Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300
MONDAY 20 APRIL 2009
Q300 Chair: Welcome, Minister. In
the evidence that we have been taking thus far, a lot of people
have been explaining to us how important markets are, but there
seems to be an absence of any quantitative data. What people are
saying is qualitative. How important does the Government believe
markets are as part of the retail sector? Has the Department done
any work on quantifying their importance?
Mr Wright: I really welcome what
the select committee is doing on this. I think it is a really
important issue, which sort of answers the question to some extent.
The Government does think that markets are a hugely important
and positive part of the retail offer. One of the things I would
be keen to explore with the Committee is to what extent this is
all part of a wider, fundamental town centre strategy, because
I think markets are intrinsically linked to town centres. You
mentioned quantitative data. There have been some academic exercises
carried out with regard to this. In 2005 there was data. Also,
in terms of the local authorities' role in monitoring what is
needed, in terms of data and the retail offer, in terms of changes
in numbers of commercial spaces, retail units. That is part of
the annual monitoring return that local authorities provide to
government officers. We do collate things. I would be willing
to negotiate and discuss with the Committee what else you think
needs to be done, but the data is there.
Q301 Chair: The Department itself
has not taken any steps to commission research or collect data?
Mr Wright: Only in terms of the
annual monitoring returns that local authorities provide in terms
of the wider retail offer.
Q302 Sir Paul Beresford: It is very
important but you have not looked at it?
Mr Wright: It is very important.
One of the key things is this interchange and potential conflict
between central and local government. I do think local government
is in the driving seat here. I will mention PPS6 and the paragraph
that the previous witness referred to. We do think that is an
extremely important part of the planning framework that provides
local authorities with the tools and incentives to make sure that
they can retain and enhance local markets as part of that wider
Q303 Sir Paul Beresford: Some of
the local authorities are saying you are getting in the way with
the legislation. They are worried about approaching you because
you will only make it worse and add to it.
Mr Wright: That is certainly not
something that has come across my desk. I do not want to have
a hands off approach. What we want to be able to do is to facilitate
and enable local authorities to have the tools to put in place
planning policies that can help markets thrive.
Anne Main: There have been comments when
we have been out and about that central government could get more
involved with people at a local level by having advice shops,
one stop market stalls for example, the equivalent to Citizens'
Advice, advice on benefits, getting out there and talking to people
rather than expecting people to turn up at offices. Are you looking
to make government more accessible to local people through the
use of markets? I gather there was a pilot. We were told about
it. I cannot remember where it was operating.
Q304 Chair: I think that was an initiative
of Sheffield Council.
Mr Wright: I think you raise a
really important point. There is an opportunity at the moment
in the recession when there are vacant units both in markets and
in traditional shopping centres to provide government services
and advice for people. What we are keen to see is a wider vision
for the town centre which includes markets, which will also have
advice about benefits, employment, health, skills and retraining.
I think that is a key part of what we need to be doing.
Q305 Anne Main: Would you strengthen
the guidance in PPS6 when it comes out and suggest a wider role
for markets in delivering social, economic community benefits?
Mr Wright: I think there is an
important point that the Committee has as part of this inquiry
which is the importance of social inclusion. I think a key part
of that is providing information that is of use to consumers and
citizens in the form of benefits, jobseekers' advice, health,
training, and we can use some of the vacant units that are there
because of the recession and unfortunately because of the demise
of some retail units like Woolworths to help push that vision.
Q306 Anne Main: A market stall would
be cheaper for the taxpayer.
Mr Wright: In my own constituency
in years gone by, local authorities have put in place stalls in
traditional markets that have provided skills and training advice
for certain members of the community. Local authorities can be
in the driving seat with regard to this but I do see the recession
as an opportunity in terms of what our town centres are for. Shops
are important. The retail offer is important but, in the face
of other ways in which we can purchase things like the internet,
it needs to be something else and civic and cultural amenities
within our town centres which can include really good markets
can help enforce and consolidate that vision which is so important.
Q307 Sir Paul Beresford: The legislation
in London is different. We have heard that from one of the witnesses.
Effectively, local authorities are licensing; they are not managing
and running the markets. The witnesses from the London Local Authority
said that the legislation is very restrictive. Some of it is ancient.
Some of it needs sorting. One of the concerns some of the witnesses
had was that it needed to be diminished. Have you looked at this?
Mr Wright: One of the great beauties
of select committees is looking at oral evidence, seeing an issue
that has emerged and then going away to officials to say, "This
has not come across my desk. What is happening with this?"
It has not been flagged up as a major concern from London Councils
in the Department. It certainly has not come across my desk when
I have had regular meetings with London Councils but I understand
in talking to the Government Office for London that there are
issues with regard to the 1990 Act. I think Mr Hands mentioned
restrictive practice. Maybe I would not go as far as that but
in terms of having some restrictions it does not help facilitate
that flow of competition that is so important. I am certainly
going to go away and have a look at that. I have a meeting with
London councils this week where I will mention it but it certainly
has not come across my desk as a major cause of concern in the
Q308 David Wright: Perhaps it has
not come across your desk because people clearly do not know where
to go. The evidence we have just heard is that there is not a
coherent voice for markets within government. You heard one of
the previous witnesses say how different that was in France and
how that process could potentially reduce bureaucracy and aid
liaison for example with the EU. Why are we not doing that here?
