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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)




  340. Can I welcome you to the Committee to help us with two inquiries, one into travelling fairs and then the planning inspectorate and public inquiries. Could you introduce your team for the record, please, although I do see some parts of your team have been before us relatively recently.

  (Mr Raynsford) I am Nick Raynsford, Minister for Planning and Housing. On my right is Jeff Jacobs, who heads the planning division within our Department. On my left is Chris Shepley, who is the Chief Planning Inspector.

  341. Do you want to say a few words of introduction on either of the topics or are you happy for us to go straight into questions?
  (Mr Raynsford) I am happy to go straight into questions. I think they are both self-explanatory.

Mr Benn

  342. Have you received any representations about the loss of fairground sites in town centres?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have received on average about four letters a year over the last three years on issues relating to provision for travelling showpeople. I have in a constituency capacity had representations because the site of the Millennium Dome was previously a site which was used by travelling showpeople. I suppose what that highlights is the potential conflict between our urban renaissance policies and the emphasis on the reuse of brown field sites with provision for travelling showpeople who may in the past have used some of those sites which were vacant and unused and which provided a suitable location for them to have as winter quarters.

  343. Do you think there is any case for the government offering some sort of protection for such sites—the Millennium Dome is a rather unique case—in order to enable travelling showpeople to continue to put on events in town centres which are obviously very important for their business?
  (Mr Raynsford) I would certainly accept the case for there to be adequate provision made by local authorities and for them to consider, in preparing their development plans, how they can best meet the needs of travelling showpeople as well as all other groups. I would be hesitant about the idea of special protection because this would, I guess inevitably, sterilise those particular sites from future development. While you rightly say that the Millennium Dome is perhaps exceptional, this was an urban, derelict, brown field site which had been empty for many, many years and there was clearly an overwhelming case for regeneration benefits, which have flowed from its redevelopment. If that land had been sterilised because of special protection, the development that has taken place would not have been possible.


  344. That site was not actually a fairground site, was it? It was a showmen's winter quarters?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes.

  345. The question we were really pursuing was the question of town centre fairground sites so that there are places for the fairs to be put on, as opposed to the fairground winter quarters, which we will come onto.
  (Mr Raynsford) I am sorry if I confused the two. It has certainly been our view that perhaps the most difficult issue has been winter quarters for showpeople. In terms of fairground sites, while there is no specific reference in PPG17, PPG17 does actually speak about the provision of sites that are suitable for recreational purposes. Going back to my answer to the earlier question, it would of course be appropriate for a local authority to consider the need for sites for travelling fares as part of its general preparation of its development plan.

  346. Would you accept that a lot of local authorities are worried about attracting people back into town centres? Would you not accept that holding a fair in a town centre is one of the ways of attracting people back into the town centre?
  (Mr Raynsford) I would certainly accept that the provision of fairs can provide a focus for the time that that fair is taking place but of course, by their very nature, fairs are temporary. The permissions that exist under the General Development Order are restricted therefore to 28 days and for that reason you are talking about a site that is likely to be not used for the bulk of the year for that purpose. When looking at questions of urban regeneration, the inevitable questions arise as to whether one can revitalise an urban centre by temporary use of sites that may be available or through permanent regeneration, possibly attracting new people to live in the area which has previously lacked residential accommodation. I am not sure that I would favour the former against the latter as a vehicle for urban regeneration.

  347. The fair in The Mall was an illustration of the way in which a fair can be fitted in quite easily into the existing, fairly attractive environment.
  (Mr Raynsford) Absolutely. As I said, I would be only too happy to endorse that provision but I do not think it would be appropriate as a long term use for The Mall, which clearly has other functions as well.

Mr Olner

  348. We are not speaking about that, Minister. We are thinking of trying to retain within the town centres some areas of land that travelling fairs can settle on once, twice, three or four times a year. If you build office blocks on them, that land is gone for ever.
  (Mr Raynsford) I agree entirely that ensuring that sites are available that can provide for such visiting events is an important consideration and that is provided for within PPG17. There is a framework that does allow that, but I was trying to answer a question as to the contribution towards urban regeneration. I was trying to indicate that there might be longer term benefits to an area where there has, for example, been a shortage of inner city, urban, residential accommodation. The provision of new development with residential accommodation might itself be a stronger, long term benefit to the centre of that area. That does not detract in any way from the importance of having sites that are available for travelling fairs. I have one in my own constituency that I greatly value that is currently setting up for the Easter period. I know it is very popular and will continue to be available because the land will continue to be available for that purpose. That, in itself, I would argue, had a very much less—

  349. You have managed to protect your own bit of land?
  (Mr Raynsford) It is a piece of metropolitan, open land, so it is protected as such.

