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10 Nov 2004 : Column 299WH—continued

Gypsy Encampment (Minety)

3.30 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to raise an extremely important constituency issue. For the record, the correct pronunciation is "Mine-tee", and a wonderful place it is, too. However, in recent weeks and months—indeed, it is getting on for two years—what was a peaceful and remote rural village has, in effect, been wrecked by the presence of 50 or 60 Gypsy caravans, whose owners have illegally occupied a greenfield site.

This is a timely debate because the issue affects not only Minety, but a great many other places throughout England. Most notable among them are Smithy Fen near Cottenham, where the problem that I am about to describe is particularly bad, and North Curry in Somerset, which has recently had the Minety experience again. So the debate is of more than purely constituency interest, and the Minister's reply will be of interest to hon. Members from throughout England. Indeed, even the Prime Minister suggested at Prime Minister's Question Time last Wednesday that he would leave no stone unturned in seeking a solution to this intractable problem, so we are looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on his behalf.

Under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, we could remove Gypsies when they were illegally camped on public or private land. That was easily done; it was a good Act and it worked rather well. In recent years, however, the pattern has changed: instead of illegally entering public or private land, Gypsies purchase land and occupy it covertly, having put it around that they want it for agricultural purposes. They nearly always invade the site after office hours on a Friday evening so that the local district council has gone home for the weekend. They breach the hedges, bringing in dozens of lorries of hardcore to lay down hard standing. They bring cesspits and even lay on electricity and, in many cases, telephones. An army of caravans then arrives—in my constituency, it was 50 or 60, but there were even more in Cambridgeshire, which was a particularly bad case. The same happened in Newbury and a variety of other places. By Monday morning, when the district council returns to work, it finds a well established Gypsy encampment of 50 or 100 caravans.

The Gypsies then put in a retrospective planning application for the site, which the district council, of course, turns down. Naturally enough, the Gypsies go to appeal on the issue. Attempts are made to remove them. In my constituency, Wiltshire county council tried to use highways matters in the High Court to do that, but the court will defer any such removal action until an appeal has been heard, which, by definition, may be a year to 18 months from the date of the illegal occupation. If the Gypsies take the matter further—they have talked about going to the European Court of Human Rights and to other organisations—it could be several months or years before proper action is taken to end what, by anybody's standards, is an illegal occupation.

The Gypsies seem to hope that inertia will set in and that people will say that it is easier to leave them where they are than to remove them because they have been there for such a long time. Well, I can tell them that, as
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far as Minety goes, they have chosen the wrong village. People there are up in arms in a big way about the issue. I have held two public meetings, both of which were attended by 400 extremely angry people who wanted to take all kinds of action to have the Gypsies removed.

If the Gypsies think that the MP for the area is a pushover, they have made a mistake there, too. I assure those Gypsies, who are making the lives of several of my constituents hell—I use the word advisedly—that if they think we will roll over and let them stay, they are quite wrong. I have been to two or three such debates in this Chamber, so I know that the same applies to several other areas, where the Member of Parliament is fighting the case very hard.

The debate is particularly timely because, on Monday, the Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister produced what, in many ways, was a carefully researched and thought through report on the problem. I welcome the fact that the Committee has done that work, and we look forward to the Government's response. However, I have no hesitation in taking issue with one of the main conclusions reached by the Select Committee—that the solution to the kind of illegal occupancy of land that I have described in Minety is the provision of more Gypsy sites throughout England. The Committee seems to think that if we provide enough Gypsy sites for the 3,500 caravans that are illegally parked at present, that will solve the problem.

If that is the case, where will those sites be built? They would be small sites—perhaps 10 caravans per site—and we would therefore be looking for 300 or 350 more sites just for a few caravans. Given that we are talking only about rural constituencies, that would probably mean three or four proper Gypsy caravan sites in each of those rural constituencies. My constituency would doubtless be one of them, and if I was challenged to find three or four sites for a legal Gypsy encampment in North Wiltshire, I would be hard pressed to do so—indeed, I would not consider doing so.

