HL Deb 26 March 1991 vol 527 cc1021-8

7.39 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

As a county Durham man, I have been visiting Darlington for more than 50 years. I have done so because of the great pleasure I always derive from being in a town which has a unique character, with such pleasant and courteous citizens and an atmosphere which is welcoming from the moment one enters the town. It is one of the jewels in my county's crown. I hasten to point out that I am in no way connected to Darlington, whether in business, government (local or national), culturally or any other aspect.

I am glad to be associated with the Bill because I have no doubt that its proposals will lead to physical improvements in the town—improvements from which other benefits will flow.

Darlington has had a cattle market since medieval times. That fact is of considerable interest and importance. It is something which should not be disturbed unless there are good reasons for doing so. Nevertheless, despite that long tradition of people having the right to bring and buy cattle and other livestock in the town, the time has now come to introduce a Bill of this nature.

The enshrining of those rights in a local Act (the Darlington Extension and Improvement Act 1872) arose from a long-standing clamour to ban sales of livestock because of the general inconvenience that they caused and, not least, the effect on public health and hygiene. Your Lordships will note that environmental factors were also important in those days.

The effect of the Act was to allow those responsible for the health of the town to take action to deal with the problems while at the same time preserving the common law rights of farmers and others to hold their livestock sales at a convenient location.

Under the Act, power was given to the council to close down an unsatisfactory market (which was becoming a health risk) but only on condition that the council provided an alternative market, fit and proper for its purpose".

However, we have now to put the position into perspective. After 120 years, the market has become less and less fit for its purpose, and there can be little argument that its location in a residential area is completely unsuitable. The council has little choice but to look for alternative sites—a matter which it pursued with due diligence, realising that a number of requirements had to be satisfied. As might be expected, certain problems arose. It could not find a site which it already owned, but it eventually found one on land owned by someone else close to the new Darlington by-pass.

A further problem arose when the council came to consider, as it had to, the cost of building a new market and the cost of purchasing the necessary land. For that it would have had to budget for no less than £5 million. For Darlington, whose population is fewer than 100,000, that sum is large, and not one with which in normal circumstances it would even contemplate dealing. The difficulties are exacerbated because of the present relationship between central government and local authorities. Your Lordships will be aware that government controls on council spending these days are severe. As a former councillor, I feel that the very nature of local self-government has been changed fundamentally. I could give several examples of that if time permitted, but I shall mention the most important: Darlington's basic credit approval—the amount the Government will permit the council to borrow—is about £2 million only, and most of that has to be spent on essential requirements such as housing.

If your Lordships were to ask about other possible receipts, I should reply with two examples. The council's expectation of capital receipts from land disposals has been severely reduced as a result of the depressed property market. That is a fact of which your Lordships will be acutely aware. That problem is well known; but it may not be so well known that since last April councils can use only up to half of those receipts for new projects.

There is another difficulty. A few years ago grants from the European Community were also available for such projects. On the whole, as I am sure most noble Lords will agree, the EC was very generous in awarding such grants, but now they are not available for that purpose. That is another blow which has had to be faced.

If the whole of the cost of that £5 million were to be placed on Darlington's community charge payer, under the present system (until last week's Budget proposals, and special Bill to deal with the poll tax) it would increase the charge per charge payer by £67 in addition to any normal annual increase.

Even under the proposed new arrangements for the community charge there is no doubt that the cost of providing a new market would he substantial. Such an increase would not fall on most farmers and the market's customers, merely because most of them do not live in the town; they live in surrounding areas which make no contribution to the borough's expenses.

It will not have escaped your Lordships' notice that we are dealing with a business operation. If the council were to attempt to bear the cost of a new market, the moment that became known to Darlington's inhabitants, those normally moderate, mild-mannered citizens might storm the town hall demanding to know why they should be heavily subsidising a private operation. Such action would he understandable, although unlikely. However, the council is determined to show that it was making the right and fair decision, and, to use a biblical phrase, went "the second mile". It commissioned a study from Durham University's economics department to ascertain who benefits from the existence of the cattle market in Darlington. Its report showed that the market generated 69 full-time equivalent jobs and gross income to the town of £690,000.

The report also took into account what have become known as the "knock-on" effects. They can be of importance these days, but the economists concluded that they were of little significance. An economic study, important though it is, cannot assess the detailed environmental effects of a cattle market situated in an urban area. What about the smell, the mess, the litter, the noise, the traffic problems and a host of other associated matters?

This is not an academic matter for me. For the first 25 years of my life, I lived literally next to a cattle market. I have to confess that as a child I took great pleasure in nipping over the fence to be among the animals and to do the jobs associated with markets; but it did not take too long for me to come face to face with problems similar to those that I have mentioned.

