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Travellers' Sites

3.30 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise what is not   only an important issue per se but one that is rapidly escalating as a political issue in many of our constituencies. I know that the Minister understands that only too well and that he has spoken to many other right hon. and hon. Members about the difficulties of dealing with the unauthorised development of Travellers' sites on private land. Indeed, it is a pressing problem that has been evidenced by the amount of questioning and debate in the House in recent months. Even today, an opportune question was put to the Prime Minister, and it was interesting to note his response.

The debate has already benefited from extremely valuable contributions by hon. Members introducing private Members' legislation and securing Adjournment debates, and by the careful consideration of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee. I hope that, in raising the debate, we are all seeking to do two things: first, to make planning law work more effectively for all concerned; and secondly—this is one of my principal motivating forces—to prevent a heightening of tension between the settled and travelling communities.

I see that tension developing in many of the communities that I represent because of the effect of the   developments, and I am afraid to say that I have examples throughout my constituency. There is a problem down in the south Somerset area and a long-standing difficulty in the East Lambrook area. In the north of my constituency near Frome, we have ongoing issues at Trudoxhill and Rudge. I see the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook), who has a well publicised and difficult issue developing in North Curry, which is close to my constituency boundary. He seeks to intervene, and I am happy to let him.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): As the hon. Gentleman said, he is aware of the situation in North Curry as it adjoins his constituency, and he also mentioned that the issue was raised during Prime Minister's Question Time today. Several weeks ago we were promised a swift response. On the assumption that the Government have some guidelines that they are trying to work up, how much longer does he think that hon. Members' patience will last while we wait for them?

Mr. Heath : It is not the patience of hon. Members but the patience of communities that we represent that is being tested. There is a degree of urgency. I want to be as constructive as possible because the Government are wrestling with some difficult issues, but nevertheless we have reached the point where we need to see changes in the basic structure of the relevant regulations.

The difficulty arises from what was the utmost folly in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 of repealing the relevant sections of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. When I was leader of a county council, I could bore for Britain on the provisions of the 1968 Act. It was at the forefront of our minds, not only because we were dealing with what might be considered the traditional Traveller communities, including the Romany people, but because back in the 1980s we were also dealing,
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particularly in Somerset and the west country, with a huge number of what were then described as new age travellers. They were attracted by not only the county of Somerset per se but the Glastonbury festival and other such events.

We were wrestling on a day-to-day basis with the implications of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. However, all of us who were engaged with the issue could see that repealing that legislation would mean a dearth of caravan sites, the result of which would be not the disappearance of the Travellers, but more and more   engagement in what would prove to be illegal encampments, which in turn would cause more problems for local authorities and local communities rather than less.

Concomitant with those changes to the law was the removal of the grant to local authorities to provide accommodation for sites. The responsibility was no longer there, so most authorities no longer felt that they had any locus in provision. The guidance that was issued at the time made the assumption that private sites could and would be developed and would be welcomed by local communities, but that proved to be far from the case. That guidance is extant and is still inadequate.

It is therefore important to see the issue from both sides of the fence, as it were. I certainly do not want to lead any crusade against the Traveller communities. They suffer a high level of discrimination and it is no part of Parliament's activities to make that worse. Such communities will readily say that the number of sites available to them is hugely insufficient. That has been quantified and there is a significant shortfall of such sites against the number of people who would wish to use them.

Such people would point to the fact that planning authorities do not accept their need to establish private sites, even in areas where doing so might be considered entirely appropriate, and the fact that they are far more likely to be met with rejection than acceptance. Such people would also argue that even the sites that are   provided under local authority control are often deeply inadequate, overcrowded and with insufficient provision. There is therefore a sense of aggrievement on the part of the Traveller community. The response to that, however, of buying land, irrespective of where it might be, and deliberately undertaking unauthorised development, secure in the knowledge that the processes of law are sufficiently dilatory and open to argument to enable such people successfully to develop where others would not be allowed to, is not the answer.

That is where the views of the settled community come in. The settled community is enormously resentful, not about the fact that there might be a Travellers' site in the vicinity, but about the inequity, as it sees it, of the fact that the people who develop such sites do so in defiance of the planning law that governs its activities. The most common response that I have encountered, from people who I know do not have a discriminatory outlook, is that the situation is unfair. They wonder how on earth the law can allow such things.

There is a feeling of inequity and of impatience with the prolonged proceedings, in which first a retrospective planning application must be considered, after which, if refused, comes the inevitable appeal and inquiry. If that
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process is unsuccessful, there is a renewed delay involving any eviction or enforcement activity. The result is a feeling of impotence that is shared by the members of local authorities who find themselves in the extremely difficult position of having to answer to their communities for the fact that they cannot do what they know they ought to be able to do in law.

