That, at the sitting on Wednesday 20th July, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents), the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of the Motion in the name of Mr Secretary Prescott relating to the Council Tax not later than three hours after their commencement; proceedings may continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.
Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to raise this important issue in the House and I also want to thank the Minister for responding. He will be aware that the Crays Hill Travellers' site is the largest in the country. Should council plans go ahead, there will be a very large-scale eviction over the coming months of about 50 families who have developed green belt land without authorisation and therefore live, in a sense, on the illegal part of the site.
It is a very unfortunate and sad state of affairs. The eviction will cause much heartache for both the settled and Traveller communities. No doubt, when the time comes, the newspapers will be full of pictures of crying children and distressed adults as the bailiffs move in to do their job. There is little doubt that the law as it presently stands is to blame for this situation and I would like to make the Minister aware of why I believe that to be the case. I also want to ask him some specific questions in the hope that we can move the issue forwards and clarify certain matters.
The law as it stands is presently inadequate. It can deal with the issue of trespass, but it cannot deal with those who buy green belt or greenfield land and then speedily and illegally develop it. There is no shortage of examples in my constituency of where that has taken place. A relatively recent example occurred two or three years ago near Saddler's Farm roundabout where, over the course of a bank holiday weekend, Travellers built a 6-ft earth mound around the perimeter of a field that they owned. They laid hardcore the next day and the day after that moved the caravans in. The council reacted with stop and enforcement notices, but by the time that they had been served, the development was complete. Consequently, a lengthy planning and appeals process was entered into, which is still ongoing, and meanwhile the illegal development remains. The problem is a result of the law's ineffectiveness, because it allows small illegal sites to become much bigger ones, so the issue becomes much harder and costlier to deal with. That is precisely what happened at the Crays Hill site.
The Minister will be aware that, after a long and protracted planning process that involved several enforcement notices, appeals, and public inquiries, Basildon council finally got to the point where they sought authorisation to evict those Travellers who had illegally developed the green belt. However, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister effectively overruled the council in 2003 and gave the Travellers a two-year extension to move on. Instead, the number of caravans on the illegal site increased significantly during that period.
Needless to say, the problem has become much harder to deal with, because the number of families involved has increased and the Travellers have had longer to settle down and establish a way of life. Basildon council now has no choice but to evict those Travellers who have broken the rules, as not doing so would send out the very clear signal that the green belt was up for grabs.
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I want to make it absolutely clear that no one wants to discriminate against a minority. I have tried to make the same point whenever this matter has been discussed over the past few years, but it is only fair to insist that all those who live in a community abide by its laws and regulations. Otherwise, the law-abiding majority are the ones who suffer discrimination. That is important, because there is a minority in the Traveller communityand I stress that it is a minoritywho in the past have resorted to unwise words on this matter.
We in Basildon district have no problems with law-abiding Travellers. The latest figures show that we have more than 100 authorised sites and pitches for the Traveller and Gypsy communities, whereas some neighbouring districts have none at all. We have a long and proud historyof literally hundreds of yearsof living in harmony with those communities. Indeed, Basildon district has the largest number of authorised caravans in Essex: in 1990, we had 37, and now we have about 180. That is an increase of nearly 500 per cent., and compares with an increase in the same period of roughly 100 per cent. in Essex, and 55 per cent. in England as whole.
No one can accuse us of discriminating against Travellers or of being intolerant or racist. All that we ask is that everyone obeys the same set of rules, especially if they wish to live in the community. Clearly, that has not happened at the illegal Crays Hill sites.
I want to make it clear, too, that local politics has played no part in the discussion. That important point is worth stressing, and I am not using this debate to play politics with the issue. I first became MP for Billericay four years ago, when Labour controlled Basildon council. I refused to blame the council then, as I believed that the law needed reform. I know that my approach is appreciated by Labour councillors to this day.
I am pleased to note that the Opposition Whips are no longer in the Chamber, as I have also made it clear that I believe that the Conservative Government of 1994 were wrong to remove the statutory duty on local authorities to provide authorised sites. That was a bad mistake, and I shall return to it in a moment.
