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18 Jun 2008 : Column 275WH—continued

I submit that that is quite wrong. The law—planning or any other law—should apply to Gypsies and Travellers in precisely the same way as it does to the settled population. My duty is to help the settled population find accommodation and I am happy to do so. I happily
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do the same thing for the Gypsy population, but I do not see why they should be given rights that other people do not have. Everyone should be treated in precisely the same way.

Leaving Minety aside, I shall talk about the current situation regarding provision in the county of Wiltshire. In comparison with most other counties in England, we are reasonably well supplied with sites for Travellers in Wiltshire. Wiltshire county council manages six residential sites and there are 96 pitches all together. Each pitch has two caravans so there are 192 pitches and 200 residents. There are also transit sites consisting of 12 pitches. Wiltshire is therefore one of the best county’s for Traveller site provision in England.

So, people might well ask why more sites are needed. Is Wiltshire littered with dozens and dozens of Travellers looking for somewhere to go? No, is the answer to your question, Mr. Chope—had you asked it, which you did not although I could see it in your face. Wiltshire is not particularly littered with large numbers of caravans looking for somewhere to go, so why is North Wiltshire district council—and the other district council, to which I shall refer in an moment—being asked to make permanent provision for large numbers of Gypsy caravans? It is because of a rather peculiar document called the regional spatial strategy. Incidentally, I do not think that we live in a region. I do not believe in regions or in the so-called south-west region. I certainly do not believe in an unelected, appointed, unanswerable, peculiar organisation called the South West regional assembly. I have no clue what that organisation is. I have never been there; I have never seen its minutes. That organisation is not elected and it is not answerable to the electorate in any shape, size or form. However, whoever the people at the South West regional assembly are, they have produced a document called the regional spatial strategy, and, off the top of their heads and for reasons best known to themselves, they have stated in that document that somehow or other Wiltshire has to take large numbers of these sites.

That seems to me to be fundamentally undemocratic. If the councillors at Wiltshire county council or North Wiltshire district council say, “It is our duty as a council to make provision for these people in the same way that we must house the homeless,” that would be perfectly fine. They are elected councillors and if they get it wrong by having too many or too few sites, they are removed from office in the next election because they have done a bad job as councillors. The South West regional assembly has no such democratic accountability. The people there have been appointed and we do not know who they are or why they are doing this.

The South West regional assembly is not acting entirely off its own bat; it is replying to a document that the Government produced last year. That consultation document is entitled “The Road Ahead”, which is appropriately titled for a Gypsy consultation—although we are not talking about being on the road ahead; we are talking about people settling down for long periods in fixed encampments. In that document, the Government concluded that they wanted 4,000 new pitches across England. Do we know why they want 4,000 new pitches across England? Not really.

I have a number of questions to ask about how the Government came up with that figure that I shall come back to in a moment. The Government said that they want 4,000 pitches across England and they dished
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them out to the regional assemblies. The South West regional assembly divided the pitches up among the counties; the counties divided them up among the districts; and in a wonderfully obscure, Stalinist, centralist way, the conclusion is that North Wiltshire district council needs 48 new pitches. That is not because there are sufficient Gypsies to fill 48 pitches or because we need them, but simply because something called the South West regional assembly has answered some centralised Government diktat and has concluded that it should do so.

I mentioned that there were two or three things about which I felt unhappy in relation to the methodology used by the South West regional assembly. Without delaying hon. Members too much, I shall mention one or two of those issues. First, each county had to produce a Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment, which is a GTAA to those of us in the know. The truth is that each of those GTAAs differ from county to county, and it is up to each county to set up its own GTAA, which undermines the process by which the assessment is arrived at. Secondly, the GTAAs are based on consultations with Gypsies and Travellers, which one might say is reasonable enough. As the report from the panel states:

However, the likelihood is that Gypsies and Travellers will exaggerate the number of pitches that they need. They are hardly likely to say that they want fewer than they need—they are likely to exaggerate it.

The South West regional assembly went on to suggest that the compound growth of the Gypsy and Traveller population will be 3 per cent. a year until 2016, which is why we have to come up with so many sites. If my arithmetic is correct, those figures mean that the Gypsy and Traveller population will have increased by some 27 per cent. by 2016—3 per cent. compounded through until 2016. The Government say that the British population will grow by 8 per cent. in the same period. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why it is presumed that the Gypsy population will grow three times faster than the settled population because there is no logic in that at all. I recently had a meeting with some Gypsies and I said to them, “Where are all these extra Gypsies coming from?” and in a rather nice Wiltshire understatement they said, “From their mothers, I reckon.” I suppose that is true—although that would happen no faster than the settled population.

In justifying its figures, the panel criticised the Wiltshire GTAA. It said that North Wiltshire has produced unrealistically low figures because of

So, lower figures have been produced because of the effectiveness of enforcement action. In other words, the police have done their job and moved people on when they are illegally parked, and because they have done so rather well, we need more sites. The police were simply doing their job and the report has criticised them for that. It goes on.

