In debates earlier this year, I drew the Minister’s attention to our concern about regional housing allocation in Hertfordshire. I can honestly say that I am against unsustainable, inappropriate or unjustifiable development, whatever its purpose. As she knows, I have major concerns about the proposed additional Gypsy and Traveller pitch allocation for my constituency and for Hertfordshire as a whole. I have sent her the figures for Hertfordshire so that she can give us a detailed response.
This Government have attempted to tackle Gypsy and Traveller site provision through the circular on planning for Gypsy and Traveller caravan sites, which tries to address health and education outcomes for Gypsies and Travellers by proposing a large increase in site provision. It asserts:
“Gypsies and Travellers are believed to experience the worst health and education status of any disadvantaged group in England. Research has…confirmed the link between the lack of good quality sites for Gypsies and Travellers and poor health and education.”
That situation has resulted in the East of England regional assembly—EERA—conducting a skewed consultation in an effort to deliver the Government’s objectives. I shall not become distracted, but it is worth noting that only the Conservative party has pledged to scrap these undemocratic regional assemblies. They are the instrument of the Government and are fully endorsed by the Liberal Democrats.
The new planning policy issued by the Government in 2006 said that one of the main intentions was
“to create and support sustainable, respectful, and inclusive communities where gypsies and travellers have fair access to suitable accommodation…where there is mutual respect and consideration between all communities for the rights and responsibilities of each community and individual.”
Another aim was
“to increase significantly the number of gypsy and traveller sites in appropriate locations”
I want to set out for the Minister why we in St. Albans believe that the whole community, both settled and travelling, is disadvantaged by that consultation, which was undertaken to achieve, via our regional assembly, the Government’s aims. Rather than having a key role in the consultation process, we in St. Albans, are being dictated to. That will do little to improve community relationships and could have a destabilising effect on relationships with our Traveller communities. In the EERA consultation, our current pitch provision was not acknowledged in the calculation process. Does the Minister agree that that is not acceptable? We would argue that the flawed consultation in which we have been asked to participate would require us to over-provide pitches via EERA. It has determined an unfair allocation of new and additional pitches in the St. Albans district. I wish to make it clear that no one wants to discriminate against a minority group. However, it is only fair that all those who live in a community should abide by its laws and regulations, otherwise it is the majority who are discriminated against. We need to have recognised, well-supported, authorised sites and we need to clamp down hard on costly and often unsightly incursions into fields and public open spaces.
My basic contention is that the Government’s need hypothesis, which is crucial to the allocation process, has not been accurately proven and that EERA must rethink its rather enthusiastic embracing of the Government’s desire to provide a large number of additional pitches in Hertfordshire. EERA based its assumptions on the fact that even more pitches should go to localities where sites are located, because that is obviously where Gypsies and Travellers want to live and join their friends and family. In a high house-price area such as St. Albans, many local young people from the settled sector would also like to have that facility. Indeed, London Colney, where two sites for Travellers have been identified as potentially suitable, has a settled community. It has several areas with recognised poverty indices and there is significant overcrowding within some of the private and social housing units in the village, but the group affected has not been singled out for special consideration. The Minister ought to be aware that this single-issue revision of the regional spatial strategy will at best raise eyebrows, and at worst cause concern. It could even lead to tensions in the settled community, which is unhappy about the proposals.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in making provision, it is important that the traditional routes used by Travellers for their purposes on a seasonal basis are part of the picture, because Travellers stop in some places but not in others?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Crucial to today’s debate, and to my argument, is the fact that there is a lack of information behind the consultation. The Minister ought to be aware that the approach taken would raise a few eyebrows, because one cannot extrapolate from our existing pitch provision figures the conclusion that there is a huge unmet need for extra sites in my, or any other, constituency. I am sure that other hon. Members will make their own case.
According to the Government’s own figures, St. Albans has only 11 unauthorised pitches, yet we have been asked to accept a further 34 pitches. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain why. The formula, however it was arrived at, appears to create an oversupply of pitches in St. Albans that will encourage even more settlement in the area and thus, by the Government’s own odd calculations, create an even greater spiral of need as our numbers swell and extended Traveller families seek to join their relatives. Historically, St. Albans district council has endeavoured to tackle the difficult issue of providing sufficient suitable sites for the travelling community, but it appears that, perversely, we will not be rewarded for our actions. Instead, we face an open-ended commitment to meet a continuously increasing identified need.
Under the previous caravan legislation, St. Albans accepted more site and pitch provision than any other neighbouring authority, giving rise to a total of 59 authorised pitches and 11 pitches on unauthorised sites. That is more than six times the provision of neighbouring Watford. This is not about arguing for other parts of Hertfordshire to take more pitches. We are unhappy about the flawed consultation and its muddled thinking—my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) drew attention to one aspect of that.