Mr Wright: If I can answer that
by mentioning one of the other themes which seems to be emerging
from this inquiry, which is whether we should have a Minister
for Markets or a champion in Whitehall, whether at ministerial
or official level, my answer to that is slightly mixed. I think
traditional retail markets and wider town centre management span
such a wide range of Whitehall departments. They cover my Department
in terms of planning and urban policy and the interaction with
local government. I think Defra has a role to play in the food
standards and maybe farmers' markets. I think the Department of
Health has an important role to play as well. We have mentioned
how BERR could be the favoured department of choice and we obviously
have a Minister for Small Businesses. We have a wide span of different
interests that we all bring to the table within different government
departments. I await with interest what the Committee concludes
but, rather than having it with BERR, important though that economic
stimulus is, markets are much more than just economic developments.
Within CLG something like that could sit. There is a good role
to play with our interaction with local authorities, our responsibility
for planning frameworks and making sure of that wider sense of
wellbeing. I can see CLG having a key role to play there.
Q309 David Wright: Do you have any
examples where regional development agencies have supported markets
or where national government has put direct help in to support
specific activity, not necessarily on its own? Maybe it has prompted
local authorities to do it. Is there any strategic evidence that
you have of central or regional government doing anything proactive
to help markets?
Mr Wright: In terms of the big
regeneration schemes of the past decade or sothings like
New Deal for communities, something like £2 billion over
10 years; neighbourhood renewal funding which has been about £3
million in the 88 the most deprived areasthere has been
a range of those. What government policy is trying to do at the
moment is not to ring fence specific allocations of money but
to provide as much flexibility as possible for local authorities
to determine their own policies and priorities. I think that is
the right approach to take. Local authorities can determine best
what is needed in their own particular patch. Having said that,
you mentioned regional development agencies. I would also mention
the Homes and Communities Agency, which is tasked with facilitating
the regeneration of communities in England. I think there is a
huge opportunity there. I would also mention the big schemes in
terms of housing market renewal. I used to work for One North
East, which is the north east development agency. There was a
specific grant allocated by One North East for market towns to
help stimulate economic development, making sure that they are
attractive, helping to stimulate tourism. I do think there are
specific examples. Certainly in my own direct experience in my
working career, I have seen evidence of that.
Q310 Dr Pugh: Looking at regional
development agencies as a whole, they do tend to favour, do they
not, the large infrastructure projects that you can see? Clearly,
market development ticks a number of good economic development
boxes: local produce is used; local employment is generated; people
are attracted to an area and so on, but it is fairly small scale
stuff, is it not? It does not change things in the dramatic way
that sometimes regional development agencies like to change things.
Are you aware outside the north east of any behaviour by regional
development agencies that does positively stimulate and support
Mr Wright: Specifically in terms
of retail led regeneration, particularly in town centres, it has
been a key feature of the past decade. When regional development
agencies have been involved in that, the relocation of markets
has been an important consideration. Sometimes that has worked.
One of the considerations of the Committee has been the siting,
location and place of markets. That is absolutely crucial. In
direct answer to your question, what I would suggest is that the
relationship between regional development agencies and local authorities
and the interchange and conflict between them is the right approach
to take in terms of how markets and town centres fit in with the
regional development agencies.
Q311 Dr Pugh: The onus would be on
the local authority to talk to the local traders and so on and
then put the proposition to the regional development agency rather
than expecting the regional development agency to adopt a hands
on approach, dealing with each individual market trader in a market?
Mr Wright: In terms of best practice,
what I would like to see is local authorities having a vision
for their town centres in which markets need to be a key consideration.
In terms of trying to determine that vision, it is working in
consultation and in conjunction with RDAs, with the Homes and
Communities Agency and with other bodies to ensure that that vision
can be realised.
Q312 David Wright: Is that phrase
"key element of strategy" going to be in the government's
future strategic documents published by RDAs? It strikes me at
the moment that we all think markets are greata bit motherhood
and apple piebut nobody ever says it in a strategic document
at a regional level. Nobody ever really talks about it at that
Mr Wright: I think regional spatial
strategies sometimes mention it but I would certainly mention
PPS6 again and that key paragraphparagraph 2.27 I think
it iswhere local authorities have a role to play in retaining
and enhancing markets as part of their town centre offer. I think
that is absolutely crucial. I personally think that is very strong
wording for a planning policy statement that is welcome and to
be encouraged and local authorities need to act upon that.
