Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 374)



  360. If all of a sudden your mail bag was to increase enormously, you would look at this in a different light? You would look at the problem in a different way?
  (Mr Raynsford) Of course, if one gets a very large number of representations, that is an indication that there is public concern about a matter, but I was using this as an indication of the fact that we do not currently have a level of concern expressed by the outside world which would suggest that this is a serious problem. I am sure for individuals, where their winter quarters disappear, that is a very serious problem indeed and obviously it is important that local authorities do respond to that and do so in the framework set by PPG17. I would simply repeat that, across the country as a whole, the number of cases brought to our attention does not suggest that there is numerically a large problem.

  361. We have evidence to suggest that there are some 139 families in the south east of England alone desperately looking for accommodation. Would that surprise you?
  (Mr Raynsford) No, it would not particularly surprise me but of course I would put that in the context of the numbers applying to local authorities as homeless which is very, very much greater.

  362. In the circumstances, you would not think it useful for your department to be looking for evidence of this shortage?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think it is a matter for the local authorities concerned, as I have already said. Because these issues arise locally and because, by their very nature, travelling showpeople will be moving from area to area—their winter quarters may be in the same area but they need not necessarily be so—I am not sure that the fact that 139 in the south of England are encountering some difficulty in finding accommodation is an indication of a massive problem. Certainly by contrast with the level of demand for affordable housing in the south, it would appear to be quite a modest problem.

  363. If I can take you to the circular that specifically deals with showpeople, circular 22/91, do you think there is a case for strengthening that at this stage, given that it was clear on the basis of evidence that we have received that local authorities do not necessarily pay an awful lot of attention to it as an issue?
  (Mr Raynsford) As I have already said, there may be a case for reminding local authorities of its existence. It is nine years since it was last issued and a reminder might help to concentrate attention. I am not sure that I could see where strengthening would improve a document which does seem to admirably set out the problem in terms of the need for provision for travelling showpeople and the way in which local authorities can address that in terms of their development plans, the handling of applications and in meeting the wider needs of showpeople in their area.

  364. We have identified, on the basis of some of the evidence that we have taken, a problem in that local authorities do not consult the Showmen's Guild. Do you not think that, to make the situation more transparent, we should make it part of an obligation on the part of local authorities that they must first, before drawing up their development plans, consult with the Showmen's Guild?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think you will be aware that paragraph 16 of the circular does say, "On all matters likely to affect travelling showpeople, including the preparation of local plans and unitary development plans as well as development control, local authorities are advised at an early stage to contact the General Secretary, the Showmen's Guild ...". That is very good advice. I am more than happy to remind local authorities of that advice. I think it would be difficult to impose a stronger obligation in respect of one category of people only when that would not necessarily apply to other interested parties in other areas of planning, because this is how the planning system operates, through advisory documents that local authorities are encouraged to follow. I am more than happy to draw this to their attention.

Mr Olner

  365. Are you completely happy that that stuff has been gathering dust for nine years and they have not read it?
  (Mr Raynsford) I do not know that that is the case. They may well have read it but of course local authority staff change and it may well be appropriate to issue a reminder. I am more than happy to do that.


  366. You see a fair number of these development plans. Are you aware of any of them that have actually put in provision for showmen's winter quarters?
  (Mr Raynsford) Not off the top of my head. I cannot say.

  Chairman: My impression is that none of them does and I think it needs remedying.

Mr Brake

  367. Minister, you just said that circular 22/91 admirably sets out the problem and need for provision for travelling showpeople. Can you explain therefore, because it is going to be very, very clear and straightforward, what constitutes the very special circumstances referred to in this circular when an application for a quarter in green belt land will succeed?
  (Mr Raynsford) As you are aware, there is a general presumption against development in the green belt and it is not just a matter of travelling showpeople; it is a question that applies to other travellers and gypsies; it is a question that applies to other developers. Anyone seeking development in the green belt must demonstrate exceptional circumstances to justify overruling the normal presumption. In the case of travelling showpeople, they are in no different a position to anyone else. We have a very simple issue to resolve here. Do we believe in the retention of the green belt and do we believe in policies that strongly discourage development in the green belt? If we do, those have to apply across the board and it would be inappropriate to allow unlimited opportunities for development in the green belt to one category of applicant. On the other hand, we do recognise that there are exceptional circumstances. There are occasions where it may be appropriate to revise the green belt boundary in exceptional circumstances and we accept that there may be individual planning applications that might be appropriate in the green belt for very special reasons. It seems to me that the planning framework allows for this while at the same time protecting the green belt, which I believe is a concern very widely shared, not just by the government, but I guess by this Committee and by the country at large.

