Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence


Memorandum by Wakefield Metropolitan District Council (GTS 20)

1.  CURRENT PROVISION AND LOCATION OF SITES

  1.1  City of Wakefield Metropolitan District Council (WMDC) covers an area of 33,000 hectares with a population of approx. 317,000 people. This is centrally located at the heart of the UK's communications network. Its strategic position at the intersection of the M1, A1(M) and M62 motorways provides excellent access to all parts of the UK.

  1.2  The Caravan Sites Act 1968- established a duty on local authorities to provide Gypsy sites to meet the needs of those "residing in or resorting to" their area. When the government was satisfied they provided enough they could become "designated", which meant the authorities had additional powers to remove unauthorised encampments. Wakefield MDC provided one such permanent site at Heath Common, Wakefield providing 38 family pitches for approx. 250 Gypsy & Travellers and one Transit/Temporary stopping place.

2.  DEMAND FOR AND USE OF SITES

  2.1  Heath Common Travellers Site is currently at approximately 90% capacity this fluctuates with seasonal changes. During winter months the site constantly runs at 100% capacity, with a number of families requiring accommodation placed on a waiting list. The Gypsy and Travellers Liaison Service at Wakefield do keep in constant contact with a network of neighbouring authorities, and families who cannot be accommodated are usually pointed in the direction of local sites with known vacancies.

  2.2  Site license conditions state families are allowed to leave for a period not exceeding 6 weeks after which the pitch will become available for re-allocation

  2.3  In the year 2003 Wakefield MDC had 71 separate incidents of unauthorised camping, 68% of these were on Local Authority owned land. On every occasion when Travellers moved onto council owned land Wakefield MDC offerred them alternate accommodation on the permanent travellers site. On every occasion this offer was made, it was declined.

  2.4  Further extensive enquiries with these families suggest they would have no intention moving if directed onto sites allocated by the Local Authority. There is no evidence of significant further demand for permanent Gypsy sites in the Wakefield MDC area, except in response to specific planning enforcement cases.

3  EXISTING FUNDING ARRANGEMENTS

  3.1  Heath Travellers site has a specific budget determined at the beginning of each financial year.

  3.2  Wakefield MDC does have partner agencies who operate from and use the facilities of Heath Travellers Site, to conduct their own activities for the site residents. These include Health and Welfare groups, and Travellers Education Service. These all have their own independent budgets to fund their own activities, whilst making their own contributions to the improvement of the facilities already on the site.

  3.3  Expenditure incurred as a result of unauthorised camping, including the legal work, subsequent clear-up operations and security of land is currently funded by individual local authority departments and landowners. Due to the unpredictability of this subject area funding for unauthorised camping cannot always be realistically planned for. Therefore none of these departments have specific budgets designated for this work to be undertaken. This results in these departments experiencing deficiencies in other areas where annual funding had initially been set aside for.

4  THE GYPSY SITE REFURBISHMENT GRANT SCHEME

  4.1  Wakefield MDC has been successful in securing 75% funding from the ODPM from the above scheme, for the past two years. This funding has been used to part fund Wakefield MDCs continuous commitment to improve the existing facilities on Heath Travellers Site.

  4.2  Wakefield MDC will continue to consult the residents of Heath Travellers Site and will continue to submit bids for any available grant aid to improve facilities at its permanent Gypsy site, in order to maintain and improve the quality of life for residents.

5  SITE CHARACTERISTICS AND THE FACILITIES PROVIDED

  5.1  Heath Travellers site is located on Heath Common at Wakefield. This area has been frequented by Gypsies and Travellers for generations, some residents on the site have been there for 30 years plus and their descendants can be traced back to Heath Common to before the beginning of the century. The site is located on the A638 Doncaster Road, one of the main arterial routes into Wakefield with the City Centre and general facilities such as shopping, schools and Medical centers within walking distance.

  5.2  Each of the 38 family pitches has the capacity to take upto three caravans on a hard standing surface; all pitches are individual with a perimeter fence and lockable gates. There is a utility block for each pitch providing the residents with a toilet and bathroom, kitchenette, washing facilities, and a storage room. The blocks have mains water and electricity supply.

  5.3  The site does have a wardens house which has recently been converted and now provides office facilities for staff and accommodation to facilitate various activities for the site residents. These includes:

    —  secure office to deal with site related issues;

    —  cookery classes;

    —  adult education (Literacy, numeracy and Driving Theory);

    —  after school homework clubs;

    —  under five classes and activities;

    —  mother and toddlers groups;

    —  regular health clinics; and

    —  arts initiative.

  This building is located in a secure compound which now provides a safe environment and the following now attend the site on a regular basis:

    —  Play Bus.

    —  Mobile Library Service.

    —  Connexions Youth Service.

    —  Mobile Dental Unit.

  5.4  The site does have security in the form of an eight foot perimeter fence and two CCTV cameras, all at the specific request of the residents.

6.  MANAGEMENT OF UNAUTHORISED CAMPING

  6.1  Managing Unauthorised Encampments an Operational Guidance

  The provisions contained within the above document and within the Traveller Law Reform Bill seem to be based on the following.

