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7.8 pm

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I shall certainly take the opportunity to make a few brief remarks.

As the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) acknowledged, the market at the heart of Leicester has been an essential part of the city for many generations, and continues to play a vital part in its life and commerce today. The fact that it is able to do so strongly reflects the fact that over generations the town council—now the city council—has maintained its right and monopoly to hold a market at the heart of Leicester, against the wishes of many who have sought to undermine that right over the years and to diminish the importance of the market.

That said, I have some sympathy with the points made by the hon. Gentleman. I am keen, as he is, to see the expansion and success of farmers markets. As he rightly pointed out, they provide an opportunity for local producers to sell their produce to local people. That is very welcome, and I am pleased that the Government have supported it elsewhere as well as in Leicester. However, I depart from the hon. Gentleman’s views to some extent. I am aware of how important it is for the city council to continue to maintain the ancient rights of the market and the charter today, as it has in previous generations. The approach adopted by the Labour-controlled city council is, as he has acknowledged, in sharp contrast to the coalition that preceded it: it is much more aware and sensitive to the needs of his constituents and of the farmers who wish to hold their markets in Blaby. I am pleased that it has allowed markets there and that, in doing that, it has set the fee that it will levy at a reasonable level, given the volume of trade.

Mr. Robathan: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I think that he is a reasonable person, but can he justify the fee outside the jurisdiction of Leicester city council?

Sir Peter Soulsby: The market’s area of influence of six and a half miles, or whatever it may be, has been long established and reflects the fact that the city is at the heart of the county and is part of the greater Leicester area. The geographic boundaries of the administrative area of the city itself are only a small part of the area that is affected by the city and that would be affected were markets to be allowed to set up regardless of their impact on the long-established charter market at the heart of the city.

I believe that the Labour-controlled city council has been reasonable in the way in which it has looked at the matter. It has looked at the needs of those charitable
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organisations to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It has set modest charges for them. In light of the scale of the trade that is being done and that is anticipated to be done by the farmers market, which I hope will continue to prosper, the city council has set the charge at a reasonable level.

I believe that the approach should be appropriately balanced between the desirability of having successful farmers markets and the overwhelming desirability of maintaining an ancient market that is viable, thriving and at the heart of the city and its county. The city council has been putting those two things in balance in recent times. That is an appropriate approach to ensure that the market continues to be successful, while reflecting the changing times in which we live.

7.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on securing the debate. I have been fascinated to learn of the market charter. Ministers are often accused—falsely—of taking the short-term view, so it has been fascinating to hear of a statute that was signed possibly in the middle ages which can still affect modern decision making today.

I agree completely with what the hon. Gentleman said. Markets are an important hub of community life throughout the country. We estimate that there are more than 1,400 markets in the UK. They each play an important commercial and social role in their communities, a role that is not often acknowledged.

In the interests of researching the debate, I looked at my own constituency of Hartlepool, where we have had a market for several centuries. In 1201, King John gave Hartlepool its first charter, so I was interested to hear about King John possibly giving this particular charter. Obviously, he had a fondness for market charters. The merchants of Hartlepool were given the same privileges as the merchants of Newcastle. As a result of the charter, Hartlepool was able to organise a weekly market, which ushered in a period of sustained prosperity for the area and, as in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area and secured valuable trade routes in my own patch in the north of England.

If we fast forward to the modern age, I still believe that markets, perhaps now more than ever—or more than for many years—can play an important role in the social, economic and commercial life of an area. At a time when people are concerned about the quality of food, its price and the impact on the environment of growing the produce and, crucially, transporting it to be sold and consumed, markets are becoming increasingly important. They can reconnect consumers with local produce, minimise the carbon footprint, provide value for money and help to revitalise town centres, which my Department and I take seriously.

People who are attracted into Blaby through the farmers market will often be tempted to look around the shops of its town centre, thereby helping to secure the viability of local traders. While researching the debate, I was struck by the comments of Councillor
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Guy Jackson of Blaby district, portfolio holder for the natural and built environment. In November 2007 he said:

Some 550 farmers markets take place on a regular basis in the UK. The National Farmers Retail and Markets Association estimates that 10,000 farmers rely on farmers markets and use them to take their produce to the public. They estimate that farmers markets are worth about £220 million annually, money which feeds back directly into the local community.

Farmers markets provide a good opportunity to cut out the middleman and improve financial returns through direct selling, price control and a regular cash flow. They can provide direct customer feedback on produce and prices, reduce the costs of transport and packaging, and provide a secure and regular market outlet, which is especially valuable for new producers, producers in organic conversion and small-scale producers who are unable to produce the quantity that might be required by supermarkets. Encouraging these principles is a key goal outlined in the Government’s “Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food: Facing the Future”.