The Committee's conclusion also ignores the fact that the Gypsies do not seem to want to go to certain parts of England—they seem to want to go to particular places—and also that they do not want to go on to local authority sites. In Wiltshire, for example, we have an abundance of local authority sites—perhaps I exaggerate my case a little by using the word "abundance"—but there are certainly vacancies on local authority sites in Wiltshire. Indeed, a new site was recently opened outside Salisbury. The Gypsies in Minety left a local authority site in Swindon—a legitimate, sensible local authority site—and moved on to their own land.

The pattern appears to be that Gypsies do not to want to live on local authority sites, but on land that they themselves own. I rather encourage that. It seems to me to be eminently sensible to encourage them to set up their own sites legally and with proper planning permission. Local authorities ought to set aside and designate land for Gypsy encampments. The Gypsies could then buy that land and put an encampment on it. That seems a sensible way forward, whereas invading a site and then seeking retrospective planning permission will not work.
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There is also a problem of what I would describe as a Parkinson's law of Gypsies: there has been an enormous increase in the number of Gypsies in England, which shows no sign of abating. I remember that in the early 1960s, when the original legislation on Gypsy encampments was passed, there were 3,000 caravans in England and about 1,700 illegally parked. Today, there are about 6,000 Gypsy caravans on council-approved sites, 5,000 on private sites, and about 4,000 that are illegally parked—something like 15,000 in total. In other words, the numbers have increased four times since the 1960s.

Recently, I asked a Gypsy at a meeting that I held with them, "Where on earth are all these Gypsies coming from?" and received probably the most disarming response that I have experienced at any recent meeting. He replied, "From their mothers, I reckon." However, I do not think that that is the case—although doubtless they had something to do with it. I suspect that a significant number of Gypsies are coming in from Ireland and Romania. There is a significant influx of Gypsies into England at present and, with the expansion of the European Union, that process will doubtless continue.

I therefore do not accept that simply increasing the number of sites available—putting some sort of requirement on local authorities to provide sites—would necessarily solve the problem. In that context, I am glad to have read a press release in which the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister gave an initial reaction to the Select Committee's report. It stated:

I hope that the Minister will reiterate that statement today, and confirm that placing some kind of obligation on local authorities to provide more sites would not necessarily solve the problem.

The second point on which many people watching the debate today will be keen to hear a clear statement from the Minister relates to the fact that a number of recent court cases concerning Gypsies have rested to a significant degree on the Human Rights Act 1998. There is some lack of clarity as to whether the Human Rights Act can be used in planning law during consideration of whether to allow those sites. In the recent Chichester case, the media's interpretation was that the Act had led the judge to allow the Gypsies to remain, although I think that that was a misinterpretation of the judgment. In a recent case in Cottenham, the judge delayed any decision on the site pending a legal challenge by the Gypsies using the 1998 Act. In that case, the judge commented that the Gypsies were holding a gun to the head of the councils.

Will the Minister confirm the stance taken by the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) at our meeting about six months ago, to which I took a group of councillors and officers from Wiltshire county council and North Wiltshire district council? At that meeting, I asked her whether the Human Rights Act 1998 should have
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anything to do with planning issues with regard to Gypsies, and she gave a reply that she then confirmed in writing. Her letter states:

She said also that local planning authorities, inspectors and the Secretary of State have always had to comply with convention rights

That sums it up exactly: Gypsies and non-Gypsies alike must conform to planning law, and the fact that some people happen to be of a nomadic frame of mind should not give any presumption in their favour in planning law. They must go through the same processes that any other constituent of mine would have to go through if they wanted to set up their holiday caravan in a field. There is no reason why a person who calls himself a Gypsy, Traveller, new-age Traveller or any of the other descriptions around, should have a presumption in their favour. The presumption against allowing such things should apply to them in the same way as to anyone else.

The European Court of Human Rights confirmed that approach in the Chapman case of 2001, in which it said that any kind of presumption in favour of Gypsies would be

The court said that it was not convinced that the human rights convention could be interpreted to allow

to be imposed on member states.

