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Gipsy Caravan Sites

Volume 112: debated on Monday 13 April 1987

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2 pm

I beg to move,

That this Rouse calls for a thorough reform of the legislation requiring local authorities to provide caravan sites for so-called travellers; believes that no special privileges, such as the right to build permanent sites in the green belt, should be granted to one section of the population when the rate-paying, settled majority is rightly prevented from doing so; recognises that districts which are comprised largely of green belt and residential areas should be required to provide fewer sites than other districts; and believes that official caravan sites should be available only for those pursuing a genuinely nomadic lifestyle rather than semi-permanent residents in one place.

This is the third debate that I have had the privilege to introduce this year on environmental matters. The first was an Adjournment debate on the river Ver in my constituency, which is in danger of disappearing. The second was about the green belt, which we are determined should not disappear. The third, today, is about gipsy sites which, unfortunately, show no sign of disappearing. They will not disappear because local authorities are caught in a "Catch-22" situation under the present legislation. Without designation, local authorities do not have adequate powers to move on gipsies using illegal sites and are forced to tolerate them. To obtain the powers to move them on, local authorities must create official sites. So, one way or another. we have to have gipsy caravan sites in our area.

Gipsy caravan sites and their locations are emotive because they concern three powerful considerations. The first is our concern for the environment. The second is fear of crime. The third is the importance that people attach to education. However, it is not just an emotive matter as some people claim. The concern is based on genuine hard and concrete problems, to which I recognise that there are no easy solutions.

We now need a thorough review of the present legislation. I do not think that the recent and modest review, which was carried out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, is sufficient, because, in the words of the Environment Committee that recommended it, it was "merely modest". It was also quite distinctly biased towards accommodating the needs of gipsies, rather than recognising the public concern.

The key legislation under which we operate is the Caravan Sites Act 1968. I am sorry that no Liberal Members are present today because that legislation was introduced by a Liberal Member, under the congenial supervision of a Labour Government—congenial to the Liberals, that is. The legislation was introduced by Lord Avebury. When I mentioned to the inhabitants of Redbourn, who are threatened with a gipsy site, that the present legislation was introduced by the present Lord Avebury, soon after he had publicly announced his desire that his body should be fed to the dogs after his death, their immediate response was, "Why wait until then?"

However, I do not want to put the blame on him or the Liberal party because, on looking back, I see that the Act received near unanimous support on Second Reading. In my experience, that should have given us cause for suspicion because my experience is that when any measure has nearly unanimous support across all parties all too often it is an unmitigated disaster. We should have recognised that when we passed the legislation without proper, careful consideration and recognition of the difficulties which would arise.

I wish to highlight one particular problem which is not mentioned in the Act, in Professor Wibberley's report, which was recently prepared for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, or in the final review of the operation of gipsy caravan site policy. The problem is the provision of gipsy caravan sites in the green belt.

The Act requires every county council to build sufficient sites in its area to accommodate all the gipsies who habitually resort to or live in its area. The only limit on that obligation for London boroughs was a maximum of 15 pitches per borough. Circular 28/77, which was issued to implement the Caravan Sites Act, specifically states that caravan sites can be built in the green belt. Indeed, it states:
"In certain counties there are areas of open land (including Green Belts, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, etc.) where the land use policies which apply are severely restrictive to development. It may be necessary, however, to accept the establishment of gipsy sites in such areas."
That has been taken by county councils and planning authorities generally to mean that gipsy sites can be placed in the green belt. There is a tendency to neglect that the circular also states:
"On the other hand, there will clearly be a special obligation to ensure that the arguments in favour of a departure from the development plan are convincing."
There will, indeed, have to be such special circumstances and I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State, in evaluating any proposals in my area, will lay greatest weight on that final sentence. Not only does that apply, but county councils can exercise compulsory purchase powers in the green belt and elsewhere to establish such sites.

