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

Memorandum by the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Mid & South Lincolnshire Section (TF 28)

  In response to the press notice dated 21 December 1999, in connection with Travelling Fairs the Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Mid and South Lincolnshire Section of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain offer the following views and concerns on the items listed in the press notice in particular, and the position in general.

  In order to assist you in putting together the responses, we have made our comments under the headings that were given in the press notice.


  We very genuinely and sincerely believe that the travelling fair is an important part of our heritage and of the general public's heritage in this country and it is vital therefore that this unique form of entertainment is allowed to continue to thrive. During the mid-summer about 200 fairs will be taking place at the same time on sites all over the country.

  It is a pleasant surprise to us to find that whilst there have been many changes in the pattern of fairs and the numbers attending have definitely dwindled over recent years, the annual fair in the town or village still has a unique attraction and is eagerly awaited by the community. In these days of the many alternatives available such as theme parks etc we have thought about the situation and have put it down to the fact that uniquely we take our entertainment to the public where they live. What this achieves is that the fairground is available to everyone in the community on their doorstep whether or not they have the means to travel to these other attractions. Therefore because we can provide this unique opportunity it is vital that we are able to continue to do so whilst the general public wants to enjoy all the fun of the fair.

  We have moved with the times and are constantly increasing the range and quality of fairground rides and other attractions that we are taking around the country to the people. Through our efforts we are continuing to survive, providing our age-old service in the face of stiff competition from attractions such as Alton Towers etc. It is vital to us therefore that we do not have other obstacles put in our way and we really need the co-operation and assistance of the organisations that we have to deal with to provide fairs, particularly local authorities.

  It might interest the Sub-committee to know that we feel as a community that the motor-car is the single thing that has had the greatest effect on our business. This is not only because the ready availability of cars to virtually every family lets them travel to the other attractions but simply because the amount of traffic on the roads and the fear of congestion etc being created has led local authorities to form the view that the fair can no longer be accommodated on its traditional site because it may lead to traffic congestion etc. Also, because of the emphasis on the importance of the motor car we are now faced with the situation, in many instances, where we have traditionally occupied sites that are usually used for car parking, where local authorities insist on charging not only the usual ground rental but, on top of that, the anticipated lost revenue from the car park being out of action for the duration of the fair!

  The Sub-committee should also be aware that by virtue of our membership of the Showmen's Guild we automatically accept that the whole of our daily life, both when undertaking our business on the fairground and in our day-to-day life off of it, a very strict disciplinary regime ensures the highest level of conduct by ourselves and the whole of our families, who we are personally responsible for. We are very proud of the way of life this results in and it is also important therefore to the survival of the set of values which we have adopted that the tradition of travelling fairs is allowed to continue as that forms the starting point around which we have built the pattern of how our community conducts itself in its day-to-day dealings with other members and with the community at large.


  Apart from a loss of traditional fairgrounds for development etc the other major problem that we face is the very poor standard of the fairground sites that we are forced to continue to use particularly in terms of the surfacing and of the level of amenities available to enable us to live on site whilst we are undertaking our business.

  The most unfortunate situation in our experience is that travelling fairs are always the facility that has to make way for other things and are given the least consideration and importance. It is also the case however, ironically, that even though the needs of travelling fairs appear to be given the very lowest priority, local authorities seem to view them as an easy target for raising revenue by charging very inflated rentals etc. Furthermore it does not seem right to our members that whilst councils are more than willing to pay for other recreational events and attractions to visit their areas we receive no help and indeed are obliged to pay large rents just for the privilege of bringing entertainment to the area.

  A good example of both of these problems is the Nottingham Goose Fair which is one of the two largest annual travelling fairs in the country and is probably the best known one.

  Part of the site where this historic fair has been held for hundreds of years is to be taken to accommodate the station for the proposed rapid light transit system. Whilst that proposal itself will not cause too many problems for the continued operation of the fair, in order to construct it a large compound is to be erected in the middle of the area that the fair occupies and is to stay in place for three or four years. Although alternative sites are being offered to the usual occupants and they will eventually have their original pitches returned to them, it will be disruptive to the fair for that period and as other alternative sites for the compound appear to be available it is annoying to our members that the site should be chosen with little regard to the strong tradition of this historic fair. It is also the case that last year the Goose Fair was in danger of not taking place because, for a short period of time, the Guild had invoked one of its rules to declare the fair "out of order" such that all members would have been debarred from attending it, because of the wholly disproportionate (22 per cent) rise in rentals the council requested without any consultation or negotiation with the Guild and its members. The situation was eventually resolved by the agreement of a much more modest rent rise, in line with inflation, but it was typical of the lack of regard which has held for the strong tradition of the travelling fair. We are constantly facing the problem of local councils altering details such as the dates and times of annual fairs to suit themselves with no consultation with us or consideration of our requirements. They do not appear to grasp the importance of the timing and relationship of the traditional pattern of fairs which we attend and the need for our community to be aware of such details and to be able to rely on them on a year to year basis in order to plan our movements and a round of events which we can realistically attend taking account of the fact that most often between fairs we have nowhere else to go and it is no longer acceptable or realistic to park in lay-bys etc.


   The Sub-committee may be most surprised to learn that in carrying out our business we are usually denied basic facilities which the general public take for granted and indeed consider to be a human right in this day and age. We are not talking about sophisticated facilities but basic supplies of electricity and water so that we can live a normal life when living on fairgrounds in order to undertake our trade.