EERA has admitted that it is the first region to examine this issue and that other regions are far behind. We would argue that other areas are proceeding more cautiously and that EERA has made a big mistake in its approach, which could have a detrimental effect on the whole community. If we are to work within a regional strategy, EERA needs to look at the bigger picture and take a far more reasoned approach. It has made no consideration of cross-border migration and the pressures that it brings. Indeed the Milton Keynes, Luton and Dunstable core strategy has a housing designated area near Caddington, right on the border with Hertfordshire. There is a Gypsy and Traveller site, too, in the vicinity, which, if expanded, could have a devastating effect on the rural community. None of those things have been brought into the picture.
Let me make it clear that the Government’s alterations to planning guidance have compelled local authorities to address the issue. The Government are using the undemocratic regional assemblies to deliver their bidding. Providing additional pitches to meet identified needs is now a firm requirement for local authorities, but I seriously question both the way in which that need has been identified by the Government and the evidential basis for the projections. It is generally accepted that well managed, appropriately located sites can be of benefit to the Gypsy and travelling community, which is seen as vulnerable, and that the appropriate location of a reasonable number of well run sites can lead to improved relationships with the settled community. Such an approach allows for rigorous defences at planning level against illegal incursions and protects local authorities from large and possibly costly remedial works associated with illegal incursions.
The key to making that work in any area is meaningful engagement and an acceptance by the established local community of demands for additional sites that are appropriate and reasonable. Many residents in my constituency share my view that current demands are not reasonable or appropriate, and that engagement in this process has been far from reasonable. St. Albans district council has always taken its responsibilities seriously, which is why we were amazed by the EERA consultation document, which failed to recognise our generous level of provision and allocated us a further 34 pitches—double that of any other area. The consultation drew heavily on jointly commissioned research that sought to deliver on the Government’s assertion that more sites must be found.
Research published by the Department for Communities and Local Government and EERA in March suggested that the east of England needed 1,220 more caravan pitches for Gypsies and Travellers by 2011. Consequently, local people were asked for their views on the matter, and two possible options were advanced to help try to resolve the supposed gap in provision. Option one would distribute pitches in local council areas
“where research has identified need.”
That would involve 1,216 additional caravan pitches in the east of England. I hope that hon. Members note the telling phrase,
“where research has identified need.”
My constituents are entitled to a reasonable explanation from the Minister of what formula was used to calculate the travelling community’s need, distribution and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire said, movement patterns. Whatever it is, the report suggested in option one that an additional 34 pitches should be allocated to St. Albans, which was double any other pitch allocation in that option. My constituents were then asked to consider option two, which was based on option one, but with a minimum of 15 pitches in every local council area throughout the region, apparently to provide wider distribution and a choice of accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers, leading to 1,220 additional pitches in the east of England.
That might appear to my constituents to be a more balanced distribution, with each authority shouldering its fair share of additional pitches. However, on close examination of the figures, St. Albans would still have an extra 34 pitches, more than double the suggested 15-pitch minimum allocation for other areas and twice the allocation for any other authority. Why? Whatever the results of the consultation choices, options one and two for St. Albans would both allow 34 additional pitches, which is twice the allocation for everywhere else.
St. Albans is the only authority affected in that unfathomable way, so the Minister will understand why local people are angry. They believe that it is a done deal, so it was pointless to engage in the consultation exercise. My local papers, the St. Albans Observer and the St. Albans and Harpenden Review, ran a story on the consultation, and the editorial comment said that
“taking part in the public consultation on the number of new Gypsy pitches in Hertfordshire would appear to be an utterly redundant exercise for St Albans residents.”
I wholeheartedly agree with that perceptive analysis, and would welcome the Minister’s view if her analysis is different. My other local paper, the Herts Advertiser, assured residents their
“views are important and will be listened to”
by local councillors. Given the figures in the rather weasel document, there is no point in people being listened to if the council’s hands are tied and it is obliged to deliver the same number of pitches, whatever choice it makes.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. I agree with her point about consultation, and I am sure that she agrees that there is bound to be a problem with regional government if local people believe that they are not consulted about regional bodies. Should it not be clear where regional responsibility rests in the first instance in this flawed system? The Government devised it and put in place the system of consultation, so they must bear responsibility if local people feel cheated.
Absolutely, and I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that in my district council area, Labour councillors are leading the protest against the supposed attack on St. Albans, which is perverse, given that it was their Government who asked us to consider the proposals.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the strong and provocative language that those Labour councillors used in their criticism? She is eminently reasonable, but does she agree that those in authority have a responsibility to be measured in their criticism, and not to seek to stoke up racism, as the local Labour councillors have done?
My hon. Friend is right, and I thank him for making that point. Councillors are often directed to make difficult decisions on behalf of the wider community. On the night before a local election, those councillors said that only a Labour council could fight off the attack of having more Travellers in our community, and they are now running a campaign suggesting that the chosen sites in London Colney are near housing, a paddling pool and a children’s play area. The Government, however, have urged us to look for sites that provide a better quality of life, so I suggest that they have a word with their Labour councillors. Frustration is no doubt fuelled by the fact that we believe that we have no voice in the consultation.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to a phrase in the EERA consultation that refers to
“wider distribution and choice for Gypsies and Travellers”?
