The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) on securing the debate. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) in her place and I acknowledge her interest in the matter. I should like to place on record my appreciation for the way in which the hon. Gentleman has introduced the debate and for his contribution in trying to find a solution to this problem recently.
We recognise the difficult problems that can arise when trying to find suitable accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers generally and, more specifically, the problems of the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I hope to cover all the hon. Gentleman's questions in the course of my speech.
We take these issues seriously. We have been working hard and will continue to work hard to find solutions and alleviate the distress that local people are experiencing. The hon. Gentleman is aware that my noble Friend, Baroness Andrews, met representatives of Basildon district council and Essex county council on Tuesday to discuss the situation at the Crays Hill site. I understand that Basildon council is meeting later tonight to consider whether or not the Travellers should be evicted from this unauthorised development. We sympathise with the difficulties that this may present for both the settled community and the Travellers. The council will need to weigh in the balance the consequences of such action for the council, the settled community and Travellers. I do not underestimate the seriousness of the matter.
The matter has to be for the council. Ministers have no locus in any decisions in relation to the enforcement notices and actions in compliance with them. That properly is a matter for the district council to determine. In the same vein, the Government cannot assist with any of the specific costs relating to ensuring compliance with the enforcement notices.
The key to resolving problems from unauthorised development and encampments is to ensure that there is adequate authorised site provision. Every local
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authority needs to play a part in that. We want to assist Basildon and other Essex authorities to find a way forward to resolve the issue of accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers by working with other local authorities in the area. As a start, we have agreed with Basildon and Essex that it will be helpful for officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to be invited to next week's meeting of the Essex local government association, at which Gypsy and Traveller issues in the county are to be discussed.
Many local authorities have not responded sufficiently to local need in their areas in recent years. To be fair, some local authorities have done a great deal, but some have not. That is unfair on neighbouring local authorities and on local communities, which must put up with unauthorised development, often on inappropriate sites.
Under the Housing Act 2004 local authorities must carry out housing needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers, as they do for the settled community. They are also required to draw up a Gypsy and Traveller accommodation strategy to ensure that need is met. We will be issuing final guidance on how to carry out housing needs assessments in due course, but meantime we will seek to facilitate sharing of good practice between local authorities and other players, and we will do all that we can to help local authorities find a way to share provision. In response to the hon. Gentleman's specific question about when that will happen, my best guess is the end of the summer. We have had 300 responses to the consultation exercise and, obviously, we want to give due consideration to them. I assure him that it will be sooner rather than later.
Local authorities should identify land that could be used for the provision of new public and private sites. That is why it is important to place an obligation on local authorities to identify land as part of their planning process. Under the new planning circular, as drafted, there is a requirement on local planning authorities to allocate sufficient land for sites. That is effectively a duty.
Local authorities will have to identify sites suitable for Gypsies and Travellers as part of their local development frameworkthe new planning process. There is an important opportunity provided through the regional planning process to look across the region. Because of the nomadic lifestyle followed by many Gypsies and Travellers, there has to be a strong strategic element to planning for their needs. Regional planning bodies are key to that. They will have to make an assessment of the regional need for Gypsy and Traveller sites, based on local housing assessments made by local authorities. That assessment of need will then be turned into pitch numbers allocated to each area of the region in the regional spatial strategy. Local authorities will have to reflect those targets in their local development frameworks. That will help to counter the concerns of some authorities that they are being left to shoulder the burden on their own. We recognise that many local authorities may find it difficult to tackle that issue. We would encourage neighbouring authorities to work together wherever possible, and I know that that is starting to happen in Essex.
There have been calls for the reintroduction of a duty on local authorities to provide sites. The current problem is clearthere is a significant lack of
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authorised sites. However, the solution is not to reintroduce a statutory duty on all local authorities. A duty has been tried before, but often did not produce appropriate provision, and meant that the public purse funded provision. Even with the introduction of 100 per cent. Exchequer funding in 1979, Gypsy site provision failed to keep pace with the growth in the number of caravans.
Mr. Baron: I accept what the Minister has said, but is he concerned that the draft east of England regional spatial strategy does not contain any mention of the provision of Gypsy sites? Does not that suggest a failing that needs, somehow, to be put right?
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman kindly gave me the opportunity to consider the point that he wished to emphasise. We will respond to the draft RSS in due course and if it does not contain details on how accommodation needs will be met, the Secretary of State could refuse to finalise and approve it. I assure the hon. Gentleman that such provision will be considered as part of the process.
In assessing need, local authorities should not be able to rely simply on the situation within their boundaries. Situations such as that in Basildon illustrate a need to look across regions and sub-regions to ensure an equitable distribution of provision. We shall explore the best way to achieve that as part of the guidance on needs assessments currently in preparation. I would also point out to the hon. Gentleman that despite the repeal of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, local authorities continue to have the power to create sites as they see fit.
Basildon council has called on the Government to help with the cost of enforcement. The enforcement of planning control is a statutory function of local authorities for which they need to budget and the costs of which are not generally recoverable. The Government have provided significant investment in local authorities since taking office, with a 33 per cent. real terms increase in Government grant in that time. Although I recognise that the costs in this case are significant, I regret that the principle must remain. However, we are prepared to help with the cost of new site provision, and are offering practical assistance by providing funding. In 200506, the Gypsy sites refurbishment grant is available for new sites as well as for the refurbishment of existing ones. The aim of the grant is to increase the number of authorised pitches available to Gypsies and Travellers, and thus reduce the need for unauthorised sites. In addition, mainstream funding via the regional housing pot of some £56 million will be made available for local authority and registered social landlord sites from 200607.
We can bandy figures about in the Chamber, but a council that is about to seek eviction can be told suddenly by the Government to stop and give the Travellers a two-year extension. During those two years, the number of caravans can increase significantly.
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Does the Minister not accept that outside the House many people believe that the Government should pay an appropriate proportion of the increased costs, because their decision to provide a two-year extension led to a significant increase in the number of caravans?