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Gipsy Site, Carlisle

Volume 15: debated on Wednesday 16 December 1981

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Lang.]

12.9 am

For some years both the Cumbria county council and the Carlisle district council have been agreed that there is an urgent need for a permanent gipsy caravan site in the vicinity of the Carlisle central area. Extensive searches for a suitable site have taken place and about a dozen sites have been examined in great detail. In 1979 and 1980 the two councils came to differing views and conclusions on which was the most suitable site.

The county council submitted a planning application for a site called Engine Lonning in Newtown Road and the city council submitted an application for planning permission for development of part of Hadrian's Camp adjoining Brampton Road just outside the former county borough boundary.

The Secretary of State for the Environment called in both applications for determination by himself and ordered a public inquiry. The inquiry took place in December 1980 over about three weeks at a cost to the two councils of about £50,000, a sum that could have been better spent in other directions. Numerous authorities and bodies appeared at the inquiry and the total cost must have been in excess of £50,000. After considering the inspector's report, the Secretary of State concluded that the Engine Lonning site was not acceptable and that the Hadrian's Camp site was acceptable for a gipsy caravan site and he granted planning permission for it.

The county council accepted the result of the inquiry and initiated discussions with the city council and the regional officers of the Department of the Environment with a view to implementing the decision as quickly as possible. The clerk of the county council wrote to the regional office of the Department on 2 July to inform it of these developments and the regional office replied on 8 July. It welcomed the opportunity to be involved in the discussions about the design and the management of the site at Hadrian's Camp. Two meetings with officials of the Department took place on 29 August and 3 September and by the time of the latter meeting the Property Services Agency had offered the land to the representatives of the former owner of the site.

The history of Hadrian's Camp is somewhat illuminating. The whole of the site was formerly an Army training centre. That use ceased in the early 1960s. Part of the former site, which extends to about 102 acres, has been developed by the Cumbria constabulary for a motor vehicle depot. In 1969 the entire site was offered for sale to the then Cumberland county council by the Ministry of Defence.

Over the next five years, detailed negotiations took place between the PSA and the local authorities concerned. That was prior to local government reorganisation in 1974. The county council had been joined by the then Carlisle borough council, as it had been decided by the authorities that Hadrian's Camp should be purchased jointly for the council's purposes—that is, housing purposes envisaged by the borough council and a teacher training college envisaged by the borough council and a teacher training college envisaged by the then county council.

The main difference between the Government's valuation agents and the council's valuation agents related to the estimated cost of works necessary to bring the land to a fit state for development. The works envisaged involved digging up massive concrete parade grounds, hardstandings, remnants of Army buildings, and so on which had been constructed on the site since its acquisition by the Ministry of Defence. Unfortunately, in 1976, negotiations proved abortive.

From 1970 onwards it has been in the mind of the county council from time to time to establish a northern divisional police headquarters on part of the former camp area. Indeed, I understand that at this very moment the Home Office is pressing the police committee to go ahead with that proposal. Ironically, throughout all of the negotiations, there was never any indication that the land would be offered back to the former owner.

In 1978–79 the PSA applied for deemed planning consent for residential use of the whole camp site. In discussions between PSA officials and district council officials it became clear that the PSA was acting on Government instructions to put the land on open sale and seeking, quite properly, to obtain planning clearance so as to maximise its value. Indeed, a letter from the PSA to the planning authority stated:
"It is intended to initiate sale in the open market with the benefit of such planning indication."
Finally, the PSA, which had initially objected to the planning application by Carlisle city council for the gipsy site on the grounds that it would prejudice the development of the whole site, did not appear at the planning inquiry and it was presumed that the objection had been dropped in the light of the earlier decision by the Secretary of State not to approve residential development for the whole site.

The report presented in 1976 recommended that where appropriate the PSA should sell land to local authorities for this purpose or, exceptionally, to gipsies direct. The Government's response, circular 57/78, said that
"the Property Services Agency already offer to local authorities surplus Government land which is not required for other Government Departments; the Secretaries of State urge authorities, in considering whether they require such land, not to overlook the need for land for gipsies".
The possibility of the land being offered for sale to the local authority in the event of planning permission being granted for a gipsy site was clearly indicated by the PSA, as it was a specific issue raised at a meeting in 1979 between officials of the PSA and officials of Carlisle city council.

The Under-Secretary of State, who is to reply to the debate tonight, sent me a letter dated 5 November 1981 in which he stated:
"It is a long established practice that former agricultural land which was acquired compulsorily by the Government should normally be offered back to the former owner when it becomes surplus."
Neither the city council nor the county council has any evidence that the land was offered back to Mrs. Milburn prior to negotiations for its sale to the two councils in the early 1970s, it being considered for public sale about eight years later.

The rules that the Government are now claiming to follow were published by the Department of the Environment in October 1980, and state that land that has materially changed in character since acquisition should not be offered back to the former owners. Hadrian's Camp site has certainly altered in character, because the camp area has buildings scattered all over it and most of the land is covered with concrete.