Given the itinerant nature of that community, will she explain to my constituents why one section of society has been singled out for choice and diversity of accommodation, while the settled community, which has pressing housing needs, has received no special consideration?
The consultation finished at the end of May and is now closed, and the contentious options are being considered. I hope that the Minister has read the consultation, will listen to the issues that are raised today, and will intervene before any new decisions are made on the spatial strategy revision. I wish to draw her attention to questions in the consultation that were irrelevant or puzzling to residents. The first was:
“Do you think 1,220 net additional pitches is a reasonable estimate of the level of unmet need for residential pitch provision taking into account how this may change over the period until 2011?”
I suggest that local people would find it impossible to answer that question in an informed way because they were given no information or data on which to draw. The second question, which was equally taxing, was:
“If you think 1,220 net additional residential pitches is not a reasonable estimate of need what alternative level do you think is a more reasonable estimate of need at 2011? And please make clear why.”
The document, however, points out:
“Establishing facts about Gypsies and Travellers in the East of England is not always easy...For instance there is no reliable figure currently available for numbers of Gypsies or Travellers resident in the region.”
Will the Minister tell my constituents how on earth they were supposed to answer those detailed and technical questions that will inform Traveller provision in my constituency and other constituencies? I doubt whether a simple reply such as, “No more pitches for St. Albans, thank you; we believe that we have provided enough for our area”, would be taken as an informed, evidence-based view in the consultation. I think that that would be discounted as nimbyism.
Question six was equally loaded and asked:
“Is it reasonable to accept the principle that each local council area should seek to provide at least one additional site?”
The terminology has moved on from pitches to sites, which can have vastly different consequences, although I am not sure whether the public would pick up on that. A pitch can vary in size and hold up to three vehicles, but sites have no specific size criteria. What exactly have my constituents, and other constituents who have taken part in the consultation, been asked to agree to?
There were other equally impossible-to-answer questions, which I shall not go into, but I hope that the Minister has gained the flavour of the wholly unsatisfactory nature of the consultation, which EERA undertook at the Government’s behest, and which will have important and far-reaching consequences for my constituents. There is a vacuum of information, which prevents balanced planning decisions from being made. Without that information, the planning system is being used to bulldoze through a huge social project of the Government’s making and which I believe is ill informed. By their own admission, the Government have little informed or accurate data on the Gypsy and travelling community and, as with any other proposed development, I suggest that they scrap the findings of the consultation, whatever they are—I hope that I have demonstrated that they are not informed—ignore totally useless and speculative responses to unanswerable questions, and do considerably more work on, and rigorous study of, the issue before asking my constituents to help to put their plans into practice. My constituents are understandably concerned about the proposals, and the impact on their local area and their quality of life. They simply want to be treated fairly and reasonably.
Before I call the next speaker, I remind hon. Members that I intend to start calling the Front Bench spokespeople at 3.30 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. She has done a service to her constituents, as well as to those in Hertfordshire as a whole. I also congratulate her on the thorough and sensitive way in which she explored the subject. It needs sensitive handling for the sake of everyone, including Gypsies and Travellers, as well as local residents and communities.
Local residents and communities need to be heard, and their views must shape decisions. They must feel that they are part of the process. Hertsmere borough council, for example, is seeking early consultation with Hertsmere residents and is holding a series of meetings in July in each of the principal communities to seek people’s views on sites. It is committed to consultation, listening to local residents and reflecting their wishes, in so far as it can.
I have three points to make. The first adopts the concerns that my hon. Friend so ably raised about the nature of the process. It strikes me as bureaucratic and remote from ordinary people. However, as I said, that must be the case when regional governments are involved. District councils, such as Hertsmere, are closest to local people. Local people can get in touch with their local councillors, and meetings can be held locally so that people’s views can be taken into account. District councils are very much on the receiving end of the process, and local people may be left feeling that many decisions have already been shaped before the issues reach their district council—the level at which it is easy for them to have their say.
We must be clear that the Government have initiated the process and that they require local authorities to undertake it and to meet in full the need for sites that are identified by housing assessments—something that the Government do not require in respect of the need for affordable housing, which is identified by the same housing needs assessments.
The Government require regional planning bodies to produce figures for Gypsy and Traveller sites right down to the level of individual district authorities. One is bound to ask whether it is appropriate for regional planning bodies to go into that level of prescription and detail when regions are so remote from local communities. Have local people’s views shaped that process? At the end of the day, the regional government is required to produce something described as a “single-issue revision”, which is what I was given when I got my homework wrong, and I say that as somebody who is no fan or enthusiast of regional government. In the east of England, we have never been asked whether we want a regional government; we simply have one. When people in other regions were asked whether they wanted one, they said no.
Having seen the way in which the process has been placed in the hands of regional authorities—I am not necessarily criticising the authorities themselves—having looked at what the Government have required them to do, and having seen the way in which the Government have put such a premium on them, it is easy to understand why people were not instantly attracted to the idea of regional government. The process seems to bear out all the concerns that people expressed about regional government.
