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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 55 - 79)




  55. Can I welcome you to the second session this morning. Can I ask you to identify yourselves for the record.
  (Councillor Stacey) Thank you. I am Councillor Stewart Stacey, I am a member of the Local Government Association's Planning Executive. I also happen to be this year the Chair of the Regional Planning Body for the West Midlands. In that hat can I welcome you to the West Midlands.

  56. Thank you. And your colleagues.
  (Mr Russell) I am James Russell. I am the Assistant Director of Strategy and Planning in Coventry which in layman's terms means I head up local planning and transportation. I am also an adviser to the Local Government Association on various planning matters and, again, regionally I currently Chair the Regional Planning Officers' Group covering the West Midlands economic region.
  (Ms Williams) I am Jeannette Williams. I am Head of Facilities for Norwich City Council. My remit is the travelling fairs and their siting, rents and most of the operational management as far as the local authority is concerned.

  57. Thank you very much. Do you want to make an opening statement or are you happy for us to go straight into questions?
  (Councillor Stacey) Could I just say a couple of things, please?

  58. Yes.
  (Councillor Stacey) I think you are already aware that there are a number of different issues in which local authorities are involved, sites for fairs, winter quarters, etc., and that local authorities are involved in different ways, whether as planning authorities, environmental health authorities, landowners, economic development and so on. Councils do have duties and interests way beyond the maintenance of fairs that they have to take into account. I think one of the issues is the competing claims for sites, sites that show people see as attractive for fairs could also therefore be very attractive for other regeneration initiatives. We are encouraged by Lord Rodgers' Report for regeneration centres. I suspect that later on today in the revised PPG3 we are going to be encouraged to provide more housing on previously developed land and so on. On the issue of sites for winter quarters, circular 22/91 identifies these as in effect mixed use sites which do not essentially fit easily into existing land use categories. Since then there has been a change in the planning world and, indeed, the Government are now promoting mixed use sites. I think that as we all come to grapple with the dealing now with mixed use sites rather than a very sort of zone based planning system, that show people will actually benefit from that as the skills of the planning officers and committees in dealing with mixed use is increased. Two other points. We do believe that those decisions are best made locally by the representatives of local people, the decision on the use of local sites, by the representatives of local people, that is the local authority. The other point I want to make, and I have just heard it said by the Showmen's Guild, is that circular 22/91 seems to be languishing at the bottom of people's drawers. We are concerned that that, indeed, may be shown to be the position in some cases and we are quite prepared to contact our member authorities to give prominence to 22/91 and actually remind them of it and the fact that they should be using it. We are quite happy to come here and say we will give it a push as well.

Mr Cummings

  59. Perhaps we can relay something we heard yesterday whereby local members rarely have a say as to whether an application is given the go ahead in a certain location. One of the questions posed was do you really believe that members of the family will become members of the Mother's Union and will they attend the local parish church as a condition of giving support to an application for winter living quarters? What would be your answer to that?
  (Councillor Stacey) The issues of materiality to planning decisions are quite clearly laid down in statute and history and so on. If issues that are not material are taken into account then I am sure that it is questionable.

  60. Do you believe that there is still a place for the entertainment provided by travelling fairs?
  (Councillor Stacey) I think very much so and, indeed, as again you have heard this morning, local authorities are often keen to encourage it for the benefits that it can bring to uplifting an area, bringing interest into what might be a dying centre or something like that. There is certainly very much a place for them and, of course, they are one entertainment business competing with other entertainment businesses in a rapidly changing world.

  61. Do you believe that local authorities in general are in tune with the public in relation to the popularity of travelling fairs? The evidence we have in front of us here really is apart that from being very moving, there is also an indictment upon various attitudes from many local authorities up and down the country.
  (Councillor Stacey) If local authorities are out of tune I would have thought they would have found out through the political processes. If we believe in the political process, if some authority is going against the grain of public opinion the public will certainly let them know both before and at the ballot box.


  62. A lot of the people who go to fairs are under 18 and do not have a vote and the showmen themselves often are not registered in a particular area to vote, so the ballot box is perhaps not the best way of judging the popularity of fairs.
  (Councillor Stacey) The younger people under 18 are members of families. You are absolutely right, they do not have the vote themselves. I think local authorities do do surveys of opinion also. I think, Jeannette, you have got one that you did in your own authority?
  (Ms Williams) Yes, if I may. As part of our consultation to try to find a permanent site for the fair in Norwich, the travelling fairs under the old historic charter, we conducted a wide ranging survey of everyone. We used a number of means. We actually collected the data through the streets, we used a local newspaper and we did a poll of selective households, a random selection there. It was interesting because of the age of our survey respondents, the great majority of them were between 40 and 59 years of age, then closely followed by the 60s and overs, then the 25 to 39 year olds and the 16 to 24 year olds were actually the smallest age group. In fact people still wanted fairs, that was certainly what came out from our survey. Our problem in Norwich was the conflicting use of where these historic fairs of Christmas and Easter were actually situated, they were in shopping streets and we were just getting a conflict of interest from all the parties within the streets. Our survey showed that the general public, local businesses and virtually everyone we surveyed came down to saying that those streets were not the sites for fairs in Norwich on those two occasions.

  63. The survey said they wanted fairs but they wanted them somewhere else?
  (Ms Williams) They said they wanted fairs, they liked fairs, they thought they provided good entertainment, they thought the shows and rides offered good value for money, they thought there was a nice range but what they did not want was them in those local streets in Norwich.

  64. Is that a report that was prepared for the council?
  (Ms Williams) It was a report which was prepared for the council. It was sent to the Showmen's Guild as part of the consultation exercise. They have had the results of that. It was in public.

