HC Deb 08 April 1970 vol 799 cc709-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ernest G. Perry.]

11.26 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I am seeking to raise this evening some of the problems for horticulture arising from the delays in moving Covent Garden Market to Nine Elms. A leading wholesaler in the market remarked to me yesterday that they would like to move to Nine Elms tomorrow if it were possible. Unfortunately, the delays that have occurred so far have put up the costs and some traders are a bit apprehensive about the ultimate price per square foot of stands in the new market. These delays were much exacerbated by the Government's economic stop measure of 20th July, 1966.

Interest rates have gone up sharply since the early days of the scheme, when 6 per cent. was the accepted figure, to last year when interest rates were nearly 10 per cent. This can only have an adverse effect on the final price, and on top of it the traders will have to finance all the fittings of their stands. The Market Authority is being very forward-looking in its ideas about the hiring of fork-lift trucks and so on, but it will still be a costly move to the traders, and I blame the present Government for this costliness.

An efficient, modern horticultural market is still essential, despite the increase in supermarket trading. The U.S.A. Department of Agriculture Economic Report No. 45 showed how the rapid early growth of direct supermarket trading levelled off at about 26 per cent. of the total horticultural trade. Hence the great modern New York market at Hunt's Point is fulfilling a very real economic need that helps producer, trader, and consumer alike.

Similarly, in France, the new Rungis Market outside Paris is of the greatest economic importance to France. The Rungis Market was, of course, heavily subsidised by the French Government and has been given every possible assistance to come into being, whereas our poor Nine Elms scheme has been devalued by the present Government to the same level as municipal offices and swimming pools. I cannot stress too heavily the economic need for this new market and the willingness of the traders to move.

The horticultural trade as a whole will be facing grave difficulties if we join the E.E.C. and the apple sector of the industry is not finding the going too easy at the present time, even without entry. It is, therefore, essential for a Government to set an economic climate that will help the producer and trader alike. It is generally realised that the wholesale trade is in considerable difficulties at the present time. There are bankruptcies left, right and centre. The inevitable amalgamations and take-overs are creating a situation in which it might be that there will only be 12 to 15 major traders surviving in a few years' time. The extra costs heaped upon the horticultural wholesale trade by the present Government have been very harmful. These include selective employment tax which co-operatives escape, steeply rising transport costs, and the training levy which adds little to the efficiency of the trade. On top of all this the Prices and Incomes Board has refused to allow wholesalers to put a surcharge on retailers.

If we are not careful, all this will tend to make for monopoly conditions in the long run. Both Runciman and the Prices and Incomes Board stress the point of competitiveness within the trade, but there is a grave danger at the present time of the trade cracking and either turning to monopoly conditions or turning to sharpish practices which would, of course, be disastrous. The 1926 Act set up standards of honesty within the trade which have been proudly maintained ever since.

The hours in the new market will, of course, have to be closely considered because another problem of the British trade is getting good people to work there, both executives and semi-skilled labour, because of the unattractive hours. Against this, there are those who feel that the hours now worked in the Rungis Market are not very civilised, either. I understand that in Rungis they start selling flowers at 2 p.m. and fruit and vegetables at 9 p.m.

The United Kingdom hours do not seem to tie in at all well with the dock hours and the Transport Act has added greatly to these difficulties, particularly with the long delays in the present market, whereas the traders are avidly looking forward to better transport conditions and movement in the new market.

I understand that the G.L.C.'s first stage of Vauxhall Cross is due to start in April, 1971, to be complete by the end of 1972. This should give adequate road access, but I hope that the central Government will give every assistance in maintaining this timetable so that Nine Elms, which should start in 1971 and be completed in 1973, will be served by adequate roads from the opening day onwards. The land acquisition for the new market is going on well, but there is no scope for any further delays of any sort and it must be the duty of the central Government to give this scheme a fair wind.

