Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies: a planning vacuum? - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

Written evidence from the Gypsy Council (ARSS 55)


The invitation from the Communities and Local Government Committee to submit evidence on the abolition of RSS identifies the implications of RSS abolition for waste, minerals, and flooding but not that abolition also deleted regional and district targets for site provision for Gypsies and Travellers (and indeed targets for plots for Travelling Showpeople.) This submission aims to fill that gap.


Gypsies and Travellers are an extremely disadvantaged ethnic minority across a wide range of measures.

The critical shortage of adequate, culturally appropriate residential accommodation is at the heart of many of the other disadvantages from which Travellers suffer.

We are the victims of very high levels of prejudice and overt and institutional racism. Of particular importance for this inquiry is the institutional racism we suffer in the way the planning system works against us to refuse and restrict planning permissions for residential provision.

We are not just facing the abolition of RSS, but of Circular 1/06, Planning for Gypsy and Traveller Caravan Sites, and of Gypsy and Traveller grant for new and additional pitches via the Homes and Communities Agency.

The system put in place through ODPM Circular 1/06 with regional and district targets for additional pitches defined through RSS had not delivered significant additional pitches, but it was beginning to work. With time and support from Ministers and planning inspectors Circular 1/06 had the potential to substantially address the crisis in residential provision for Travellers.

We have deep concerns about some aspects of localism, which carries the risk of pandering to lowest common denominator anti Gypsy racism. We are also deeply concerned at anti Traveller messages coming out of Communities and Local Government Ministers, particularly the Secretary of State, through informal, political channels which threaten an intensified open season on Gypsies and Travellers with policy based around enforcement, criminalisation and demonisation.

Finally, we put forward principles for how a post RSS system can be made to work to provide adequate residential provision and begin to treat Gypsies and Travellers as equal and culturally distinct members of the Big Society. We particularly recommend that our communities are given a central role in planning for and providing for our own needs.

The Inequalities Experienced by the Gypsy and Traveller Community

For our people oppression and prejudice by the non Gypsy majority are so familiar and so much a part of every day life as to be not worth commenting on. A comprehensive summary of the disadvantage suffered by Gypsies and Travellers is provided in Inequalities experienced by Gypsy and Traveller Communities, Cemlyn, Greenfields, Burnett, Matthews and Whitwell for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2009. The following examples are taken from that report. They paint a picture of multi dimensional disadvantage and confirm the Commission's conclusion that Gypsies and Travellers are the most disadvantaged ethnic group in Britain:

Life expectancy is shorter, infant mortality is particularly high—three times higher in one survey, maternal mortality much higher, yet access to health care, particularly primary health care, is much worse;

Travellers are hugely disadvantaged in education. Only 75% of children are regularly in education, the worst of any ethnic group. In 2007 only 16% of Irish Traveller children and 14% of Gypsy children got five GCSE A-Cs compared with 59% nationally.

The Central Importance of Inadequate Residential Provision

A central dimension of the inequality from which we suffer is the huge difficulty we have in getting culturally appropriate accommodation. Based on the January 2010 Caravan Count around 21% of Gypsies and Travellers are legally homeless in that they are living on unauthorised sites (land which they own but for which they do not have planning permission) or are on unauthorised encampments (land which they do not own, including the road side). Even this figure is a major underestimate of homelessness and housing stress:

There is a systemic tendency to undercount Gypsies and Travellers because of the interest of many areas in avoiding provision (Southend Council always gives a nil return on its Caravan count, despite a significant Traveller presence).

Non Traveller officials do not know where all the families are.

The counts are much more accurate about authorised sites—families at the road side are easy to miss.

To avoid racism and enforcement action by councils many families do not announce themselves as Travellers.

Significant and uncounted numbers have been forced to live in bricks and mortar housing.

Many, particularly public sites do not represent acceptable provision in that they are in very poor condition or in locations that should be unacceptable—under motorway flyovers, next to sewage works and waste tips, vulnerable to flood, on left over highway land.

By culturally appropriate accommodation we mean sites which allow people to live in the open air, in mobile homes or caravans with proper services and adequate space for visiting relations to stay, for children's play, and with land nearby for horses.

There is substantial evidence that an enclosed life in bricks and mortar housing is unsuitable for Gypsies and Travellers and causes psychological stress, illness, and in some cases contributes to early death. This may be odd to the settled community but should be respected. A helpful analogy is not forcing Jewish people and Muslims to eat pork. It may be odd but it is their tradition and as a civilised society we accept that it should be respected.