In effect, one section of the community is being given an extraordinary privilege. Ordinary owners of caravans do not have the right to set up caravan sites or to have sites set up for them in the green belt. Plenty of local residents in my area would like the right to build a house or site a caravan in the green belt. We, rightly, forbid them to do so because we believe that the green belt should be sacrosanct and preserved as a green lung, separating us from London and other built-up areas. There are plenty of people without jobs in the old smoke-stack industries of our major towns, often in the north, who would love to seek work in my constituency where jobs are plentiful. They would be only too happy to reside in caravans on green belt land, but they are not permitted to do so; only gipsies are granted that privilege.

Gipsies are given that privilege despite the fact that they are not conspicuously noted for paying rates or taxes or for abiding by the law, as most of my constituents do. When the privilege was granted, people may have thought of gipsy sites as a few rustic, wooden caravans nestling among the trees, like a Constable painting—the sort of feature that would enhance rather than detract from the green belt—but in practice that is not the case. They can look like dumps. Indeed, even well-regulated gipsy sites are not attractive with their modern, garish caravans and vehicles. Indeed, they look all the more unattractive as the activities in which gipsies frequently engage and on which they depend for a living, such as car breaking. the provision of aggregates and laying tarmac, are unsightly, require unsightly machinery and equipment and leave residues which destroy the environment. Nobody else would be given permission to carry out those activities on green belt land.

If gipsies are not allowed to do those things on green belt land—it is not required by the Act that working provision should be provided at the same place as living accommodation — they have to be able to do them somewhere. In many areas, there is no alternative to green belt land unless working areas are to be thrust into built-up residential areas.

I hope that the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State enforce vigorously their powers to prevent the development of sites on the green belt. I hope that we will have a review of legislation to remove that special privilege from gipsies, but clearly gipsies must go somewhere. In my area, if they are not on green belt land, they have to be in residential areas because my constituency consists solely of green belt land or built-up residential areas.

The 1968 Act recognises that London boroughs, being entirely built up, do not have the full obligation to accommodate all and every gipsy caravanner who can claim to have resort to their area. It seems reasonable that a similar exception should apply to other districts which are heavily urbanised or consist solely of urbanised areas and green belt land. That is simply a recognition of the fact that gipsy sites cannot be placed easily in the middle of residential areas. Gipsies themselves, by their culture, want to live apart from the rest of society. They want to be different, separate and distinct. That is their privilege and I do not want to deprive them of it. However, that desire is reciprocated by the majority of the public. They do not want to be cheek by jowl with gipsies either. That is their right and privilege and we should not force gipsies upon them.

I am sure that, like everybody else, the majority of gipsies are decent, law-abiding folk, but a significant number do not abide by our laws and there is often a crime problem associated with gipsy caravan sites. That crime problem will be intensified if they are in the middle of residential areas.

There is an educational problem if one has to accommodate large numbers of gipsy children in existing schools. That also gives rise to concern in residential areas. Often, a travelling school is the best solution to that problem.

At best, only a small number of gipsies can be accommodated within residential and built-up areas in constituencies such as mine just as in the London boroughs. I hope that any review of the legislation that is implemented will extend that recognition to areas such as St. Albans.

The presumption must be that most gipsies will be accommodated in rural areas that are not designated as green belt. Failing that, planners should at least be allowed to take into account the social and other problems associated with caravan sites when they are considering a particular application for an official caravan site in an area. At present, I am told that they are required to assume that all the problems of crime, education and other social problems are deemed to have been solved.

That unrealistic assumption is required of them and they consider only the environmental and visual aspects of a gipsy site in their green belt or other planning areas. That is obviously nonsense and should be changed.

I hope that all those factors will be taken into account when my hon. Friend the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State consider the proposal to establish a gipsy site on green belt land in the village of Redbourn. That epitomises the problems I have been talking about. It is proposed to build an official gipsy site on green belt land that falls in the middle of a residential area. A more unsuitable location could barely be imagined. At the same time, all the associated problems of crime and education are to be deemed to been solved.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot comment on specific cases in his response, but I hope, none the less, that he will hear what I have said and bear it in mind when a decision has to be taken.

