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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing this debate and I hope to provide the clarification that she seeks. However, she posed some detailed questions about the legislation, which I accept were entirely appropriate, and I therefore undertake to write to her to ensure that in due course we cover all the points that she made.

We recognise the difficult problems that can arise when trying to find suitable accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers, and the hon. Lady will acknowledge that we take these issues seriously. We have been working hard and we will continue to work hard to find solutions to try to alleviate the distress to everyone concerned. The hon. Lady asked a number of detailed questions about the location of caravans in back gardens, and I shall attempt to answer them as fully as possible. However, as I said, I shall write to her in due course, because I do not think that I will cover every point that she made.

The hon. Lady asked to what extent the usage of a caravan would fall outside the definition of being

A caravan is not a building. Stationing one on land is not itself "operational development" that requires planning permission, although associated works such as the provision of infrastructure and hygiene facilities may well be. Under planning law, householders can park caravans in their gardens or driveways indefinitely, provided that no material change of use of land occurs. However, in certain circumstances, the placing of a caravan on land may change the principal use of that land, which would amount to development in the form of a material change of use of land. It is for that reason that the use of land for an occupied caravan generally requires planning permission.

The hon. Lady asked whether adding extra caravans would still be incidental. A householder is entitled to use caravans as extra accommodation without planning permission, provided that the occupants continue to use the house, for example, the kitchen or bathroom. If, on the other hand, a caravan is there for another purpose not incidental to the enjoyment of the main dwelling, known as the dwelling house—for example, it is inhabited quite separately from, and independently of, the dwelling house—planning permission for change of use of the land would, generally speaking, be required. As it would result in the creation of a new planning unit, such permission may well not be granted in a residential area. If a caravan was being used in connection with a commercial purpose, the local planning authority may decide that an unauthorised change of use of land had occurred, for which planning permission should be sought.
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The hon. Lady also asked whether there were any time limits relating to the stationing of caravans, and whether it is possible for more than one caravan to be sited without the need for planning permission. As I stated previously, caravans can be stationed indefinitely in someone's garden or driveway, provided that no material change to the use of land occurs. There is no legally defined limit on the number of caravans that can be stationed in gardens before planning permission is required. However, if so many caravans were stationed in the garden of a house that they ceased to be incidental to the principal use of that land, the local planning authority could require a planning application, or take enforcement action against the unauthorised change of land use.

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend deal with a point relating to the advice that the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) mentioned in connection with extended families and their use of caravans? As we know, many Gypsies and Travellers have a wide family base and their extended family is much wider than the norm. I hope that my hon. Friend will clarify the situation and give us the Government's view of what is and is not legal in planning terms.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I shall respond to my hon. Friend's intervention when I deal with extended families later. I hope to provide some clarification of the points raised by the hon. Member for Congleton and by my hon. Friend.

The hon. Lady invited the Government to set a limit on the number of caravans permitted to be kept within the curtilage of a property, and urged that no more than one caravan should be permitted, whether occupied temporarily, permanently or not at all. The Government's view is that the limit of one caravan would be a disproportionate burden on local authorities, which would have to deal with large numbers of planning applications, and a disproportionate burden on all those who enjoy using caravans, whether from the Gypsy and Traveller or settled communities. The current law allows flexibility for local authorities to determine the merits of any case as to whether the stationing of a caravan or caravans constitutes development requiring planning permission.

Mr. Bone: Has any research been done on how many houses have more than one caravan?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. I will refer later to the review being undertaken. Given the strength of feeling and the problems caused by multiple parking, officials in the Department will want to consider the question as part of the review.

Ann Winterton: The issue is not just multiple parking; it is multiple living.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Lady made that very clear in her contribution. I apologise for not acknowledging that.

The hon. Lady asked whether a caravan would need planning permission if it were stationed in the curtilage of an unoccupied dwelling house. The answer would
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depend on the circumstances in each particular case. For example, it would not be reasonable to require planning permission if the house was unoccupied while the owners were away on holiday and had left a caravan in the back garden. However, if a caravan was being used as the sole residence of a family and was stationed in the garden of an unoccupied house that was not used at all by the family, the local authority might consider this to be a material change of use of land, as the caravan was not ancillary to the enjoyment of the main dwelling house.

The hon. Lady asks what uses might be considered ancillary. Examples could include uses such as storage, home office, additional sleeping accommodation and garden shed. In respect of the question that she asked about council tax, it is for the valuation office or the local authority to determine whether there has been a change in the value of the house resulting from additional development, which would alter its council tax banding.

The hon. Lady quotes from the "Planning Guide for Householders", an explanatory guide that gives examples showing when planning permission is needed. In answer to her question, and as that booklet states:

A separate residence is clearly not ancillary to the use of the main dwelling house.

In relation to the responsibility for health and safety issues for caravans in gardens, in the first instance it would be for the environmental health officer of the local authority to assess whether there were any health and safety issues caused by use of caravans within a tight space surrounding a dwelling house. The environmental health officer is under a duty to contact other relevant agencies, including the local fire authority, if he or she believes that they need to be aware of the concentration of caravans. Local residents who are concerned should therefore contact their environmental health officer in the first instance. Finally, the term "extended family" is not a legal one, and it must be given its ordinary, everyday meaning. The question whether a person is covered by the term is a question of fact that needs to be determined by looking at the particular circumstances of the case.

Siting caravans in back gardens seems to be one solution Gypsies and Travellers have identified in response to the lack of authorised sites. Some 25 per cent. of all Gypsy and Traveller caravans in England are on unauthorised sites. I understand that Congleton district council is actively investigating whether there has been any breach of planning control with a view to possible enforcement action. The Government take the view that local planning authorities should take appropriate enforcement action if they consider that an unacceptable breach of planning control has occurred, and they have a range of tools at their disposal.

The hon. Lady has concentrated on planning matters in relation to Gypsies and Travellers. However, she has raised the issue of instances of unauthorised encampments in her constituency in the past, and I thought it might be useful if I set out the Government's wider policy towards unauthorised encampments by
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Gypsies and Travellers. Our aim is to reduce the tensions between Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community, and in some cases unauthorised camping can be dealt with through negotiation. However, in other cases firm and prompt action is necessary: firm action to enforce against encampments in inappropriate places; firm action to provide the right sort of authorised sites, in appropriate locations; and where people are unwilling to respect the rights of others, firm action to enforce against antisocial behaviour and environmental damage. Where persistent and repeated offences occur, action must be relentless in upholding the law.

There are a range of powers for use by private landowners, the police and local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments and associated problems such as antisocial behaviour. I have every sympathy with those encountering problems over enforcement action, where there has been vandalism and criminal damage. The powers are there—it is a question of using them effectively.

Unauthorised sites can cause many serious problems and distress for local communities. The key to a reduction in both unauthorised camping and the siting of caravans in locations inappropriate for planning reasons is to increase the supply of authorised sites. The Government are committed to the firm but fair use of enforcement powers against unauthorised sites and antisocial behaviour linked with increasing site provision.

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