HC Deb 29 November 1994 vol 250 cc1176-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]

10.1 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity of raising this important issue, particularly on such a significant day. At the outset, I state that I am, always have been and always will be a deregulator. As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, this year I sat on the Committee which considered the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. I was delighted to support my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), my hon. Friend's predecessor, in his role as Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, in pushing through the Bill and ensuring that more of our businesses had rules, regulations and red tape cut away from them. It was a good start, and I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister bringing forward further initiatives to assist small business with deregulation.

I abhor unnecessary rules and regulations which stifle initiative and enterprise. Some of the things that I abhor most about the European Community are the unnecessary rules, regulations and directives that seem to emanate from Brussels, whether they pertain to our farms or to how long a banana should be and what its curvature should be. All such regulations are unnecessary and should be done away with. Rules for rules sake, I can do without.

Nor am I a killjoy. I appreciate that, each week, 1 million people visit car boot sales. They are the enshrinement of Conservative philosophy. They are the free market bringing buyers and sellers together. An excellent editorial in The Times of 4 January 1994, entitled Keeping the car boots open states: If anyone doubted that the entrepreneurial spirit thrived in Britain, evidence can be seen in almost every city, town and village each weekend. Thousands of people turn up at their nearest sale to buy, to sell, to trade and sometimes just to browse. Every item has its price, often as little as 5p, and bargaining ensures as perfect a market as any economist could dream of. Ordinary citizens can offload the contents of their attic or rid themselves of the clothes, toys and equipment that their children no longer need. Buyers can pick up bargains galore. Because there are no overheads—no rent, wages, advertising or marketing—everything is far cheaper than in the shops. And who can resist fantasising about finding a picture for £1 that turns out to be the work of a famous artist? I could not put it any better than that editorial. Frankly, car boot sales are fun—unless one happens to live next door to one, that is.

That is the basis of my request for the debate this evening. What was the origin of car boot sales? People genuinely want to offload their possessions in a relatively cheap way. Others want to pick up cheap items and bargains, and browsing in an assiduous way is an art form for some—picking up a jigsaw, wondering whether the 50p asking price is fair, wondering whether all the pieces are there and, if not, might not that add to the attraction of trying to put the jigsaw together? Car boot sales are a jolly good day out for many people.

Many charities benefit from car boot sales. Church groups, schools, scouts, brownies and even Conservative associations in the beautiful constituency of Brecon and Radnor▀×flattery may get me somewhere this evening▀× have been known to hold car boot sales. No one can have any objection to an occasionally held car boot sale on behalf of those organisations. Those sales are not regulated and I do not believe that they should be. I have attended such sales myself, and they are harmless fun.

During the past five years, we have witnessed a massive growth in the number of car boot sales. Rural areas tend to be magnets for them and many farmers are earning additional and much-needed funds thanks to them. I have no objection to that either. We must make a distinction between the small and amateur car boot sales, and the commercial car boot sales which are able to operate for 14 days, thanks to the Town and Country Planning and General Development Order 1988, without any planning permission.

After all I said about the beautiful constituency of Brecon and Radnor, I must say that I happen to represent the most beautiful constituency in the United Kingdom—75 per cent. of it consists of areas of outstanding natural beauty. Let us think for just a moment about some of the sleepy villages and hamlets around the UK which are invaded, invariably on a Sunday, by car boot sales.

One of the local authorities in my constituency, Ribble Valley borough council—it covers most of the rural area—feels that it is powerless to control or prevent the sales, even with the array of rules and regulations which my hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt list for me to demonstrate that no more needs to be done.

Two villages have experienced tremendous problems with sales—Whalley and Gisburn. I shall refer first to a sale at Brookhouse farm in Whalley. Cars are parked there without concern for road markings or footways, and also on grass verges. It is not a matter of the police or the highway department dealing with it—they cannot get through the traffic in the first place.

The event takes place in a fairly rural area, but there are houses and residents suffer from the congested roads which are unable to take the volume of traffic, noise and pollution. Litter is another problem. I welcome the controls within the Environmental Protection Act 1990, but litter is sometimes dropped outside the field at the farm and local people are unable to control the litter problem. Another problem is that the route that leads towards the car boot sale is the only road which people can use to get from A to B. Because the car boot sales are attracting so many motorists, one is simply unable to get through without adding perhaps 40 minutes or so on to one's journey. Consideration should be given to the effect that that has on residents in sleepy rural villages. The inhabitants of a village must put up with so much traffic five or six days a week, but, when they want to rest on Sunday, they find that they are invaded by vehicles going to the car boot sales.

The argument is used that the police are able to regulate car boot sales if they so wish, but the police may find it extremely difficult to police all the other things that we are asking them to do these days. There is massive pressure on police time. It would be wonderful if we could assist the police in allowing local authorities to have some control over car boot sales.