The second point which I hope will be considered when a thorough review of the legislation is carried out is the fact that under the present law designation, once granted to a district because it has established a sufficient number of official sites to accommodate all the gipsies who habitually live in or resort to the area, can subsequently be revoked. That is viewed with apprehension by people in my area. They fear that even if we establish enough sites and subsequently gain designation, that may be revoked and we would be back in the original position and prey to an influx of more gipsies from elsewhere.

That is a particular problem with regard to the one official site in my constituency at Barley Mow. When that site was established more than a decade ago with 15 pitches, local inhabitants were assured that the site would be temporary although there was a possibility of it being renewed, and that 15 pitches was the maximum that they would have to face. There is now a proposal to expand that site by another five pitches. In view of the past assurances, I hope that the proposal will be withdrawn. Even if it is not withdrawn and a further five pitches are established, we must be able to give the local inhabitants an assurance that, if designation is given in return, that will not subsequently be revoked.

The third problem that we have to tackle is the definition of what constitutes a gipsy. The current definition is vague. It appears to be a bureaucratic reinterpretation of Stevenson's "The Vagabond":
"All I seek, are the heavens above And the road below me."
Gipsies are simply defined as:
"Persons of nomadic habit of life whatever their race or origin."
For some reason that excludes only people engaged in travelling circuses and travelling show men. I do not know why those are the only categories of people who cannot pose as gipsies. The definition is so loose that virtually anyone could pose as a gipsy.

Hippies are increasingly seeking the status of gipsies and they have a nomadic mode of life whatever their race or origin. Presumably official sites must be provided for them. Indeed, many of my constituents spend most of their time moving house from one part of the area to another. Are they of a nomadic habit of life? If they own caravans, could they claim a right to official gipsy sites? We must tighten the definition and prevent an increasing number of people claiming to come within it.

At the same time we must recognise the Irish dimension to the problem. In recent years, ever since the war, there has been a growing influx of Irish tinkers and didicois. That is a consequence of our immigration laws which permit people from Southern Ireland to enter this country without requiring British nationality status. That is absurd.

That has been so until now. No check is placed on those people, not even the checks that apply to other EEC citizens. Irish entrants should clearly be placed full square with other EEC citizens.

We are dealing with a balance of rights and obligations. We must consider the obligations of each part of society. The general public has a duty to be tolerant towards gipsies and those who pursue that way of life. There can be no question of harassing them unnecessarily or of acting vindictively towards them because they are different—although that may have happened in the past. We have the same obligation towards members of the gipsy community who need help as we have to any other member of society and, by and large, my constituents overwhelmingly accept that obligation. But we have no moral obligation to subsidise a lifestyle, nor to promote it artificially.

It may have become more difficult to pursue a gipsy lifestyle than it used to be with the decline of casual agricultural work, but many opportunities have become more difficult to pursue. There are fewer opportunities for those whose parents and grandparents were tenant farmers to become tenants, but we do not compulsorily acquire land, hand it over to tenant farmers and artificially subsidise them. There are fewer opportunities for people to become steel workers, but we do not build steel works in the green belt and artificially subsidise them to keep them going.

We do not have obligations to provide benefits to a special category of people who are often considerably wealthy. I have visited several illegal gipsy sites in my constituency and been impressed by the quality of the cars and how new they are, the expensive caravans, the heavy lorries that they use and the immense variety of equipment that they possess to carry out their activities. We have no obligation to provide social security benefits to people who are clearly well able to look after themselves, if they are not genuinely unemployed.

Gipsies, too, have obligations to pay taxes and rates, to abide by the general laws of the community and to respect the rights of the majority among whom they live. The policy makers—Members of Parliament and the officials and well-meaning people who determine the climate in which policy is made — have a duty to consider the gipsies and the general public. In almost all the work that I have read on the subject, the bias is towards the gipsy and the tendency is to sneer at the worries of the general public. Even Professor Wibberley, who, by and large, is free from this, refers to the frenetic opposition by local people to reasonable site suggestions for new gipsy sites. He says that, as a local councillor, he was aware of how strong and distasteful such local opposition can be.