It seems that in some areas, the individuals who undertook the survey work were people whom the local Gypsy and Traveller communities distrusted—well, it
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would not be much good if they had used their mates. It seems perfectly reasonable for people in authority dispassionately to assess how many places are needed. The report goes on to refer to Travellers living in houses who might want to return to caravans if new sites are provided. Is it necessarily a duty of society to provide people who have decided to settle and who have been allocated permanent housing, presumably by the local authority or housing association, with sites? Is it up to us to spend large amounts of Government money—incidentally we are talking about £70 million of Government money altogether across the nation—to provide sites so that we can encourage people to leave houses and go back to their preferred way of life in caravans? I am not sure that it is and I am not sure that the voter out there thinks it is either.

The whole approach to this seems to be flawed. The way in which they came up with these figures and allocated them around the area seems to be flawed. The Government want 4,000 new pitches, as I said. North Wiltshire alone will increase its number of pitches by 48, plus 12 transit pitches. Each of those pitches has two caravans, so roughly speaking, there will be a further 120 caravans in North Wiltshire. In addition, they want 14 more pitches in Swindon, 18 in Salisbury, five in Kennet, and 14 in West Wiltshire. There will be 200 more caravans in the county of Wiltshire, and driving around Wiltshire, as I do all weekend, I am not aware of 200 caravans hanging around Wiltshire wondering where to go. I do not believe the figures are accurate; they are a centralist, Stalinist estimate made by the Government and the South West regional assembly, and I challenge the Government to justify them.

I will not enter into discussions about the merits and demerits of the six sites that North Wiltshire district council has proposed. Each of them is unacceptable to the people living there and I am inclined to think that all of them are quite wrong and none of them should be chosen. My problem is not so much with where they should be, but with the principle that lies behind the way in which the Government are saying they should be provided. My view is that the provision of Gypsy encampments fulfils a kind of Parkinson’s law: the more sites we have, the more Gypsies appear to fill them. As evidence of that, let me cite a few statistics. When the Labour Government passed the Caravan Sites Act 1968, they conducted a census and concluded that there were about 3,000 Gypsy caravans in England and that it was right that we should provide 3,000 pitches for them to go to. We did so; indeed while the Act was in place, we provided not 3,000 but a total of 7,000 pitches—some two and a half times the number required. Theoretically, that should have meant that all the Gypsy caravans in England were more than happily accommodated, yet by the time that the Conservative Government repealed the Act in 1995, there were 12,614 caravans in England, more than half of which were illegally parked. By July 2007, 17,134 caravans had been counted in England. We went from 3,000 to 12,000 to 17,000 caravans.

The paper produced by the independent taskforce says that it does not know how many Gypsies there are in England; estimates vary enormously, from 82,000 to 300,000. Incidentally, that paper gets the count of caravans wrong. It says that there were 16,000 caravans at the time to which I referred, so the authors get their statistics
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wrong in the introduction to the Government paper. I am not sure how their statistical analysis can be relied on beyond that.

We believe that there are very substantial numbers of Gypsies around. The number seems to increase exponentially. We have gone from 3,000 caravans in 1968 to at least 17,000 caravans today, with possibly up to 300,000 people living in them—an astonishing series of figures. The provision of sites—I think that there are now about 12,000 pitches in England—has done nothing to accommodate them. In other words, the more sites we provide, the more Travellers appear.

That brings me back to my original point about who these people are. Quite a significant number of them are new age travellers of one kind or another—people who have chosen to live a nomadic lifestyle, rather than having been born into it. In philosophical terms, perhaps one should consider whether it is right that society is required to provide, at large public expense, sites for people who have chosen to go and live in broken-down old buses around our countryside. I am not certain that that is something that the taxpayer would necessarily ask us to do.

All of that is without considering how many Gypsies around the world may be considering coming to this country. This is how the people who produced the paper went about their business: they put their finger in the air and came up with an imaginary number, then local authorities were required to provide sites for that imaginary number of people. That is like asking how many people are living in Europe today, how many might want to come and live in England and therefore how many new houses we should require local authorities to build for them. It is an absurd calculation and it should not be done; it should be done precisely the other way around. We should be saying to local authorities, “It is your duty to provide for people of a settled disposition, just as it is your duty to provide for people of a travelling disposition. If you don’t—if you provide too few sites—then come the next district council election or unitary council election”—as is the case in Wiltshire—“the people of your area will judge you on your ability as councillors to have carried out your statutory duties.” We should be working from the bottom up—with councillors being given the responsibility to do those things—rather than working from the top down, which is absurd. In concreting over the countryside, as the Government are requiring local authorities to do to provide sites, they are also concreting over local people’s opinions on the subject.

I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham from the Front Bench shortly. In 1995, while we were in government—I declare an interest: I was special adviser to the Secretary of State for the Environment at the time, which is why I take a keen interest in these matters—we did, after all, abolish the requirement on local authorities to provide sites. Let me talk about what might happen in the event that there is a Conservative Government two years from now. Who knows? I suppose that that is at least theoretically possible. I would not want to offend the Minister by putting it any more strongly than that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is only theoretical.