Gisburn is another area which has suffered greatly because of the sales. We have famous the Gisburn races, which attract many motorists but happen only once a year. The Gisburn car boot sale happens Sunday after Sunday, and heavy traffic is passing through Gisburn on those days. We are all crossing our fingers and praying that, at some stage in the near future, we will get the Gisburn bypass to relieve that heavy traffic. Why should they be condemned to suffer even further because there are no controls over car boot sales?

I reiterate that I am a free marketeer. There is nothing wrong with the concept of car boot sales. The problem is their placement and local authorities' lack of sufficient powers to control them. I know that they have article 4 of the Town and Country Planning and General Development Order 1988. It is constantly cited as an adequate tool for controlling sales, but I believe that local borough councils should be empowered under planning legislation to withdraw permission for car boot sales or at least tightly control them. I have talked to local authorities elsewhere in the country which also believe that they lack control over car boot sales.

Under existing legislation, anyone who has a field or open piece of land can hold 14 markets a year provided that he gives the local council one month's notice under section 37 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. Markets can take place even if the site is unsuitable, for example, if it has poor road access or is near or within a residential area. That figure is far too high. I am not against such events so long as they are held in the right places. I want local councils to have the power to control car boot sales to ensure that they do not cause problems for local residents. Local councils are in the best position to make decisions about car boot sales because they know their areas best.

One reason why councils do not wish to implement article 4 is that they fear that if they refuse planning permission they will have to pay compensation to those who organise car boot sales. Recently, the chief legal officer of Ribble Valley council, Paul Timson, stated to me in a letter that that was one of the major reasons why local authorities were fearful of refusing permission. They fear that if the matter goes to appeal time and time again, they will end up paying massive compensation. Local authorities simply do not have the resources to meet such compensation payments.

Another problem with article 4 of the Town and Country Planning and General Development Order 1988 is that it gives permission to hold up to 14 markets a year on open sites. In a rural area such as the Ribble valley, there are dozens of potential sites. That gives rise to insuperable problems of control. As soon as a market operator exhausts his 14 days on one site he can simply switch to a neighbouring site.

As for other controls, section 37 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 is a useful provision as it enables the local authority to have knowledge of forthcoming events. However, it is of limited value because in most instances the local authority has no power to prevent the event or even impose conditions.

I am fully aware that North Yorkshire county council has introduced its own measures to control the problem of car boot sales and to deal with the fear that some of the goods may be stolen. I welcome those measures. I should encourage other authorities to examine what North Yorkshire county council has done and perhaps introduce similar measures. The council's private Act is good news for the police. It enables them to check on stolen property and monitor traders. However, I believe that the vast majority of people who trade in car boot sales are as honest as the day is long. It a myth that car boot sales are packed with people offloading stolen goods. It happens, just as it happens in pubs and clubs. No one suggests that we close pubs and clubs simply because they have that problem.

Local authorities have the power to send their trading standards officers to car boot sales to ensure that certain standards are met. That has to be welcomed, but the matter goes back to cost. Not every local authority can afford to pay overtime to trading standards officers, particularly on Sundays, to monitor the many car boot sales that may take place in their area.

I asked one local authority why it did not use the battery of rules and regulations available to it. It felt that control would be more cast iron if the authority could place conditions on the larger, professional car boot sales. Such conditions might include controls on access and egress for traffic, noise and litter. In genuinely unsuitable areas car boot sales could be stopped without fear of the local authority having to pay compensation. It wanted all those controls to be provided in one car boot sales Act.

I am realistic about the issue and I am not asking for draconian measures so that local authorities can meddle in a sector that is currently free from overall control. However, I ask that all the powers are revealed which appertain to car boot sales.

Does the Minister think that it would be more simple and straightforward if control and supervisory powers were brought together under planning regulations? If that were done, we could achieve what, surely, we all want. Entrepreneurs would continue to be able to hold car boot sales, sellers would be able to sell their goods and buyers would be able to browse in search of bargains, but we would pay more regard to people who live in rural districts—the people who have to put up with the inconvenience that is caused when, Sunday after Sunday, cars invade rural areas without controls.

I seek a balance between the two groups, so that entrepreneurs can continue to hold their car boot sales and people can genuinely enjoy going to them, as they do, but so that people who live in those districts are at least able to appeal to the local authority if they feel that the sale are being held in the wrong place. I hope that a balance can be struck.

I shall listen carefully and hopefully to the Minister's reply. I hope that he will be able to help my constituents to look forward to a peaceful and quiet summer in 1995.

10.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs (Mr. Jonathan Evans)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) for raising the matter and also for his support, as he has expressed it, for the Government's deregulation drive. I have listened to his speech with great interest and I think that he is entitled to claim a first, because I think that this is the first time that car boot sales have been the specific subject of a debate on the Floor of the House. I am glad to have the opportunity to set out the Government's view of what is a comparatively recent phenomenon, and one on which I know that feelings can run high.