My second point is on a separate matter. What account has been taken of the green belt when making those requirements of local authorities? The Government’s planning circular on Gypsy and Traveller caravan sites skates over the problem. Paragraph 49 states:
“National planning policy on Green Belts applies equally to applications for planning permission from gypsies and travellers, and the settled population. Alternatives should be explored before Green Belt locations are considered. Pressure for development of sites of Green Belt land can usually be avoided if the local planning authority allocate sufficient sites elsewhere in its area in its LDF”—
local development framework—
“to meet identified need.”
I shall break away from that Government statement, because it is somewhat disingenuous. It would be difficult, to say the least, for an authority such as Hertsmere to provide sites that were not on the green belt, because almost, if not all, the sites identified in Hertsmere and in south-west Hertfordshire are on the green belt. Are the Government saying that local authorities can apply normal green belt principles and refuse to permit such development? Or are they saying that the authorities cannot take such a course and must provide the sites, but that the Government are not prepared to take any responsibility for that? I wonder which is true. The regional planning body, to give it credit, is more realistic than the Government about the green belt. I wait to hear from the Minister the Government’s approach towards the green belt in that regard.
My third and final point is how confident we can be that the process that the Government are instituting will address the problems. The objective is to meet the local need for sites for Gypsies and Travellers, but the sites that could be established as meeting that need might be in private hands. There is no way in which site owners can be required to meet the needs of local Gypsies and Travellers. A requirement cannot be placed on site owners to meet local needs, and there is nothing that local authorities can do to ensure that pitches on those sites are occupied by local families.
Annexe C of the Government’s planning guidance specifically deems as unacceptable local authority criteria that allow applications from Gypsies and Travellers to be refused. Presumably, a site owner from outside the area could decide to buy a site inside Hertsmere, St. Albans or elsewhere in Hertfordshire and fill it with people from a long way away. The Government could ostensibly say that the objective of local need had been met, even though it had not, because people had come from some distance away to occupy the site. That would be a worrying scenario and I hope that the Minister will throw some light on it.
People in Hertfordshire know that we are under the same pressures from Gypsies and Travellers as we are from other people. Many people from outside the area want to come and live in Hertfordshire.
Surely the approach is topsy-turvy. The Government will never know whether their targets have been met; rather, they will know that a process has been gone through.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The whole process might be fulfilled, and the sites might be filled with people from outside the area, but the people whose need was originally identified locally might still be in the same conditions locally as before. The need would not have been met. No doubt the Government would trumpet the idea that they had met local needs, but the people would remain in the same position. Even if the site were owned and managed by a registered social landlord, it would not be clear whether there was any guarantee that it would be occupied exclusively by local people.
There is a flaw in the system. A large number of the sites are privately owned and managed, according to the various surveys that have been carried out. Registered social landlords might come in as well, and these questions must be asked to determine whether we will meet the Government’s objectives.
Another Government objective draws the connection between providing sites and reducing or avoiding the problem of unauthorised encampments. Given the pattern of unauthorised encampments in Hertsmere, whereby people often come at irregular intervals and from a considerable distance to strike up an unauthorised encampment before leaving when the processes of the law finally require them to do so, I am not as confident as I should like to be about the provisions’ ability to meet the objective of preventing unauthorised encampments. Does the Minister believe, and is she prepared to say, that the problems associated with unauthorised encampments will be avoided as a result of the Government’s proposals?
Although I support the way in which Hertsmere borough council has responded to the process, and its conscientiousness in seeking to listen to the views of local people and to play its part, I have yet to be convinced that the whole process, which the Government initiated, will meet either with the consent and support of my constituents, or with the objectives that the Government have set themselves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this useful debate and apologise for missing her opening remarks.
All of us in Hertfordshire have a fair amount in common. It is an attractive county, in which there is enormous demand for housing. A lot of people want to live there, although I shall not deliver a travelogue in the style of a maiden speech and dwell at length on my constituency. I do not know whether the Minister knows my constituency, although I do know that she has a cousin who lives in Berkhamsted—at least, she used to live in my constituency. Hertfordshire is an attractive place to live, with small market towns of a manageable size, where people are very comfortable, surrounded by attractive countryside.
One of the problems that we face in South-West Hertfordshire is that we are a victim of our success, in that people desperately want to live in the area. There is not the scope for an enormous amount of development, given that we are in the green belt, and the people living in South-West Hertfordshire do not desire it, for understandable reasons. However, that creates tensions for those on a low or even a medium income who want to buy their own property. Politicians will always have to strike a balance between those conflicting desires. What is seen as fundamentally unfair, however, is if a particular section of society receives what appears to be special treatment because a development is designed specifically for them, while the adult children of home owners in South-West Hertfordshire do not have the opportunity to acquire their own property. That drives at why so many of our constituents feel as strongly about the issue as they do.
