Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Ninth Report



Visit to Bromsgrove and Lichfield
Monday 6th/Tuesday 7th March 2000

Members Present:

Mr Andrew F. Bennett, MP Mr Huw Yardley (Clerk)
Mr John Cummings, MP Miss Jacqueline Recardo (Committee Assistant)
Mr Brian Donohoe, MP Dr Vanessa Toulmin (Specialist Adviser)

Monday 6 March


The Sub-committee first visited the former site of the White Lion public house on Alcester Road, Portway, near Bromsgrove, accompanied by Mr Graham Downie, Secretary of the Midland Section of the Showmen's Guild. The site lies within the designated Green Belt, but is previously developed land, having first been the site of a public house, then used as a contractors' depot during the upgrading of the nearby A435. In October 1998, a consortium of four members of the Showmen's Guild applied to Bromsgrove District Council for a change of the use of the land to a travelling showperson's depot. Three of these members had been based for a number of years in a depot in nearby Redditch, but growing congestion had forced them to seek new premises.

The initial response to their application by Bromsgrove planning department was described as "promising", but the application was eventually refused. Although technically it was refused because of a failure to determine the application within the prescribed period, it was apparent that the Council would have refused the application on the grounds that "the change of use to a travelling showpeople's depot would, by virtue of the size, number and siting of vehicles, damage the openness and visual amenity of the Green Belt in this location and the purposes of including land within the Green Belt". An appeal was lodged against the decision, and planning permission granted, subject to conditions. The Inspector's decision was that whilst the development "would amount to inappropriate development in the Green Belt and would cause some harm to the openness and visual amenities of the Green Belt", there were very special circumstances in this case - chiefly, the need for the site and the lack of suitable alternatives elsewhere - which "outweigh[ed] the harm by reason of inappropriateness and the other harm which would arise."

The Sub-committee met Mr Jimmy Dobson and his wife, Mr Tommy Dobson and his wife, and Mr Les Dodwell, the showpeople who had formed the consortium to buy the land, at the site. They showed the Sub-committee how the site was to be laid out, including the landscaping which was required as a condition of granting permission. The layout was planned with the help of a model plan for travelling showpeople's sites prepared by the Showmen's Guild.


The Sub-committee continued to Bromsgrove, where they met Councillor Jean Luck, Chairman of the Planning and Highways Committee, Councillor Dennis Norton, Vice Chairman of the Committee, and Mr Robert Lewis, Deputy Chief Executive.

The situation at the Portway was described by Mr Lewis as a 'disaster'. He emphasised that Bromsgrove Council were not anti-showpeople, and were aware of Circular 22/91 (which gives advice to local authorities about planning considerations relating to travelling showpeople). He recognised that cases such as this should be dealt with through the development plan, rather than, as had happened, on a case-by-case basis. However, Bromsgrove had made no provision for sites for showpeople in its Development Plan. This, he said, was because the district had no tradition of accommodating showpeople. Historically, nearby Redditch had been where the area's showpeople had always lived; Mr Lewis suggested that it was Redditch's failure to provide enough sites for the showpeople who were based there which was the root of the problems being experienced in the area. The Showmen's Guild had made no representations about the lack of sites for travelling showpeople during the public inquiry on the Development Plan.

Ninety-two per cent. of the land in Bromsgrove District was classified 'Green Belt', meaning 'very special circumstances' had to be demonstrated in order for a planning application for development within this area to be successful. It was very difficult to justify exceptions to the policy of no development in the 'Green Belt', particularly in view of the fact that, once an exception was granted, it was very difficult to convince local people that the same exceptions should not also be applied to them. Nothing in Circular 22/91 exempted showpeople from any of the policies relating to the 'Green Belt. He noted that it was accepted by all parties that a showperson's depot was not an appropriate development for 'Green Belt' land, and that it was the test of 'very special circumstances' which had had to be used to justify granting permission on appeal.

