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19 Nov 2003 : Column 313WH—continued

Travellers Sites

3.47 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I have to confess that I am not a great fan of this Chamber, but one of its advantages is that one sees Ministers whom one has never set eyes on before. I am delighted that that does not apply to the Minister who will reply to this debate, with whom I debated some aspects of travellers on the Floor of the House on Monday evening. I am pleased to have this opportunity. I understand that some hon. Members apply for debates in this Chamber and get them willy-nilly. I have been applying for weeks for an hour-and-a-half or a half-hour slot. The debate could easily have lasted for an hour and a half, but I am grateful for the opportunity that I have got.

I have been fortunate enough to be the Member of Parliament for South-East Cambridgeshire for 16 and a half years. Throughout that time, travellers have been one of the most crucial issues. For centuries, Cambridgeshire has attracted travellers, and it goes back to the days when it was one of the leading fruit-growing and vegetable-growing counties in the country and large numbers of casual workers were needed. Interestingly, having just secured the debate, I received from the National Farmers Union a document that it has entitled, "Britain's Rural Outlaws"—I stress that the title is the NFU's. The document underlines some of the problems faced by my constituents and many other country people and rural dwellers throughout Britain. It states:

It continues:

The NFU extrapolated those results and applied them to the 270,000 farmers in England and Wales, estimating that the total cost to the rural community of unauthorised travellers could be as high as £98.8 million, nearly £100 million per annum.

The residents association of an area in my constituency called Smithy Fen, just outside the village of Cottenham, carefully listed for me some of the problems that residents have suffered in the past few weeks. It referred to

It then listed

which are a feature of the fenland area,

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and, finally, there was abuse of animals. The residents association said:

Those are not one person's complaints but a document produced and signed by a large number of my constituents who live in the area.

A letter from an individual constituent who has lived in the area for a long time brings a sense of proportion to the issue. We are not talking about scaremongering, or, as is occasionally suggested, intolerance towards those who live another lifestyle. My constituent states:

Those are all the issues to which I have just referred.

I stress that I do not seek to brand the large numbers of people who live a travelling lifestyle as criminal or antisocial or suggest that they engage in such behaviour. They are entitled to live that lifestyle. They have their own law and rules by which they abide and, as my constituent said, people have learned to co-exist with them.

However, my constituents expect travellers to abide by the same rules, and the same criminal, planning and other legislation as the rest of us. I stress that equality of treatment under the law is all that we seek. As a Front-Bench spokesman, I officially welcomed the measures in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, which is shortly to be enacted—the Minister will know whether it has received Royal Assent since Monday night—but they refer to unauthorised camping on private land where the landowner has not given consent. I want to concentrate in this debate on the situation in which travellers are camping on land that they own, or which other travellers own. Travellers are increasingly buying land, legitimately—I hesitate to suggest where the money may be coming from to buy the land, but it usually comes in the form of notes from a back pocket. They buy land legitimately, create hard standings, often install services, and park a caravan.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): My hon. Friend is describing exactly what is happening in Startley and Minety in my constituency. These people turn up with disproportionately large amounts of money—goodness knows where they get it from—paying sometimes £25,000 or £50,000 an acre for the sites. Not surprisingly, the farmers sell the land to them. It is a real problem.

Mr. Paice : My hon. Friend illustrates that the problem is not unique to Cambridgeshire, but is happening increasingly in other parts of the country. I know that other hon. Members have experienced similar

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situations. Travellers are buying up land; sometimes they then sell it off in smaller parcels. I cannot say where the money comes from; what concerns me is that legally these people know what they are doing. They are very clever, and understand the law and planning legislation. They know that in cases such as these, possession is half the battle. Once they own the site, have created a hard standing and have put the caravan there, they can nearly always stay there.

I shall now narrow the debate to the situation in the South Cambridgeshire district. It is important, because it underlines that, in my area at least, the local authority has done everything that it could be possibly be expected to do—indeed, more than some of my constituents would have liked—to meet travellers' needs. On the last six-monthly count, there were 290 caravans in the South Cambridgeshire district parked on approved, private pitches, and 30 more on approved sites provided by the local authority. There were 104 parked on unapproved sites. Those numbers continue to increase. With a total of 340 caravans on approved sites in South Cambridgeshire alone, I hardly think that anyone could suggest that South Cambridgeshire district council is not fulfilling its obligation.

