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20 Jun 2007 : Column 471WH—continued

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My basic contention is that the Government’s need hypothesis, which is crucial to the allocation process, has not been accurately proven and that EERA must rethink its rather enthusiastic embracing of the Government’s desire to provide a large number of additional pitches in Hertfordshire. EERA based its assumptions on the fact that even more pitches should go to localities where sites are located, because that is obviously where Gypsies and Travellers want to live and join their friends and family. In a high house-price area such as St. Albans, many local young people from the settled sector would also like to have that facility. Indeed, London Colney, where two sites for Travellers have been identified as potentially suitable, has a settled community. It has several areas with recognised poverty indices and there is significant overcrowding within some of the private and social housing units in the village, but the group affected has not been singled out for special consideration. The Minister ought to be aware that this single-issue revision of the regional spatial strategy will at best raise eyebrows, and at worst cause concern. It could even lead to tensions in the settled community, which is unhappy about the proposals.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that in making provision, it is important that the traditional routes used by Travellers for their purposes on a seasonal basis are part of the picture, because Travellers stop in some places but not in others?

Anne Main: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Crucial to today’s debate, and to my argument, is the fact that there is a lack of information behind the consultation. The Minister ought to be aware that the approach taken would raise a few eyebrows, because one cannot extrapolate from our existing pitch provision figures the conclusion that there is a huge unmet need for extra sites in my, or any other, constituency. I am sure that other hon. Members will make their own case.

According to the Government’s own figures, St. Albans has only 11 unauthorised pitches, yet we have been asked to accept a further 34 pitches. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain why. The formula, however it was arrived at, appears to create an oversupply of pitches in St. Albans that will encourage even more settlement in the area and thus, by the Government’s own odd calculations, create an even greater spiral of need as our numbers swell and extended Traveller families seek to join their relatives. Historically, St. Albans district council has endeavoured to tackle the difficult issue of providing sufficient suitable sites for the travelling community, but it appears that, perversely, we will not be rewarded for our actions. Instead, we face an open-ended commitment to meet a continuously increasing identified need.

Under the previous caravan legislation, St. Albans accepted more site and pitch provision than any other neighbouring authority, giving rise to a total of 59 authorised pitches and 11 pitches on unauthorised sites. That is more than six times the provision of neighbouring Watford. This is not about arguing for other parts of Hertfordshire to take more pitches. We are unhappy about the flawed consultation and its muddled thinking—my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) drew attention to one aspect of that.

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EERA has admitted that it is the first region to examine this issue and that other regions are far behind. We would argue that other areas are proceeding more cautiously and that EERA has made a big mistake in its approach, which could have a detrimental effect on the whole community. If we are to work within a regional strategy, EERA needs to look at the bigger picture and take a far more reasoned approach. It has made no consideration of cross-border migration and the pressures that it brings. Indeed the Milton Keynes, Luton and Dunstable core strategy has a housing designated area near Caddington, right on the border with Hertfordshire. There is a Gypsy and Traveller site, too, in the vicinity, which, if expanded, could have a devastating effect on the rural community. None of those things have been brought into the picture.

Let me make it clear that the Government’s alterations to planning guidance have compelled local authorities to address the issue. The Government are using the undemocratic regional assemblies to deliver their bidding. Providing additional pitches to meet identified needs is now a firm requirement for local authorities, but I seriously question both the way in which that need has been identified by the Government and the evidential basis for the projections. It is generally accepted that well managed, appropriately located sites can be of benefit to the Gypsy and travelling community, which is seen as vulnerable, and that the appropriate location of a reasonable number of well run sites can lead to improved relationships with the settled community. Such an approach allows for rigorous defences at planning level against illegal incursions and protects local authorities from large and possibly costly remedial works associated with illegal incursions.

The key to making that work in any area is meaningful engagement and an acceptance by the established local community of demands for additional sites that are appropriate and reasonable. Many residents in my constituency share my view that current demands are not reasonable or appropriate, and that engagement in this process has been far from reasonable. St. Albans district council has always taken its responsibilities seriously, which is why we were amazed by the EERA consultation document, which failed to recognise our generous level of provision and allocated us a further 34 pitches—double that of any other area. The consultation drew heavily on jointly commissioned research that sought to deliver on the Government’s assertion that more sites must be found.