In addition to accepting the showpeople's appeal and granting planning permission, the Inspector awarded costs against Bromsgrove Council. An initial recommendation that the application be accepted had later been changed, due, Mr Lewis said, to subsequent information being supplied by the showpeople indicating that the number of caravans to be accommodated on the site was much greater than originally supposed. The Inspector's report on costs suggested that these problems could have been overcome had the Council discussed them with the showmen at the time, and that as a result unnecessary expense had been incurred in taking the case to appeal. Mr Lewis strongly denied the suggestion that the decision to reject the application had been a political one or was in any way connected to the fact that the Chair of the Planning Committee was the ward councillor for the area.

Councillor Jean Luck, Chair of the Planning Committee and ward councillor for Portway, emphasised the reasons for the opposition of local people to the proposed development. She suggested that there was concern that the showpeople did not intend to integrate into the local community. Local people felt 'short-changed' by the granting of permission for the depot after an application to rebuild a pub on the site, offering employment and leisure opportunities to local residents, had been turned down. She suggested that it might have been possible to find alternative sites in the area, had the necessary work been done at an early stage. Nevertheless, she also emphasised that, now permission had been granted, every effort would be made to ensure that the development of the site and the arrival of the showpeople were successful.

The Sub-committee also visited the Recreation Ground, an area of 'open space' in the centre of Bromsgrove. The site is subject to a covenant restricting the use of the land to an open space or public recreation ground. Three fairs take place annually on this land. A decision by the Council in 1996 to develop the land was the subject of considerable opposition, and delays due to this opposition meant that no progress had been made by the time of the local elections in May 1999. The fate of the Recreation Ground became a central issue in these elections and the previous ruling group lost its majority. The new Council abandoned the development scheme and intends to take steps to ensure the long-term future of the Recreation Ground as a public open space.

Questioned about the continued role of fairs, particularly given the development of theme parks such as the nearby Drayton Manor or Alton Towers, the Council representatives asserted that travelling fairs were as keenly awaited now as they ever had been. Fairs played an important

role in building on the perception of Bromsgrove as a market town and their continuation was key in maintaining that image and in attracting people to town centre shops as opposed to the many out-of-town shopping centres in the area.

Following their visit to Bromsgrove, the Sub-committee travelled to Walsall, where they visited a site where development of a travelling showperson's depot had recently been started. Members met some of the occupants of the site and visited the living vans stationed there. The Sub-committee was told that, whilst there had been some local opposition to the development, the relatively secluded position of the site at the edge of an industrial estate meant that achieving planning permission had been fairly straightforward. The site had not, however, been identified as suitable for a travelling showpeople's depot in the local development plan, and permission had had to be sought 'from scratch'. Although the development of this site had eased some of the pressure on others in the area, the Sub-committee was told that there was a continuing need for more permanent sites for travelling showpeople's depots in the Midlands.

Tuesday 7th March


The Sub-committee continued to Lichfield, where members visited a small, traditional Charter Fair in the town centre. Following an oral evidence session at Lichfield District Council,[70] the Sub-committee participated in the historic ceremony of the 'opening' of the Lichfield Shrovetide Fair, and watched the more recent 'Pancake Races' which now take place at the same time.

Visit to Kirkcaldy
Wednesday 19th April

Members Present:

Mr Andrew F. Bennett, MP Mr Huw Yardley (Clerk)
Mr John Cummings, MP Miss Jacqueline Recardo (Committee Assistant)
Mr Brian Donohoe, MP Dr Vanessa Toulmin (Specialist Adviser)

The Sub-committee also undertook a brief visit to Kirkcaldy, Fife, to attend the Links Market Fair and to discuss issues relating to it with local Council officers and others involved in the organisation of the Fair.

A meeting with local council officials and others took place in the Town House, Kirkcaldy. Present were individuals and representatives from number of different organisations involved in the planning and running of the Links Market Fair.