Many settled communities also feel imperilled—sometimes rightly. I do not accept for one moment that the existence of a Travellers' site is concomitant with antisocial behaviour or crime of any kind. That is an unacceptable equation. Nevertheless, it is one that is made by many communities, which makes it all the more important to ensure that the law applies equally to all our citizens in both positive and negative circumstances. There can be no no-go areas for our police, or areas in which antisocial behaviour is tolerated simply because it is not taking place among the settled community.

Further concern is caused by other factors. Many constituents who have faced the situation have told me that they cannot for the life of them see how it can be that a development is unlawful—there are requirements for people to move—yet the utilities insist that they have a duty to provide in a way that they sometimes cannot do for people who have lived in their houses for a long time but cannot get a connection at a reasonable price. That causes a great deal of resentment, as does the incredulity often expressed at some of the issues that are pertinent at the point of a planning inquiry.

What do we want the Minister and the Government to do? I do not have a perfect recipe any more than anybody else does. I understand the balance of interest that has to be achieved between making proper provision for the Traveller community and ensuring that the interests of the settled community are taken properly into account. I seek equity. I also understand that if we concentrate solely on cracking down on unauthorised development, we might produce a different problem—illegal encampment—as a result. That is something that the British Property Federation highlighted in its evidence to the Government.

Local authorities need to have the essential tools. For instance, the temporary stop notices that came into being under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 need to be brought into force at the earliest opportunity. I hope that the Minister can say clearly when that will be; they are a critical tool for local authorities. We also need to consider adequate measures to ensure the restitution of sites. At the moment, we do not have appropriate remedy for the consequences of, for instance, concrete block houses that are built in a rural location—perhaps in an area of outstanding natural beauty or a site of special scientific interest—and remain when the people have gone, a lasting monument to an illegal development.

Local authorities should have the capacity to impose wider injunction, or to threaten injunction, without incurring immense costs. That could be the appropriate measure to prevent some of the difficulties that are presently experienced. Clearly, guidance to planning authorities would be extremely helpful.

We need to look at the pattern of instant overnight sites that has developed—the sort of thing that has been the problem in the constituency of the hon. Member for Taunton. They are not opportunistic; they are well
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planned and designed to create a permanence in a short space of time, often when—as was the case in Taunton Deane, I believe—the council offices are closed and nobody can make contact. I am not sure whether that   story is apocryphal or whether that was what happened in that case. That sort of thing is, effectively, a conspiracy to subvert the planning process. When it is done on that scale and in that way, I do not think that one can come to any other reasonable conclusion than that it is a deliberate attempt to overturn the normal process of planning law.

Those are the areas of enforcement, but they must be balanced by reconsidering the duty to provide, so that we have sufficient sites. I suspect that the Government do not want to go back to the provisions of the Caravans Act 1968, because—among other reasons—it was so often ignored by many of the local authorities that could not care less about whether they made provision or not, putting more and more pressure on those that took their responsibilities seriously. I remember that that was something that we felt strongly about at the time.

However, it is simply not good enough to allow for the criteria for the development of the sites to be in the hands of district councils that are not prepared to provide sites. As part of the strategic approach to planning, we need to identify areas that are appropriate in terms of the effect on the settled community and local services such as schools. A lot of authorities are not very good at making adequate education provision for Travellers' children. Somerset happens to be rather good at it and takes it seriously, although others do not. We need those clear criteria at a national level; I do not often argue from that direction, but this is probably one area where the effect of not in my back yard is so strongly felt at local level that national guidance is needed.

We need to identify whom we are catering for. I am not sure whether the old phrase "residing in or resorting to" still applies in terms of planning for provision of sites, but if it does, I am not sure that it is necessarily right. We need adequately to assess, perhaps in regional rather local terms, how many sites are necessary, and where they are to be provided.

The Government have identified the housing needs survey as one mechanism for dealing with the problem. The more that we deal with it as a housing issue, rather than something completely outwith housing, the better. Empowering the Housing Corporation to act in this area, as well as registered social landlords to make provision, has the additional benefit of taking funding away from the local council tax payer, who often resents paying for that provision, and towards a more corporate view of the need to provide, and perhaps also to improve existing sites.

If we get that balance right and have the proper planning and site provision regimes, any possible excuse for those who seek to ignore due process will be removed. The need to consider extensively article 8 of the human rights provisions is removed; if someone has undertaken a development in an area that they know by definition they cannot develop, that would remove the need for prolonged inquiries and retrospective planning applications. If Travellers know that the site is not in an area that is available for such development, that will
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enable an eviction process to take place at an earlier stage. Most important, it will restore the confidence both of the Traveller community and of the settled community that the law—as well as the Government—is acting equitably, in the interests of both. There is a strong feeling, from both sides and for different reasons, that it is not.