Adequate housing is not only one of the most basic human rights, lack of it lies behind many of the other inequalities from which Traveller communities suffer. Children have no fixed address so cannot settle into education, are moved from school to school, and are vulnerable to bullying. People cannot register with doctors and dentists, so only go to hospital when someone is seriously ill, women do not get proper prenatal care etc.

Why the Planning System is so important for Gypsies and Travellers and how it is used in institutionally racist ways against us

The planning system and the way it has been used in racist ways against us is central to the accommodation crisis and to the huge inequalities from which Travellers suffer.

Employment in agriculture allowing families to move from job to job has fallen hugely since the war and traditional road side stopping places have been stopped up. In recognition that the old way of life was coming to an end and that Travellers needed somewhere to live the 1968 Caravan Sites Act gave a duty to local authorities to provide sites supported by grants. Most public sites date from this period.

The 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act made unauthorised encampment a civil offence, abolished the duty on local authorities to provide sites, and made unauthorised encampment a criminal offence. The intention was that local authorities should make land available and that Travellers should provide housing for themselves.

But no land was made available and in the large majority of cases when families acquired land for their needs planning permission was refused. Instead they were evicted by violent bailiffs from their own land and moved on from the roadside by the police.

As we write Basildon Council and its bailiffs are moving families from Hovefields Drive and planning for the eviction from Dale Farm, the country's largest traveller encampment, a site which is owned and has been developed by the families themselves on the spurious grounds that it is green belt. It isn't exactly the North Downs, it's an old scrap yard on the fringes of Basildon which has been converted into somewhere to live by the families themselves.

This is the dark side of localism. Whenever proposals come up local residents and parish councils object vociferously. The levels of abuse and objection to development for our people are hard to understand but almost universal. Language and attitudes that have been unacceptable since the 1970s to black people, Jews and gays are commonplace in regard to Travellers, particularly when it is proposed that they should live within a community. This is why the planning system is at the heart of the inequalities from which Travellers suffer. Councillors are put under huge local political pressures. Typically basic planning applications take nine or 10 months. The planners demand very high levels of information—wildlife surveys, traffic surveys, flood risk assessments etc that would not be imposed on other applicants. Having taken the applicants through a maze the ultimate answer is nearly always refusal, often for inadequate planning reasons with the planning officers told by councillors to come up with reasons. any of our people have limited literacy and do not have the skills to find their way through bureaucracy so they are easy victims of the arcane complexities of the planning system. Where permissions are given they are temporary or personal or dependent on the expense of having to go to appeal.

It is this dilemma that forces families to bypass planning. They are desperate for somewhere secure to live. There are no spaces on public sites. They cannot live by the side of the road and are in perpetual fear of being moved on, so they can be tempted to buy sites and move on to them and hope to avoid detection through the planning enforcement system. Such action is not criminal activity, but a logical response to a no win situation. Families are providing for themselves rather than being dependent on the state.

It is no exaggeration that many Travellers are tortured by the planning system. Long delays, uncertainty, fear of eviction and having to live on the road side hangs over many, many families who are waiting for planning decisions from the local authority or quietly living their lives in fear of enforcement. The stress on families and the pressures leading to marriage breakdown, alcohol misuse, stress related illness and depression from the way that the planning system impacts on Travellers should not be underestimated.

How the provisions in Circular 1/06 were beginning to work and why abolition of RSS together with other measures risks a new dark age

In the years after the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act with no additional public sites and families unable to get planning permission the crisis was getting worse. It led to an increase in unlawful development from families desperate with nowhere to go. John Prescott set out to defuse the crisis and Circular 1/06 was the result.

It is worth remembering that John Prescott originally saw the problem as one of strengthened enforcement powers. He only gradually understood the basic principle that must underlie any revised policy framework.

No enforcement solution will work without adequate site provision

We would observe that the present Secretary of State risks repeating the same mistake.

Circular 1/06 recognised the urgent need for additional accommodation. It put in place a framework for planning additional residential provision based on three elements: Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessments to establish the level of need; Regional Planning Authorities defining targets for regional and district provision through RSS; and local authorities identifying the sites through their development plans. It was recognised that this system would take time but the aim was to significantly increase sites to address under-provision within three-five years, paragraph 12c.

In practice it took the planning authorities longer than Circular 1/06 anticipated to increase the supply. The first region wide reviews have been put in place in the South West, the East of England and the South East. Many local authorities were hanging back until their RSS was confirmed. They were seeing more Inspectors allowing appeals in the light of the Circular. Our strong perception is that more and more local authorities were reticently beginning to accept that they needed to begin to make provision. The tragedy for our people is that RSS and Circular 1/06 are being abolished just at the time they were beginning to work.

