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20 Jun 2007 : Column 477WH—continued

I shall break away from that Government statement, because it is somewhat disingenuous. It would be difficult, to say the least, for an authority such as Hertsmere to provide sites that were not on the green belt, because almost, if not all, the sites identified in Hertsmere and in south-west Hertfordshire are on the green belt. Are the Government saying that local authorities can apply normal green belt principles and refuse to permit such development? Or are they saying that the authorities cannot take such a course and must provide the sites, but that the Government are not prepared to take any responsibility for that? I wonder which is true. The regional planning body, to give it credit, is more realistic than the Government about the green belt. I wait to
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hear from the Minister the Government’s approach towards the green belt in that regard.

My third and final point is how confident we can be that the process that the Government are instituting will address the problems. The objective is to meet the local need for sites for Gypsies and Travellers, but the sites that could be established as meeting that need might be in private hands. There is no way in which site owners can be required to meet the needs of local Gypsies and Travellers. A requirement cannot be placed on site owners to meet local needs, and there is nothing that local authorities can do to ensure that pitches on those sites are occupied by local families.

Annexe C of the Government’s planning guidance specifically deems as unacceptable local authority criteria that allow applications from Gypsies and Travellers to be refused. Presumably, a site owner from outside the area could decide to buy a site inside Hertsmere, St. Albans or elsewhere in Hertfordshire and fill it with people from a long way away. The Government could ostensibly say that the objective of local need had been met, even though it had not, because people had come from some distance away to occupy the site. That would be a worrying scenario and I hope that the Minister will throw some light on it.

People in Hertfordshire know that we are under the same pressures from Gypsies and Travellers as we are from other people. Many people from outside the area want to come and live in Hertfordshire.

Mr. Pickles: Surely the approach is topsy-turvy. The Government will never know whether their targets have been met; rather, they will know that a process has been gone through.

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The whole process might be fulfilled, and the sites might be filled with people from outside the area, but the people whose need was originally identified locally might still be in the same conditions locally as before. The need would not have been met. No doubt the Government would trumpet the idea that they had met local needs, but the people would remain in the same position. Even if the site were owned and managed by a registered social landlord, it would not be clear whether there was any guarantee that it would be occupied exclusively by local people.

There is a flaw in the system. A large number of the sites are privately owned and managed, according to the various surveys that have been carried out. Registered social landlords might come in as well, and these questions must be asked to determine whether we will meet the Government’s objectives.

Another Government objective draws the connection between providing sites and reducing or avoiding the problem of unauthorised encampments. Given the pattern of unauthorised encampments in Hertsmere, whereby people often come at irregular intervals and from a considerable distance to strike up an unauthorised encampment before leaving when the processes of the law finally require them to do so, I am not as confident as I should like to be about the provisions’ ability to meet the objective of preventing unauthorised encampments. Does the Minister believe, and is she prepared to say, that the problems associated with unauthorised encampments will be avoided as a result of the Government’s proposals?

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Although I support the way in which Hertsmere borough council has responded to the process, and its conscientiousness in seeking to listen to the views of local people and to play its part, I have yet to be convinced that the whole process, which the Government initiated, will meet either with the consent and support of my constituents, or with the objectives that the Government have set themselves.

2.59 pm

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this useful debate and apologise for missing her opening remarks.

All of us in Hertfordshire have a fair amount in common. It is an attractive county, in which there is enormous demand for housing. A lot of people want to live there, although I shall not deliver a travelogue in the style of a maiden speech and dwell at length on my constituency. I do not know whether the Minister knows my constituency, although I do know that she has a cousin who lives in Berkhamsted—at least, she used to live in my constituency. Hertfordshire is an attractive place to live, with small market towns of a manageable size, where people are very comfortable, surrounded by attractive countryside.

One of the problems that we face in South-West Hertfordshire is that we are a victim of our success, in that people desperately want to live in the area. There is not the scope for an enormous amount of development, given that we are in the green belt, and the people living in South-West Hertfordshire do not desire it, for understandable reasons. However, that creates tensions for those on a low or even a medium income who want to buy their own property. Politicians will always have to strike a balance between those conflicting desires. What is seen as fundamentally unfair, however, is if a particular section of society receives what appears to be special treatment because a development is designed specifically for them, while the adult children of home owners in South-West Hertfordshire do not have the opportunity to acquire their own property. That drives at why so many of our constituents feel as strongly about the issue as they do.

That point also relates to the green belt, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) rightly touched upon. Most, if not all, of the area available for development in my constituency, whether in Dacorum borough council or Three Rivers district council, is in the green belt. There appears to be a conflict between the desire to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites and Government policy on the green belt. In circular 01/2006, from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Government state that they recognise the importance of the green belt, that new Gypsy and Traveller sites are normally inappropriate within them and that they require alternatives to be explored before green belt locations are considered.