3.49 pm

Paul Clark (Gillingham) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on securing the debate, on what is undoubtedly an important issue in terms of how planning applies to Gypsy and Traveller communities. I suspect that not a single Member of the House has not had to deal with such issues. I also thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he approached the issue, because there is a need for a balance of interests and for both sides of the fence to be considered if we are to find a way through the problem and bring to an end the continual issues that our local communities face.

All of us present would say that Gypsies and Travellers should enjoy the same right as everyone else in the communities that we represent to establish a decent place to live, as long as they do so within the law. Having said that, I acknowledge the problems that are often caused by unauthorised development and the deep concerns that that raises in the settled community. I particularly noted the hon. Gentleman's reference to wanting to prevent the heightening of tension.

I am well aware of the issues that are currently being faced in North Curry. I understand that this Thursday night the local authority will be considering the retrospective planning application. I say to the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) that I understand the frustration and the concern to sort things out as soon as possible. However, it is important that we find solutions that help all in our communities, whether members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities or the settled communities that exist in our towns and country. It is also important that there should be equality of treatment for all the communities that we are considering, and it is correct for the issue of Gypsies and Travellers to be brought into the mainstream of local and national policy. We need to consider how we can address the underlying problem, which is the number of sites, and then how to deal with illegal operations that fall outside the planning laws. We need to find a way of providing more sites, whether publicly or privately owned. We also need to consider how we deal with the barriers that prevent us from providing those sites.

As was said by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister earlier today, a thorough review of the Gypsy sites planning circular is being undertaken, and a new draft circular will soon be published for consultation. I am sure that hon. Members are well aware that that consultation process is necessary, if we are to have something sound that takes us forward.

Hon. Members will also be aware of the difference between unauthorised development and unauthorised encampments. Unauthorised development applies to anyone within the community, and that is where we have the biggest issues. Whether it is Gypsies or Travellers or members of the settled community who
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purchase a piece of land and carry out development for which planning permission is required without receiving that permission, there is a breach of that planning control. That amounts to unauthorised development.

As I am sure hon. Members are aware, the current planning policy is covered under the Department of the Environment circular 1/94. The circular encourages local authorities and the Gypsy and Traveller communities to discuss the requirements for sites and jointly to look at   sites. However, we are aware that in many areas the   circular is not working effectively, so sufficient appropriate sites are not being identified, and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred to some of the reasons why that is the case.

We believe that there needs to be quantitative assessment of need, taking an approach from a housing perspective. Gypsies and Travellers have housing requirements, as do members of the settled community; broadly, that is how we should approach the matter. We should then tie that assessment in with proper spatial planning and the identification of specific sites and achievable criteria that will offer some certainty that planning permission will be granted.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the problem, and the frustration that arises as a result, is that people are now taking well-planned steps. To use the hon. Gentleman's phraseology, it is an effective conspiracy against the planning laws. That is one reason for the review, and why we have already taken certain steps to meet the requirements. The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to the temporary stop notices; the introduction of the temporary stop notice powers in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 arose from the planning enforcement review.

Draft regulations have been published and the temporary stop notice will provide local authorities with the ability immediately to freeze development on any unauthorised caravan site while they consider what further action to take. That gives them 28 days and there is no right of appeal for further consideration of steps to be taken. The matter has been put out to consultation,
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subject to which we would expect the provision to come into force by the spring of next year. I hope that that is helpful and worthwhile.

On the subject of moneys for sites, there are existing   sites that we want to keep going and we want them to be of an acceptable standard. The Gypsy site refurbishment grant helps in that respect. In the 2005–06 grant round local authorities will be able to bid for about £8 million to provide new permanent residential sites. In addition, we have to ask what is the requirement. The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the requirements under the Housing Act 2004, which takes in the housing needs assessment; it includes Gypsies and Travellers, and the current provision of sites. The revised Gypsy caravan count that is being put into place will give us a more accurate picture of the issue.

Time is short, and I want to cover the issue of making provision for others to provide sites. Provision can be    made by extending the permissible purposes of registered social landlords, for example. I hope that that will help us to provide a greater number of sites, reduce unauthorised development and thus prevent the heightening of tension.

I mentioned the planning enforcement review that is in progress and the temporary stop notices that have arisen from it. The hon. Gentleman referred to clear   guidance; in February this year we issued revised   guidance to local authorities on dealing with    unauthorised encampments, which was widely welcomed by the authorities. The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 introduced new police powers to enable police to remove people more quickly from unauthorised encampments.

I have already mentioned the Housing Act 2004 in terms of the housing needs assessment. The most successful, lasting and sustainable way forward will be to take a genuinely different approach to dealing with parts of the community that want a nomadic lifestyle. Proper sites in a proper setting would ease the tension between travelling people and the settled community. That is our intention; we are well on the way to being able to consult on several other matters and I look forward to our resolving many of the problems that hon. Members face in their constituencies.
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