What needs to be done? I have no doubt that the law is to blame, as it is outdated and ineffective. We urgently need to adopt a twin-track approach, as outlined in my private Member's Bill, the Greenbelt Protection Bill of 2003. My aim was to change the law, on the one hand by obliging councils to provide authorised sites where there was sufficient demand and for which an honest rent and council taxes could be charged, and on the other by giving them much stronger powers speedily to evict those Travellers who insisted on breaking the law. Also, my Bill would have allowed councils to put right any damage caused and to recover the cost from those who had caused it. Moreover, my Bill provided that those powers would have been available to councils only when the required sites had been provided. I felt that that was the fair way to go about dealing with the problem.
I could give further details of the proposals in my Bill, but I refer the Minister to the explanatory notes, of which his Department has a copy. The change in the law that I proposed would have been fair to those Travellers who respect the law and it would have allowed those who do not to be dealt with speedily. That would have
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prevented the development of the large-scale illegal sites, such as Crays Hill, that are often so much more difficult to deal with.
The Government's response to my proposals was disappointing, to say the least. A long consultation was held, which involved many site visits, public hearings and meetings with residents, Travellers, councillors, police and Basildon council's planning department. In addition, I soughtand had no trouble securingvery good cross-party support in the Chamber, but the Government blocked my Bill without explanation.
After continually raising the issue in Parliament and meeting Ministers from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and, indeed, the Prime Minister, there are tentative signs that the Government are now at least considering adopting a twin-track approach, but progress is far too slow. I should therefore like to ask the Minister a number of questions, to which I hope he will respond directly.
First, the Minister is fully aware that I raised the issue of eviction costs with the Prime Minister, by way of letter, and with the Deputy Prime Minister during Prime Minister's questions last week. The two-year extension given in 2003 to the Travellers at Crays Hill before they must move on has resulted instead in the number of caravans increasing significantly. The precise figures are difficult to come by, but there is no doubt that there has been a significant increase. The cost of eviction has increased accordingly and, according to Basildon council, now stands at about £2 million, which represents approximately 15 per cent. of a year's council tax revenue.
Will the Minister now commit the Government to assist Basildon council financially with those increased eviction costs, which are a direct result of the Deputy Prime Minister's decision to give a two-year extension, or will he at least promise to look into the issue? If the answer is no, Ministers are, in effect, unfairly penalising local council tax payers for a mistake made by the Government.
The response from the Deputy Prime Minister last week was totally inadequate. He suggested that the money could be better spent on providing land for the Travellers, but such a view displays an ignorance of the situation locally, while nationally, it would spell disaster for our green belt because it would allow Travellers to drive a coach and horses through our planning laws, for there would be no disincentive to buy and illegally develop large chunks of the green belt, as councils would be encouraged by the Government not to meet evictions costs, but to spend the money instead on providing sites.
Secondly, will the Minister update me on what progress is being made on the much-needed reform of our planning laws? Many people think that the progress so far has taken far too long, particularly bearing it in mind that the Government have been aware of the issue for a number of years now. The Minister will be aware that two consultation exercises have been instigatedone to look at the provision of authorised sites, the other to consider whether to give stronger powers to councilsand I have contributed to both.
With regard to authorised sites, in December 2004, the ODPM issued a consultation paper, "Planning for Gypsy and Traveller Sites". The consultation period
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ended on 18 March. When can local authorities expect to receive the revised guidance that will replace circular 1/94? Does the Minister accept that the provision of sites for Traveller families is a national issue and that it should not be left to a small number of local authorities to provide the majority of the sites? Will the new guidance therefore include measures to require all local authorities, where demand is sufficient, to make adequate provision for Traveller sites?
I am concerned to learn that there is talk that the Government have dropped the idea of direction and are instead considering leaving the solution to regional spatial strategies. That simply will not work, for there is nothing to force councils to comply with those strategies, except for the Travellers themselves resorting to the appeals process. The Minister will be aware that paragraph 20 of the draft circular on planning for Traveller sites advised that the regional spatial strategy should include provision for Gypsy sites. Yet the draft east of England plan, published very recently, says nothing about Gypsy sites. The draft spatial strategy is meant to guide development in the east of England for at least the next 20 years, yet no mention is made of Gypsy sites whatsoever. I hope that the Minister will appreciate that such confusion needs to be sorted out by the Government.
