Housing and Planning Bill

Written evidence submitted by Hereford Travellers Support (HPB 81)

Submission by the above in Relation to Paragraph 84 in the Housing and Planning Bill regarding the Proposals to repeal Sections 225 and 226 of the 2004 Housing Act, which requires Local Authorities to assess the Accommodation Needs of Gypsies and Travellers.

Background:

HTS is a very small voluntary organization which has been continuously involved with issues relating to Gypsies and Travellers in the geographical area of Herefordshire since 1977.

This work has covered many areas of life, with legal and welfare issues, with assisting Travellers to make planning applications for private sites and taking appeals, with early years work and holiday play, with Local Authority Strategies and Regional and Local Plans. It has involved close contact with the County’s Gypsy and Traveller families as well as with professionals in the field over many years.

This situation with regard to Gypsies and Travellers in Herefordshire was raised by one of the local MP’s in an adjournment debate in the House of Commons as far back as 1978. At that time the situation was pretty dire, there were constant evictions, trespass, blocking off of sites and court proceedings. Relations between the minority and the majority community were pretty bad; few Traveller children were attending school, health outcomes were poor etc. The MP was frequently being approached on the matter.

The problems caused to Local Authorities, the general public and Police in rural areas through illegal camping are out of all proportion to the numbers involved. These include the occupation of car parks, parking up on open green space, blocking access to businesses, mess and rubbish left behind. On the Traveller side it leads to poor educational and health outcomes, unemployment and even petty crime.

Environmental Health Officers for Local Authorities who, in those days, bore the brunt of this work, often complained of the amount of their time (and money) wasted in moving families from one spot, only for them to turn up somewhere else equally unsuitable.

Through a limited amount of positive action in setting up sites, (Hereford and Worcester County Council) and passing planning applications (Herefordshire Council) the situation has been transformed; there are a considerable number of authorized pitches, public and private, school attendance is the highest in the West Midlands, health outcomes are much better and the problem of unauthorised camping is greatly reduced. In 2013 a Herefordshire Council Conservative Cabinet Member said, " We carry out enforcement where it is necessary but we have a good relationship with traveller communities within the county and we mean to keep it that way.’ And ‘We are aware that we have a shortage of pitches but we have been working hard to correct this and I believe we will close the gap over the coming years.’

The duties imposed by the Housing Act 2004, for Local Authorities to make an Assessment has helped to normalize the situation with regard to accommodation of Travellers by involving Housing Departments in considering their needs and how they could be addressed. This has been positive and begun a dialogue about provision where targets were set and progress was reported in the Annual Monitoring Requirement. As provision increased, illegal camping reduced.

Extensive Research carried out on behalf of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission found that ‘the lack of suitable secure accommodation underpins many of the inequalities that Gypsy and Traveller Communities experience.’ *

The research report concluded:

‘Evidence is now available about the extent of provision and unmet need, as a result of the requirement for housing authorities to carry out formal accommodation assessments. These highlight a considerable shortfall in the quantity of residential and transit accommodation available to Gypsies and Travellers who do not wish to reside in conventional housing’. (‘Inequalities etc…’)

* Inequalities Experienced by Gypsy and Traveller Communities’ Sarah Cemlyn et al, Universities of `Bristol and Buckingham(2009).

The deletion of the requirement to assess need and its incorporation into a general assessment will mean, in all likelihood, that no assessment will be done. The Housing Officers do not have the time and the intimate knowledge of the Traveller community to carry out such an assessment of this nomadic and difficult to reach community. With no clear duty Councils will not be willing to put up the necessary funds to commission others to do it.

If the assessment is not done the pressure that this puts on local authorities to address the need will fade. There will be no objective standard to refer to in planning applications and appeals so there will be endless arguments as to the level of need existing. Unauthorised camping is likely to increase and the friction between communities, the draining of local authority resources and all the other negative effects will continue, or in relation to Herefordshire begin to emerge again.

Progress is uneven across the country but it is difficult to understand why there is a desire to put what is a generally hopeful scenario into reverse. The progress that has been made in Herefordshire, and probably other areas, has lead to greater educational attainments by Travellers, improved health, a more settled and self confident community, a vast reduction in unauthorized roadside encampments, Planning requirements observed and above all a much greater contribution by the minority group to the general good. Cultural values have been retained and are slowly adapting to the requirements of a different world.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the desire to reverse this is driven by prejudice or base calculations of political advantage.

It is very much to be hoped that at the Committee stage of the aforementioned Bill clause 84 will be removed and the duty to assess need in the Housing Act 2004 will continue to apply to the specialized needs of this minority community.

November 2015

Prepared 24th November 2015