It will be remembered that the 1966 Act put a duty on the market authority to bring forward a scheme for compensation of the tenants who will be displaced, and put a duty on the local authorities to have a major redevelop- ment scheme in the area. As a result of this, the 1968 Act came forward, but unfortunately the central provisions of Part II of that Measure were removed in Committee, leaving a vacuum in the scheme.

The present situation is that the three local authorities—the G.L.C., Westminster and Camden—must get together and give planning permissions for redevelopment of the area so that those market traders who are freeholders, and the Authority itself, can get adequate compensation for their old premises. Until this is completed the traders are in grave danger of being lumbered with their old properties, where they are now trading, without any permitted use for them and they will be between the devil and the deep blue sea.

I remind the House of the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Sir Frank Pearson), who was Chairman of the Select Committee that examined the 1968 Act. He said, on Tuesday, 16th July, 1968, in giving the conclusions of the Committee: The Committee accept that the Market Authority, the consortium of local government bodies and the Government are all vitally involved in finding an appropriate solution to the problem and should an agreed solution not be forthcoming, it is felt that the Government itself must take an early initiative by formulating a Bill. What steps have the Government taken in the last year and a half to implement the early initiative which was demanded unanimously by the Select Committee?

A great national price-setting market is essential if we are to join the E.E.C. The other great London markets are already possibly on the move. Brentford has an attractive new site and Spitalfields has, I understand, been very recently offered the possibility of some land near the Surrey Docks.

While these moves may not be acceptable to some, there is great keenness by the market traders for this Covent Garden move, provided they get justice over their old sites and provided the new sites are not too expensive. There has been talk about the new sites being priced at about 38s. per square foot, plus rates. I realise that these sites will not be let on a square foot basis but on a unit basis. However, that is the average going price that has been discussed.

It must be remembered that today's rents in the most costly part of the present market, namely, the heart of the Dedicated Market, are only just over £2 per square foot. If the price is too high, space will not be taken up and we will be reduced to the disastrous position that obtains in some other markets, such as Sheffield, where I understand that 15 per cent. of the warehouse space that was built for horticulture is now being used for general engineering purposes.

An efficient, modern market will give great economic benefits to all three sectors growers will get a fair price and their lorries will be turned round quicker, traders will get a fair return on their money and they will enjoy better working conditions, and consumers will get cheaper produce—or at least the present rise in prices should be checked.

A further economic advantage of the move will be in the important advantages of improved security. At present about £½ million a year is the estimated loss by pilferage and wastage. This is because security is almost impossible on the present site.

The old market is celebrating its tercentenary next month. Let us hope that these celebrations will be like the rebirth of a phoenix and will enable it to go forward to a new site for another 300 years of successful trading. If this is to be achieved, we must have a more positive attitude by the Government on the main matters that I have outlined tonight.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. John Nott (St. Ives)

I wish to support my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells). The sooner that the Nine Elms site can be in operation the better it will be for the horticultural area in Cornwall, which I represent. The Nine Elms site will be about three quarters of an hour in driving time closer to my constituency, which is one of the main horticultural areas of the country. An important point to bear in mind is that the provisions of the Transport Act have recently come into effect and have put a serious burden upon horticulturists in West Cornwall.

This is because drivers' hours regulations mean that horticulturists in West Cornwall are not able, within the prescribed driving time, to reach the main markets. The sad fact is that many farmers in my constituency are having to take their drivers to Bodmin, 40 miles away, in their own cars, to get them into their lorries, which then go on to Covent Garden. The farmer goes back to his farm, farms for twelve hours, then has to drive to Bodmin to pick up his lorry drivers.

This is an intolerable situation. Farmers in my constituency are spending two days a week taking drivers to and from their lorries 40 miles away so that they can get the produce to Covent Garden. The next Conservative Government will abolish the Transport Act, but if there is a continuation of the driving hours regulations it is critical to the early potato, broccoli and flower producers in my constituency that the Nine Elms scheme comes into effect as soon as possible. The present situation is quite intolerable, when farmers are having to spend hours per week taking drivers to and from Bodmin because of the regulations in the Act.