Taking into consideration the economic study, the cost and the environmental effects, the council came to the conclusion that it had no choice but to seek powers to close the market without providing a substitute. By any standards, that must be considered a reasonable decision. That is why the Bill comes before the House this evening. Your Lordships ought to know that the case is strengthened by the fact that the Bill has the unanimous support of the council. That is important because the council is what is referred to in these days as a hung council. In a number of my activities outside the House I deal with hung councils and extracting a decision from them can be a difficult task. In this case, all the political parties and all individuals are at one in attempting to secure the change. With such unanimity it is safe to assume that the councillors represent the view of the vast majority of the town's citizens. Perhaps I should also mention that the Bill has the full support of the Member of Parliament.

To conclude, I believe that considering all the aspects with which I have dealt tonight there is an unanswerable case for the Bill. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Dormand of Easington.)

7.51 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, before I respond to what the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, said, I apologise to him and to the House for not putting my name down to speak on this Second Reading. It was an oversight on my part and I apologise if it led to confusion.

As the noble Lord said, the object of the Bill is to release Darlington Borough Council from part of the council's market undertaking contained in the local Act of 1872 to maintain a cattle market in the town. A working cattle market has existed in the town from well before then. The noble Lord said that it was from medieval times and I believe that the precise date is 1458. The market represents an important facility for the local agricultural industry, being used regularly by well over 1,000 farmers. Livestock is the prime farming enterprise in the region and the Darlington market is especially noted for its trade in beef cattle. I believe that the turnover is in the region of over 200,000 units of stock per annum. Thus it is substantial.

The market is run by a company which leases the present site from the council. Everybody agrees that the site in the town is unsatisfactory for a modern livestock market. The farmers totally accept that. It causes a nuisance to local residents and its efficiency is impaired by the cramped space available and the difficulties of manoeuvring large vehicles on the site and in the surrounding streets. Those points were made by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand.

However, if Parliament passes the Bill, as matters stand there is every prospect that the cattle market will cease to exist. The council will serve notice to quit on the market company which does not at present have consent to set up elsewhere on a more convenient site. If the market closes, local agriculture will suffer a serious blow. Other livestock markets in the region will face serious difficulties in attempting to absorb the Darlington trade, which is considerable. Congestion in the relevant towns like Northallerton and Barnard Castle would be greatly exacerbated. It is right for me to point out also that there will be cases of hardship among a group of 50 widows who have inherited shares in the market company on which they rely for their income. We must bear that point in mind.

Local farmers can understand if the council no longer believes that it should have a duty to provide a cattle market. That point is undisputed, and times change. However, they are strongly of the opinion that it must be in the interests of both the town and the surrounding countryside for the council to facilitate the relocation of the market outside the town on a site that would not arouse objections from its neighbours and which would encourage commercial efficiency. I understand that the council is currently considering the planning considerations of relocation proposals that have been made to them by the market company. Furthermore, one of the applications refers to permission for a housing development to fund the new market. If that can be agreed it will naturally overcome the problems of finance to which the noble Lord referred.

I am confident that the matter can be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. I have seen the proposed site for relocation and believe that it is very suitable. None of the costs of relocation need fall on the townspeople through the community charge or rates. The council could be released from its market obligations and the way cleared for the erection of low-cost housing on the present site of the market, to the benefit of those in need and as desired by the council.

Provided that these matters can be sorted out as I suggested I see no reason why the Bill should not proceed to the statute book. I urge the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, to use his influence with the council to encourage the happy result which I believe can be achieved, given goodwill and a spirit of co-operation by all interested parties.

I do not believe that we can segregate the town from the country simply on a whim. The noble Lord made the point that the farmers who come in and use the town facilities do not make a contribution. However, we must add that those same townspeople go out into the countryside and neither do they necessarily make a contribution. It is a quid pro quo and we cannot ignore that fact.

Until assurances are forthcoming and a satisfactory solution is reached, I urge the Committee, when considering the Bill, to have regard for the farming community and their longstanding right to a market.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, referred to the report of the consultants. He gave us some of the details but many of us would be interested to read it. Perhaps he will be good enough to put a copy of the report in the Library of the House so that we have an opportunity to look at the details.

7.56 p.m.

Lord Crathorne

My Lords, I wish briefly to support my noble friend Lord Peel. I live close to Darlington and, like most of us, have received a number of letters on the subject and many people have contacted me including the noble Lord, Lord MacAndrew. He would have been here this evening but is tending his farm near Darlington. There is no question but that the market must be moved from its present site, though there is a difference of opinion on whether a new market is needed. The farmers certainly think so. I understand that the neighbouring markets would have considerable difficulty in coping with the additional livestock if the Darlington market closes. My hope is that the Darlington council will make it possible for a new market to be built because there seems to be a need for one.