Research published by the Department for Communities and Local Government and EERA in March suggested that the east of England needed 1,220 more caravan pitches for Gypsies and Travellers by 2011. Consequently, local people were asked for their views on the matter, and two possible options were advanced to help try to resolve the supposed gap in provision. Option one would distribute pitches in local council areas

That would involve 1,216 additional caravan pitches in the east of England. I hope that hon. Members note the telling phrase,

My constituents are entitled to a reasonable explanation from the Minister of what formula was used to calculate
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the travelling community’s need, distribution and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire said, movement patterns. Whatever it is, the report suggested in option one that an additional 34 pitches should be allocated to St. Albans, which was double any other pitch allocation in that option. My constituents were then asked to consider option two, which was based on option one, but with a minimum of 15 pitches in every local council area throughout the region, apparently to provide wider distribution and a choice of accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers, leading to 1,220 additional pitches in the east of England.

That might appear to my constituents to be a more balanced distribution, with each authority shouldering its fair share of additional pitches. However, on close examination of the figures, St. Albans would still have an extra 34 pitches, more than double the suggested 15-pitch minimum allocation for other areas and twice the allocation for any other authority. Why? Whatever the results of the consultation choices, options one and two for St. Albans would both allow 34 additional pitches, which is twice the allocation for everywhere else.

St. Albans is the only authority affected in that unfathomable way, so the Minister will understand why local people are angry. They believe that it is a done deal, so it was pointless to engage in the consultation exercise. My local papers, the St. Albans Observer and the St. Albans and Harpenden Review, ran a story on the consultation, and the editorial comment said that

I wholeheartedly agree with that perceptive analysis, and would welcome the Minister’s view if her analysis is different. My other local paper, the Herts Advertiser, assured residents their

by local councillors. Given the figures in the rather weasel document, there is no point in people being listened to if the council’s hands are tied and it is obliged to deliver the same number of pitches, whatever choice it makes.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. I agree with her point about consultation, and I am sure that she agrees that there is bound to be a problem with regional government if local people believe that they are not consulted about regional bodies. Should it not be clear where regional responsibility rests in the first instance in this flawed system? The Government devised it and put in place the system of consultation, so they must bear responsibility if local people feel cheated.

Anne Main: Absolutely, and I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that in my district council area, Labour councillors are leading the protest against the supposed attack on St. Albans, which is perverse, given that it was their Government who asked us to consider the proposals.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the strong and provocative language that those Labour councillors used in their criticism? She is eminently reasonable, but does she agree that those in authority
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have a responsibility to be measured in their criticism, and not to seek to stoke up racism, as the local Labour councillors have done?

Anne Main: My hon. Friend is right, and I thank him for making that point. Councillors are often directed to make difficult decisions on behalf of the wider community. On the night before a local election, those councillors said that only a Labour council could fight off the attack of having more Travellers in our community, and they are now running a campaign suggesting that the chosen sites in London Colney are near housing, a paddling pool and a children’s play area. The Government, however, have urged us to look for sites that provide a better quality of life, so I suggest that they have a word with their Labour councillors. Frustration is no doubt fuelled by the fact that we believe that we have no voice in the consultation.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to a phrase in the EERA consultation that refers to

Given the itinerant nature of that community, will she explain to my constituents why one section of society has been singled out for choice and diversity of accommodation, while the settled community, which has pressing housing needs, has received no special consideration?

The consultation finished at the end of May and is now closed, and the contentious options are being considered. I hope that the Minister has read the consultation, will listen to the issues that are raised today, and will intervene before any new decisions are made on the spatial strategy revision. I wish to draw her attention to questions in the consultation that were irrelevant or puzzling to residents. The first was:

I suggest that local people would find it impossible to answer that question in an informed way because they were given no information or data on which to draw. The second question, which was equally taxing, was:

The document, however, points out:

Will the Minister tell my constituents how on earth they were supposed to answer those detailed and technical questions that will inform Traveller provision in my constituency and other constituencies? I doubt whether a simple reply such as, “No more pitches for St. Albans, thank you; we believe that we have provided enough for our area”, would be taken as an informed, evidence-based view in the consultation. I think that that would be discounted as nimbyism.