In discussing the whole Nine Elms scheme and the present Covent Garden arrangements, the Prime Minister was subjected to this complaint by farmers and horticulturists in my constituency. They made the point to him, and he told them only a week ago, on his return from the Isles of Scilly, that he was completely unaware that this intolerable situation existed following the passage of the Transport Act.

I support my hon. Friend, therefore, and urge the Minister to recognise that it is critical for horticulturists in West Cornwall that the Nine Elms scheme come into effect at the earliest possible moment. I should like him not only to comment on the likely date when the Nine Elms scheme will come into effect but also to say that he realises the major penalties under which the horticulturists of West Cornwall are working at present as a result of the drivers' hours regulations.

11.41 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Mackie)

The move of the country's largest horticultural market to a new site is a matter of considerable importance, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) for raising the subject tonight so that we could have this short debate. He will realise that my right hon. Friend the other Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who is, unfortunately, in Iceland at the moment—I hope that the weather is a little warmer there than here—would have taken the debate as he has a particular interest in horticulture.

First, I shall take up the point made by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott). I realise that transport is important for horticulture, but I am sorry to say that it has nothing to do with my Department. If my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is taking an interest in the matter, who am I to interfere, if I may say so? Every Act which is passed modifying hours or modifying conditions in transport or anything else is always said to be a disaster for one industry or another, but, somehow or other, we begin to co-ordinate things to suit the new conditions. I think that this will happen in transport. I am hearing all over the country that this does not fit a particular journey. It does not seem to fit any journey, as far as I can see, because I have had the complaint about all distances from 20 miles to 200 miles. However, I take the point, and I know how important transport is. I am glad that the transport arrangements at Nine Elms, which is on the right side for the hon. Gentleman's constituency, will help in that respect.

Anyone who has experienced the difficulties under which the Covent Garden market operates will be in no doubt that there is a need to provide efficient market facilities as soon as possible. Covent Garden attracts retailers from the Greater London area and beyond, and secondary wholesalers from the whole of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Maid-stone made the point that the Government were to blame for stopping the procedures in 1966 because of the credit difficulties. But Covent Garden has been carrying on, and produce from his area has continued to be marketed. Although there may have been difficulties, the world has not come to an end because we have slowed the process down.

An enormous volume of traffic passes through the market each year, 1 million tons of fruit, vegetables and potatoes, worth about £65 million, and £12 million worth of flowers. The larger part of this trading is in a smallish area of 6½ to 7 acres within the Charter Market, but business is carried on also in the area round about. In all, an area of upwards of 30 acres is affected by marketing activities.

The need for improved facilities was recognised in the 1961 Covent Garden Market Act, which established a market authority with powers to provide an efficient modern market at Covent Garden. Feasibility studies by the Market Authority demonstrated that it was not practicable to rebuild the market in situ, and other sites were examined. The outcome was agreement that the market should be re-established on a site at Nine Elms, south of the river. The Covent Garden Market Act, 1966, empowered the Market Authority to carry out the move.

As the House is aware actual construction of the new market was deferred as part of the Government's 1966 economy measures. Although this had some effect on the Authority's finances through an accumulation of interest charges on loans, it by no means brought the project to a halt. The Covent Garden Market Authority was able to go ahead with detailed planning and limited land acquisition which is the most important thing when doing anything in this enormous conurbation of London.

The designs of the new market have been considerably revised and refined during the course of this breathing space and the period was not wasted altogether. The Authority made the first major land purchase—Nine Elms Goodsyard South—during 1969, and negotiations are nearly complete on the second major acquisition—Nine Elms Goodsyard North and the Brunswick Yard. In May, 1969, my right hon. Friend announced in the House that the Authority could plan to start major construction at Nine Elms in January, 1971, and intensify its preparations accordingly. The Authority expects to meet this construction date.

