Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)



  200. If the Authority came to you and said, "Minister, the current formula by which MAFF siphons off so much of the money is wrong and we need to renegotiate this formula. In fact, we need to get rid of this formula and to make any sense of this market we have got to reinvest our surpluses. We have had 25 years of depreciating assets, there is a backlog of work that needs to be done, and the only way we can deal with that is to plough surpluses back in and maybe borrow much more extensively", how would you respond to that?
  (Ms Quin) With respect, I think we did deal with this issue before. We talked about the discussions that take place regarding trying to get more flexibility in the short term but also the fact that overall the financial constraints are such that the policy of selling as a going concern is the route that we feel should be pursued in the medium term as soon as the legislation can be given a slot. I think we have discussed that.

  201. You have discussed it but in terms of the actual money has it made any difference?
  (Ms Quin) We have discussed it here already this morning.

  202. I am trying to tease out what does that mean. I know in theory you have discussed it; I want the practice. The formula is there, it is being operated, but clearly it is a nonsense if you want to keep that asset up to its current or past life.
  (Ms Quin) As I said earlier, the formula is there but we are discussing with the Authority ways of allowing at least some of the new capital investment to go ahead. That, however, does depend on a more detailed costing than we have received so far from the Authority, although I know that is something they are looking at.

  203. I know you went through it and I understand what it says. It is just that I am trying to ascertain whether it is a flexible formula because, as we all know, if you move a figure and put it in one column rather than another it can make a significant difference to the Authority having surpluses that it could start to replenish that site with. In terms of selling it as a going concern the more valuable it is as an asset the better and the easier it is to sell as a going concern, surely?
  (Ms Quin) There is not a great deal of flexibility in the current formula. In order to get flexibility I think I am right in saying there would need to be changes to the formula.

  204. Just on that, who makes those changes then? That is a pure MAFF decision?
  (Ms Quin) No it is MAFF and the Treasury.


  205. Which means the Treasury. Austin?
  (Ms Quin) I do not altogether share your cynicism, Chairman.

Mr Mitchell

  206. Can I clear up one point because Mr Mills told us that the Authority has to get MAFF approval for spending anything more than a quarter of a million on capital investment in one year. I got the impression from you earlier that you are more liberal. That is correct, is it?
  (Ms Quin) I think the Chairman's statement was correct.

  207. Okay. We can perhaps round it off by looking at the general situation vis-a"-vis the number of markets in London. I came to the impression, and indeed it was reinforced by the evidence from Mr Mills and others, that London is "over marketed". Would you agree with the Authority's view that there are too many markets in London?
  (Ms Quin) Not necessarily—

  208. Given the fact that the supermarkets are taking away an increasing tranche of business and that there are all kind of casual arrangements in car parks and "flying Dutchmen" and I have even heard of "flying fish" in a car park in East London. This is under-cutting market business and rather than having a larger number of markets pegging away at half cock, it might be better to have a smaller number working more efficiently and competitively.
  (Ms Quin) Let me say on that I think there are a number of uncertainties. The Chairman himself talked about the potential on the catering side and I think that that is certainly there. I think there is also potential on the e-business side. I also think that if you, say, compare the situation today with the worries that existed in 1990 or so at the time of the move of Spitalfields Market, there was more of a declining and under-usage of markets then than there is now, in my understanding. I think there are generally uncertainties, as you would expect in a commercial environment, as to how things might progress in the future. I have to say also that I do not see it as my ministerial responsibility to decide on the future of London markets as a whole. That goes much wider than MAFF. Our responsibility here is to Covent Garden Market and we feel that the Authority's view of both potential business in the catering sector and its overall view on diversification is something that we would agree with and support.

  209. There are two points in that. Your position therefore is let's wait and see.
  (Ms Quin) No, it is not. The position is, as I have said before, that both in the short term and medium term will look at ways of allowing Covent Garden Market to attract business and invest for the future and do what we can to provide the long-term framework in which that activity can take place. At the same time we have signalled our interest and support for initiatives which look at the market strategy for London as a whole, but that is not something in which we would be the lead body.

  210. What is the role there? Surely MAFF is the main department in these matters, it has some responsibility and if there has got to be a concentration of markets, a reduction in the number of markets, then it is surely up to MAFF to give a lead?
  (Ms Quin) We have taken initiatives of the kind that I have described, but that is not case. Obviously MAFF has a huge interest in horticulture and its success in this country and I would certainly say that that is something that I feel strongly about, but in terms of the delivery of wholesale markets in London that is not something that MAFF has lead responsibility. It has inherited this responsibility with regard to Covent Garden, it has also signalled through the meeting that the Minister had and the other initiatives I mentioned that it is happy to see the question of the future of London markets being addressed but it does not have the main responsibility for that. That has got to lie elsewhere—with the Corporation of London, with the Greater London Authority, with the Government Office for London, and so on.

  211. So MAFF does not feel the kind of responsibility that has been exercised in France where there has been a closure of certain markets and the build up of one big market outside Paris which provides most of this produce, in other words, a logical decision-making based on planning?
  (Ms Quin) It has to be said that the legal position and departmental responsibilities are different from the situation in France. Nonetheless I will say to you that I think particularly the development of the Rungis Market does have a lot in common with some of the ideas that the Authority has in Covent Garden.

  212. It is outside and Covent Garden is inside the conurbation.
  (Ms Quin) Yes, but I am not sure of the relevance of that.

  213. It affects the congestion charge for a start.
  (Ms Quin) I have already answered the question on congestion charges.

  214. But the location is crucial. It would seem sensible to put it outside with access to motorways, but one of the traders pointed out that most of the business comes from inside the M25 so it is therefore more logical to have a central market which I would have thought was wasteful.
  (Ms Quin) This is to do with the economy of London and MAFF is not the department for the economy of London.

  215. The economy of food, at least an oversight. Do you intend then to publish the conclusions of the study into the possible harmonisation of London markets?
  (Ms Quin) MAFF is not undertaking a formal study into the harmonisation of London markets. What happened was that the Minister had a meeting with representatives of London markets but in terms of the future of London markets the main responsibility of that lies elsewhere.

  216. Having a meeting is taking a lead, is it not?
  (Ms Quin) It is taking the initiative but the Minister certainly did not claim to be the lead. We can hold meetings about anything we want pretty well but he certainly was not claiming to be the lead authority in terms of the future market provision for London.


  217. Normally, if I may say so, MAFF issues a press release if the Minister so much as eats a piece of cheese. There was no press release about the outcome of this meeting.
  (Ms Quin) I think there was a press release saying that he had met—I stand to be corrected on that but I know that when the Minister visited Covent Garden Market he certainly spoke of the work he had been doing in this respect. I am informed that there was not a press release about the meeting, so I have to eat humble pie on that one!

Mr Mitchell

  218. Apart from convening this meeting, which seems a very sensible thing to do to me, MAFF's position is that basically the question of the survival of a larger or smaller number, a concentration or not, all of this will be decided by commercial sites slugging it out to the death between existing markets?
  (Ms Quin) No, I did not say that at all.

  219. That is the logical conclusion from what you said. It is not your responsibility therefore that is the way it will have to be decided.
  (Ms Quin) Certainly not. I think the logical way is for commercial interests, the markets themselves, the Corporation of London, the Greater London Authority, the Government Office for London and so on to look at what they want to see happen in this domain. It is not just a question of commercial actors being involved. Obviously given the planning and other decisions that would be involved there are a variety of authorities that would have and would wish to have a real say in this.

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