Yvette Cooper: Let me explain our approach to the revision of circular 1/94. As I said, we are consulting on the matter because it was becoming clear that the circular was not working effectively. It allowed local authorities to set criteria for the sites for which planning permission might be granted to Gypsies and Travellers. However, in many areas, the criteria were so tightly drawn that it was inconceivable that any plot of land in the local authority area would fulfil them. Sites were therefore impossible to identify in practice.
The new consultation circular says that local authorities need to undertake a proper assessment of need and that the regional spatial strategies need to establish the level of sites needed. The reason for involving the regional planning bodies is that, in some areas, one local authority might have a great deal of provision while a neighbouring one might have very little. The latter authority could effectively be free-riding on the provision next door, making life more difficult for the authority that is providing a lot of sites compared with other areas. The issue therefore needs to be considered at regional level, and the regional spatial strategies need to be used to assess the level of provision required.
Local authorities' spatial planning policies must also address these issues, identify specific sites and set out achievable policy criteria that offer a chance that planning permission will be granted, rather than making that impossible because of the way in which they define those criteria. Local authorities will be obliged to identify sites according to need, and it is up to those authorities to draw up the plans. If they do not do so, there is a process whereby the regional planning body can get involved and, ultimately, for planning inspectors to consider the plans and ensure that they meet the need identified in the area. Local authorities will have the strongest role to play in this regard.
We cannot get away from the fact that, if enforcement powers are to be effective, we need to be able not only to move people off inappropriate sites but to identify
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appropriate sites for them to go to. We must recognise that this is not an easy process, but we cannot walk away from the problem.
Mr. Horam: An area such as Bromley is either built up or it is green belt. The problem for London as a whole is that most of it is already built up. Practically, therefore, it is extremely difficult to find sites for Travellers. Is the Minister saying that any consideration of this problem will cover an area much wider than a London borough, for example, and take in the whole of the south-east? That would be the logical thing to do, would it not?
Yvette Cooper: I have visited sites in London, which is obviously an extremely built-up area. There are Gypsy and Traveller sites in London boroughs, although some boroughs do considerably more than others in this regard. The fact that there are heavily built-up areas as well as green belt areas in individual boroughs and local authority areas does not mean that it is impossible to find appropriate Gypsy and Traveller sites.
Obviously, the individual areas will have to be considered in some detail, and it is not for me as a Minister to say what should happen in any particular local authority. That needs to be considered as part of the local authority's development planning process and of the regional process. We must be clear that we cannot walk away from any need that exists, because, if we do, we shall simply see more unauthorised development and more unauthorised encampments, resulting in greater community tension. That would not be fair to the local residents who have inappropriate developments near where they live, or to the Gypsies and Travellers who have nowhere to go. We need to address this issue.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the green belt. I know that the inspector has looked at the unitary development plan for Bromley and introduced the first part of her report, which raises certain questions for the borough. As I understand it, she has prompted Bromley to demonstrate the site supply that it said was there and suggested that the borough needs to face up to its affordable housing needs. She has proposed that density levels could be increased, so as to reduce the threat to greenfield sites. I understand that the density levels in Bromley are extremely low compared with some London boroughs, both in inner and outer London. That is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed when Bromley decides what it needs to do. Obviously it cannot ignore the housing needs problem and must respond to the London plan and issues facing London and the south-east as a whole.
I recognise that green-belt areas may be subject to particular pressures. We have made clear the importance of safeguarding such areas and the need to increase density in response. The Deputy Prime Minister recently announced further measures in that regard. I have described what I consider an extensive
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approach to problems involving Gypsies and Travellers. We need to improve both enforcement and accommodation.
Mr. Horam: What does the Minister think has caused the influx of Travellers, all of whom appear to come from Ireland? I know that there have been some investigations involving her Department, but what has caused all this? It is a problem throughout the south-east.
Yvette Cooper: As I said, the information that my officials have does not tally with the hon. Gentleman's suggestions about Travellers from Ireland. I think that the decline of site provision, particularly in certain areas, is a issue. Changes were made in 1994, when the old duty on local authorities was in place, and since then there has been a decline in the number of publicly provided pitches. As I also said, I think we have seen little change in the overall number of unauthorised encampments, whereas there has been a change in the number of unauthorised developments where Gypsies and Travellers are choosing to buy their own property to develop on it without planning permission.
We will pull together all the work done as part of the review, in regard to both the temporary stop notice and the revised planning circular. We are also considering other possibilities, including funding through regional housing boards and registered social landlords for site provision in particular areas.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether a meeting would be possible. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has said, it would be inappropriate for Ministers to meet to discuss individual planning cases. I think that that extends to delegations of people who are themselves involved in individual planning cases and may have lodged objections, thus being participants in an ongoing planning process. I am, however, happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, as I have met a series of hon. Members from all parties, to discuss policies and principles. As he will understand, we shall need to be clear about the matters that we cannot discuss, but I think it would be too difficult, and inappropriate, to meet people involved in objections and campaigns relating to specific cases. That would raise the question of whether Ministers, to show that they were being fair, should meet delegations from other groups. We have ways of ensuring that Ministers do not comment on or discuss individual planning cases, while being seen to be fair. But, as I have said, I shall be happy to discuss further with the hon. Gentleman such issues as temporary stop notices and the revision of circular 1/94.
These are complex and difficult issues, but we must face them. It would be irresponsible of us not to do so and not to recognise the need to solve the problems of both site provision and enforcement to achieve a better outcome not just for local residential communities but for Gypsies and Travellers.