So, the ECHR seems to have laid down that the Human Rights Act does not apply, and the Under-Secretary of State seems to have confirmed that in her letter to me, but the judges in certain recent cases seem to be unclear as to whether the Human Rights Act applies. The Minister might like to use this opportunity, if he does nothing else, to shed some light on this particular legal point about the degree to which Gypsies may use the Act in seeking to obtain a retrospective planning application.

Leaving the legal question aside, it seems to me—and the Prime Minister, if he is to believed—that people in Minety, and many other places across England, should be able to remove people such as the Gypsies in Minety. They are breaking the law; they have illegally moved into a greenfield site in the middle of the countryside. No one disputes that they have broken planning law. Even the Gypsies do not dispute that; they do not say, "We are here legally." They accept that they are there illegally.

The first duty of the Government should be to come up with a mechanism whereby we can remove such people more easily and quickly. Several proposals have been put forward, most notably last year, in the private Member's Bill of an hon. Friend of mine, which would have allowed stop notices to be applied to Gypsies instantly on their discovery, and their instant removal so that they could seek prospective rather than retrospective planning permission for their site. In other words, it would have put them in precisely the same
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situation as any other applicant. The Ministry or the Government should tell councils such as North Wiltshire district council what they can do better to enforce the planning law.

I readily accept that there are complex legal issues—the fact that the courts are so busily occupied looking into Gypsy sites is evidence of that, but positive discrimination in favour of Gypsies is as bad as negative discrimination against them. I hope that the Minister agrees. It is plain that, in equity, Gypsies should be treated in precisely the same way as anyone else. I have no objection to their nomadic way of life; I respect that they want to live that way. If they want to settle down, I, as a local Member of Parliament, will help them with housing and other issues, but if they want to live a nomadic way of life, they should be treated the same as any constituent who does not. If they prefer to own their sites, that is fine; let us have local authority land designated specifically for Gypsy encampments, but can we please have stronger powers to enforce the will of the local people, as represented by the district councils, for when they will not do that?

Illegal Gypsy encampments of the kind at Minety seem rapidly to be becoming a national crisis. This afternoon, we look to the Minister to show us some ways out of this difficult problem.

3.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope) : May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing this debate on the important issue of Gypsies and Travellers and unauthorised developments in his constituency? I am sure he is right to say that the debate has a wider resonance than simply the case that concerns him. He will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual planning cases like that of Minety because of the appellate responsibilities of the Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee, which published its report into Gypsy and Traveller accommodation issues earlier this week. We certainly welcome the interest shown by the Select Committee. It raises many important issues that we are already considering as part of a review of Gypsy and Traveller policy. We will respond to its report in due course. I am glad he would agree that Gypsies and Travellers should enjoy the same rights as everyone else to establish a decent place to live, as long as they do so within the law. That is a point of agreement across the Chamber.

We believe in an inclusive society where members of this community have the right to pursue a traditional nomadic lifestyle and to access essential services, but I also acknowledge the problems that are often caused by unauthorised development and the concerns of the settled community when that occurs. It is for those reasons that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is currently undertaking a Gypsy and Traveller policy review. Officials will report to Ministers on the outcome of that shortly.

Mr. Gray : The Minister says "shortly", but how shortly?
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Phil Hope : After many years in this place, the hon. Gentleman will know that shortly means shortly. Unfortunately, I cannot define it any more exactly. I think he will appreciate that it does not mean lengthily.

The review has a focus on equality issues for the Gypsy and Traveller community and the mainstreaming of Gypsy and Traveller issues within wider local and national policy. The review is looking at how we can encourage more publicly provided and privately owned sites and how to overcome some of the unnecessary barriers that exist to site provision. We want the planning system to reflect the mainstreaming of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation within the wider social housing context. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that at the end of his remarks. We also want it to support changes that will lead to the improvement of the health of Gypsies and Travellers who have the poorest health status of any black or minority ethnic group in England.