That brings me to the planning guidance under which the council has to operate: circular 1/94, issued on 5 January 1994 by the then Department of the Environment, headed "Gypsy Sites and Planning". Paragraph 8 states:

Paragraph 10 says:

Critically, paragraph 26 states:

I am describing what has happened in the past few weeks and months. At Easter there was a massive influx into southern Cambridgeshire of what are known as Irish gypsies. They parked in a range of different places, sometimes on unauthorised property, often on private land. I shall not go into all those situations in detail but suffice to say that, after a while, they were moved on. A large number of them descended on the area known as Smithy Fen just outside the village of Cottenham, and they are still there. In some cases, they may have purchased other land from other travellers, but they have parked on land for which planning approval has not been granted.

The result was that the district council served a range of enforcement and stop notices. I have a list of them here; I shall not read them all out, but they all relate to land between Setchell drove and Water lane in the Smithy Fen area. It is not only that travellers descended on the place, parked there, that the council served notices and that they have now been to appeal; they also displaced a lot of people who were there.

Last night, a parish council meeting considered a planning application for eight caravans in the neighbouring parish of Rampton in my constituency.

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They are for a family of traditional travellers who have lived in Smithy Fen for a long time and have now been displaced. In a statement, the family said:

I hope that the Minister fully comprehends the importance of that statement. They are a traditional travelling family who have lived in Smithy Fen for 12 years—lived in the whole area for 50 years—and they have been intimidated and forced out of their homes because of the influx of other travellers. That would be fine if the planning arrangements supported them in their time of need.

The district council served enforcement and stop notices and the inspector who heard the appeal came forward with his pronouncement. The inspector's report is a complete travesty of anything that could be called justice. He starts by making congratulatory statements about the district council—that is why I concentrated earlier on planning guidance and the need for provision within structure plans for travellers sites. He refers to policy SP 4/6 of the proposed revised structure plan, which

He refers to the fact that the council produced nine criteria that would have to be met, which had gone through the local planning inspector. He said that there is

He states that there is no evidence that policy H29 is likely to be modified further, and he notes that

The report continues:

In paragraph 14 of the report, the inspector says:

I hope that by illustrating the total number of approved sites earlier I have shown that the local authority has facilitated provision.

Somewhat perversely, the report later states:

That is despite the fact that people who have traditionally resided in the area in question have been displaced.

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Of the appellant families, the inspector, Mr. Roberts, says that

If I bought a piece of land to build a home next to a member of my family because I wanted to be near my family, I would not have a prayer of getting planning consent if that plot were outside the village envelope. However, because of some purported family relationship—I have no idea whether it is true that there is one—that family will be given planning consent. Adding to the calumny, Mr. Roberts continues:

He continues, perversely:

I could go on.

The inquiry result and the inspector's report have produced so much anger and distress in Cottenham and the surrounding areas, I cannot vouch that it will not cause further serious problems. There is a large number of other planning enforcement notices and appeals outstanding. I know that the Minister will probably tell me that this case does not set a precedent, but most of us are cynical enough to expect it to. The precedent it sets is horrendous. We could experience a doubling of the 33 approved pitches in this area.

The fact that the inspector approved it is beyond belief. In paragraph 33, Mr. Roberts says:

In other words, he is supporting the policy of the district council. The council assessed the sites against that policy, and decided that they did not meet the criteria. That is why it served the enforcement notices. As I have intimated, the inspector upheld the appeal on several grounds, so families will now stay there. The Smithy Fen travellers site is now much larger, and will almost certainly get approval to become larger because the appeal is still outstanding.

I shall refer to one letter that I have received today, and I have received a large number. There has been some local publicity about today's debate, and this particular letter is from an individual who was at a meeting of the parish council. He says:

That is the heartfelt view of one of my constituents.

I conclude by saying that the whole purpose of planning guidance is to set a framework against which local planning authorities make their own judgments. The case of Smithy Fen and Cottenham fits across the board the planning guidance issued in 1994. The structure plan and the district plan also fit. The council has come up with a number of approved sites and has demonstrated that it is prepared to meet the needs of travellers.

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In the case of my constituency, we were faced with a massive invasion by people who knew the law inside out and were prepared to flout it. They went to appeal and have got their way. Now, no one has any confidence that appeals will be rejected. No one has any confidence that anything that is said or done locally by parish or district councils will be upheld by the Government. I know that the Minister may claim that she cannot talk about one decision. However, the impact of the decision is catastrophic for local authorities trying to deal with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) has endorsed—the huge numbers of additional planning applications for land already owned by travellers. The Government have to get to grips with that, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I want to reassure my constituents that the situation is not as bleak as it looks at present.

