Housing and Planning Bill

Written evidence submitted by Friends, Families and Travellers (HPB 31)

Dear House of Commons Public Bill Committee

Re: Housing and Planning Bill 2015-16. Part 5 Accommodation Needs in England .84 Assessment of Accommodation Needs.

We are a national charity working with Gypsies and Travellers and we would like to submit evidence for the committee’s consideration with reference to the Housing and Planning Bill 2015-16.

Friends, Families and Travellers is a national charity working with Gypsies and Travellers. We carry out casework for hundreds of Gypsies and Travellers a year, via our national helpline, and via outreach workers in Sussex and Surrey. This can be on any subject, but those that arise most frequently are planning permission for private sites, accessing local authority sites and housing, homelessness issues and evictions from the roadside, education, health, benefits and race hate incidents.

We also respond to all government consultations relevant to Gypsies and Travellers, and are members of various advisory and consultative groups such as the Department for Communities and Local Government’s Gypsy and Traveller Advisory Group, the Department for Education’s Gypsy and Traveller Stakeholder Group, the Home Office and Ministry of Justice’s Hate Crime Advisory Group and Sussex Police’s Gypsy and Traveller Advisory Group.

We have a large number of clients living on the roadside on unauthorized encampments, who are homeless and do not have an authorized site on which to stop as there is a huge shortage of authorized sites for the Gypsy and Traveller communities.

I have been working at Friends, Families and Travellers for fifteen years, and in that time have worked with hundreds of Gypsy and Traveller families and individuals.

We are extremely concerned about the proposals in the Housing and Planning Bill 2015-16 to remove the statutory requirement on local authorities to assess the specific accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers.

The proposal is to subsume the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers into the main housing needs assessment and will cover ‘..consideration of the needs of people residing in, or resorting to the district for, caravan sites and houseboat mooring sites’. This considerably weakens the provisions that are in place to ensure local authorities assess the specific accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers.

The Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Need Assessments were introduced under the Housing Act 2004 as previously the specific accommodation needs of these minority groups were not properly assessed. As the Communities and Local Government Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments Guidance of 2007 stated, under the title Why assess Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs?, ‘In the past, the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers (especially those who live in caravans or mobile homes) have not routinely formed part of the process by which local authorities assess people’s housing needs.  The consequences of this have been that the current and projected accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers have often not been well understood.’

Homelessness amongst Gypsies and Travellers living in caravans is estimated at about 20%, so there is an urgent need for more sites to be delivered. If the requirement to specifically assess their accommodation need is removed we are worried that this will result in an even higher rate of homelessness in the communities as even less sites to meet their assessed need will be delivered, and even less land allocated in local plans to meet that need.

The result of the shortage of authorized sites for Gypsies and Travellers is that they have no alternative but to camp in an unauthorized manner, stopping wherever they can find to stop. This can result in increased community tensions with the settled community. Gypsies and Travellers camped in such a way are extremely vulnerable to vigilante attacks; one of our clients was a victim of an arson attack to his caravan last week, and could have died had he been in the caravan at the time. Gypsies and Travellers with no site to stop on also have difficulties accessing running water, toilets, refuse collection, schools for their children, and adequate employment opportunities; things that most people in 21st Century Britain take for granted.

In 2002 research published by Rachel Morris and Luke Clements entitled ‘At What Cost? The economics of Gypsy and Traveller encampments’, estimated that local authorities spend upwards of £6 million a year on unauthorized encampments in legal costs, evictions, blocking off land from encampments, and clear up costs, the equivalent of what providing authorized sites would cost. Sites provided then are income generating, via rent and council tax, and provide a safe home for Gypsy and Traveller families. In these times of austerity and cuts to local authorities’ budgets from central government it will present additional financial difficulties to local authorities if the number of unauthorized encampments increases. We believe the proposals in the Housing and Planning Bill not to carry out an assessment of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation need will have the effect of increasing unauthorized encampments, as the need for sites will not be adequately assessed and planned for.

Without a specific assessment carried out to ascertain what the need for such sites is in local authorities there will instead be a lose-lose situation where the need is not assessed, sites are not provided, and unauthorized encampments consequently increase.

A specific Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessment also helps inform local authorities as to how much land to allocate in their local plan to meet that assessed need, thus giving certainty as to where is suitable for private Gypsy sites to be developed. Without this considered accommodation assessment land will most likely not end up being allocated for sites, as was the previous situation, and Gypsy and Traveller families may end up buying land in areas that could be considered unsuitable for development and developing these as no signposting to suitable allocated land has occurred.

Thus the proposals in the current Housing and Planning Bill could create an increase in unauthorized developments.

The Welsh Government is currently taking a very different approach to the issue of site provision for Gypsies and Travellers. They have recently introduced a statutory duty on local authorities to facilitate site provision for Gypsies and Travellers, and the requirement to carry out a specific Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs assessment is contained within this. We feel this approach is more likely to achieve the desired aim of ensuring sufficient numbers of sites are provided to meet the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers, and reduce unauthorized encampments and homelessness.

I hope you can consider these points carefully, with a view to finding a solution to the shortage of authorized Gypsy and Traveller sites, not to increasing their incidence, which we feel the proposals in the Housing and Planning Bill cannot fail but to do, and which would have a disastrous effect if enacted.

November 2015

Prepared 17th November 2015