  350. The council are never going to flog it off and build on it?
  (Mr Raynsford) No, it will never be flogged off and built on. It is quite right that that should be available. In terms of the regeneration of the area, the permanent regeneration of various brown field sites probably has had a larger economic and regenerative effect than simply maintaining the availability of a site for visiting showpeople.

Mrs Dunwoody

  351. Is that not exactly what we are saying to you? We are saying that no one disputes your theory of economic development, but the reality is that if there are no traditional green field sites left the fairs will not come. Although you may be faintly dismissive and say, "They are all right while they are there and as long as they do not leave too much rubbish behind them we are not against them", that is not a very positive attitude. Do you not think that councils should traditionally accept that where they have fairs, where people enjoy fairs, where they come on a regular basis, there ought to be some acceptance that you plan that in? You do not just say, "All brown field sites are suitable for development for office blocks and yuppie flats."
  (Mr Raynsford) I might take exception to the view that urban regeneration is only about office blocks and yuppie flats, because I believe it is about a wider range of facilities.

  352. Is that not what we are saying to you? We are talking about common or garden people who actually like fairs.
  (Mr Raynsford) Exactly. What I was trying to say was that fairs have a role to play and the local authority should within the context of PPG17 be looking to ensure that it has suitable facilities for a range of recreational activities, including visits by travelling showpeople. That is within the existing planning framework. It is possible that could be enhanced. There is a circular that was issued some nine years ago which seems to me still to effectively set out the necessary requirements for meeting those conditions and it may well be a sensible move for us to remind local authorities of that particular circular. I would certainly be very happy to do that. I do not think there is a need for a fundamental change in planning provisions to ensure the provision of sites because PPG17 does actually cover that.

Mr Donohoe

  353. It seems, on the basis of what you have said, that you opened saying one thing and you finished saying the complete opposite. Are you saying that you would protect green sites within town centres for fairgrounds or whatever other activity there might be, just as you would and do protect cemeteries, for instance?
  (Mr Raynsford) No. What I am saying is that PPG17 does require local authorities—and it is guidance which local authorities must have regard to in preparing their development plan—to have regard to a range of recreational and leisure activities in the preparation of the development plan. While it does not specifically refer to travelling fairs—

  354. But you could amend it to have that within it.
  (Mr Raynsford) I do not think it would need to be amended. I would certainly consider a reference because we are revising PPG17 at the moment, but as I said in response to Mrs Dunwoody's question earlier the key issue seems to me to be awareness of the circular which was issued some nine years ago, which does set out very clearly the steps that local authorities should follow to take account of the needs of travelling fairs and, if that circular is followed and put into practice, I believe the objectives that you have will be met.


  355. Can I pursue this question of PPG17? You are putting out a new consultation document on that, are you not?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes.

  356. In a parliamentary answer to me, I think you said you hoped to do it shortly. That was some time ago. Is there a contradiction there?
  (Mr Raynsford) As you will know, we have been working very hard on a number of planning policy guidance documents and also regional planning guidance documents. Inevitably, I think you would probably accept, the need to ensure that we published the final version of PPG3 has meant some delay in the preparation of others, but I do expect to have PPG17 available in draft shortly.

  357. A very short shortly?
  (Mr Raynsford) I would hope so.

Mrs Dunwoody

  358. A sort of medium term/long term shortly?
  (Mr Raynsford) A medium to short term shortly.

Mr Donohoe

  359. Can I return to the area that you made mention of but did not specifically give an answer to, and that was the question of showpeople's winter quarters. Your own assessment on the scale of the problem is what?
  (Mr Raynsford) It is difficult to say that there is a significant problem because, as I mentioned earlier—and I may, in responding to Mr Benn's question, have misled the Committee because I referred to only four letters a year on average and I was referring to correspondence about winter quarters on that particular occasion—that is the scale of the correspondence that we are receiving. It is not of a level as to suggest that there are serious problems, certainly by contrast with other planning matters on which we receive hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of letters every year.

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