That point also relates to the green belt, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) rightly touched upon. Most, if not all, of the area available for development in my constituency, whether in Dacorum borough council or Three Rivers district council, is in the green belt. There appears to be a conflict between the desire to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites and Government policy on the green belt. In circular 01/2006, from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Government state that they recognise the importance of the green belt, that new Gypsy and Traveller sites are normally inappropriate within them and that they require alternatives to be explored before green belt locations are considered.
However, there are no alternatives to green belt development. Perhaps the Minister could dwell on how Government policies on the green belt and on Gypsy and Traveller sites relate to each other. The solution that I suspect we shall see is that areas of land will cease to be designated as green belt and the green belt will change to accommodate particular sites. Again, that relates to the sense of unfairness that residents feel about the problem. There is clearly tension between what the East of England regional assembly has proposed and green belt policy.
Let me anticipate the argument that the Minister will use, which is one that I believe the Liberal Democrats essentially support. It is that we need more authorised sites, because otherwise there will be more unauthorised developments and that is undesirable.
My hon. Friend may find that Liberal Democrat support alters to meet whatever the electorate want to hear, depending on where they are. The Liberal Democrats have come out with a resounding no in my constituency, where the portfolio holder in charge of the Gypsy and Traveller sites says that we do not need any more in St. Albans.
My hon. Friend’s description of the position of the Liberal Democrats does not surprise me in the slightest. However, unless I receive a clear and categorical correction, I understand that their policy is strongly to support the need for more authorised sites.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is Conservative policy not to have more authorised sites?
If I may, I shall explore the point a little further.
I appreciate that because of court judgments and the Human Rights Act 1998, it is difficult to take enforcement action against unauthorised sites unless there is an alternative, authorised site. However, one of my concerns about increasing the number of authorised sites is that it will not necessarily end unauthorised developments, but increase the Traveller and Gypsy population as a whole.
The Government’s figures seem to show that in July 1979 there were 1,000 caravans on unauthorised sites and 2,500 on socially rented authorised sites. However, in July 2005 there were 5,000 caravans on unauthorised sites and 6,500 on socially rented sites, as well as an additional 2,000 on Travellers’ own land and a further 2,000 authorised private sites. Does that not show that increasing the number of authorised sites does not stop the numbers on unauthorised sites from increasing?
My hon. Friend makes an eloquent and important point, which underlines my point. Increasing authorised sites does not necessarily reduce the numbers. Indeed, the evidence that he presented suggests that there was an increase in the number of unauthorised developments. One has to ask why.
On the issue of demand, according to the latest figures from the East of England regional assembly, there were no unauthorised sites in my constituency, which covers two district councils—Dacorum borough council and Three Rivers district council—in January 2006. There certainly had been an unauthorised development in my constituency a few months before, at Cow Roast, but if the argument is, “Well, we need more authorised sites to deal with the unauthorised developments that we currently have,” the answer is that we do not currently have any in the area.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but we are making an assumption that all Travellers travelling around this country wish to be on an organised site. Those of us who understand the travelling community or have lived with Travellers—I grew up around a travelling community—know that many of them do not want to be on organised sites. At certain times of the year, they are happy to pull off the road, but at other times even organised sites are half empty. At certain times of the year, many Travellers are not actually in this country, because they come from southern Ireland.
My hon. Friend makes the point that the provision of authorised sites does not necessarily mean that Travellers will use them. By their very nature, Travellers travel.
It appears to be anticipated that the number of Gypsies and Travellers will expand, on the basis of the figures that have been presented for Hertfordshire. I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify whether that is the case. Will she also say whether that is being driven in part by the fact that the Government in the Republic of Ireland have been taking stronger measures to deal with Gypsy and Traveller sites, the consequence of which has been migration into the UK, and whether there is any evidence of something similar happening in accession states in the EU?
We will not deal with that supply by increasing the number of sites that we provide; instead, we will be increasing the demand. Does the Minister think that that is happening and does she think that it is in some way desirable? That outcome might be the very objective that the Government seek—to preserve the Gypsy and Traveller way of life—rather than an unintended consequence. If that is the Government’s position, I should be grateful for some clarification.
My final point takes us back to the essentially undemocratic manner in which the process has been undertaken, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for St. Albans. The East of England regional assembly is implementing the policy, but this is very much a Government policy—it is the Government who are determining things. They can hide behind the regional assembly and use regional bodies to implement unpopular policies for which they do not want to take the rap. That enables Labour councillors in places such as St. Albans and Hemel Hempstead—the few there are—to say that any decisions are nothing to do with them and that they are the fault of the wicked Conservatives at the regional level.
Similarly, Conservative district councils are forced to implement the policy—they have little or no choice over whether to do so and are forced to identify sites. However, although there is little that individual councillors can do, no one will be more vigorous in supporting the views of local residents affected by proposed developments outside Berkhamsted—the Scott Wilson report mention Swingate lane—than Councillors Julie Laws and Steve Bateman. Similarly, in Tring, Councillor Derek Townsend will provide vigorous support for his local residents. None the less, democratically elected politicians—whether Members of Parliament, district councillors or county councillors—have little say in the process, and that feeds into local people’s enormous frustration. People ask, “What can we do about this? Who can we complain to?” but the answer is that there is little that elected politicians can do. That is a failure of the system, and it needs to be addressed.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main),who is a fellow Member for the St. Albans district, on securing the debate and on introducing it in such a thorough but sensitive way.
