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20 Jun 2007 : Column 489WH—continued

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere rightly said that the Government must accept some responsibility. He clearly demonstrated that the whole process is about
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ticking the box, and showed that his local community feels extremely badly done by. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said that it was important for a sustainable approach to be taken and he is absolutely correct.

The Minister has clearly not enjoyed the debate. Her body language and attitude have shown that she has not been entirely happy, and nor has she had much support from her own side. She could, no doubt, have done without such support as came from the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps I could give her some solace. We are not entirely critical of the Government. We recognise that they have moved some way since we presented our seven point action plan some time ago. They have moved towards us, particularly in making some moves to tackle some of the more flagrant abuses, such as those typified by the encampment at Crays Hill. We also recognise that the Government understand the importance of private authorised sites and the role that they can play.

However, waiting for the regional spatial strategy to be ticked off before sorting out the authorised sites is a mistake, as it is leading to a drift. In particular, circular 01/2006 from the Department for Communities and Local Government has led to a number of decisions on planning whereby sites that would be singularly inappropriate have been allowed to go through while people are waiting for the spatial strategy to arrive. Essentially, Travellers’ sites are being developed based on drift rather than authority.

I shall conclude as I started. Such decisions are difficult. Tensions tend to rise. Above everything, people want a feeling of equality before the law. The settled community and the travelling community want to be in roughly the same position so that planning permission should not, must not and cannot be given to the travelling community in circumstances in which it would undoubtedly be turned down for the settled community. Until that is firmly established in the public’s mind, there will be resistance, as we have seen this afternoon. Until the Government can demonstrate clearly that they want to treat all their citizens in equal measure, a significant part of the population will not believe that the Government come out of this with clean hands—forgive the use of the word—and a degree of integrity.

3.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. The Government believe that everyone in the community should have the opportunity to have a decent place to live. The shortage of authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers means that there is currently no such opportunity for households in one in four Gypsy and Traveller caravans. That is an unacceptable situation, and we are committed to significantly increasing site provision to address it.

Local authorities are required to undertake a strategic housing market needs assessment for the whole community. No one is being singled out—those assessments should be undertaken for the whole community. Unfortunately, Gypsies and Travellers were rarely included, hence the need for a specific requirement for the assessment of need. It has already been said that the Conservative Government ended the requirement for local authorities
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to provide sites in 1994, and that is what has created the significant difficulties that we experience today.

Many grown-up children of those in the Gypsy and Traveller community have their own young children but cannot access a home of their own and are on overcrowded sites. The situations affecting people in the settled community and the Gypsy and Traveller community therefore have some similarities, but the difference is that unauthorised sites can cause genuine problems. The settled community can experience those problems through, for example, unauthorised encampments that prevent the use of important local amenities. The problems can also be experienced by Gypsies and Travellers who find themselves in places that lack even basic facilities and are sometimes even downright dangerous.

The shortage of authorised sites, however, is not a big problem and not the huge social problem that the hon. Member for St. Albans would have us believe. As the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said, just one square mile of land is needed to accommodate the caravans for which there is currently no pitch on an authorised site.

The problem can be particularly challenging to solve. Many people do not want sites to be built near them as they have fears about them based on rumour and misinformation. There is groundless prejudice and I should like to take this opportunity to dispel some common myths. Data collected in Northamptonshire showed that an encampment does not result in a spike in crime levels. Gypsies and Travellers are required to, and do, pay council tax, whether or not their sites have planning permission, and they are active in their local communities. They are local councillors, and young Gypsies and Travellers are represented on the UK Youth Parliament. Everyone—Gypsies and Travellers, the settled community and local authorities—stands to gain from site provision.

Anne Main: If the Minister so roundly believes that my area is being unfair in not wanting to accept any more sites, will she instruct the local Labour councillors to drop their campaign against them and the hypocrisy in their literature, which implies that only they are on the side of local residents?

Meg Munn: If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I shall get to the situation in Hertfordshire.

Providing more authorised sites will reduce unauthorised camping and the tensions that it can create. Having good-quality accommodation will also help to tackle the serious social exclusion experienced by Gypsies and Travellers and improve health and education outcomes. The life expectancy of a Gypsy or Traveller is 10 to 12 years less than that of a member of the settled community, and Gypsy and Traveller mothers are almost 20 times more likely to experience the death of a child. Gypsy and Traveller children do not do anywhere near as well in their GCSEs as settled children.