Question six was equally loaded and asked:

The terminology has moved on from pitches to sites, which can have vastly different consequences, although I am not sure whether the public would pick up on
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that. A pitch can vary in size and hold up to three vehicles, but sites have no specific size criteria. What exactly have my constituents, and other constituents who have taken part in the consultation, been asked to agree to?

There were other equally impossible-to-answer questions, which I shall not go into, but I hope that the Minister has gained the flavour of the wholly unsatisfactory nature of the consultation, which EERA undertook at the Government’s behest, and which will have important and far-reaching consequences for my constituents. There is a vacuum of information, which prevents balanced planning decisions from being made. Without that information, the planning system is being used to bulldoze through a huge social project of the Government’s making and which I believe is ill informed. By their own admission, the Government have little informed or accurate data on the Gypsy and travelling community and, as with any other proposed development, I suggest that they scrap the findings of the consultation, whatever they are—I hope that I have demonstrated that they are not informed—ignore totally useless and speculative responses to unanswerable questions, and do considerably more work on, and rigorous study of, the issue before asking my constituents to help to put their plans into practice. My constituents are understandably concerned about the proposals, and the impact on their local area and their quality of life. They simply want to be treated fairly and reasonably.

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, I remind hon. Members that I intend to start calling the Front Bench spokespeople at 3.30 pm.

2.48 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. She has done a service to her constituents, as well as to those in Hertfordshire as a whole. I also congratulate her on the thorough and sensitive way in which she explored the subject. It needs sensitive handling for the sake of everyone, including Gypsies and Travellers, as well as local residents and communities.

Local residents and communities need to be heard, and their views must shape decisions. They must feel that they are part of the process. Hertsmere borough council, for example, is seeking early consultation with Hertsmere residents and is holding a series of meetings in July in each of the principal communities to seek people’s views on sites. It is committed to consultation, listening to local residents and reflecting their wishes, in so far as it can.

I have three points to make. The first adopts the concerns that my hon. Friend so ably raised about the nature of the process. It strikes me as bureaucratic and remote from ordinary people. However, as I said, that must be the case when regional governments are involved. District councils, such as Hertsmere, are closest to local people. Local people can get in touch with their local councillors, and meetings can be held locally so that people’s views can be taken into account. District councils are very much on the receiving end of the process, and local people may be left feeling that many decisions
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have already been shaped before the issues reach their district council—the level at which it is easy for them to have their say.

We must be clear that the Government have initiated the process and that they require local authorities to undertake it and to meet in full the need for sites that are identified by housing assessments—something that the Government do not require in respect of the need for affordable housing, which is identified by the same housing needs assessments.

The Government require regional planning bodies to produce figures for Gypsy and Traveller sites right down to the level of individual district authorities. One is bound to ask whether it is appropriate for regional planning bodies to go into that level of prescription and detail when regions are so remote from local communities. Have local people’s views shaped that process? At the end of the day, the regional government is required to produce something described as a “single-issue revision”, which is what I was given when I got my homework wrong, and I say that as somebody who is no fan or enthusiast of regional government. In the east of England, we have never been asked whether we want a regional government; we simply have one. When people in other regions were asked whether they wanted one, they said no.

Having seen the way in which the process has been placed in the hands of regional authorities—I am not necessarily criticising the authorities themselves—having looked at what the Government have required them to do, and having seen the way in which the Government have put such a premium on them, it is easy to understand why people were not instantly attracted to the idea of regional government. The process seems to bear out all the concerns that people expressed about regional government.

My second point is on a separate matter. What account has been taken of the green belt when making those requirements of local authorities? The Government’s planning circular on Gypsy and Traveller caravan sites skates over the problem. Paragraph 49 states:

local development framework—

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