There is great concern throughout the St. Albans district, not least in the part that I represent, about the current proposals, which, strangely, only became public on any scale after the local elections. People in Redbourn are concerned because there is already an authorised site, as well as unauthorised sites. People in Kinsbourne Green and Harpenden Rural are concerned because they are quite near Redbourn, and several new sites are proposed near them. Likewise, people in Wheathampstead are concerned because potential sites have been identified right next to residential areas. There is concern throughout the rural part of my constituency about what such developments could mean.
I have met several delegations and visited potential sites, and although my constituents are concerned, they are extremely reasonable: they accept that Travellers must live somewhere and want good relationships between the travelling and the settled communities. However, they also want a fair, transparent and balanced approach to be taken when deciding how many sites should be allocated and where they should be, but they do not see the current proposals as fair in substance or procedure.
St. Albans district council already has a quarter of all the authorised sites and more than half the unauthorised sites in Hertfordshire, but it is now being told that it must accept 30 per cent. of the additional sites. However, St. Albans district council is only one of the 10 councils, covers only 10 per cent. of the area of Hertfordshire and has only 13 per cent. of the population, so why are things being done in this way? The answer is that the formula that is being used says that the number of new pitches required in any area will be equal to 40 per cent. of the number of authorised pitches plus the number of unauthorised pitches that the area already has. My area already has a large number of authorised and unauthorised pitches, so it is expected to have a lot more pitches in future. The more pitches an area has agreed to have in the past, therefore, the more it is expected to have in the future; the more it has had to put up in the past—even though they may have been illegal and unauthorised—the more it will have to put up with in the future. People do not think that that is fair.
My right hon. Friend makes a really powerful point, and I draw his attention again to why the public are so annoyed by what has happened. The EERA consultation says:
“This public consultation is a real chance for everyone in the settled and travelling communities…to learn more about the options on the table and to have their say on the number and distribution of these additional pitches”,
but that has not been the case at all.
My hon. Friend is right. People are concerned because they are expected to have new authorised sites, where the number of pitches will reflect the present number of unauthorised pitches, but there is no guarantee that the unauthorised ones will be removed; indeed, given human rights considerations, it is quite possible that there will be no possibility of removing them, and that is a concern. As my hon. Friend spelled out, we have been given a choice between two options, both of which are identical, and that, it may astonish the Minister to know, does not seem fair to people.
The process is not transparent either. The consultation documents give no explanation of how the assessment of the additional numbers was reached, and one really has to dig deep to find out; one has to read an extremely opaque report from the Department for Communities and Local Government called “Preparing Regional Spatial Strategy reviews on Gypsies and Travellers by regional planning bodies”. Indeed, the report consists largely of serial acronyms—it was not until I read a lot about the subject, for example, that I realised that G and T stood for Gypsies and Travellers—but there is no glossary to tell us what those acronyms mean.
If one works one’s way through the report, however, one will be astonished to find that there are no figures for the Gypsy population and that there are figures only for the number of caravans and sites. There are also no figures for occupancy rates at existing sites, which one might think would provide some measure of demand or need. One wonders why things are so opaque and obscure and why such a strange solution has been reached, and one finds that the Department does not really have the information on which to make the relevant decisions. Page 18 says:
“our understanding about Gypsies and Travellers—about their requirements and the factors influencing these—is not yet sufficiently developed or adequate to inform the development of site provision which we can be certain will meet the extent of need in a way which is appropriate to the requirements and preferences of all sections of this population.
However, action must be taken.”
The Department does not, therefore, have the information on which to take any reasonable action, but it proposes to go ahead anyway, which is why it goes ahead with unreasonable action.
The Department has decided to develop what it calls a “tool”—it keeps using that word—based on GTAAs, or Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments. Local authorities are obliged to carry out regular assessments, which are then examined. Although they form the basis of all subsequent work, the report observes:
“Assessments—which are usually based on interviews with Gypsies and Travellers in the study area—find it hard to estimate the need to be in the study area of those currently living outside it, perhaps because of lack of accommodation. There is also a tendency to conflate need, demand and aspiration.”
The Department’s basic tool therefore measures three different things and conflates them all. That is done on the basis of interviews that provide no real measure of the demand, need or aspirations for sites in an area.
The report concludes, somewhat arbitrarily, that some of the assessments are robust, while others are not. On average, the robust ones show that demand, need or aspiration is 40 per cent. greater than the current supply, so the Department has decided arbitrarily to use that 40 per cent. factor everywhere as part of a one-size-fits-all approach, with no recognition of local differences.
