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

Written evidence from Eric Avebury, Professor Thomas Acton OBE, Professor Alan Townsend, Andrew Ryder and Marc Willers (ARSS 56)


Adequate site provision, both permanent and transit, is the answer to the problem of unauthorised encampments. The Caravan Sites Act 1968 required local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers residing in or resorting to their areas. Unfortunately the duty was repealed in 1994, and although by that time 350 or so local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites had been constructed in England and Wales, there still remained a significant shortfall in site provision. Many local authorities had ignored their statutory duty and the Ministerial power of direction in S 9(2) of the Act had only been used recently and sparingly. The shortfall remains, caused by the failure of successive central governments and local authorities to ensure adequate provision. This has led to the endemic situation of unauthorised encampments and unauthorised developments, and it is essential that a policy of ensuring adequate site provision is promoted if any positive steps are to be made in tackling that problem.

Experience over the last 42 years leads us to conclude that provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites or the allocation of land for sites in local authority plans, is the key to reducing community tensions and enforcement costs as well as improving the life chances of a highly marginalised minority. Conversely, failure to provide sites or to allocate land for them, inevitably leads to proliferation of unauthorised sites, with disastrous effects on the life chances of Travellers and disputes between Travellers and settled communities. To achieve the goal of eliminating unauthorised encampments, financial support needs to be combined with obligations on local authorities to provide sites based on accurate and fair assessments of need with the prospect of government intervention where councils fail to act. We therefore regret the Government's intention to abolish the site targets developed by the Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessment, and refined by public consultation and redistribution of obligations between local authorities. We also deplore the erasure of the guidance contained within Circular 1/2006. These measures were slowly beginning to have some positive impact on reducing the shortfall. The Government is wrong to dismiss this policy as failed and we urge it to reconsider its pledge to repeal these policies.

A key component of the government's new policy is enforcement against unauthorised developments and encampments but there appears to be no reference to enforcement action that may be taken against local authorities who fail to lift a finger to help Gypsies and Travellers address their sites needs. Nearly one in five Gypsies and Travellers are on unauthorised sites, which are to be the target of stronger enforcement powers.

Under the banner of localism councils are to be allowed to determine the number of pitches they need to develop. This is not "putting fairness back into communities" as Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for the Communities and Local Government (CLG) recently claimed (CLG Press Release, 28 August, 2010). The right way is to ensure that local authorities grant planning permission for enough sites to accommodate Gypsies and Travellers, for the simple reason they have nowhere else to go. Letting 368 councils decide individually how many pitches they will allow is a recipe for inaction, and promising undefined financial incentives to councils to develop sites themselves cannot have greater effect than the 100% new sites grant which Mr Pickles has abolished.

The abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) will also wreck the work done to redistribute the need for pitch provision generated in some areas with large Gypsy and Traveller communities, such as Basildon. The end of such policies of redistribution are implied in the Coalition proposal that councils should make appropriate provision which "reflect local need and historic demand". Redistribution via the RSS has proven popular with a number of Conservative councils who have seen their pitch targets reduced and neighbouring authorities compelled to develop sites, who it has been argued with some justification had managed to avoid their obligations to Gypsies and Travellers in the past. This begs the question of how widely the repeal of RSSs has been discussed with those responsible for local government.

As noted the Coalition government says that site provision must be based on local need and historic demand. In London the Mayor Boris Johnson is seeking to drastically reduce London's identified pitch requirements by claiming that there is not enough land and by dismissing the needs of housed Gypsies and Travellers who have been forced into housing by the shortage of sites and who have a legitimate need to live on sites. The stance taken by the London Mayor is not acceptable in London or elsewhere and it is hoped that it will not creep into new guidance on who is to be included and excluded in Gypsy and Traveller accommodation policies.

It should be noted that a considerable number of Gypsies and Travellers are facing eviction on unauthorised developments like Dale Farm. These Gypsies and Travellers have been left in some uncertainty since the general election and indications of major policy change. For example, talks between Essex authorities including Basildon and the Local Government Association, Homes and Communities Agency and the Government Office East to find alternative sites within Essex for Dale Farm residents have been stalled by the announcement by Eric Pickles abolishing the targets for site provision set through the RSS and Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessments; the announcement has encouraged all local authorities, not just those in Essex, to conclude that they have no obligation to identify suitable land for site development, or to identify sites which could be offered to homeless Gypsies and Travellers, such as those from Dale Farm. If constructive dialogue is to continue in Essex and elsewhere, then the government ought to encourage a moratorium on eviction action to give local authorities the opportunity to adopt and comply with its new policy and reassess the need for accommodation with their areas and to explore the new financial incentives that the government has indicated may be available for site provision.

It should be noted that in its report of March 2010 the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance in its fourth periodic report on the UK expressed concern about the eviction of Gypsies and Travellers. The Commission found (para 153) that:

"An excessive emphasis on enforcement (ie eviction), involving often protracted and expensive litigation, instead of seeking forward-looking solutions in consultation with all members of the local community, has also been shown to damage race relations".

The Commission recommended (para 156) that:

".. the UK authorities encourage local authorities to treat enforcement measures—legitimate though they are—as a last resort, and to privilege wherever possible an approach aimed at bridging gaps between communities and finding mutually acceptable solutions rather than approaches that will inevitably place groups in opposition to each other ".

Thus, in the interests of averting costly and dangerous evictions and having regard to principles of proportionality laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights we would argue that the government should discourage forced evictions so that Gypsies and Travellers can acquaint themselves with the proposed new policy regime and work within it to seek constructive alternatives to eviction.

Given the reluctance of local authorities to allocate land for Gypsies and Travellers and the consensual support for the previous government's policies, we believe that Mr Pickles' decision to scrap the existing site targets and the prospect of government intervention where councils fail to act is wholly irrational. The policy which Mr Pickles now wishes to abolish would have ensured that sites would be provided, and thus unauthorised encampments eliminated. However, if there is to be change then in order to avoid a "Balkanising effect" of letting individual councils make planning and development decisions, the creation of local partnerships of sub-regions and city regions with statutory planning powers could offer a way forward (see Professor Alan Townsend, Guardian, 21 May, 2010). This is a compromise between RSS and localism. Such a framework could be delivered through the proposed Local Enterprise Partnerships which also form part of the remit of the Select Committee inquiry and which the government has indicated may have a planning role.

An effective planning framework which can deliver the sites needed will continue to require monitoring and direction from central government. The Select Committee may wish to consider the idea of a Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Commission first mooted in the Traveller Law Reform Bill which was drafted by Cardiff Law School and twice tabled as a private members' bill by the former Conservative MP David Atkinson. The Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Commission would promote equality for Gypsies and Travellers in accommodation matters and issue guidance on specific issues, including measures for consultation and the adequacy and suitability of existing accommodation arrangements. In particular the Commission would keep under review the adequacy of council accommodation proposals for Gypsies and Travellers in local authority Development Plans and their accommodation programmes. It may be the case that such a body will more effectively challenge local authority inertia on this issue and lead to greater momentum and consistency of policy.

Finally, it is imperative that the Coalition government engages with Gypsies and Travellers and listens to their concerns and aspirations. To that end we would urge the government to ensure that the highly successful CLG Gypsy and Traveller Forum continues to meet regularly to advise the government on its policies.

September 2010

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Prepared 31 March 2011