Examination of witnesses (Questions 140
THURSDAY 7 MARCH 2001
QUIN and MR
140. It is bizarre sequencing, to be honest,
because the precise planning brief on this site will certainly
have a material effect on its value. If you are going to persuade
the rest of the Government to give you a legislative slot, I would
have thought that people would be interested in the value you
are likely to achieve by its sale, because they might be prepared
to consider the appropriate use of parliamentary time. If you
have not done that first stage, it would be rather speculative.
We have already had the speculation as to how much or how little
you might get for that site as a going concern. I would have thought
that, to strengthen your arguments with the Treasury and others,
you would at least need a better basis of information on this.
I am rather startled it has not happened.
(Ms Quin) There certainly has not been a rejection
by other departments of government of the need for the legislation.
There has simply been a debate about the prioritisation of the
Government's timetable. There has not been resistance to the idea
of the legislation in itself.
141. Can I move on to the discussion of capital
investment on the site. When was the last time that the Authority
submitted a programme of capital investment to MAFF?
(Ms Quin) We are awaiting details of what the Authority
is proposing to do in terms of capital investment.
142. Yes, I understand that, because you said
that earlier, but when was the last time they actually put in
a programme of capital investment? I know they are due to do another
(Ms Quin) They have not.
143. They have never submitted a programme of
capital investment on the site? Is that right?
(Mr Llewelyn) No, not that I am aware of. There was
obviously a major programme of capital investment when they moved
to Nine Elms.
144. That was 25 years ago. This is the typical
British approach. "We have thrown a lot of money at this.
Now let's see the place crumble before we do anything about it."
Is that roughly the characterisation?
(Ms Quin) It is certainly not my approach to it.
145. But the Authority appear to have followed
(Ms Quin) I do not believe it is the Authority's approach
either. Obviously, in recent years the Authority has had to look
at various options for the future, both in terms of diversification
and in terms of improvements to the site. I have to say, there
was a great deal of uncertainty in the market as a result of the
previous Government's policy of selling the site completely. If
you have that threat hanging over you, you are not going to be
producing a lot of programmes of capital investment, and while
I am not aware of a programme coming forward during my time as
Minister, and therefore it is rather difficult for me personally
to answer your question, nonetheless, I assume that the reason
why there was not such a programme was because the future of the
market as a whole was so uncertain, and it is very difficult to
plan for the future in those circumstances.
146. The answer to my next question, which is
"What is the process of approval of capital investments?"
is presumably, "We have not had one yet so we will have to
work that one out." What is the process that will follow
when they eventually do put together a programme?
(Ms Quin) We need to look at the overall costs of
that, how that fits within MAFF's own capital ceilings, and if
it does not fit within MAFF's capital ceilings, what negotiations
we then need to pursueand as Ivor Llewelyn has said, we
have already had contacts about thisin terms of the financing
formula for the market, and also in terms of the likely timetable
147. The Authority has said that it sees its
difficulty in embarking on a programme of capital investment as
a major problem. One would have to turn that back to the Authority
and say if a bid has not been made, it is certainly a major area
in which they need to scrutinise their own behaviour. It certainly
appears to be a substantial problem in their perception.
(Ms Quin) I have to say I think you are being rather
uncharitable towards them, simply because I feel strongly that,
given the fact that the previous policy was to sell the site entirely
for possible wholesale redevelopment, it was very difficult for
the Authority in those circumstances to even know that it had
an assured future, and therefore planning in the kind of way that
we hope it will be able to do now in submitting a programme to
us was simply not much of an option.
148. Effectively, they did not do it because
they thought it would be a waste of time, because no-one really
knew what was going to happen to the site.
(Ms Quin) No, because they thought the site would
be sold for development.
149. It would help if one could say to the Market
Authority that any capital investment programme that might be
submitted would need to be placed in the context of the strategic
future of the market, its relationship to other markets within
London, and the Government's own intent. Of course, there are
several unknowns in that equation, but you would want any capital
programme of any size to be put together in the context of a strategic
appraisal of what was attempted to be achieved. Otherwise, you
would be talking about sinking money into the possible waste of
investing in something which a new purchaser might say was totally
inappropriate and was unhelpful for their goals.
