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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)

TUESDAY 21 MARCH 2000

MR RAY SMITH, MR GEORGE IRVIN, MS SUSAN PEAK AND MR GEORGE SCARROTT

Chairman

  200. It is ten o'clock, I think we should make a start, and this is the second session of the Committee's Inquiry into Travelling Fairs. Can I welcome the witnesses to the Committee, and ask you to identify yourselves, for the record, please?
  (Mr Smith) Thank you. My name is Ray Smith and I am an employee of Irvin Leisure Limited, and over Christmas I was employed by Big Time Events Limited, who organised the funfair on The Mall.
  (Mr Scarrott) My name is George Scarrott, a small showman from Wiltshire.
  (Ms Peak) I am Susan Peak, travelling showman, and I represent Planning for Showmen.

  201. Thank you very much. Now I do not know if any of you want to make a brief statement, to start with, or are you happy for us to go into questions straightaway?
  (Ms Peak) Yes; that is fine.
  (Mr Smith) Questions, please.

Mr Gray

  202. If I could start with sort of a general approach to what fairs are about, and I know that we have got different sizes of fairs represented, show people represented, here. The first question is, are fairs still as popular with the public as they were?
  (Ms Peak) Yes.
  (Mr Scarrott) I would say, yes; where we travel, people are very pleased that we still go. I have a bunch of nice letters here from councillors, authorities, in places we travel to with the fair, and they have all sent me nice letters, so you can see that they have always valued the fair and they would like it to continue for as long as possible, they have no objection whatsoever. I would say the value of the fair is definitely still there.

  203. Do you think, over the years, the numbers of people attending have gone down, gone up, or stayed the same?
  (Ms Peak) I think they have gone up, most definitely, yes, I think they are more popular now with young people; otherwise we would not still be in the business that we are in.

  204. If that is right, if there are more people going to fairs, do local authorities, by and large, recognise that, do you think that local authorities are aware of the increased popularity of fairs?
  (Mr Irvin) Not really, at all, no, I would not think so. I think that is perhaps a lot of our problem as well, not actually getting that over to local authorities, in some ways.
  (Mr Smith) Local authorities are very negative about funfairs, they have never actually recognised the positive impact that a fair has in the local area; they always react, which is understandable, to people who complain, and then they tend to take that as the reaction of `local people don't like fairs', whereas, in fact, it is local people who attend the fairs. Our company operates mainly in London and the South East, and where we have done research, particularly in terms of advertising spending, we have found that the majority of people coming to the fair, the vast majority, 75 per cent, come from within a mile of the funfair site; now those are local people. And the local authorities do not recognise the value of the fair, and that is a major problem.

  205. I wonder if that is different; Mr Scarrott, you were saying that, by and large, your local authorities are in favour?
  (Mr Scarrott) They are, you see, because, although we travel, because we travel to small market towns and villages, Mr Irvin and his friend are probably a different case altogether from how we go on, we find it very easy-going, very pleasant. And we do not get thousands of people, we get hundreds, and the local authorities are always very good, except for places where they have lost control of the ground and they cannot help us at all, but, otherwise, for us, in a small way, it is okay.

  206. Mr Smith, why is that, is it because the South East is that much more built up, and therefore fewer sites, and therefore local authorities have other priorities than perhaps they have in the West Country, which has more space, and why do you think there would be that distinction between the two?
  (Mr Smith) I think it is because, in London, in particular, the local authority parks are heavily surrounded by houses, so, therefore, the site of the funfair is, by definition, close to residents; and what tends to happen is that one or two residents will always complain, and therefore the local authority can react to that. They tend to put the fairs out each year to tender, which is not a positive approach, because that does not allow you to build up a good local relationship. Where you have a good local relationship, where you get to meet local people, where they get to know you, then you find that one night if the noise is too loud from the music they will ring you up, or they will come over, and you will turn it down, that is the way that noise is controlled. People face practical problems when a funfair comes into a park in their area, and they can be solved, but there are some people who, out of principle, do not want anything in a park, even though that fair has been in that park for 60 or 70 years, and they have only been in the area for a shorter period. But, London local authorities, and outside London, it is different, there is no question about that.

  207. Are there positive ways in which you can overcome that kind of problem, in actually getting out to local people and persuading them of the value of the fair, do any of you take part in that kind of thing?
  (Mr Irvin) We do, really. We have set up local forums, with local people, we have liaison with local councils, and so on, and the best way forward with that is, where we have been lucky enough to be the same operator going back each year, we pick up those relationships with the councils and we have set positive things in progress, and that has worked. Where it becomes a problem is where some local authorities have put events out to tender, which we can understand the reason for, different operators each year, different practices each year; it sounds very good, for two or three years, and then there are no fairs left afterwards. You would not put your local cafes out for tender each year, in the parks, and different things, the boating, and the rest of the things.

  208. The net upshot of all of this is, more people are interested in and like going to fairs, but local authorities, by and large, less one side; does that mean a net reduction in the days available or in the sites available?
  (Mr Irvin) There is a net reduction in orders. We have got two problems. Some local authorities are just looking, I suppose, at the revenue on that, and they think, "Oh, great, we've got a site here that would take a fair," and then they overkill it, they allow five fairs there a year. The net result of that is, the revenue goes down, the popularity of it goes down, and everything, and we have ended up with nothing at all then. The positive approach is where local authorities have a venue there, which is going to take one or two fairs a year, perhaps a circus and something else, a carnival, or something, a spread of events; the money is still coming in, it has been positive, the people can see it has not been overdone, the revenue usually coming from the fair is equal, probably, to what would have come in for four or five fairs, and it is a much better approach that has gone forward there. You said earlier on, are fairs more popular; you have only got to look at the investment we have actually made in our business, really, the equipment, over the years, and so on, especially in the last five or six years; that investment would not be going in unless it were popular.

