you an example: Cardiff Big Weekend takes place every year and has for the last four or five years. It is a marvellous fair and it was put in place by an approach from Cardiff City Council. They gave the Showmen's Guild or travellers the land around the court area in Cardiff, I do not know if you know Cardiff but it is a very nice area. They made a video of what goes on in Cardiff and the Big Weekend Fair was one of the main parts of that video to promote Cardiff to the country at large. I would say there is, when the opportunity arises, a very good response from local authorities and the Guild when new fairs are proffered because we need new fairs. I am sorry to return to Mrs Wright's evidence but you saw what went on in Bradford, I am sure you have seen the Western Section of evidence about the fairs that are lost there. New fairs are our life blood but I am afraid some local authorities will not let us continue with the old ones.

  15. What do you believe could be done to improve local authorities' perceptions of travelling fairs and people?
  (Mr Miller) That is a very good question. We have considered for some years now, in fact I have been with the Guild for 14 years and we would like to promote the Guild better but it costs money. Promotion, PR, costs an awful lot of money. It is a nettle that we will have to grasp. It is amazing how many people do not know the Showmen's Guild exists, they think that a fair turns up on a Friday, builds up, operates and then disappears and is never seen again. There is a corporate body behind the organisation and the running of this industry but local authorities, the public, I am sad to say, are not as much aware of it as they should be, but in the future we will take steps to address that.
  (Mr Ayers) It does not just happen regarding the Showmen's Guild, showmen are showmen whether they are members of the Guild or not. It happens to showmen who are not members of the Guild. Until the local authority or the local community has experienced the genuine showmen and how they operate and what they can give they do not realise the benefits that are there. It is a hard question, what can we do as showmen? There are many showmen that have become councillors in this way to try and create a better image. There are many showmen that run charity events, the Lion's clubs and Rotary clubs, and they have been involved through those avenues. Basically it is down to the showmen to make a better effort and I mean this in the context not just of the Showmen's Guild but showmen in general.

Mr Donohoe

  16. I have been at fairs and I have never once seen anyone hand out any material or involve themselves in any discussion about anything to do with the fair other than the fact that the public are there for you to make money from. Now that is a fundamental mistake, is it not?
  (Mr Ayers) Yes, we do do a brochure.

  17. I have never seen it.
  (Mr Ayers) It is called Come to the Fair.
  (Mr Miller) Yes.
  (Mr Ayers) It is a good brochure and we have given no end of those out. The showman has not done the process that you are talking about as an individual showman on his site.

  18. Surely the Guild should be promoting that and having your members actively promote it?
  (Mr Ayers) The Guild and the showmen should do it jointly.

  19. What specific proposals have you got to change that situation?
  (Mr Ayers) To be quite honest none that I know of.

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