Site provision will also reduce the resources that authorities spend on costly enforcement action, estimated by the Commission for Racial Equality at £18 million a year and described by the Audit Commission as a “wasteful use of resources.” The enforcement costs of one council have dropped from £200,000 a year to £5,000 a year since it built a new site. Site provision also makes it easier for authorities and the police to take enforcement action when unauthorised camping takes place.

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To achieve the significant increase that we are seeking we have established a new framework for site provision. Local authorities are now required by the Housing Act 2004 to undertake accommodation needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers in the same way as for the rest of the community. I understand that assessments are now under way or have been completed in 90 per cent. of local authorities. We want all of them to be completed by the end of the year.

I understand that St. Albans was covered by the south and west Hertfordshire Gypsy and Traveller needs assessment, which has gone to the regional assembly. I am informed that the regional assembly has scaled down the assessment of need arrived at in that document—it has not gone up since the assessment that St. Albans was involved in, but has been scaled down. It was felt that waiting lists for sites may have been overestimated.

The assessments will inform revisions to the regional spatial strategy, and the regional assembly will take a strategic view of need across the region and set out the number of pitches that each local authority will be expected to deliver. Guidance commissioned jointly by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the East of England regional assembly will support that process, and local authorities will then need to identify in their development plan documents sites to deliver pitches. I understand that the research used by the East of England regional assembly was conducted by Pat Niner, who is a renowned academic and has worked on Gypsy and Traveller issues for many years. That is how the needs assessment is being drawn up.

Hon. Members made a number of criticisms of that process, but for a long time site provision has not been made and there are no data on it, so it is an early stage in the understanding of the range of needs. That is why there is a process of consultation with not only local residents but local councils to ask whether they believe that the assessments set out by the regional assembly are correct. Backing up that new framework, we have increased the resources available to provide and refurbish sites through the Gypsy and Traveller site grant.

The hon. Lady set out the two options in her area, and the decision on which is more appropriate to meet needs is for the regional assembly to take, taking into account the views expressed during the consultation. That decision will feed into the draft revision of the east of England plan, which will be submitted to the Secretary of State later this year and subject to further consultation before the final plan is published in 2009.

Compared with the amount of conventional housing that needs to be supplied, the number of pitches needed is tiny. On the basis of what the regional assembly set out, Hertfordshire will be required to deliver either 115 or 173 pitches depending on the option chosen for distributing them.

Lorely Burt: I have done the maths and there are 444,000 households in Hertfordshire. The number of pitches that the Minister gives is 0.00047 per cent., or similar, of that number, which goes to show the infinitesimal size of the problem.

Meg Munn: I have some further maths: it is less than 1 per cent. of the number of new houses that Hertfordshire would be required to deliver by proposed revisions to the plan.

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Hertfordshire needs to consider the need for pitches. The general principle is that they should be provided when need arises, and it is surely much better for that need to be met through good quality, well-managed sites than through unauthorised sites, which can create problems for the settled community and Gypsies and Travellers alike. When sites are allocated in development plan documents they will be subject to a sustainability appraisal, which will include an assessment of their environmental, economic and social impact. In fact, as we know, the number of pitches to be provided in south and west Hertfordshire has gone down because of what the regional assembly has done.

It is unacceptable for anyone to suggest that their area has its fair share of an ethnic group. That applies to Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers, which are identified as ethnic groups under race relations legislation, as much as to any other group.

Hon. Members mentioned the green belt. There is a general presumption against inappropriate development of any kind in the green belt, but we recognise that some local authority areas contain a high proportion of green belt and that no other suitable sites might exist. In those exceptional circumstances alterations to the green belt boundary may be made to meet a specific, identified need, whether for a new Gypsy and Traveller site or any other type of development.

Anne Main: I am conscious that the Minister has only two minutes, but I wish to say that local Labour councillors are campaigning, quite correctly, for not having more sites, on the grounds that we already have 50 per cent. of the sites in Hertfordshire. The Minister has just denounced that position. Will she either rein in her Labour councillors and ask them to get on message or denounce them?

Meg Munn: I do have only two minutes left and I want to finish answering hon. Members’ other questions.