  368. I understand that, but I was asking you specifically what those very special circumstances were. You just said, "They are very special."
  (Mr Raynsford) By definition, anything that is very special cannot be categorised in general terms. It is an exceptional circumstance and it is for the local authority in the first instance; and the planning inspector if this comes to be considered on appeal; and for the Secretary of State if it comes to the Secretary of State for a decision on appeal to decide whether those special circumstances apply.

  369. Can you think of any specific instances where you have granted permission because very special circumstances applied?
  (Mr Raynsford) I have, in the case of travellers and gypsies, done so. I have not to my knowledge in the case of travelling showpeople because I have not to my knowledge had an application involving travelling showpeople seeking development in the green belt.

  370. Not seeking development, but for showpeople's quarters in green belt land. That is what I am talking about.
  (Mr Raynsford) I do not recall having an application involving travelling showpeople seeking planning permission for winter quarters in the green belt. I do recall planning applications from travellers and gypsies seeking such developments and I recall, in some cases, confirming an inspector's decision to reject an appeal and, on another occasion, supporting the appeal.

  371. Are you happy that this description or definition of very special circumstances is as helpful as it could be? Do you think it should perhaps be more explicit so as to assist local authorities?
  (Mr Raynsford) I do not think it can be because once you are explicit there are two consequences. The first is an inference can be drawn that those circumstances, if they exist, will always justify giving permission for a development and that would be wrong because the whole purpose of the exceptional provision is that development should be exceptional. The second point is that inferences are equally drawn about what is not mentioned. It could be that there are very special circumstances that would justify development, which, because they have not been anticipated when the circular is drafted, are not listed and therefore a committee could reject an application which perhaps ought to have been considered simply because it was not anticipated in the circular. I think there is always a danger, if I may use this term, of the list approach, of listing types of example in these kinds of cases.


  372. The Committee visited a site at Bromsgrove where the local authority turned down an application for winter quarters in the green belt. The Planning Inspector recommended not only that approval was given to it, which I assume that you eventually endorse, but that costs were awarded against the local authority. What do you feel about costs against local authorities? It does appear that in an area like this local authorities are a little bit unwilling to take a difficult decision and pass it on to the Planning Inspectorate. Do you think more costs should be awarded against local authorities to discourage them doing that?
  (Mr Raynsford) Just in case it is thought that I have been negligent and was not familiar with that case, my colleague, Beverley Hughes, deals with planning casework in the West Midlands so that is the reason that I would not have seen the Bromsgrove case. In general, on decisions, it is not usual for costs to be awarded. Costs are generally only awarded where there has been either a failure to act in a reasonable way or where no good grounds can be found for justifying the decision taken by the local authority. If an inspector has concluded that costs should be awarded, it will be because the inspector has, on the evidence, decided that the local authority's actions were not supported by logic or the evidence. I would be reluctant to suggest changes in that framework because I believe that there must be a safeguard of costs in such circumstances, but I would not be keen to encourage the awarding of costs on a more regular basis in planning cases.

  373. Finally, Planning Consultants to showmen did suggest that if that circular was cross-referenced it would be very helpful into PPG3. Mr Shepley suggested that the planning guidance was already too complicated and needed to be kept as slim as possible. What is your view?
  (Mr Raynsford) As you will know from the discussions we have had with your Committee over PPG3, there is a tension here. On the one side, one is looking for guidance that is sufficiently succinct and clear to make it both readable so that it does not, in Mr Olner's phrase, end up gathering dust on shelves, so that local authorities can make use of it. That is an important objective. On the other hand, there is obviously a concern that it should cover as wide a range of issues as possible. We are always trying to balance those two competing pressures. I have already indicated that we would be happy, in the review of PPG17, to see whether it would be appropriate to include a reference to travelling showpeople which could then perhaps be a cross-reference to the circular, which I have already referred to.

  374. Could I invite you to make it clear that the government sees travelling fairs as part of our historic traditions and that they should be offered as many facilities as local authorities can provide them, both for their show grounds, the fairs themselves, and it then follows that they need winter quarters?

  (Mr Raynsford) I am very happy to confirm that travelling fairs are part of the country's heritage and that the overall planning framework which we issue and support does encourage local authorities to look in the preparation of their development plans, and in response to individual planning applications, at the needs of travelling showpeople, both in terms of sites for fairs to be held and sites for winter quarters.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 5 June 2000