4.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper) : I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) on securing the debate—even though it has perhaps not taken place quite as early as he would have liked—and on raising the important issue of gypsies, travellers and the planning system, particularly in his constituency. He will know that there are thousands of gypsies and travellers in this country, many of whom have lived a nomadic lifestyle for generations. Like everyone else they have human rights, which must be respected, and like everyone else they have responsibilities to others, and to other communities. He will know the importance of ensuring that there is no unfair discrimination against gypsies and travellers. Certainly, that is a matter that the Commission for Racial Equality has been concerned about. Equally, he will be aware that settled communities, too, have rights that need to be respected.

Respect for those rights includes the obligation for gypsy and traveller communities and settlements to comply with the law, including planning law. It also includes the obligation for local authorities and the police to deal with concerns about fly-tipping, antisocial behaviour and the other problems that hon. Members have raised.

Mr. Gray : Of course, there must be no discrimination against gypsies—but does the Minister agree that there must be no discrimination against local people, either?

Yvette Cooper : Certainly; that was the point that I was making. Just as there should be no discrimination against gypsies and travellers, the settled community of towns and villages that have existed for many years, equally, has rights that should be respected.

Hon. Members will be aware that I cannot comment on the detail of specific planning cases, given the role of the Secretary of State in such cases. However, I shall talk briefly about the current planning system and related issues. Department of the Environment circular 1/94 set out planning policies concerning the provision of suitable locations for gypsy sites, whether private or provided by the local authority. In formulating development plans, local authorities are encouraged to discuss gypsies' accommodation needs with the gypsies themselves, with a view to identifying suitable locations

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for gypsy sites in plans wherever possible. For many local authorities, especially in rural areas, the identification of specific sites is not easy. Where they have found it impossible to identify suitable locations, circular 1/94 says that they must define clear and realistic criteria as a basis for site provision.

Development plans must take account of local circumstances. Concern is increasingly expressed in Adjournment debates about gypsies establishing sites without first obtaining planning consent, often after choosing inappropriate locations in land-use terms, such as greenbelt land or open countryside, giving rise to enforcement action by local authorities.

Local authorities have a range of enforcement powers for dealing with breaches of planning control. First, they have the power to serve a planning contravention notice, when they require information. Secondly, there is the power to issue an enforcement notice, requiring steps to be taken. Thirdly, there is the power to serve a stop notice, with immediate effect. Fourthly, the authority can seek an injunction in the High Court or the county court to restrain any actual or expected breach of planning control. Finally, there are improved powers of entry to land for authorised officers of the local planning authority.

Powers exist under section 178 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to enable a local planning authority to enter and remove unauthorised development undertaken in breach of an enforcement notice.

Separate issues arise in relation to unauthorised encampments—where the land is not owned by the campers. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire raised some issues about cases of that kind, and the discussions earlier this week about the Anti-social Behaviour Bill and the important improvements in police powers to remove illegally camped gypsies and travellers to authorised sites are relevant here. However, as he confined most of his remarks to planning issues when gypsies and travellers own the sites, I shall say a little more about that, and explain what issues I think we should consider further in the next few months.

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The hon. Gentleman is one of many people who have raised concerns about the way in which the current system works. Such concerns have been raised not only by MPs but by the Gypsy Council, local authorities and the CRE. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has set in train a serious programme of work to examine those concerns in some detail.

For example, a serious problem raised by many is that there is not enough site provision throughout the UK. A study carried out by the university of Birmingham suggested that an extra 1,000 to 2,000 residential sites might be needed over the next five to 10 years. Whether those would be local authority sites, or whether they would be appropriate sites for gypsies and travellers to buy where development would be acceptable, many people are concerned that there is simply not enough site provision. We are examining that issue in some detail. The Government have allocated £33 million over five years to improve the sites provided by local authorities, but we continue to examine the issue.

We are also concerned about the nature of the enforcement system. We are conducting a review of the planning enforcement regime, and are due to report our conclusions over the next few months. Many of the cases raised by hon. Members concerned gypsies and travellers who have settled where local authorities have not given planning permission. Those cases give rise to issues that are distinct from the broader planning enforcement regime. Statistics show that gypsy and traveller planning applications are more likely to be turned down in the first place, but more likely to be successful at the appeal stage. There are also links between enforcement and the level of site provision.

We are examining the speed of the planning enforcement system, where planning is inappropriate, and a range of other issues related to enforcement against inappropriate development. Over the next few months, as the work under way in the Department continues, I will be happy to discuss this matter further with hon. Members, based on the experience that they have gained in their constituencies. Many hon. Members have raised concerns, and we must ensure that we get the balance right in addressing this complex issue.

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