    —  Whilst there are existing provisions for a landowner, a Local Authority and/or the Police to evict travellers from land (with proposals for even greater Police powers) the problem is that there is nowhere to evict them to.

    —  If sufficient temporary stopping places (in addition to any existing permanent Traveller sites) were to be provided in Local authority areas then:

      (a)  there should not be a problem in the first place since Travellers would have a legitimate place to stay; or

      (b)  if they did camp illegally, then prompt action could be taken to have them moved to such a temporary stopping place.

  In the ODPM News Release (Further Funding To Help Gypsy, Traveller And Settled Communities Live In Harmony) the above is described as "in essence a `carrot and stick' strategy—if you make sites available, there will be more power to move unauthorised campers quickly."

  This perspective seems, in many ways, to mirror the same philosophy as existed previously when the answer to the problem of illegal encampments was for County Councils to provide Gypsy Caravan Sites as required by the Caravan Sites Act 1968; since repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

  Wakefield Metropolitan District Council at the time provided a Gypsy site which accommodates up to 250 Travellers. The "stick" at that time being the legal requirement and the "carrot" being that with Designation status the Council could take action through the courts more speedily.

  In spite of the legal compulsion to provide sites not all Local Authorities did so.

  6.2  In Wakefield (when compared to neighbouring authorities with no sites) provision of a Traveller site under the "old regime" has not produced the perceived advantage of being able to deal with unauthorised encampments more speedily—Designation status and the ensuing benefits were repealed under the CJ&PO Act 1994. Whilst the provisions for removal contained within the Act were similar to those to be followed by a Local Authority with Designation status these were weakened by subsequent case law and the constraints contained within Government Circular 18/94.

  6.3  A further effect of providing a Traveller site, especially such a large site, is that it attracts relatives/friends of the site residents who then illegally encamp in the surrounding areas; not just to visit but also to go about their activities until they are moved on/or business activities have ceased. Family occasions: weddings, funerals, christenings etc arising from residents on the site can also result in large numbers of Travellers suddenly coming into the area and camping illegally.

  It is perhaps pertinent to ask whether the Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Commission will take such factors into account when determining the Traveller accommodation needs in an area. Will the onus be put onto those Local Authorities who previously did not provide sites to look to providing the new transit stopping places?

  6.3.1  With regard to provision of transit stopping places:

    —  Unless military precision is employed in travellers moving around the country then many more transit places than numbers of Travellers will be required in order to ensure that sufficient places are available in any locality to meet demand at any time.

    —  Family groupings and difficulties with compatibility add further to the problem of providing temporary accommodation at short notice.

    —  How many caravans could be accommodated on such toleration sites—last year in the Wakefield MDC area there were illegal encampments comprising up to 100 caravans.

    —  How can you prevent the locations becoming permanent residential sites (as has happened to the Gypsy Sites provided under the terms of the Caravan Sites Act 1968)—there would be difficulty in applying to the Courts for eviction from a recognised toleration site and where would you evict them from such a site to?

    —  How do you manage these encampments, enforce the collection of fees, prevent theft or vandalism of the facilities provided—if it was so simple these people would use the Caravan Club Touring Sites at sites throughout the country—they choose instead to park illegally, presumably in situations where there is business available locally and to pay nothing for staying there.

  6.4  The greatest difficulty, however, would seem to be in identifying suitable locations for such toleration/transit sites due to local opposition and the Planning process.

  6.5  There is emphasis in the document for Travellers and the settled population to be treated equally with the same rights and responsibilities. Whilst this is an appropriate principle to aspire to, there can be difficulties in practice—the gypsy population is a closed community, people use multiple names and identities, enforcement can be difficult/impossible with people on the move.

  6.6  It is suggested that facilities including skips for refuse should be provided. Whilst I can appreciate a case for containers/bags for household waste to be provided, most of the waste left on illegal sites is trade refuse arising from business activities eg tree loppings or waste taken away for a fee such as tyres or even asbestos. It would seem inappropriate for the Local Authorities to provide facilities for trade refuse—the settled community do not have such facilities provided free of charge.

  6.7  There is emphasis throughout the document that there are insufficient authorised sites available, which in essence, it is inferred, is the reason for problems arising.

  Section 2.7 of the document states that on average, there have been 800 more caravans on unauthorised sites than in January. In the Wakefield area the difference tends to be more far ranging with numerous encampments throughout the summer months but little or no activity in winter.

  6.8  Whilst there may be some migration from the Wakefield Gypsy Site, it tends to be on a temporary basis, with pitches being reserved (and therefore not available for re-letting) for up to six weeks until the Travellers return. There has been occasions when such residents have left a vacant but reserved pitch to then encamp illegally some 10 miles away in another part of the Wakefield MDC area. This exemplifies the range of difficulties in assessing and addressing the scale and the needs of the situation both locally and on a national basis.

7.  ODPM STATISTICAL INFORMATION ON CARAVANS, SITES AND FAMILIES

  7.1  Wakefield MDC does participate in the collation and subsequent submission of the above information, and will continue to do so.

  7.2  A comprehensive database of statistical information on numbers of caravans, families etc is maintained on a daily basis. This helps to highlight seasonal trends and identify vulnerable locations. This has assisted in the effective allocation of resources at peak times.


 
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Prepared 17 June 2004