Nor is there any clarity in the document as to why the Gypsy and Traveller population seems to be expanding so fast. It says that the number of caravans rose by 90 per cent. between 1979 and 2006 over the country as a whole and that the population is growing by 3 per cent. per annum in the UK and 4 per cent. per annum in Ireland, but it does not tell us how much of the UK population growth is due to people coming from Ireland or elsewhere. However, 3 to 4 per cent. annual population growth is very rapid—it is more rapid than the population growth in Africa, which is the fastest growing continent in the world. Yet the assessments will be made only for five years ahead. At the relevant rate of growth, that is about 18 per cent., so one might think the call for 40 per cent. more accommodation does not naturally follow. As I have said, in addition to that 40 per cent., extra sites are proposed to match the number of unauthorised sites, but with no guarantee—or, at least, the document is so non-transparent that we cannot see whether there is any guarantee—that unauthorised sites will be replaced by authorised ones, if those are forthcoming.
Finally, my constituents do not think that the approach seems very balanced. Because of the enormous housing pressures that we face, which we have discussed previously, the settled population of this country is being pressed to live in flats rather than houses, in terraced houses rather than detached houses, north rather than south, on brownfield sites rather than in the green belt. Yet no similar pressures seem to be exerted, or nothing analogous seems to be expected, of the G and Ts. The settled population find that housing is rationed by price. In my constituency young people now stay at home five or 10 years longer than they used to when I was first elected, because they cannot afford a home. Alternatively, they must move north. Everything is rationed by price, and I reiterate that no analogous pressures are exerted on the better-off Gypsies and Travellers.
Constituents have told me that they feel particularly aggrieved that when they look up this subject on the web, as everyone does when the subject suddenly comes on to their radar screen, they find hundreds of sites detailing Gypsies’ and Travellers’ concerns—which they acknowledge are perfectly legitimate—about the pressures and discrimination that they potentially face, and their grievances. There is nothing equivalent to enable my constituents to express or register their concerns or their experience of some parts of the Gypsy and Traveller population. They feel that they need to register those concerns if the Government’s objective of achieving social cohesion and a sensible relationship between the Gypsy and Traveller and settled communities is to be reached.
My constituents hope that the Government will listen to them, but they are pretty sure that they will not. They would like fairness, but they cannot see any. They want some transparency and they are presented with something absolutely opaque. They want balance and they feel that things are loaded heavily against them. They know that the Government are to blame, and they want the Government to answer.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate on an important subject and I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). People in North-East Hertfordshire want to be fair about this matter, but they also want to be satisfied that the Government have done their homework and that what is proposed is about meeting need, rather than creating demand. That was something of a theme of my right hon. Friend’s speech, too.
It seems remarkable that in the document published by the Minister’s Department, “Gypsies and Travellers: Facts and Figures”, a table of official figures shows that in 1979 there were 3,500 caravans, either socially rented or in unauthorised encampments, whereas by July 2005 that had risen, with all categories considered, to 15,500. I understand that the latest count from the Department is 16,611. Clearly, that is a very substantial increase. I have asked representatives of the local authority why that should be. The only explanation that they came up with was that there are now some traditional Travellers from eastern Europe coming to this country. Even so, I should be grateful if the Minister could explain that four to five-fold increase in travelling.
My second point is about whether, from a policy point of view, the Government intend to encourage travelling. Clearly, there are difficulties associated with it, such as social exclusion. If the Government do not intend to encourage travelling as a way of life, can the Minister explain how the increase has occurred? Surely Government policy must have played a part in it, given its substantial nature.
I am puzzled that the hon. Gentleman says the Government must have played a substantial part in the increase. We are talking about a few thousand, whereas for the settled community the formation of new homes is much greater. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we aim to produce 200,000 new homes a year. Let us get things in proportion.
That is a worrying intervention from the Minister. There is not a five-fold increase in household formation in the United Kingdom. If she thinks that there is, that is deeply worrying. A five-fold increase in household formation in the sector that we are considering is a different scale of change. Perhaps the Minister thinks that it is amusing, but people in North-East Hertfordshire do not.
North-East Hertfordshire has not had much traditional interplay with the Traveller community. There are a small number of sites, but it is not on one of the traditional routes. Yet it seems that in the second option that is being put forward by the regional assembly a very large increase in the number of sites is proposed. The effect of that will be to create opportunities for Travellers to move into North-East Hertfordshire, which traditionally they have never chosen to do. Are the Government encouraging numbers of Travellers to move there for a particular reason? I should have thought that the Government would want a sustainable approach—that they would want to meet the needs of Travellers, as established over time, to follow particular routes and live their lives as they choose, and not to interfere in that and say, “Rather than do what you want, do what we want as the nanny state, and move to North-East Hertfordshire.”
When the Labour group on the North Hertfordshire district council suggested, some years ago, that there should be extra sites in North Hertfordshire, the Conservatives did some survey work, as one does. The idea was not very popular. If the Minister feels that there is some reason for the change to happen, perhaps she will explain it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs. Dean.
To describe my reaction to the comments of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) and her Conservative colleagues this afternoon as surprise is putting it extremely mildly. I am amazed that the hon. Lady complains about the provision of Traveller sites when it was her party that said that 67 per cent. of Traveller sites should be closed between 1986 and 1993; it was the Conservative Government who caused the problem.