Darlington has been a market town for many centuries. That fact is even recorded on the town's coat of arms, as noble Lords may know. We cannot sort the matter out this evening but I hope that everyone concerned will get together and reach a satisfactory compromise. I urge the committee which will consider the matter to look carefully at the implications of the Bill becoming law in its present form.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, first, I apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey who is unable to be here this evening. Like all speakers from the Labour Front Benches on Private Bills, I wish to make it clear at the outset that our Front Bench is neutral in these matters. I speak in an individual capacity.

The House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, for the clear and cogent way in which he put forward the arguments of the promoters of the Bill. He began by declaring his 50-year knowledge of Darlington which is about five years less than mine. I am a native of Newcastle upon Tyne and it is interesting that he was brought up next to a cattle market. So was I. I wonder whether we ever met when there was a transfer of stock! The cattle market in Newcastle at the top of Scotswood Road where I was born has long since gone.

We are discussing a feature of a town which has served the town and its inhabitants well for more than 100 years. Literally, in the twinkling of an eye, such features can disappear.

I was pleased to hear the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and his noble friend on the Benches opposite. They did not oppose the fact that the market should be relocated. The arguments in favour of that are powerful.

However, I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, who reminded the House that the present problems as regards the relocation of the market are not of the council's choosing. The council did not create the network of controls which surround it. I was delighted to hear the speakers on the Benches opposite pleading that the council's involvement in this enterprise should continue. I am satisfied that the Select Committee of this House will carefully consider the representations of those who wish their point of view to be heard.

The noble Earl, Lord Peel, said he was confident that the matter can be resolved. I hope that is the case. I am sure that the last thing a council such as Darlington would want is to do something which is right for the citizens but is detrimental to the local farming community.

When I quickly glanced at the representations made on this matter, I was impressed by some of the points that were made. Darlington Council is unanimous in its view on this matter. I do not know the political complexion of that council but it obviously must be a mixed council. The noble Lord, Lord Dormand, said it was a hung council. If that is the case, all political persuasions will be represented on the council. Unanimous agreement has been reached on the need to promote this parliamentary Bill. The noble Lord added that the Member of Parliament who represents Darlington also supports the Bill. I have the highest regard not only for the people of Darlington, but also for the common sense of the councillors of Darlington. Like the noble Earl, Lord Peel, I, too, hope that a solution will be reached which is satisfactory to all parties concerned.

8.3 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it may be helpful to your Lordships if at this point I intervene briefly to state the Government's view on the Bill. Perhaps I should apologise to noble Lords for the fact that I was brought up nowhere near Darlington or near a cattle market. Despite that I shall do my best to state the Government's view.

It is traditional on Private Bills that the Government take a neutral stance. This Bill is no exception to that rule. The Government have considered the content of the Bill and have no objection in principle to the powers being sought by the council. Neither my department nor the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has raised any observations on the Bill. We take the view that the issues raised by the Bill in relation to the closure of Darlington's cattle market and the proposed repeal of the council's obligation to provide a substitute, are local issues in which the Government would not wish to intervene.

There is one petition against the Bill and the petitioner will have the opportunity to present his objections to the Select Committee. The committee will be in a much better position than we are tonight to examine in detail the issues involved and it will have the added advantage of hearing expert evidence. I hope, therefore, that the Bill will be given a Second Reading and allowed to proceed in the usual conventional way to committee for this detailed consideration.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I thank the two speakers on the Benches opposite for taking part in the debate. I suspect they will not be surprised to learn that I am not entirely convinced by their arguments. I know the noble Earl, Lord Peel, will disagree with me, but I consider that his choice of the word "whim" was rather unfortunate in describing the view of the council in taking this action. That word would not be acceptable to the council and it is not acceptable to me. However, I hasten to add that both speakers from the Benches opposite made a number of points which will need to be addressed when the Bill is considered in detail by the Select Committee. Many of the points they raised will be more appropriately dealt with by the Select Committee as they require detailed consideration. They can be more satisfactorily dealt with by the Select Committee than by your Lordships' House on Second Reading.

The speakers on the Benches opposite did not appear to give sufficient consideration to matters affecting the town itself, particularly as reflected in the stance and views of the borough council. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Graham concurred with my view that the views of the council are important. They are the essence of the argument. I am sure that will be recognised when the Bill has completed all of its stages.

The noble Earl asked whether it would be possible for me to place in the Library a copy of the report commissioned by the borough council. However, it is not my report and therefore I am not in a position to say "yea or nay". Nevertheless, I can assure the noble Earl that I shall consult the council to see whether that is a possibility. I appreciate the strength of the argument for that measure. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until twenty minutes to nine o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.7 to 8.40 p.m..]