  Over the region which we travel there are only two fairgrounds which have a permanent electricity supply that we can plug into to serve our caravans whilst living there and most sites do not even have a water supply. The result is generally that we have to "go begging" to members of the public close to fairgrounds to seek their help in making a connection to their electricity supply for our caravans, for which of course we pay them, usually much more than for the amount we use. We cannot think of any other sector of society who is forced to live in this way and is denied such basic human rights.

  We want to emphasise that we are not asking for charity and will always want to pay for such services but need the co-operation of the service providers and of local authorities making such facilities available to us, as it is usually the case that they do not consider our use of such sites to be sufficiently permanent to warrant the connection of such supplies. One case which comes to mind is an annual fair held in a market place in the middle of a town where there is a number of electricity sub stations etc all around it but we are still obliged to rely on the co-operation of local householders in allowing us to connect to their supplies. In another instance where a two week fair is held both in the Spring and Autumn, after many many years of requesting the council to connect such supplies three of our members ended up funding the operation to make the connections themselves. That is not a problem in itself but all too often there is simply no willingness to allow us to help ourselves.


   Whilst this section of the Guild is fortunate in having been able to achieve, via our agents who are a specialist consultancy in dealing with the needs of travelling showpeople in the planning system, the first permanent Accommodation Park in the country that site is now full to capacity whilst there is still a great unsatisfied demand for accommodation sites.

  This is constantly the case because of a combination of the loss of traditional accommodation sites, the increase in the size of fairground rides and the sub division of families as children grow and create their own family units with their own accommodation needs and their own equipment and there is a need for a continuing supply of accommodation sites.

  The particular problems of keeping groups together as it is the traditional lifestyle that showpeople remain in family groups etc often with three generations living together on the same plots and of finding suitable locations for the accommodation of caravans to live in and space to stand, assemble and test our rides etc as we are obliged to do by law, are well known. The problem is that we don't fit neatly into categories such as housing or industrial areas and we are usually simply not able to afford the price which is required for land in urban areas although we need to be close to them so that we have medical facilities etc available to us and our children can attend local schools on a regular basis. All too often therefore we are obliged to consider sites on the fringe of towns or just in the countryside and "normal" planning policies seem to rule us out in getting planning permission for such locations.

  Although we know that a local planning authority should take account of our needs and make provision in terms of being prepared to grant planning permission for appropriate sites that we do not want to have provided to us but wish to purchase and develop ourselves, many of the councils in our area don't take this responsibility seriously and with the exception of a small number of authorities who have been supportive, our members seem to have to struggle and fight, at considerable cost, to achieve what should be their basic right to have somewhere to live

  We are of course aware that as a result of very considerable effort by the Showmen's Guild and its members eventually circular 22/91 was published and for the first time brought to the attention of local councils the desperate plight of travelling showpeople. The problem seems to be that whilst it was still "fresh news" in the early 1990s the importance of the message now seems to have faded and local councils are not taking enough notice of it whilst during the same period the need for accommodation sites has grown.


  Our view is quite simply that circular 22/91 put in place a basic means for the rights of travelling showpeople to be recognised and for local councils to be responsible for assisting them, but the importance of our problems has been allowed to fade.

  We do think therefore that there is an important need for the government to look urgently and seriously at whether or not the very worthy intentions of the circular are being achieved and if they are not, which we believe to be the case, to review and update its advice and, more particularly, to hammer home to local authorities their responsibilities and to make sure that they recognise and fulfil them.

  Because of the close-knit nature of our community and the excellent lines of communication which are established within it we are aware that there is now a lot of experience of the way in which the planning system has performed and operated in meeting our needs which can be drawn upon to provide guidance on where it has failed to do so and how it can be improved. This is an exercise which we believe needs to be urgently undertaken through liaison with the small number of agencies that deal with our specialist needs across the country.

Any other matters which may arise in the course of questioning

   There are a small number of other matters which we would like to bring up, as follows:

    1.  The first is a financial one as we understand that we are working in an unfair situation in comparison to showmen in other European countries in relation to the charging of VAT at the standard rate. We understand that there are preferential rates for showmen in other countries, and if this is the case we should benefit from the same provisions.

    2.  It is the general tendency of local authorities to simply impose, as we have previously discussed, changes such as increases in rentals and alteration of dates of fairs without any consultation with us and in order to achieve fair play a confrontation has needed to occur. Often this occurs simply because these changes are suggested by officials who have no knowledge of the way we conduct our business and the situation would be far easier if there was a proper means of consultation with us. We are aware that councils will soon be obliged to operate `best value' and we hope that this will result in a much better relationship between them and us as their customers.

    3.  Our final grievance is one that is long standing and not easy to deal with as it is simply the continuing problem of the ignorance of our lifestyle resulting in prejudice against us and a tendency to associate us with entirely different groups of travellers and to "tar us all with the same brush". We appreciate however this is not a problem which can be resolved by legislation but only by reliance on education and feel it is particularly important therefore that at least local authorities who we deal with extensively and rely on to be able to undertake our business are aware of our problems and supportive of our needs.

  We trust that all of these comments will be of assistance to the Sub-committee and request that they are taken fully into account in this inquiry.

James Mellors
On behalf of the Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire,
Mid and South Lincolnshire Section of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain

February 2000

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