(Ms Quin) Yes, I think that is a fair point. In a
way, there are three strands to this. There is the Authority's
need for capital investment, there is the policy of selling it
as a going concern, but there is also the overall view which is
not primarily for MAFF, but which MAFF needs to be involved in
in terms of a wider strategy for the future of London markets.
The Minister did hold a meeting with representatives of other
markets and has certainly expressed his interest in being involved
in the development of such a strategy. But I have to say, that
strategy has not developed to any significant extent at the present
150. Could I go back to the legislation question.
You have reminded us that it remains government policy to dispose
of assets as soon as parliamentary time can be found, and we were
told by the Market Authority that in fact, the disposal of the
assets has been government policy since 1990. Do you know when
MAFF first asked for parliamentary time? Would that be kept secret
(Ms Quin) Obviously, it was under the previous administration,
and there are others in this room who therefore may be in a better
position to answer that question than I am. But I understand that
it has been a feature of the Department's legislative priority
for most of those years. I think that is fair to say, but because
it is largely information under the previous government, I do
not have absolute chapter and verse on that. That is my understanding
of the position. Maybe I can be contradicted by others who might
know better, but I see a shaking of heads, so I guess that is
151. Perhaps you can tell us though when the
last occasion was that it was sought.
(Ms Quin) In the last session, but of course, the
Government has had other priorities in MAFF.
152. I was only seeking a short response.
(Ms Quin) Obviously things like the Food Standards
Agency Bill and Fur Farming and so on were ahead of that.
153. In all those years has anybody even looked
to see how long a Bill it would be, done any drafting, ready to
go if you got the chance?
(Mr Llewelyn) Apparently a first draft has been done.
154. So you might not need too big a time slot
to go in. Could I just ask how much money does matter? Mr Todd
made the very sensible point that sometimes urgency depends upon
what the gain might be, and if you have some feeling for the amount
of money that can be released, it might change the Government's
view of the urgency of legislating. It has been suggested that
some of the urgency would depend upon that. Earlier in this parliament
you were under pressure within the Department for your budget.
Would you consider this a way of easing that pressure and therefore
raise its priority?
(Ms Quin) I suppose the answer to your question is,
in terms of the financial implications for MAFF, there is possibly
less urgency now than there was, because our baseline was adjusted
in the last year's Comprehensive Spending Review, so that no longer
did we have the baseline for capital spending reduced by some
£44 million to take account of the expected receipts from
the sale of Covent Garden. But that does not mean to say that
we are not committed to selling the market, simply because what
we are strongly committed to in MAFF is finding a way forward
which allows the market to flourish in the future in a way that
would free it from some of the constraints that it is at present
under. That is the driver rather than a financial driver.
155. One of the ways which has been suggested
(Ms Quin) Indeed.
156. We have been told that there has in fact
been a proposal which would allow diversification in front of
Nick Brown since 15 November. In the memorandum we have received,
it tells us that you are waiting for objections, based upon some
ruling which sounds as though it is from ancient times to me,
about how far away from each other markets should be. We have
been told in evidence to the Committee that in fact you have been
waiting for objections for two years, which pre-dates even that
application. So it does sound as though you have been asking the
Corporation what the problems were for some time. Can you confirm
that you have in fact been waiting for two years?
(Ms Quin) Not in relation to that particular application.
157. The general question of objections.
(Ms Quin) I understand that it is one year, not two
158. Is there not a timescale for this? The
objection is there in principle. Is there no timescale? Is there
not going to be a cut-off? is it not sensible to have a timescale
and say you want to move this process forward? Why do they not
know when they have got to object by?
(Ms Quin) On the particular request, further to the
memorandum that we submitted to the Committee, the Minister has
allowed the request with the proviso that face-to-face selling
is not permitted.
159. So a decision has been made?
(Ms Quin) An interim decision has been made in order
to allow the request to go ahead, but it is subject to that proviso.
I know that this is something that the Committee itself has followed,
the fact that these ancient statutes and requirements which you
quite rightly refer to, which go back to the 14th century, do
not cover the instance where we are talking about non-face-to-face
selling, and since a lot of selling in the modern era is non-face-to-face,
and of course, we have the phenomenon of electronic selling, the
request has been able to go ahead on that basis. However, on the
wider issue of the objections of the Corporation of London to
face-to-face selling of that nature in Covent Garden Market, it
is true that we are still awaiting a properly stated and reasoned