New Covent Garden Market — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:57 pm on 2 July 2019.

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Photo of Chris Heaton-Harris Chris Heaton-Harris Conservative, Daventry 3:57, 2 July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the redevelopment of New Covent Garden market.

As a fellow Northamptonshire MP, Mr Hollobone, you might be slightly surprised that I am interested in this subject, but I hope to enlighten you in my contribution. The first records of Covent Garden supplying food to the population of London are from around 1200. By the 1800s, the market had expanded to cover more than 30 acres, with a covered market being built in 1834. In 1887, a foreign fruit exchange opened, which handled imported produce that was distributed widely beyond the capital city. By 1890, the market had become the most important fresh produce market in the United Kingdom, but space was tight and the market became a chaotic place. According to the Covent Garden Market Authority, people were complaining about congestion.

In 1904, the Jubilee Hall was built and in 1918, the Duke of Bedford sold the market and its trading rights to a property company. By 1929, the amount of produce flowing into the market had doubled since 1910 and congestion in the market area was getting worse. That congestion problem seems to be a recurring theme.

In 1961, with no space to grow, constant traffic jams and overcrowding, the market needed to move. Accordingly, the Covent Garden Market Authority was set up to modernise the market, and it passed into public ownership. Nine Elms, in the constituency of Marsha De Cordova, was identified as its new home. Construction of the new market began in 1971, and in 1974 the largest wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower market in the country moved to the new site at Nine Elms, which was officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen the following year.

At about that time, a young David Heaton-Harris went about setting up his own business with the help of some Lincolnshire farmers. What4 Ltd was the family business that I eventually went on to run before entering politics. I worked nights in the wonderful New Covent Garden Market for the best part of 11 years. Back in the day—this is relevant to the debate—we tried, as tenants, to buy the market from the Government, with other tenants, but they were not keen to sell such a prized asset.

For the past 45 years, the market has supplied fresh food and flowers to London and the south of England. According to Daniel Tomkinson, the chief executive of the market authority,

“New Covent Market plays a vital role in London’s hospitality and foodservice sectors. No award ceremony or major sporting event takes place in London without the input of one of the tenants. From quality fruit to flowers and amazing veg, this iconic Market is a key part of London’s life.”

Currently, 167 businesses trade on the market, employing 2,500 people. The aggregate turnover of businesses operating in the market in 2017 was about £626 million. That is a lot of fruit and vegetables. The market is expanding, and it is no surprise that that figure is a 6% increase on the 2016 numbers, as it is feeding a growing city.

The Mayor of London updated his final London food strategy in December 2018, and specifically commented on the need for “highly efficient supply chains” for the city of London. He committed to:

“Champion business support to food entrepreneurs and start-ups, and support London’s markets to increase their supply of fresh, local and seasonal produce to meet all Londoners’ cultural needs through the London Markets Board.”

New Covent Garden Market plays a huge part in filling those requirements.

From my conversations with the Minister, I know he understands how important the continuing existence and success of New Covent Garden Market is to the food supply chain for London and the south-east, and indeed the whole of England. He knows that there is a dispute between the market authority and the tenants of the market over its redevelopment. The Covent Garden Tenants Association was incorporated in April 1922. Its members are the traders on the market, and it has represented their interests for nearly 100 years. It represented my interests when I was a tenant on the market with What4. There is now the possibility of action, based on the infringement of traders’ rights under the terms of their agreements to occupy space in the market. That could easily be substantially expanded to incorporate claims that the market authority is acting in breach of its statutory duties.