There are inevitably a number of problems associated with a major development scheme in London and the Nine Elms project is no exception. The site is bisected by a main railway line which entails the construction of tunnels under the viaduct to allow traffic circulation between the two halves of the market. Other problems include the realignment of Nine Elms Lane and the diversion of essential services in the area, and the amount of traffic that the market will generate. The Authority is tackling these matters energetically and successfully in conjunction with other bodies concerned.

A market of this throughput is necessarily large and will necessarily cost a good deal of money. The Authority's present estimates of the project total some £30 million, of which £7 million is for purchase of land. The Government as part of the general policy for aiding horticulture are grant aiding one-third of all eligible costs under Section 10 of the Agriculture and Horticulture Act, 1964 the remaining costs being financed by loans from the National Loans Fund. The hon. Member for Maidstone mentioned what was done in other countries, as though Covent Garden got nothing.

The Authority is very conscious of the need to contain costs to a minimum in order that the rents that will need to be charged to the traders are reasonable. At all stages of the planning programme the various traders and workers committees have been fully consulted on design and other matters appertaining to the new market.

In approaching tenants last year to state their requirements for space in the fruit and vegetable market at Nine Elms, the Authority indicated the rents that they would need to charge for trading units of various sizes, based on construction costs and interest rates then current. The approximate figure for trading accommodation on this basis would have been some 38s. per square foot. Municipal rates were not included in any of the figures quoted since these could not be accurately assessed. The hon. Member for Maidstone mentioned that traders have their equipment and fittings to put into the stands, and said that a rent of 38s. at Sheffield was reasonable, so if the Covent Garden Authority can hold to this figure it should be considered reasonable.

Mr. John Wells

With respect, that is not what I said. I mentioned precisely the figure of 38s. for Covent Garden, and said that it was rather much.

Mr. Mackie

I thought the hon. Gentleman said that rents in other markets such as Sheffield were 38s., and that this was reasonable. But anyway there is some difficulty in quoting firm rent figures so far in advance of the completion of the market in 1973. Interest rates and increases in building costs are two most important factors which will affect rents. This is the Authority's target at the present moment.

In its January, 1969 figures the Authority assumed an 8 per cent. average interest rate, and assumed also that no profit or loss on the sale of its Covent Garden properties would be carried over to Nine Elms.

I should also say that a rent figure per square foot does not by itself give a complete picture of a market's cost to a trader. I was asked whether the Government had gone any way towards formulating the Bill recommended by the Committee charged with this. These matters are still being discussed in the bodies concerned. I cannot usefully add anything at this stage, but I hope that an agreed solution will emerge without the necessity for a Bill. The bad conditions of work in Covent Garden mean higher costs.

Regard must also be had to the facilities and services which are provided, the savings which more efficient working conditions generate, and the throughput and profit which are possible in relation to each square foot of accommodation. I am satisfied that the Authority have developed its plans for the new market in close consultation and discussion with traders and other users, whose views have been taken fully into account. More-over, the level of rents to be charged and the liability of the trade to pay them are matters which the Authority keep constantly in view, together with my Department.

The hon. Member for Maidstone said that the number of traders was getting smaller and smaller. I do not know whether this is so. He also said that everyone was looking forward to moving to Nine Elms, and I think that there will be plenty of traders to fill Nine Elms when the time comes. He mentioned various increases of costs. He said that S.E.T. penalised the traders and that they had been refused permission to pass the levy on to the retailers. The difficulty was not quite that, but rather how it should be done. Did he say that the Paris market operated at 2 p.m. and 9 p.m.?

Mr. John Wells

I understand so.

Mr. Mackie

Our markets open at times more like 2 a.m. and 9 a.m. How-ever, that is beside the point.

I finally wish to record that the Covent Garden Market Authority is comprised of members chosen for their extensive and relevant experience. They are devoting considerable attention to their task and are assisted by a highly competent staff. I have every confidence in the ability of the Authority to deal with the complex task they have of moving this great market to the general benefit of the community and the nation. I hope the deadline of 1973 will be achieved, and I have every confidence that it will.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.