  65. Could we have a copy of it please?
  (Ms Williams) You can indeed.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Mr Cummings

  66. Do local authorities consult sufficiently with showmen or with the Guild when considering town centre redevelopment?
  (Councillor Stacey) I think we really do not have sufficient evidence on that to say one way or the other. I think there are examples of good practice and I am quite prepared to believe that there are examples of bad practice. We would want to encourage the good practice. As I say, even where there is consultation, of course, it does not mean that the end result is going to be necessarily the way the Showmen's Guild would want it. Of course, other consultation might point in the opposite direction. Being consulted does not mean you get the result you want.

  67. For instance, the Local Government Association must consult with many bodies during the course of the year. Have you met with the Showmen's Guild?
  (Councillor Stacey) I am not aware that we have.
  (Ms Aston) No.

  68. Will you be taking that on board in the future now that these planning guidance notes are going to be given some prominence?
  (Councillor Stacey) Yes, I think, as I say, if we are going to circulate our members with it, it would be good practice for us to consult with the Showmen's Guild before doing that to see if, with a circular letter with it, there are any particular issues we want to highlight.

  69. What problems do local authorities have in allowing fairs to take place on local authority land? For example, do they result in large numbers of complaints from local residents, from traders and from the police?
  (Councillor Stacey) I think that there are various problems that can occur; the problems that you get with any gathering of people. There are problems, also, of the effect on the land, if they are parks, the churning and so on of land and therefore it is a sterilisation for a period. If you allow them on land that is normally a car park you have the problem of then where do the cars go, especially if it is attracting even more people in so there are issues like that. Local authorities do get complaints from the operation of some fairs on the effects on local residents, as I say, more or less in line, I think, with any large gathering of people who are acquiring things that they might discard and making noise and having fun.

  70. Would it be true to say that you do not have the evidence filed in the Local Government Association offices?
  (Councillor Stacey) I think that is fair. There may be specific cases.
  (Ms Williams) Again, if I may, I think most of the complaints we have had from the public are about litter, the increased litter. We do extra litter picks.

  71. No, what I am suggesting is there has not been any formal investigation or inquiry or assessment made by the Local Government Association?
  (Councillor Stacey) Not for the Association as far as I am aware.

  72. In terms of travelling fairs in general?
  (Councillor Stacey) No.

  73. In relation to winter quarters, in relation to sites for travelling fairs?
  (Councillor Stacey) No.

  74. What would be your reaction to proposals for a formal appeals procedure against adverse local authority decisions relating to fairs and fairgrounds?
  (Councillor Stacey) Certainly if it is a planning decision there is already an appeals procedure. If it is a decision into the use of council land then I think it is difficult to understand in a way how it would be different from the council saying "Well, we are going to change the use of this row of shops to housing" or something like that and thereby displacing commercial people from there. I think if you start putting in an appeals system above the whole of local government decisions you are negating the role of local government.


  75. Is there not something different about charter fairs because in a sense a town or city got its charter on the basis of providing charter fairs and, therefore, if you are trying to do away with a charter fair is that not slightly different and ought it not to be more like a compulsory purchase order where there is an appeals mechanism?
  (Councillor Stacey) I think the historical situation that led to those has changed somewhat. As I said earlier, fairs are one of a number of leisure industries and there are new leisure industries coming in, seeking space that may even have higher throughput, higher turnover and higher economic benefits. I think the historic issue of the charter fair is one where again that will be a matter for public opinion, the consultation process and even the political process as to the outcome. We have seen a number of structural changes in industry over the past 10 or 20 years where, shall we say, villages that grew up because of their historic mining connections for example no longer are there for that reason.

  76. The charter is slightly different because the charter is there, is it not, as a legal document and, therefore, if you want to put it aside surely there should be some form of appeal?
  (Councillor Stacey) I am not sure. I think I would have to take advice on the legal standing of the charter actually in local government.
  (Mr Russell) Could I perhaps chip in, Chairman? I think the issue of appeals is quite an important one. The Showmen's Guild already have said that they find going to judicial review unduly expensive and unduly onerous. I think it is worth remembering that there are two other procedures which people can take in fact when they are aggrieved by the decisions of the local authority. One is actually to go to the ombudsman on the basis of maladministration saying the process which the local authority has adopted—

  77. The only trouble with that is that the ombudsman can find in favour of the showmen and the local authority can still ignore it, can it not?
  (Mr Russell) That is absolutely right. That is more an issue for a debate on the role of the ombudsman. It is worth remembering also that all authorities are required to have a monitoring officer whose responsibility is to ensure, as I understand it, that the local authorities do not divert from the path of good and right and legal things. Certainly if in fact the local authority is due to make a decision which is contrary to law and the public good, as I understand it, it is the responsibility of the designated monitoring officer in the local authority, who is either the chief executive or the senior legal officer, to call the council to task and say "Hold on a minute, you ought not to be making this decision". I would have thought one of those three routes would have provided sufficient comfort.

  Chairman: Obviously it did not in the case of Bolton, did it, judicial review found in favour of the showmen, so obviously that mechanism failed in the case of Bolton, but it is very helpful to put on the record.

Mr Donohoe

  78. What does your organisation do to educate the individual councils about the Showmen's Guild and the showmen in general?
  (Councillor Stacey) I do not think we do anything on that.

  79. Why not?
  (Councillor Stacey) I think there are a vast number of issues on which we do provide education, support and guidance to local authorities, especially at the moment in the role of the changes taking place in local authorities. I have to say that is taking up a large amount of our time. When issues arise either upwards from our members, issues on which they want guidance and so on, or where it is perceived nationally, as I say, there is a failing, then we will do that. I have to say that these procedures have brought this issue to our attention. We have not had a mass cry from our members saying "We have got a problem with providing sites for travelling showmen" and I am not aware that the travelling showmen have approached us either.

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