Mrs Dunwoody

  209. So what are we talking about, what would be the average span, there will be a difference between you and Mr Scarrott, obviously?
  (Mr Irvin) It is different areas.

  210. Approximately, what would be the price of a lot of these rides?
  (Mr Irvin) A ride now could be a quarter of a million pounds, a new ride, and it would come into a more built-up area, like we use, and it would actually go down to the next tier, smaller fairs, perhaps, in the country, as Mr Scarrott said, with slightly older rides, and actually it would go down, it would find its way down.

  211. I know we are going for averages, but, in the London areas, how many rides, what kind of investment would you have on a site?
  (Mr Irvin) Really you could not say that, because the sites vary in size.

  212. Yes, but you said, specifically, which was interesting, that you can, in effect, overuse a site, because you get too many fairs, and presumably people say, "No, we did that, we spent so many pounds last week, we're not doing that again." So there must be some correlation in your mind, you must have a kind of graph that says, "We can afford to do this circuit so many times in a year, and so many sites." All I am trying to get at is, what would be the kind of average investment, and if there is any kind of indication of the difference between the smaller fair and yours?
  (Mr Irvin) You cannot say that really, what is the average investment, because, the thing is, we are a company who set up to provide fairs, we do not actually invest in the majority of the rides, we actually set up fairs, we set them up with a nucleus of—

  213. Physically, you mean?
  (Mr Irvin) Yes; with a certain number of showmen that attend.

  214. So they are not yours, you are leasing them?
  (Mr Smith) Yes.
  (Mr Irvin) In a way, yes. We actually lease bringing in the showmen, actually making up the size of the fair, so what we want at the events—

  215. So your investment is in the ride, but you are actually leasing them to the showmen?
  (Mr Irvin) No, I think you misunderstand me, it is the other way round. We actually provide major events, we will actually stage a major event, we will invest in advertising, and different things, then we offer the pitches to various other showmen to attend that event and build up the size of the event we want. And it is a lot more controlled in that way, you can do a lot more to it, you can actually build up the event in its size, and it goes smaller, it is even done in a smaller way. The investment is made by showmen all over the country, whether they are large, small, or whatever; but the investments are getting more and more and more. And, the thing is, the business is becoming harder and harder for a lot of showmen, regardless of their size; recognition is not there, even in the form of a business, really. We come into a number of other things, when it comes into VAT, different other things, that we might talk about later.

Mr Gray

  216. One last go, from my point of view, if I may, in that case. The number of sites available, not so much the fixed sites that we have been talking about; Mr Scarrott, for example, has there been a net reduction in the number of sites available to a travelling fair?
  (Mr Scarrott) Yes, we have lost 20 per cent of our sites with a fair, in the last 12, 15 years, through development.

  217. Does that mean the length of the season is that much shorter, that you do?
  (Mr Scarrott) Yes, we go to some places twice now where we used to go only once, and stay two weeks where we used to stay one; we have lost a good 20 per cent of our sites. But, more concerning, are we going to lose what we have got left, that is what I am mainly concerned about.

  218. But that is local authorities deciding no longer to have a fair in their particular town?
  (Mr Scarrott) No, they are not deciding they do not want the fair, they are just using the land for other purposes and not leaving any space at all. I go into council offices, and they say, "Hello, Mr Scarrott, are you bringing the fair back?" and I say, "Yes," and I say "Where do you want it?" and they say, "Well, we haven't got anywhere now, if you can find a field we would be only too pleased to see you." But if you are lucky enough to find somewhere in the country it is too far away for people to walk to, or the children to go to, and it becomes not half so good, so you are on a downer from then on. When you lose an old-established site for the fair, a feast, or traditional fair, like Bonfire Night, really, it is that old and traditional, and when you lose that site, if you are lucky enough to find another one, it is never so good; so from then on you are on a downward trend.

  219. One mile is about right, the distance people will travel to go to the fair, is that about right; if it is outside the town they simply will not come?
  (Mr Scarrott) They do not come half as much as they did when it was in the central position, or if it is raining they do not come, because they get soaking wet through. In this day and age, with problems with people as they are, they are not going to let their children walk away in the dark, go home in the dark; so it turns gradually from a very good venue to somewhere where you get just a few, rather than what you should get.
  (Mr Irvin) In London, dare we say, there are now almost 50 per cent fewer sites that are still available, especially in East London, places like that. For instance, Tower Hamlets had 12 sites at one time, we are actually down to two fairs, at the moment, which are still doubtful this year, with the redevelopment of Mile End Park, and various other things. We might provide in a season, say, 300 to 400 ride positions for various showmen to attend, now mostly we get twice as many people applying for those positions, so it means there are a lot more showmen out there looking for sites than are available, we know that by the amount of showmen we are actually turning away from sites where we cannot accommodate them. We have really got an acute loss of sites in London, especially in the East of London, here.



 
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