Q313 Chair: David has said that it
is all motherhood and apple pie. Are we relying on individual
local authorities to realise that their market is an asset, not
something they are just lumbered with? Is the Government's role
simply to facilitate it or should the Government be a bit more
Mr Wright: I think that is a fundamental
policy issue, not just focusing on markets and town centres. You
have talked about public lavatories in a similar way. I am very
conscious as a Minister within Communities and Local Government
that we are trying to have a policy of devolving power and responsibility
down to local level. Ann Coffey, in her evidence to you, said
that central government does not have a role to compel or dictate
with regard to that. I think that is the right approach to take.
We can facilitate. We can provide strong, robust planning and
policy frameworks. We can provide guidance. We can provide encouragement.
We can provide funding to some extent through local authorities,
through RDAs and through the Homes and Communities Agency but,
in terms of where we sit, you must have a market. I do not think
that is the role of central government. I think local authorities
should determine what is necessary in their area to produce their
Q314 Sir Paul Beresford: Those who
want a champion, a minister whose portfolio includes this, want
somebody who can pull it together. You described a dog's breakfast
of legislation in all the government departments. No one pulls
it together and what markets are saying to us is that if a tiny
corner of your role or BERR's role was that every time anything
linked to the markets came across a desk it also came across that
minister's desk and people in the local government and the markets
had a problem with a new piece of legislation coming through,
they could come to a minister who understands.
Mr Wright: I would still reiterate
that in terms of anything to do with planning or the relationship
with local government, CLG is well placed to try and deal with
that. Different departments bring different agendas for a whole
variety of reasons and that is to be welcomed.
Q315 Sir Paul Beresford: I have been
a minister. I know that you can still have anything involving
markets come across your desk and the markets that are having
trouble with a particular department could come to you as a champion
or somebody else.
Mr Wright: I think there is certainly
consideration to be given to the idea of some sort of champion
within Whitehall. I think that is to be encouraged because, as
I said, I can see that sitting within CLG. People will have different
matters with regard to whether it should be BERR or not, but in
terms of that wider sense of community with local government and
that link in with urban policy I think there is a role to play
in there. As I said, Chair, I am very interested in the Committee's
conclusions with regard to this but I think we do have a strong
and robust framework in Whitehall at the moment. Different departments
bring different things with regard to their interests in markets.
Q316 Anne Main: You have partly answered
my question but stallholders are happily saying to us that the
trouble is that it is almost a brief that nobody wants and it
also just seems a money-collecting exercise, yet they, as small
businesses, might contribute a lot to the community; they might
contribute all sorts of social and other welfare benefits to a
community in terms of cohesion and integration, but they have
no-one that they can go to to access anything in terms of business
advice, in terms of being involved in decision-making about how
the business as a whole operates within their own city. I think
it would be important if the Government actually made that conscious
decision that they suddenly pull all those strands together, because
the trouble with it falling to everybody's little patch means
that everybody says it is not their responsibility and they push
it to somewhere else. If I were a market stallholder where would
I be expected to go? If I were a small business I would know where
to go, but they are small businesses of a specific sort.
Mr Wright: I would suggest the
local authority needs to be in the driving seat here. Again, one
of the things I have been struck by when reading the oral hearings
for the inquiry is that good, positive, proactive management,
both of markets and the wider town centres, means that markets
Q317 Anne Main: Are you aware that
in local authorities the person with the responsibility for markets
may well be having the responsibility for, say, parks and gardens,
which I think was one of the ones we were told may well have town
centre management, may well have a different brief entirely, may
be the planning department. Because in government there is no
central vision of this there is often not at a local level either.
As Government surely you should set a lead with perhaps good guidance
and good practice to local authorities and maybe even a bit of
help with funding to perhaps ensure that there is training available
for people who are going to manage markets. Do you believe there
should be any expertise or expert help available to local authorities?
Mr Wright: I would suggest that,
with respect to good practice in terms of how you manage markets
and the wider point about town centres, central government has
provided guidance. We provided guidance in 2005. That was updated
in 2007. We have provided a toolkit for local authorities.
Q318 Anne Main: Specifically with
markets in mind?
Mr Wright: As I said, important
though markets are in terms of the wider retail offer, I also
think it is absolutely crucial that in order for markets to thrive
they need to be seen in the wider context of town centre strategies
and good, positive, proactive town centre management where there
is an emphasis upon increased competition in terms of a good diversity
of what is on offer in terms of that retail offer and in terms
of other things like culture and recreation. I think that is very
important and I do think that local authorities have a key role
to play in that.
Q319 Anne Main: Some towns see their
market as a bit of a messy area that they would not mind if it
withered on the vine and went. I am not saying that is very true
in many areas, and in fact it is probably not true of how the
public see it, but if you were perhaps to consider offering a
lead in this and better guidance to local authorities, they might
start taking markets seriously because, in terms of all the benefits
you are talking about, how much of that do you say to local authorities?
Do you actually say, "Deliver all these benefits", which
is why markets suddenly start becoming a special case, because
I do not think W H Smith, for example, sees itself as delivering
all those other benefits that you have just outlined?
Mr Wright: No, but, as I said,
I do reiterate the point about that wider, proactive town centre
strategy, and we have provided guidance. We provided a good practice
toolkit in October 2008 with regard to that.