Local authorities are required to identify sites in their development plans and documents and to deliver the number of pitches allocated to them in the regional spatial strategy. The Scott Wilson report, which ranked a number of potential sites in south and west Hertfordshire, is intended to assist local authorities in preparing those documents. Not all the sites identified will be necessary to deliver the number of pitches allocated. The report considered sites against several criteria including whether the scale of a site would complement its surroundings; whether it was within reasonable distance of amenities, public transport and key services such as doctors and schools; whether it had access to essential services such as water, sewerage and drainage, and whether it avoided contaminated areas. The framework that we have established and the process that the East of England and other regional assemblies are going through are crucial to making progress on site provision. Only by significantly increasing the number of authorised sites will we ensure that all parts of the community have a decent place to live, thereby reducing the tensions that unauthorised sites can cause—

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Revenue and Customs Offices (Cornwall)

4 pm

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I am grateful to have an opportunity to raise this issue, which is a matter of growing concern to people across Cornwall, particularly in the town of Launceston in my constituency.

I shall start by sketching out the situation in which my constituents who are employed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in Launceston find themselves. The office is one of several across Cornwall. There is a network of offices in the towns of St. Austell, Truro, Redruth, Penzance and Launceston, and it is important to recognise that each one provides slightly different functions.

The work in Cornwall involves compliance—that is, the examination of tax returns and the tax affairs of individuals and companies to ensure that the Exchequer receives exactly what it should, and that tax law is complied with. There is also an element of risk assessment—employees consider which files ought to be examined further by compliance teams—and an inquiry element that allows people to have face-to-face meetings with the experts employed by HMRC to discuss their affairs and raise particular problems. That is a valuable service, and I shall return to it later. Some staff are employed in processing and have particularly busy periods of the year, but processing work carries on throughout the year. Finally, there is a historical Customs presence in Falmouth.

The surrounding area of Cornwall—the region that I am discussing—is one of the poorest in the country in terms of incomes and some of the problems that people face on a day-to-day basis. That has been recognised by the European Union through the provision of objective 1 funding, and in the move to convergence. It is one of only two areas in the country that will benefit from convergence. Those are indications of the sort of area that it is. It is not an affluent part of the country, and it does not have many alternative jobs for people who are currently employed in Revenue and Customs work to take up.

House prices, particularly in north Cornwall, have been pushed up because of second-home ownership and related problems. As measured by the ratio of incomes to house prices, the area is the second most unaffordable place in the country to live after Kensington and Chelsea. The serious effects of any decision to close HMRC offices must be borne in mind. There would be negative effects on, first, the local economy. I have already given some reasons for that, but I will go on to explore it further later. Secondly, the customers—those people who interact with HMRC in the local area—will be affected, and, thirdly, there would be an effect on what I hope are the ultimate aims of the Treasury to maximise the amount of revenue that is collected through the tax system so that the Government can deliver all the projects that MPs up and down the country demand for their areas. We want to maintain the stream of revenue and maximise it.

A national axe, however, could fall on some of those vital jobs. I shall focus on the office in Launceston, which is a small market town with a fantastic history. However, as one might imagine, agriculture in the
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surrounding area is under pressure. There is an industrial base at the Pennygillam industrial estate in the town, but, as there is a shortage across Cornwall of high-quality jobs, the public sector has an important part to play in providing employment. In this instance, about 60 highly skilled people are employed in the HMRC office in Launceston. There is low staff turnover. The employees have put down roots in the community. They have a high quality of life and are committed to remaining in the Launceston area. They are very much part of the community.

The uncertainty over the future of the office, as well as the introduction of regulations about taking on new people, mean that temporary staff are used to carry out some of the work, particularly processing work. Some people are there for only a short time. They are trained to do the work and then, because of regulations that apply if they are in the job longer than 11 months, they have to go to other jobs, and a new set of temporary staff is brought in. Of course, that can undermine the work that the office does. I am seeking to show that there could be a damaging effect on the local economy if the jobs were withdrawn.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Redruth in my constituency is another area that is likely to be affected by job losses. There is concern not only about the loss of high-quality jobs, which my hon. Friend has just mentioned, but about the loss of footfall to the town, which Redruth has been struggling to build up. There are many vulnerable independent shops. The town council has done everything that it can to attract additional footfall, and it is concerned that job losses will have an impact on the town’s wider economy.

Mr. Rogerson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. She illustrates the effect that any closures could have on towns in Cornwall.

In discussing job losses, it is fair, too, to discuss the effect on customers who can speak to someone at the inquiry centres in offices around Cornwall. We have highly skilled people, as I said, and customers can go to them with their concerns. Cornwall is largely a small-business economy. Many people in the area have accountants, but others might be new to business or lack the resources to investigate tax matters without some form of support. Surely it is more efficient to provide local resources so that people can have face-to-face contact?

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