However, there are no alternatives to green belt development. Perhaps the Minister could dwell on how Government policies on the green belt and on Gypsy and Traveller sites relate to each other. The solution that I suspect we shall see is that areas of land will cease to be designated as green belt and the green belt will
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change to accommodate particular sites. Again, that relates to the sense of unfairness that residents feel about the problem. There is clearly tension between what the East of England regional assembly has proposed and green belt policy.

Let me anticipate the argument that the Minister will use, which is one that I believe the Liberal Democrats essentially support. It is that we need more authorised sites, because otherwise there will be more unauthorised developments and that is undesirable.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend may find that Liberal Democrat support alters to meet whatever the electorate want to hear, depending on where they are. The Liberal Democrats have come out with a resounding no in my constituency, where the portfolio holder in charge of the Gypsy and Traveller sites says that we do not need any more in St. Albans.

Mr. Gauke: My hon. Friend’s description of the position of the Liberal Democrats does not surprise me in the slightest. However, unless I receive a clear and categorical correction, I understand that their policy is strongly to support the need for more authorised sites.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is Conservative policy not to have more authorised sites?

Mr. Gauke: If I may, I shall explore the point a little further.

I appreciate that because of court judgments and the Human Rights Act 1998, it is difficult to take enforcement action against unauthorised sites unless there is an alternative, authorised site. However, one of my concerns about increasing the number of authorised sites is that it will not necessarily end unauthorised developments, but increase the Traveller and Gypsy population as a whole.

Mr. Heald: The Government’s figures seem to show that in July 1979 there were 1,000 caravans on unauthorised sites and 2,500 on socially rented authorised sites. However, in July 2005 there were 5,000 caravans on unauthorised sites and 6,500 on socially rented sites, as well as an additional 2,000 on Travellers’ own land and a further 2,000 authorised private sites. Does that not show that increasing the number of authorised sites does not stop the numbers on unauthorised sites from increasing?

Mr. Gauke: My hon. Friend makes an eloquent and important point, which underlines my point. Increasing authorised sites does not necessarily reduce the numbers. Indeed, the evidence that he presented suggests that there was an increase in the number of unauthorised developments. One has to ask why.

On the issue of demand, according to the latest figures from the East of England regional assembly, there were no unauthorised sites in my constituency, which covers two district councils—Dacorum borough council and Three Rivers district council—in January 2006. There certainly had been an unauthorised development in my constituency a few months before, at Cow Roast, but if the argument is, “Well, we need more authorised sites to deal with the unauthorised developments that we currently have,” the answer is that we do not currently have any in the area.

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Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a good point, but we are making an assumption that all Travellers travelling around this country wish to be on an organised site. Those of us who understand the travelling community or have lived with Travellers—I grew up around a travelling community—know that many of them do not want to be on organised sites. At certain times of the year, they are happy to pull off the road, but at other times even organised sites are half empty. At certain times of the year, many Travellers are not actually in this country, because they come from southern Ireland.

Mr. Gauke: My hon. Friend makes the point that the provision of authorised sites does not necessarily mean that Travellers will use them. By their very nature, Travellers travel.

It appears to be anticipated that the number of Gypsies and Travellers will expand, on the basis of the figures that have been presented for Hertfordshire. I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify whether that is the case. Will she also say whether that is being driven in part by the fact that the Government in the Republic of Ireland have been taking stronger measures to deal with Gypsy and Traveller sites, the consequence of which has been migration into the UK, and whether there is any evidence of something similar happening in accession states in the EU?

We will not deal with that supply by increasing the number of sites that we provide; instead, we will be increasing the demand. Does the Minister think that that is happening and does she think that it is in some way desirable? That outcome might be the very objective that the Government seek—to preserve the Gypsy and Traveller way of life—rather than an unintended consequence. If that is the Government’s position, I should be grateful for some clarification.

My final point takes us back to the essentially undemocratic manner in which the process has been undertaken, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for St. Albans. The East of England regional assembly is implementing the policy, but this is very much a Government policy—it is the Government who are determining things. They can hide behind the regional assembly and use regional bodies to implement unpopular policies for which they do not want to take the rap. That enables Labour councillors in places such as St. Albans and Hemel Hempstead—the few there are—to say that any decisions are nothing to do with them and that they are the fault of the wicked Conservatives at the regional level.