The present rules also state that
"it would seem inappropriate to offer back land which is required by a local authority".
The Department of the Environment knew full well, before offering the land back to Mrs. Milburn that some of the camp site was required by the local authority for a gipsy site camp. The Secretary of State's decision on the planning application concludes that
"there is an overwhelming need for a gipsy site in Carlisle and grants permission for such a site at Hadrian's Camp; (ii) the Gipsy Unit of the DoE had previously been consulted and indicated that the site was suitable; (iii) Regional Officers of the Department had been involved in discussions on the establishement of a gipsy site on the land."
While the rules now say that surplus Government land required by a local authority will be excepted from the procedure of offering back to the former owner only if specific ministerial authority is given, it is unfortunate that the local authorities were not given an opportunity to make representations to the Ministry of Defence before a ministerial decision was made to offer the land back to the former owner's representatives.

I can save the Minister making a long speech, especially at this late hour. In his reply I want him to cut out all the cackle and get down to business by saying that the application for the gipsy caravan site is now accepted for Hadrian's Camp. If he will give me that assurance tonight—and give it to the county council and the district council—there will be no need for him to make a long speech and keep us up any later.

The Department of the Environment has got itself into a mess over this site and there has been a little bit of political chicanery over it. We used to say at school that "Cheats never prosper". After all the inquiry and after everything that has taken place, I am still hoping, with my good Methodist charity, that the Minister will announce tonight that he will give the go-ahead for Hadrian's to be used as a gipsy caravan site, so that the local authorities can get on with the job that Parliament deemed many years ago they should do.

12.23 am

I am grateful for this opportunity of replying. I confess that towards the end of the remarks of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Lewis) I felt that a little Methodist charity was perhaps lacking in some of his observations, but I pass that aside on this occasion because the hour is late. I cannot give him any swift and easy assurances. He will have to wait for the remainder of the time, just as I have had to listen to him.

I was surprised when the hon. Gentleman said that there had been some political chicanery and that cheats will always be found out, or words to that effect. I was surprised that he should suggest that the Home Office had been pressing the police to take the land and that there had been no opportunity for Mrs. Milburn to have the land offered back to her. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen during the next few minutes while I try to paint the background and state the current position.

The hon. Member is well aware that county councils have a duty, under the Caravan Sites Act 1968, to provide adequate accommodation for gipsies residing in or resorting to their area. The duty imposed on county councils is limited to determining what sites are to be provided and to purchase land for this purpose. It is the duty of district councils to manage these sites.

I understand that Cumbria county council and Carlisle city council are both agreed that there is a need for a permanent gipsy caravan site in the Carlisle area.

The hon. Gentleman must be patient and listen while I put this background to the House.

Following surveys carried out in 1977 and 1978, a special sub-committee comprising officers and members of Cumbria county council and Carlisle city council identified the level of accommodation needed for gipsies in the Carlisle area. Whilst there was general agreement between the county and city councils about the urgent need for some permanent provision for gipsy families, conflicting views about the location of a permanent site led to prolonged discussions without a satisfactory solution being found.

In December 1978 an attempt by the city council to accommodate an influx of itinerants to the area on a greenfield site at Greymoorhill some two miles north of the city centre proved abortive when the ground became waterlogged. Aggrieved at the lack of any alternative provision, the gipsies occupied a city centre car park.

Recognising the need to provide some emergency accommodation, the city council approached my Department seeking grant to drain the Greymoorhill site and provide basic facilities. In May 1979 my Department approved an estimate of about £10,000 for that specific purpose.

In the months that followed, the city council chose not to implement its proposal for Greymoorhill but turned its attention to the possibility of developing a permanent site at Hadrian's Camp, east of the city. The Cumbria county council opposed this proposal vigorously and countered with its own proposal for a permanent site at Engine Lonning nearer the city centre.

The Engine Lonning site occupies an area of just over seven acres and lies between Newtown Road and the River Eden. It is situated 1¾ miles to the west of Carlisle city centre. Whilst it is reasonably tucked away from other development, shops and other facilities are within easy reach. The nearest houses are some 200–300 yards away. To the south is the Cumberland infirmary. The site was previously used for railway track and engine sheds, and a former railway cutting has been filled with domestic refuse. The land is owned in part by British Rail and in part by Carlisle city council.

The former army camp of Hadrian's Camp covers an area of 102 acres and is situated 2 miles north-east of the city centre and ½ mile south-west of Houghton village where the B6264 Brampton Road crosses the M6 motorway.

Parts of the site are still traversed by a number of paved roadways, and just to the north of the site is a former parade ground to the west of which is a police transport depot. Public services are available on the site. The topography is such that the site cannot be seen from Houghton village.

In view of the intense public interest aroused by the city council's proposal to deem itself planning permission for the Hadrian's Camp site, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State directed that the council submit an application to him under the general regulations of 1976.

When the city council objected, as it was entitled to do under section 8 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, to the county council's proposal to deem itself planning permission for the Engine Lonning site, the Secretary of State called in that application also to allow a joint public inquiry to be held into the suitability of both sites for the purpose proposed. The public inquiry was held from December 1980 to January 1981.