Car boot sales began, like so many phenomena of our times, in the United States and spread to this country in the mid-1980s. They were originally a means whereby people could dispose of the unwanted contents, as my hon. Friend said, of their attic, or raise money for charity, or perhaps both. They were small, neighbourly events where most of the people knew one another and professional traders were conspicuous by their absence. They were no more regulated than the average church bazaar, which they often resembled, and there was no reason why they should have been.

Now, as my hon. Friend rightly said, all that has changed. It may be an exaggeration to describe car boot sales as big business, but business they certainly are. Their number has grown almost exponentially, they have become bigger, and it is probable that throughout the country the amount of business in professionally organised sales now predominates over that in amateur sales. New as well as second-hand goods are on sale, and car boot sales now attract such inevitable accompaniments of the British leisure scene as ice cream vans, hot dog stalls and even bouncy castles. They are held in every conceivable variety of venue—fields, commons, schools, airfields, car parks, warehouses, even the grounds of hospitals. Many are held regularly every week.

Car boot sales have grown to the stage where they make a measurable contribution to activity in the economy. Precise figures are lacking, but several thousand car boot sales are held every week, some of which attract more than 1,000 vehicles. Total turnover can only be guessed at, but it could be as much as £2 billion a year.

It is hardly surprising that that dramatic expression of the enterprise culture should have brought forth demands for regulation, as my hon. Friend outlined. I fully recognise that car boot sales can bring problems in their wake, many of them of the type that my hon. Friend mentioned. A trader at a car boot sale is probably anonymous and he is certainly highly mobile. It is often impossible to tell whether he is a professional trader or an amateur, and whether the goods that he is selling are of poor quality, unsafe, counterfeit or stolen. In such circumstances, whatever the position in law, the consumer's chances of redress are not high.

Policing car boot sales is not easy, not least because they are usually held at weekends, as my hon. Friend said. The concern on this score, which has been expressed individually by a number of local authority trading standards departments, is understandable. That concern his been echoed by their co-ordinating body.

Nor are objections to car boot sales confined to the quality or provenance of the goods on sale. Not everybody appreciates a car boot sale next door disturbing the peace of his Sunday morning, whether in the Ribble Valley, Brecon and Radnor or any other part of the country.

Many complaints have been made about noise, litter and traffic congestion. Doubts have been expressed as to whether all traders at car boot sales are wholly honest with their tax returns and the suspicion has been voiced that car boot sales are used by persons on benefit to provide an undeclared supplement to their income. Whatever the truth of those allegations, there is an image of car boot sales as a means of enabling villains to sell rubbish in conditions of squalor. It is therefore unsurprising that there are calls for them to be more strictly regulated, if not banned altogether.

That is one point of view. I should like to consider the matter for a moment from a rather different perspective. Car boot sales have grown in number because they are popular. They are a response to demand—both from those who trade at them and from those who patronise them. People enjoy car boot sales, whether because they see in them a chance of picking up a bargain—whether one priced at 5p or the rare painting to which my hon. Friend referred—or whether they just see them as an inexpensive afternoon out with the family. It has been suggested that for some people the availability of cheap goods at car boot sales has made a real difference to the family budget.

Nor should the perspective of the traders be forgotten. For many people, car boot sales have come to make a significant contribution to their income. Some traders, I have no doubt, make their living solely by going from one car boot sale to another. I suggest that we should be very cautious about regulating—and, by implication, restricting—an economic activity for which there is clearly so strong a demand and on which an increasing number of people have come to depend wholly or partly for their livelihoods.

Against that background, let us consider the criticisms that have been made. Some people have suggested that goods may be of poor quality, and so they may be—but I suggest that most people go to a car boot sale with their eyes open and do not expect the level of quality or service that they would get at a normal retail outlet. If they buy a television set for £5 and it works, they have a bargain. If they buy a television set for £5 and it does not work, that is the chance that they take. It is not for the state to intervene in that sort of transaction.

More serious are allegations that goods may be unsafe or stolen. In the case of unsafe goods, in particular, I accept that it is not enough to invoke the spirit of caveat emptor; this is an area where the public have a right to expect protection. But controls do exist. It is as much an offence for a trader at a car boot sale to sell unsafe goods as it is for anybody else to do so. I accept that enforcement can be a problem, but we have to ask ourselves whether any of the controls that have been proposed would contribute to resolving that problem. Short of banning car boot sales altogether, which is not a solution that we should seriously contemplate, I do not believe that they would. Requiring car boot sales to be licensed would do nothing to control the type of trader attending them or the quality of the goods sold. Requiring individual traders to be licensed might make identification easier, but there would be a price to be paid in the cost of the licensing system—somebody would have to pay for it—and the bureaucracy that it would involve. The Government are not convinced that that would be justified by the extent of the problem.