Similarly, Conservative district councils are forced to implement the policy—they have little or no choice over whether to do so and are forced to identify sites. However, although there is little that individual councillors can do, no one will be more vigorous in supporting the views of local residents affected by proposed developments outside Berkhamsted—the Scott Wilson report mention Swingate lane—than Councillors Julie Laws and Steve Bateman. Similarly, in Tring, Councillor Derek Townsend will provide vigorous support for his local residents. None the less, democratically elected politicians—whether Members of Parliament, district councillors or county councillors—have little say in the process, and that feeds into local people’s enormous frustration. People ask, “What can we do about this? Who can we complain
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to?” but the answer is that there is little that elected politicians can do. That is a failure of the system, and it needs to be addressed.

3.11 pm

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main),who is a fellow Member for the St. Albans district, on securing the debate and on introducing it in such a thorough but sensitive way.

There is great concern throughout the St. Albans district, not least in the part that I represent, about the current proposals, which, strangely, only became public on any scale after the local elections. People in Redbourn are concerned because there is already an authorised site, as well as unauthorised sites. People in Kinsbourne Green and Harpenden Rural are concerned because they are quite near Redbourn, and several new sites are proposed near them. Likewise, people in Wheathampstead are concerned because potential sites have been identified right next to residential areas. There is concern throughout the rural part of my constituency about what such developments could mean.

I have met several delegations and visited potential sites, and although my constituents are concerned, they are extremely reasonable: they accept that Travellers must live somewhere and want good relationships between the travelling and the settled communities. However, they also want a fair, transparent and balanced approach to be taken when deciding how many sites should be allocated and where they should be, but they do not see the current proposals as fair in substance or procedure.

St. Albans district council already has a quarter of all the authorised sites and more than half the unauthorised sites in Hertfordshire, but it is now being told that it must accept 30 per cent. of the additional sites. However, St. Albans district council is only one of the 10 councils, covers only 10 per cent. of the area of Hertfordshire and has only 13 per cent. of the population, so why are things being done in this way? The answer is that the formula that is being used says that the number of new pitches required in any area will be equal to 40 per cent. of the number of authorised pitches plus the number of unauthorised pitches that the area already has. My area already has a large number of authorised and unauthorised pitches, so it is expected to have a lot more pitches in future. The more pitches an area has agreed to have in the past, therefore, the more it is expected to have in the future; the more it has had to put up in the past—even though they may have been illegal and unauthorised—the more it will have to put up with in the future. People do not think that that is fair.

Anne Main: My right hon. Friend makes a really powerful point, and I draw his attention again to why the public are so annoyed by what has happened. The EERA consultation says:

but that has not been the case at all.

Mr. Lilley: My hon. Friend is right. People are concerned because they are expected to have new authorised sites, where the number of pitches will reflect the present number of unauthorised pitches, but
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there is no guarantee that the unauthorised ones will be removed; indeed, given human rights considerations, it is quite possible that there will be no possibility of removing them, and that is a concern. As my hon. Friend spelled out, we have been given a choice between two options, both of which are identical, and that, it may astonish the Minister to know, does not seem fair to people.

The process is not transparent either. The consultation documents give no explanation of how the assessment of the additional numbers was reached, and one really has to dig deep to find out; one has to read an extremely opaque report from the Department for Communities and Local Government called “Preparing Regional Spatial Strategy reviews on Gypsies and Travellers by regional planning bodies”. Indeed, the report consists largely of serial acronyms—it was not until I read a lot about the subject, for example, that I realised that G and T stood for Gypsies and Travellers—but there is no glossary to tell us what those acronyms mean.

If one works one’s way through the report, however, one will be astonished to find that there are no figures for the Gypsy population and that there are figures only for the number of caravans and sites. There are also no figures for occupancy rates at existing sites, which one might think would provide some measure of demand or need. One wonders why things are so opaque and obscure and why such a strange solution has been reached, and one finds that the Department does not really have the information on which to make the relevant decisions. Page 18 says:

The Department does not, therefore, have the information on which to take any reasonable action, but it proposes to go ahead anyway, which is why it goes ahead with unreasonable action.

The Department has decided to develop what it calls a “tool”—it keeps using that word—based on GTAAs, or Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments. Local authorities are obliged to carry out regular assessments, which are then examined. Although they form the basis of all subsequent work, the report observes:

The Department’s basic tool therefore measures three different things and conflates them all. That is done on the basis of interviews that provide no real measure of the demand, need or aspirations for sites in an area.

The report concludes, somewhat arbitrarily, that some of the assessments are robust, while others are not. On average, the robust ones show that demand, need or aspiration is 40 per cent. greater than the current supply, so the Department has decided arbitrarily to use that 40 per cent. factor everywhere as part of a one-size-fits-all approach, with no recognition of local differences.

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