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Mr. Gray: Theoretically, if there were to be a Conservative Government two years from now, I would very much hope that we would once again say to local authorities, “We in government will not take a centralist approach to making provision for Gypsies and Travellers. It is you, the local authorities, whose duty it is to house the homeless, which you do extremely well by and large across the nation, and it is your duty to provide suitable accommodation for those Travellers in your area.” There is no reason why we should provide Traveller accommodation for people from outside the area. We want to provide proper accommodation in the proper place for Wiltshire Gypsies, but not for Gypsies from elsewhere.

I look forward to hearing how the Minister will try to answer some of the statistical points about the need for Gypsy sites and the points about the way in which they are provided. I also look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham. I hope that I can tell my constituents in North Wiltshire that two years from now there just might be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

2.55 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing the debate. I think that he is being unduly cautious in his political calculations about the future. I would be rather more bullish than he has been. However, we are talking about the present rather than the future, and I congratulate him on the way in which he presented his case. He said much of what I would have wished to say; I will not repeat his comments, but will just add one or two of my own.

On the question of figures, I am highly suspicious of Government predictions for the number of people coming into this country, and I have a right to be. I was my party’s Front-Bench spokesman when we considered the European accession treaty—a slightly different context. We talked about whether we should do what the Germans and French had done and place a seven-year restriction on the numbers of people who could come from within Europe to this country. The then Foreign Secretary, who is now the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, assured me that the Government had done a firm calculation and that only 13,000 people were going to come as a result of the accession treaty. However, according to the last figure I heard, it was about 750,000, so I think that I have a right to be suspicious of Government predictions.

This is the nub of our argument. None of us disagrees that there is a need to provide adequate accommodation and sites for the travelling people who are in this country and who belong to this country, but there is always the danger that if we overdo it, we are offering an invitation for more of those people to come from abroad to take advantage of it. That has happened, as we know, in the employment market and it could equally happen in the travelling population.

I am very careful when talking about this issue, because it is emotive. I shall make just one or two comments and I will do so on the basis of experience. For four years, I was the Minister responsible for the environment in Scotland, in charge of our policy on travelling people, at a time when there was a requirement,
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as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire said, to provide accommodation. I learnt certain lessons from that experience. The first was that it is vital not to impose sites for travelling people on areas that simply will never come to terms with them. We made that mistake. We all went around saying, “Ah, but you know, in a year or two everybody will be used to it,” but my experience was that they did not get used to it. If sites were in the wrong place to begin with, they remained in the wrong place, and instead of providing a reasonable environment for the travelling people on those sites, we provided a hostile environment because the local people never came around to the idea of their presence.

I am in an interesting position because although none of the sites that my hon. Friend mentioned is in my constituency, one of them is across the road from a lot of new houses in Calne—he mentioned the town meeting in Calne. Those houses have been built to try to restore some of the prosperity of a town that has suffered badly over the years. At the very big meeting last night, there was hostility. I am told that it was a meeting at which there was no meeting of minds, and judging by the detailed account that I had this morning, it was certainly not what I would call consultation. If part of the policy of the local council, or the policy of the regional assembly or, indeed, the overall policy of the Government is to disregard that hostility, it will build into that area a social problem and an economic problem that will not go away. We will not have served the travelling people well by doing that.

There is another aspect to the matter. I am receiving a lot of complaints from people in that area about how the value of the houses that they have bought is falling because of the housing market at the moment. That is fairly general. The one thing that we know from experience is that putting a Traveller site in the wrong area, perhaps alongside newly built houses, tends to bring down house values. People have been writing to me saying that they are already being hit on house values and face the possibility of negative equity, and that the chances are that the problem will get even worse. Those are the issues that need to be taken into account.

The last point that I want to make it this: travelling people are travelling people because they want to travel. That brings me to another of the lessons that I learnt when I was in charge of this matter in Scotland. The Government provided sites, and as Minister I used to visit them. If I went in the winter, they were reasonably full; if I went in the summer they were empty. Why? Because the people on those sites wanted to travel. Their whole culture was about travelling. Providing the sites did not remove the problem of travelling people in the summer, as they were still on the roads looking for places to park. I suddenly realised that that arid policy was never going to achieve its purpose. I fear, given what we have heard about the regional spatial strategy and from the regional assembly, that we are about to make the same mistake again.

I fully endorse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire. In Wiltshire, we have a reasonably stable Gypsy-Romany population. I have some of them in my constituency; I know them. They are equally alarmed at the prospect of provision suddenly being made that will bring a totally different type of
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travelling people into the area. They know that if the problems that I foresee come about because of the approach that is taken, the relations that they have created with their local communities will be damaged vicariously.

I urge the Government to consider closely the requirement for regional assemblies or councils to provide that type of site. We are not looking at a short-term measure, but at something that could have a very long-term consequence. It would damage the lives not only of the Traveller people themselves but of the communities upon whom they might be imposed.

3.2 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on introducing the debate. It is an emotive subject, and he discussed it in a balanced and thoughtful way. It seems to me that the debate revolves around planning law and the importance of an even playing field and proper assessment of need.

Before debating any of that, however, we need to discuss definitions. My hon. Friend did so very well. The Government clearly feel the same way because their Task Group on Site Provision and Enforcement reported in December last year, saying that

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