Similarly, in relation to stolen goods, there is little evidence of car boot sales being used as outlets for stolen goods, although common sense suggests that they are likely to be from time to time. However, the police already have powers of search and seizure where necessary and I have had no suggestions that a licensing system would be an effective way to strengthen them. Of course, it can be argued that a trader who was convicted of selling stolen or, indeed, unsafe goods could have his licence revoked, but that would be a severe penalty and one easily evaded—the trader might simply start up again using a member of his family or a friend as a front.

I turn now to the objections that have been voiced regarding car boot sales as a phenomenon, as opposed to the objections that have been voiced regarding the behaviour of individual traders. I should make it clear at the outset that, for the reasons that I have already outlined, the Government do not regard car boot sales as somehow a bad thing which ought ideally to be regulated out of existence. Although we recognise the arguments of those who have pressed for greater controls, we take no stand of principle either for or against car boot sales. If people wish to gather at weekends to buy and sell new or second-hand goods, the Government do not see it as their business to deny them that opportunity.

That is not, however, to deny the very genuine concerns that have been expressed regarding what might be called the environmental effects of car boot sales, and it is that area to which my hon. Friend directed so much of his remarks. Car boot sales are generally exempt from planning permission, provided that they are not held on the same site on more than 14 days in any one year. The Government have no plans to change that. To reduce or abolish the 14-day exemption represents a serious restriction on the freedom of people to do as they wish with their own property. Of course, there is a balance to be struck here between the freedom of the landholder and the effect of the activities on the amenity and the environment. The balance here has been struck at 14 days, and I think that that is probably about right. It would in any event be wrong to shift that balance simply because some people object to car boot sales.

My hon. Friend may be aware that organisers of car boot sales have evaded the requirements of the planning legislation by simply shifting to a different field once the 14-day period had been used up. That point has yet to be tested in the courts, but the Government's view is that the controls apply to the relevant planning unit and that a farmer, for example, could not evade them in that way. It is, however, up to individual local authorities to decide whether to challenge such behaviour.

Then there is the question, again addressed by my hon. Friend, of litter, traffic and general nuisance. I am doubtful whether more than a small minority of car boot sales cause significant problems in those areas, although my hon. Friend referred to difficulties in his constituency. To the extent that they do, however, local authorities have powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to take appropriate action, as my hon. Friend said. I therefore do not see that additional controls are necessary.

Finally, car boot sales have been criticised as somehow constituting unfair competition to existing retail outlets. Although I can understand the feelings that have been expressed in this matter, I have to say that the Government do not regard the objection as well founded. Government, including, of course, local government, exercise a degree of control over retail outlets through the planning mechanism, but this is a question of planning, not of competition. When it comes to competition, the Government express no preference for any one form of retail outlet over any other. If people wish to take their chance at a car boot sale rather than take advantage of the greater security and comfort of a high street retailer, that is entirely a matter for them and not one in which the Government would wish to intervene. In general, it is the Government's policy to encourage competition, not to restrict it.

My hon. Friend referred to the system of licensing of traders of second-hand goods under the North Yorkshire County Council Act 1991. I offer no criticism of that Act, which, indeed, seems to work well, albeit not without some cost both to traders and to enforcers. However, I am not persuaded that it is necessarily a suitable model for the country as a whole. Trading standards departments vary widely in their outlook, their resources, the type of area in which they operate and the problems that they face. What is suitable for North Yorkshire may not be suitable elsewhere. Moreover, the fact that North Yorkshire has had little trouble with its system may be due to the fact that the more dubious traders avoid the area. That, of course, would no longer be the case if the system became nationwide.

To sum up, the Government accept that the growth of car boot sales has brought problems in its wake, but we remain unconvinced that there is a need for additional controls to address those problems. Such controls would necessarily have to take the form of some sort of licensing, either of car boot sales themselves or of individual traders, or of both, and such a system would add to bureaucracy without necessarily curing the mischief at which it was aimed. Licensing of car boot sales themselves would be ineffective unless it was used as a covert method of cutting down on their number, which the Government would not necessarily wish to see. Licensing of individual traders would be complex and difficult to administer. There would need, for example, to be some sort of exemption for those who take a stall at a car boot sale not to trade but to dispose of unwanted household goods, and such an exemption would be difficult to police. For reasons that I have already suggested, withdrawal of a licence might not be an effective sanction. It is in any event the Government's policy to reduce the burden of regulation on business, not to increase it.

I listened very carefully to my hon. Friend's speech and I recognise the genuineness of the concerns that he has expressed. I also listened to the suggestions that he put forward for new legislation or controls in that area, but I have to tell him that I do not at this point believe that additional controls represent the right way forward. For that reason, although I note his remarks, I cannot promise him any further regulation in that area.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.