As a part of this wider policy review, we have already started a thorough review of the Gypsy sites planning circular and will be publishing a new draft circular for consultation later in the autumn. That gives the hon. Gentleman some clues as to how close we may be to that process. While the Government recognise that some Gypsies and Travellers wish to embrace a nomadic lifestyle, we know that others prefer to live a more settled existence on local authority or private sites. I want to draw what I hope will be a helpful distinction between unauthorised development and unauthorised camping.

An unauthorised encampment is one where the land is not owned by those setting it up. I will talk about this later if I have time. The focus of the debate today has been on unauthorised developments. An unauthorised development is where a person or persons, be they Gypsies and Travellers or members of the settled community, purchase land and carry out development for which planning permission is required, but where no such permission has been granted. That is considered a breach of planning control and amounts to unauthorised development. Local planning authorities have a range of enforcement powers to deal with unauthorised development.

While I cannot comment on specific planning cases, it might be useful to say a few words about the Government's policy on Gypsy and Traveller sites and planning. Planning policies concerning the provision of suitable locations for Gypsy and Traveller sites, whether local authority provided or private, are set out in the Department of the Environment circular 1/94, published in 1994, entitled "Gypsy Sites and Planning".

The current circular recognises the desire of many Gypsies and Travellers to buy their own sites to develop and manage. Gypsy and Traveller sites constitute development and therefore require planning permission. In formulating their development plans, local authorities are encouraged to discuss Gypsies' accommodation needs with the Gypsies themselves, with a view to identifying suitable locations for Gypsy and Traveller sites in plans wherever possible.

For many local authorities, especially in rural areas, the identification of sites is not easy, as the hon. Gentleman said. Where local authorities find it impossible to identify suitable locations, they must define clear and realistic criteria as the basis for site
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provision. It is the responsibility of local authorities to judge how they frame their policies, which are open to public scrutiny and comments at inquiry.

Local plans must take account of local circumstances. For example, Gypsy and Traveller sites are not among the uses that are normally appropriate on greenbelt land, in areas of special scientific interest or on open land where development is severely restricted. The onus is on the applicant to prove special circumstances that overcome the harm through inappropriateness.

Mr. Gray : The Minister specifies the different types of land that circular 1/94 mentions as inappropriate, but he has not yet mentioned areas of outstanding natural beauty. Does the circular make any reference to them? If so, is there a preference against areas of outstanding natural beauty but in favour of other open countryside, or are Gypsy encampments in open countryside of all kinds inappropriate?

Phil Hope : I am going to discuss later in detail how the planning system works when an unauthorised development occurs in a place that, for any number of reasons, might be inappropriate and what the planning authority can do to ensure that matters are put right.

The special circumstances that allow a site to be developed might include health and educational needs, but it would be for the planning authority to decide on that, using the planning system.

The 1994 circular is not working effectively in many areas to identify enough appropriate sites. Recent caravan counts have shown that there are around 3,500 caravans on unauthorised developments and encampments in England—I think that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the figure of 4,000—of which around a third are in the eastern region. The new circular is likely to stress the importance of local authorities undertaking a proper quantitative assessment of need, of meeting that need via proper spatial planning through the new regional planning process, and of the identification of specific sites and achievable criteria that offer some certainty of planning permission being granted.

Unfortunately, some Gypsies and Travellers often proceed to establish sites without first obtaining the necessary planning consent, as the hon. Gentleman described. In many cases, the locations that they choose are inappropriate in land use terms, such as where land is in the green belt or open countryside. Enforcement action by local authorities against such unauthorised development is therefore common.

In addition, the Government expect the standard of the behaviour from Gypsies and Travellers to be the same as that expected in the settled community. Any antisocial behaviour will be dealt with in the same way.

Mr. Gray : Will the Minister give way?

Phil Hope : I have more to say.

Travellers and Gypsies, whatever type of site or encampment they are on, should take responsibility for their plots or for the land next to them, keep them clean, not tip waste, dispose of waste properly and not cause
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a nuisance to neighbours. The availability of alternative sites can be a consideration when appeals against enforcement notices are determined, but only when considering such sites as alternatives to a proposed location that is not suitable itself in planning terms.