It is not especially distasteful for people to express their anxieties about genuine problems. There is nothing distasteful about the concerns expressed by my constituents. I am extremely worried on their behalf, and I hope that the law will be altered to accommodate their worries as well as to allow opportunities for gipsies to continue their way of life.

The Act is producing intolerable pressures, which are especially strong in green belt and residential areas. The laws are weighted too heavily towards the gipsies, who are accorded privileges that are not available to any other section of the ordinary public. There is a great danger that others will learn of those privileges and seek to define themselves as gipsies under the loose definition that operates. All those matters require correction after a thorough review. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will begin such a review.

2.23 pm

Time is so short that it is impossible to make more than the briefest remarks about this subject. Wherever nomads and settled people have lived alongside each other, there has been conflict. One can see that in Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle" and in the song by Rodgers and Hammerstein, which said that farmers and cowmen should be friends, but they were not. The amount of virulence, venom and hatred directed towards gipsies is almost metaphorical. I have encountered it in my constituency, as have most people.

In a civilised society, we must try to find an accommodation between people of different lifestyles. It is not easy, and there are no absolute principles that one can lay down, but we must try to find that accommodation and deal with the problem objectively, instead of giving way to prejudice.

I have looked at the Minister's response to the recent inquiry and have no hesitation in agreeing with almost all of that response. I am unhappy about designation, but for reasons quite different from those put forward by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley). As the Government provide the whole of the cost for gipsy sites, a further effort must be made to try to enforce local authorities to meet the need that remains by providing one site for each gipsy family for every 10,000 settled families in Britain. That should not be too difficult to do. It would be hopeless if we started to make even more exceptions and gave further dispensations to local authorities, some of which are not meeting their responsibilities.

I appreciate the constituency points that were made by the hon. Members for St. Albans, but we must take art overall view. We have to try to enforce more thoroughly than before the duty that is placed on local authorities, because it is often the neglect of that duty that creates problems. I hope that the Government will renew their efforts, which follow the efforts of the previous Labour Government, to try to solve this problem by the provision of proper sites.

2.26 pm

Time is so limited that I shall not be able to address all the problems in my constituency that I should have liked to draw to the attention of the House. In my constituency there are some horrendous problems because of an invasion of the area by so-called gipsies. Instead of describing those problems, I shall ask the Minister a few questions, because he has been to my constituency and has seen the problems that exist there. He also kindly met me to discuss these problems.

Does the Minister know where the people who invaded my constituency come from? Are they covered by the provisions of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, and is any research being conducted to find out why this sudden growth has occurred? What are the exact legal obligations of Haringey borough council? It says that it has a duty to accept all these visitors. My understanding of the law is that a council has an obligation to provide a 15-caravan site properly laid out with all the necessary facilities so that it can be kept in a clean and tidy condition. Is not a 100 per cent. grant available from the Government for the provision of such a site, and is it therefore wrong for the council or its members to say that no money is being made available by the Government to regulate this problem?

Once a council such as Haringey has provided a properly regulated site for 15 caravans at Government expense, is that not an end of the council's obligation and can it not claim to be a designated area and receive powers to turn away any fresh invasion? If such a council fails to apply for designation, in his review of the law, would the Minister consider the possibility of, say, up to 50 local ratepayers applying to the Secretary of State for designation when the council refuses or neglects to do so?

I read with great interest the report by Professor Wibberley, and the Minister will know that that report says that the London Boroughs Association asked for automatic designation for every London borough. That would suit my constituents very well, but if that cannot be done, at least when the minimum provision has been made, can there not be a direct application to the Secretary of State from hard-pressed and distressed residents?

2.28 pm

This is a short debate, but it is clear from the speeches that we could go on for a long time. All that I can do in the time remaining is to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Lilley) on once again bringing this topic to the Floor of the House and on securing time for the debate. He asked questions and made some comments and criticisms in order to enable us to address this problem. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on behalf of his constituents since he entered the House. Today's debate is evidence of his persistence in that work.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment, who has led some interesting research and discussion on this subject, leading to a report—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.