The Links Market Fair, which begins on the Wednesday of the third week in April, was described as of great benefit not only to Kirkcaldy but to the whole of Fife, having a place as part of local tradition and culture alongside the Lamas Fair and the Burnt Island Games. The Fair was as eagerly awaited as it had ever been by people all over Fife. It now attracted up to 40,000 people a day. However, the Fair was becoming more and more difficult to arrange, partly, the Sub-committee was told, as a result of a recent re-organisation of Scottish local government finance.

The Ward Councillor for the area where the Fair takes place, John Farmer, told the Sub-committee about the efforts he had made following his election as Councillor for the area to ensure that local people were fully involved in the organisation and running of the Fair. A tenants' and residents' group was set up, and representatives from the police, the Council and the Showmen's Guild invited to join. Mr Farmer remarked particularly on the keenness of the local Showmen's Guild to come along, which he believed had been very helpful. Through this group, a mechanism was set up whereby local people were able to have any complaints they might wish to make about the Fair dealt with very quickly. A number of perceived problems with the Fair were solved through this group (most notably that of parking), and as a result the number of phone calls to the Council about the Fair had significantly decreased. Everyone felt involved in and a part of the Fair.

John McVicar, an officer in the Council's Community Services department, told the Sub-committee about the co-operation which took place around the organisation of the Fair, both within the Council between different departments; and with other organisations, such as the emergency services, the Health and Safety Executive, local residents and, of course, the Showmen's Guild itself. A complaints hotline had been set up and an 'operational centre' established for the duration of the Fair, from where the policing was run. He told the Sub-committee that a ban on drinking alcohol in the streets had recently been instigated across Scotland. This relatively simple step had resulted in a dramatic drop in the incidence of problems during the Fair. He noted the importance of ensuring that the public got quality and value for money from the Fair, as well as variety.

In answer to a question about other fairs which took place in the area, the Sub-committee was told that these were generally smaller fairs which took place on historical sites, and as such did not involve the same degree of planning. However, there was a Council group looking at the planning of smaller fairs which was due to report shortly.

The Sub-committee was also told that some thought was being given to how to market the Fair as part of the cultural services strategy to attract tourism. The potential was there, the Sub-committee was told, but financial restraints were causing difficulties. The Council were also in discussion with the town centre management company about how visitors to the Fair could be attracted into the town centre.

The Sub-committee were then met by Mr Peter McShane, Mr Philip Paris, Mr Ernest Johnson and others from the local Showmen's Guild, and taken to see the Fair and the living vans where showpeople running the Fair stayed whilst the Fair was taking place. Showpeople in Kirkcaldy were experiencing considerable problems with inadequate facilities for their living vans. The problem was partly due to a reorganisation of the fairground site which had resulted in sites which had previously been used for living vans being cleared to create access routes for fire engines. This reorganisation had resulted in a diminution of the costs to the showpeople of keeping fire engines on standby, but had also meant that some of the most appropriate and convenient sites for living vans were no longer available, pushing showpeople out away from the fairground itself to sites which had no water or electricity laid on and where there were no facilities for waste water. Some sites did not even have hardstanding for living vans, being little more than a muddy field. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to ensure the necessary investment was made to provide facilities at sites which were only used for perhaps 11 days a year.

The success of the fair itself, however, was obvious. The Sub-committee toured much of the fairground site, which even on a weekday evening was very busy. They also visited the operational centre where the police presence was based and spoke to some of the officers responsible for patrolling the Fair. There was no evidence of any trouble arising from the presence of the Fair and the atmosphere was excellent: thousands of people, young and old, family groups, and throngs of teenagers all out enjoying themselves, in a totally friendly, happy environment. It was emphasised by the Councillors, the local Police, and individuals to whom we spoke just how popular the Fair was. A local taxi driver enthused at the prospect of taking his children to the fair on the Friday. The rides themselves were very enjoyable and good value for money (although there was a difference in value for money between two of the dodgem rides: the first ride was three-quarters the cost of the second and lasted twice as long) and standards of hygiene at the food stalls seemed excellent.

70  See QQ1-199 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 5 June 2000