All of this reinforces the point that fundamentally markets are a local facility, servicing local people and providing much-needed outlets for small local producers and entrepreneurs. Just as markets are about providing a local hub for local businesses and people, the issue before us this evening is very much a local issue. It is complex and, as we have heard, has its roots in history and in royal and legal tradition. Nevertheless, it is a local issue.

It is very much the kind of complex local issue that the Government want to encourage local authorities and their communities to resolve. We are often accused by our opponents of being too centralising and of wanting to micro-manage everything. In fact the reverse is true. We believe that decisions are best made as locally as possible and we wish to empower local communities to enable them to make those decisions. We believe it is right that problems such as this are resolved as locally as possible without the intervention of, or interference from, central Government. That is the ethos behind the devolutionary principles we have recently set out in our White Paper “Communities in control: real people, real power”. The White Paper is about devolving power to citizens and communities, and it makes significant steps towards giving local people a greater say in their lives and greater control over the forces and decisions that shape their neighbourhoods.

We want to shift power, influence and responsibility away from existing centres of power into the hands of communities and individual citizens. That is because we believe that they can take decisions and solve complex problems for themselves. It is also because local circumstances will be different. Blaby’s concerns will be very different from those of Blaydon, or Burbank in my constituency. The state’s role should be to set national priorities and minimum standards, while providing support and a fair distribution of resources. The state should act as a facilitator and an enabler.

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Mr. Robathan: The hon. Gentleman is making a sensible and rather charming speech, something I do not often say to Ministers. If he does not wish to intervene, which I entirely understand, will he perhaps encourage his colleagues in the Justice Department to give some sensible legal advice as to whether or not one local authority can dictate to farmers markets in another local authority where they should have a market? That would not be intervening.

Mr. Wright: I am touched by the hon. Gentleman’s kind words. I am going to refer in a moment to the idea of co-operation between several local authorities, perhaps through the auspices of multi-area agreements. If he would allow me, I might be able to address the points then.

One of the measures announced in the White Paper is our intention to require councils to respond to local petitions. People could use petitions to express their views about markets and other local issues. The duty to respond to local petitions will help to ensure that citizens know that their council listens to their views. On the market in this case—albeit one that is affected by another local authority—local people stating their case and their preference through a local petition could be successful.

I mentioned setting minimum standards. We want to raise the visibility of the overview and scrutiny function in local government. That is a tool by which a community, through its local democratically elected representatives, can address any issue that affects the local area—it could be about street markets, potholes in the road or the adequacy of local health services—relating to the well-being of that community. Local people will be able to hold to account decisions which a local authority’s executive has taken or is proposing to take. It equally includes examining any issue of potential importance to the community.

I hope I have made it clear to the hon. Gentleman that I appreciate and empathise with the feeling among farmers and the wider population in Blaby who want to hold regular markets to sell food and other produce direct to local customers. As I said, these types of markets are becoming increasingly important and I understand that the market in Blaby has been successful in attracting large numbers of local people who want to buy fresh produce from local producers. I am pleased to
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hear that Blaby district council has reached an agreement with Leicester city council to increase the number and frequency of farmers markets in Blaby, and I hope that those constructive discussions continue.

It is important that local government works constructively together if they are to address the challenges that communities and people face in these uncertain times—today is an apt case of that. This is even more important if we acknowledge that communities—and, indeed, economic patterns, travel-to-work areas or even people’s shopping habits—do not always recognise or reflect neat administrative boundaries. Our agenda—begun in the 2006 White Paper “Strong and Prosperous Communities” and continued more recently in the sub-national review—recognises the importance of local government working together across boundaries. In this respect, I hope I can address the points the hon. Gentleman made in his intervention.

Multi-area agreements will allow local government to work together across boundaries to promote the economic prosperity of their sub-regions. An MAA is being considered in Leicestershire. The vision underlying it is to inspire businesses, residents and investors in Leicester itself and the surrounding market towns and rural areas. The high-level objective of the MAA is to improve the economic performance of the Leicester and Leicestershire sub-region and hence improve the quality of life for residents, workers and visitors. In turn, local authorities in the area are asking central Government also to play a role in achieving this vision and these objectives. Leicester and Leicestershire submitted their draft MAA proposals to my Department in September. We are now co-ordinating a departmental response from across Whitehall.

If this innovative arrangement is to progress and be a success, there is a premium on constructive and open local dialogue between local authorities and their partners. I am therefore encouraged by the fact that Leicester and Blaby have been able to resolve their differences on this local issue and ensure that the residents of Blaby and the farmers that rely on these markets to generate income can continue to enjoy the market on a regular basis for many years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Seven o’clock.

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