The messages coming out of the coalition Government are at best ambivalent. Local authorities are hearing that the level of provision is for local determination and about stronger enforcement but not messages about the need for adequate provision. The message that Circular 1/06 is to be replaced by "light touch guidance2 is extremely unhelpful and local authorities are telling us that they no longer need to maintain GTAAs, plan for provision or approve proposals, if the local area doesn't want it.

So while many local authorities were slow to do what Circular 1/06 required,in the light of the messages now coming from the Secretary of State many have rushed to abandon the planning work they were doing.

How a post RSS system can be made to work

Although there are honourable exceptions, many local authorities are incapable of taking fair decisions not based on anti Traveller prejudice and racism. Our experience is that our communities will never receive a fair deal through most of them.

Our first preference would therefore be to take planning decisions on development for Gypsies and Travellers out of local authorities' hands and place them with an independent agency, such as the Infrastructure Planning Commission or Planning Inspectorate.

In a sense this often happens already. We come across many cases where the planning officers make clear that they (and indeed their planning portfolio holder) want to grant permission, but are unable to because of intense negative local political pressures. They privately welcome and support applicants appealing and the decision being going to the Inspectorate to approve (and be blamed for).

If taking Traveller decisions away from local authorities is not acceptable, we need a robust policy framework which recognises the crisis in residential provision. Key elements would include:

A very strong emphasis on making adequate provision as a matter of urgency.

A continued emphasis on provision on sites owned by Travellers themselves. Like the settled community the large majority of Travellers aspire to own their own sites and provide for their own housing needs at no cost to the public purse. Many only live on public sites because they cannot get permission on land they have bought.

A requirement to have in place development plans making site provision based on evidence of need, say by 2011, but clear guidance on not waiting until then to granting approval.

Where RSS targets have been agreed, they should be used as interim guidance pending the adoption of new local plans.

Emphasising that it is totally unacceptable to treat applications for Gypsies and Travellers differently than for other parts of society, to take longer to determine them, or to require more information.

Approvals should normally be full ones and personal or temporary permissions should only be used where there are valid and exceptional circumstances, rather than as a matter of course.

This needs to be backed up by a very strong guidance to Inspectors that costs should be awarded against Local Authorities if they refuse permission or impose conditions they would not impose on other members of society.

All this suggests that we need very strong, not light touch policy and that with amendments Circular 1/06 can form the basis of a strengthened policy.

There is one dimension of 1/06, the emphasis on sustainable locations at paragraphs 64-65, which has proved an unhelpful additional burden. It has led many local authorities to focus strongly on sites on the edge of settlements, which are often those most at risk from anti Traveller prejudice and orchestrated opposition, while rejecting the slightly more rural sites, which are favoured by many Travellers and for which the land may more easily available. So the well intentioned sustainability advice needs to be tempered by an emphasis on the urgency of making provision in locations which reflect both the cultural needs of Travellers and those locations which are more acceptable for the settled community. (Of course for many in the settled community there is nowhere that is acceptable!)

There needs to be an emphasis on good evidence. Local authorities must be required to keep Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessments up to date perhaps every three years. We also welcome the 2011 Census including Gypsy and Irish Traveller as separate ethnic groupings for the first time.

There needs to be funding support. We share the anger that many of the improvement and new provision projects funded in recent years through Gypsy and Traveller Grant represent very poor value for money.

We would want to see the establishment of a small implementation unit to oversee grants, provide advice to local authorities, housing associations and Travellers on good practice and ensure value for money in site development and management. We want to see (and to be involved in) the establishment of housing associations run by Travellers themselves.

An underlying theme in the above points is that services are provided to and for Gypsies by non Gypsies. The GTAA's and census count need to involve Traveller groups to ensure accuracy and engagement by the community. Travellers are entrepreneurial with strong construction skills. As a matter of course procurement processes for new sites should seek quotes from Traveller businesses. Some of the best run sites are those managed by Travellers ourselves.

This is how addressing the crisis in residential provision for Gypsies and Travellers links to the Big Society. Travellers have a strong sense of family and community. By carrying out the surveys, building the sites and managing them ourselves we can build up the skills our community needs to survive and engage fully in the modern world. By drawing on our entrepreneurial skills we can help make sure the limited public funding that is available is used effectively.

September 2010

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