The Government have consulted on whether to give stronger power to councils. They proposed a 28-day temporary stop notice in response to the pressure to give much stronger powers to councils. Indeed, such notices became law on 7 March this year. The main difference from the existing law is that local authorities will have power to serve a temporary stop notice without first serving an enforcement notice. That sounds good, but when we consider the detail and the exemptions the power is actually quite ineffective. Basildon council has several concerns. Within the 28-day period, for example, the local authority has to serve an enforcement notice and a normal stop notice, which gives right of appeal against those notices. However, such an appeal also has the effect of putting into abeyance not only the enforcement and normal stop notices but also the 28-day temporary notice itself. That is a real concern for my local planning department.
Meanwhile, in the interim 28-day period, the local authority can indeed prosecute the contravener in the magistrates court for continuing to occupy land in breach of the temporary stop notice. However, the magistrates court is in many respects an inappropriate means for securing an effective deterrent to the breach, because it can usually impose only a fine. In many cases, it is difficult to get someone to court in 28 days if they do not want to be there. All sorts of delaying tactics can be used, such as an application for legal aid or simply not turning up.
More important, the new law does not allow local authorities to serve a temporary stop notice against someone who is occupying a caravan where that caravan is their main home, unless it is parked where it is causing a highway danger or there are other exceptional circumstances. It is highly likely that most Travellers will claim that the caravan in question is their main residence and, in fairness, there is a good chance that it will be, so the exemption renders the temporary stop
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notice next to useless. The fact that the caravan was on green belt land would not entitle a local authority to serve temporary stop notices if that caravan was a main residence.
The conclusion is that the law will not help local authorities to take effective, swift action against Traveller families who move on to green belt sites without planning permission. It will certainly not help Basildon council with the situation at Crays Hill. Meanwhile, it must not be forgotten that, even if a stop notice is invoked, it postpones the problem only for four weeksthereafter the present ineffective laws kick in.
May I ask the Minister to address some other issues? Will he clarify some of the terminology on needs-based assessment under the Housing Act 2004? He will be aware that the Act stipulates that the needs of Gypsy communities should form part of a local authority's homelessness needs assessmentrightly so. However, little or no methodology has been given as guidance and councils are wondering how to undertake that task. It has been suggested that the number of unauthorised caravans is one way of measuring the needs of local travellers; in other words, if there is a large number, there must be a need. However, in Basildon district, there are about 220 unauthorised caravansrepresenting a 700 per cent. increase since 1990while some neighbouring districts have very few or none at all, so if that methodology was used, it would suggest that only in Basildon district was there a further requirement for Traveller sites, which is clearly nonsense. Will the Minister clarify the methodology councils are to use to meet their obligations under the Act?
Will the Minister update me on the Government's progress, if any, on my proposals for a twin-track approach? During this short debate I have tried to highlight the extent of the problem at the Crays Hill Traveller site, and to show where I believe that Government policy is causing confusion, is ineffective and at least partially to blame. I have suggested the improvements that should be made, as highlighted in my attempt to change the law in 2003. As I have said previously, the Government initially blocked my Bill, but after pressing them in Parliament and after meetings with Ministers and the Prime Minister, who seemed to suggest that my proposals should be examined further, it seems that the Government are at least heading down the road towards the twin-track approach that is required. However, for the reasons previously stated, the Government's proposals to date will not provide the solutions required. Will the Government take a fresh look at my proposals which, as the Minister knows, have good cross-party support and, when he has time, will he get back to me?
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will appreciate that I am not interested in playing politics on the issue. What is required is good law, and the current law is inadequate. Proof of this is that we still have a sad situation in Crays Hill, where a large number of Traveller families will be forcibly evicted, which will cause much pain and anguish. The situation can be avoided in future if the Government grip the problem, but so far from what we know of their proposals, both with regard to the provision of authorised sites and giving councils stronger powers, they are clearly inadequate. Left as they are, they will not solve the problem.
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A twin-track approach is required. With regard to the provision of authorised sites, clear direction must be given to local authorities, while councils must be given much stronger powers speedily to evict Travellers who insist on breaking the law and to put right any damage. Otherwise, the unnecessary and sad conflict that we have seen in the past between settled and Traveller communities, and that we will see again at Crays Hill in the coming months, will continue and intensify in future in other parts. Given that the Government have been aware of the issue for a good number of years, they have a moral obligation to act, and to act quickly, before too much more pain is caused. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.