The inspector recommended that planning permission be refused for the change of use of land to a permanent residential gipsy caravan site at Engine Lonning, Newton Road, Carlisle, and that planning permission be granted for the change of use of land to a permanent residential gipsy caravan site at Hadrian's Camp, Carlisle, subject to the imposition of certain conditions.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took the view that, whilst both authorities agreed that no other sites would be suitable, his decision should relate only to the proposals before him in respect of Hadrian's Camp and Engine Lonning and should not prejudice the consideration of any alternative sites which the authorities might wish to consider at a future date. He accepted that the proposals could be considered as competitors since it was claimed that there was a need for only one permanent site, but he agreed with the inspector that each proposal had to be considered on its own merits.

Consequently, although the inspector's view on the advantages of granting planning permission for only one of the sites was appreciated, it was considered that the correct course of action would be to grant planning permission for either or both sites if justified by the merits of the proposals.

With regard to the question of containment at the proposed Hadrian's Camp site, the desirability of providing an embankment along the western boundary was accepted but that that was a matter which should more properly be considered as part of a separate planning permission for the carrying out of any works on the site, as the proposal before the Secretary of State related only to a change of use of land.

Similarly, the inspector's conclusions regarding conditions relating to access were noted, but it was again considered that they could more appropriately be left to be attached to the further planning permission which would be required for the carrying out of works.

Subject to those comments, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agreed with the inspector's conclusions. He also accepted his recommendation, except in so far as it related to the imposition of the certain conditions. Because the proposal in respect of Hadrian's Camp was for a change of use of land only, it would not be appropriate to attach conditions relating to works that would require a further separate planning permission before they could be carried out.

For those reasons, my right hon. Friend refused to grant planning permission for the change of use of land at Engine Lonning to a permanent residential caravan site and granted planning permission for the change of use of land at Hadrian's Camp, Carlisle to a permanent residential gipsy caravan site, subject to the certain conditions.

In reaching the decision to grant planning permission, the Secretary of State recognised the urgent need for some permanent provision for gipsy families in the Carlisle area. That is important, because the need is also fully recognised by Cumbria county council and Carlisle city council which agree about the location of the proposed site at Hadrian's Camp. The hon. Gentleman nods in approval. I understand that the county council will take over responsibility for providing the site and that the city council will be responsible for management once the site has been provided.

The Hadrian's Camp site is owned by the Ministry of Defence. It is being sold on the Ministry's behalf by the Property Services Agency, for which my right hon. Friend has responsibility. Its sale is subject to what are known as the "Crichel Down" rules, established in 1954 and recently extended by my right hon. Friend following consultation with all interested parties. The rules apply to the disposal of Government land originally acquired by, or under the threat of, compulsion and which has not materially changed in character since acquisition.

The rules provide that there should be a general presumption—though with certain exceptions detailed in the document containing the new rules and procedures which my right hon. Friend made available in the Library on 7 December—that such land should first be offered for sale back to the former owners or their successors, in this case Mrs. Milburn. I understand that she still owns a considerable amount of the adjoining land.

The Hadrian's Camp site is subject to those rules. The existence of planning approval for use as a gipsy site did not confer on the county council any right to purchase. Indeed, the Crichel Down rules make it clear that land could not be excluded from offer back simply because it is subject to planning approval for development or redevelopment.

Nevertheless, it was open to my right hon. Friend to treat the land as an exception because it was required by an authority with compulsory purchase powers—Cumbria county council. As the hon. Member knows, my right hon. Friend did, indeed, consider whether in the circumstances the "offer back" rules should be set aside to enable the Property Services Agency to sell the part of Hadrian's Camp that the county council wants to develop as a gypsy camp site, direct to the council. It was a question whether that need should be allowed to override the moral obligation, the principle of which successive Governments have accepted, and which my right hon. Friend has recently extended, to give the former owner the opportunity to buy back the land which had been compulsorily acquired.

In the event my right hon. Friend decided that the former owner—Mrs. Milburn—should be given the opportunity to buy back the land. He took the view that the moral obligation should take precedence and he recognised that if such a sale took place it would be open to the county council to put forward a compulsory purchase order for confirmation. In the event of this situation developing, the former owner, too, would have the opportunity of stating his or her own case.

The Property Services Agency therefore went ahead and offered the site to Mrs. Milburn, who in the event decided not to take up the opportunity to re-purchase. My right hon. Friend has, therefore, decided that, instead of following what would normally be the practice in such circumstances, namely, to offer the land for sale on the open market, the Property Services Agency may now, exceptionally, offer the land in question for sale direct to Cumbria county council. I hope that what I have said provides some of the background to the case and will give the hon. Gentleman some assurance. The council has, of course, already said that it is willing to acquire the land and develop it as a permanent gipsy caravan site.

The way is, therefore, now clear for the Property Services Agency and the county council to enter into negotiations. Meanwhile, my Department is willing to consider an application for Exchequer grant to finance the development of the gipsy site and would welcome the opportunity to take part in discussion with officers of the authorities concerned about the design and management of the proposed site. I hope that I have given the hon. Gentleman some solace at this weary hour.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to One o'clock.