Local authorities have a key role to play in identifying suitable locations for sites and in working with Gypsies to help them find land that they can purchase and develop. A few planning authorities have now adopted that best practice. Although that does not deal with the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, close co-operation between local authorities and Gypsies is very much the best way forward to reduce instances where Gypsies establish sites unlawfully—in some cases causing friction between the Gypsy and Traveller and settled communities.

The Government share the view that local planning authorities should take appropriate enforcement action if they consider an unacceptable breach of planning control to have occurred. There is a range of tools at local planning authorities' disposal. Under powers in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, local planning authorities have wide-ranging enforcement powers to deal with breaches of planning control. There are powers to serve a planning contravention notice, issue an enforcement notice, serve a stop notice and serve a breach of condition notice, the ability to seek an injunction in the High Court and, finally, improved powers of entry on to land. We also recently introduced the temporary stop notice under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. I will write to the hon. Gentleman about what each of those planning powers means, if that would help him, rather than read through the detail here, given the limited time available to me in this debate.

Powers also exist under section 178 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 that enable a local planning authority to enter and remove unauthorised developments that are in breach of an enforcement notice. Section 178 provides that where an enforcement notice requires steps to be taken that are not taken within the period of compliance with the notice, the local planning authority may enter the land, take the steps and recover from the person who is the owner of the land any expenses reasonably incurred by them in doing so. We have also undertaken a review of the planning enforcement system as a whole, not only for unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller sites but for other unauthorised developments, and we expect to make an announcement about the review later this year.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned human rights in particular. It is, of course, for the local planning authority to determine planning applications, as I just described, and to take breach notices in the sequence that I just outlined. As part of that process, the local authority needs to consider what impact its decision may have on the human rights of individuals.

I want to make it absolutely clear that Gypsies and Travellers do not have special human rights. Everyone has human rights, and all public authorities must act compatibly with convention rights and take decisions individually case by case. Likewise, when inspectors take decisions about appeals, it is for them to decide, as decision takers, whether human rights issues are involved.
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Decisions may be challenged on the ground of human rights, but because of the nature of the system, the outcome of such challenges lies with the courts at the end of the appeal sequence, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It would not be appropriate or possible for me to guess the outcome. The European Court of Human Rights has recognised that complex issues are often involved in planning and that decision takers at all levels are required to exercise discretionary powers in the course of their duties. I want to emphasise that everyone has human rights in these circumstances.

Unauthorised encampments are a local concern, but we know that authorities may operate a policy of toleration to allow such encampments, not developments, to remain temporarily where they are not causing problems. I stress that that policy does not mean tolerating mess, nuisance or bad behaviour. That is not what toleration means. As I said, it means tolerating the existence of encampments where they are not causing problems. Agreed standards must be maintained, or toleration is not an appropriate policy.

There is a range of other powers relating to unauthorised encampments, as distinct from unauthorised developments, with which the hon. Gentleman may be familiar. The Home Office has just consulted on guidance on the new powers against trespassing that were introduced under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. They will be incorporated in the guidance, and will enable the police to remove Gypsies and Travellers from unauthorised encampments with greater speed. They can be used where the police have established, through consultation with local authorities, that a suitable pitch is available on an authorised site in the area. They will obviously be more effective where local authorities have made adequate provision, and are an incentive for local authorities to establish local authority sites. There are several other detailed action points relating to unauthorised encampments, but I will not go into them now, given the time available.

The Gypsy site refurbishment grant is improving conditions on sites throughout the country and is providing new transit sites and stopping places. Revisions to the Gypsy caravan count are being put in place so that we can obtain more accurate and useful data about the network. As I said, we also have a major programme of policy review.

I have not managed to cover all the issues that I wanted to cover, but I hope that I have covered most of them. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the details of each of the planning powers that local authorities have. We take the accommodation issue of Gypsies and Travellers very seriously. We believe that consultation with local authorities on planning matters relating to Gypsies is the right way forward before buying land on which Gypsies want to live or for planning permission for any subsequent development. I hope that many of the difficulties outlined by the hon. Gentleman may be avoided through such consultation.

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