I draw the hon. Lady’s attention, before she goes any further, to something issued today by the notionally Liberal Democrat-controlled St. Albans district council, and the portfolio holder, Liberal Democrat councillor Chris Brazier:
“We have already over-provided for gipsy and traveller pitches within the district so we are saying that we don’t see why we have to take an extra 34. We want a more equitable share across the country. Our response to EERA is no”.
I am making a general point. The tone of the argument from the Hertfordshire Members has been quite technical on the way the allocation is created. If the hon. Lady will allow me, I shall continue to develop my argument. She should be reassured that the Liberal Democrats want a fair allocation of sites as much as any party does.
The Conservatives closed 67 per cent. of Traveller sites between 1986 and 1993. In 1994 the Conservative Government released local authorities from their obligations to provide sites and introduced new laws penalising families for stopping without permission. At a stroke they destroyed the Traveller way of life in this country. It is estimated that in this country there are between 200,000 and 300,000 Gypsies—Romany, Irish, Scottish and so on. Most live in houses.
I do not know what country the hon. Lady has been living in. I have been a Member of this place for a long time, and Gypsies have been an issue throughout. However, no Gypsy site in my area or known to me has been closed down during that time, either by this Government or previous ones.
I am grateful for that intervention from the right hon. Gentleman, who has clearly been around a little longer than I—[Interruption.] In this place, I mean. I am alluding not to what has happened in specific areas, but to the general figures that apply to this country as a whole.
I am happy to lend the hon. Lady the Government’s own document, “Gypsies and Travellers: Facts and Figures”. It contains a graph that shows the constant increase in the numbers of caravans on official and unofficial sites. Would she like to read it? It certainly deals with the points that she has made.
What is her source?
My source is the Government figures, which were given to me a few weeks ago by the Minister.
I shall make progress. Approximately 4,000 Gypsies and Travellers—27 per cent. of the moving population, or the population who live on sites—live on unauthorised sites. We have talked about the scale of the problem. Indeed, the Minister intervened on that issue, and the proportions involved have to be considered as we talk about it. All new provision for Gypsy and Traveller sites could be provided within 1 square mile of land. Please—let us get the proportion right.
Will the hon. Lady discuss Hertfordshire? That is what this debate is about.
The hon. Lady asks me to discuss Hertfordshire. I am attempting to draw some conclusions, which she may find useful. I hope so.
The problems arise because local authorities do not provide sufficient sites. That is why the Government intervened with the Housing Act 2004. When local authorities provide sites, they are usually well run and there is no problem or conflict with the local authority. On receiving a briefing, I learned that there is an approved site in my own borough of Solihull, although not in my constituency. I did not even know that it was there. The provision of sites does not have to be the end of the world for a local authority. When sites are well run, and Solihull borough is run by the Conservatives, it is clear that the need is met and the problems can be evaded. However, I am not talking about illegal encampments, which result from a group of Travellers moving on to an illegal site. That is an entirely different matter.
I should like to give some idea of how some local authorities have reacted to Traveller encampments. One devotes 5 per cent. of its entire budget to evictions, but spends nothing on the provision of authorised sites. That shows how the emphasis causes the problem. The 2004 Act places a requirement to assess housing need and provide adequate housing for all members of the local community; indeed, the regional spatial strategy cannot be cleared unless that is done. Planning permission for new sites is more likely to be issued if the local authority is not providing authorised sites. Greater decision-making power is given to the local authority if there is an adequate supply of sites in the area.
I turn to the situation in respect of regions. Various speakers have said that the region is some sort of pariah that seeks to dominate and suppress the freedom of different local authorities. Might I suggest to Conservative Members that it is sometimes helpful to have a regional body, which can take into account need within a specific region and not just within a local authority? Subsidiarity is a fundamental part of Liberal Democrat philosophy. It means that decisions should be made as close as possible to the individuals affected by them. We want a regional authority so that we do not get the situation to which Conservative Members have alluded: the Government trying to impose from the centre on local decision making.
If the hon. Lady believes in localism, as many of us do, she should surely believe in decisions being made as close to the people as possible; she said that she did. Surely that should be at a district—or at most, county—level. In my constituency, I find that one of the problems with regional government is that it completely ignores what happens over the border in Buckinghamshire, because the region does not consider that. However, a district or borough council is far more likely to take all such local factors into account.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
I remind the hon. Lady that she has about another two minutes to speak.
Thank you, Mrs. Dean.
My worry is about the continuing demonisation of Gypsies and Travellers; it makes conflict by not producing appropriate authorised sites. One third of adults admit to being personally prejudiced against the group. Lack of provision causes conflict, reinforces prejudices and takes its toll on a group that has 18 times more child deaths, far worse examination results, and life expectancies 10 to 12 years shorter than those of the settled population. As Trevor Phillips said, prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers is the last acceptable form of racism. We want an open and transparent system, in which each local authority does its fair share. The hon. Member for St. Albans is clear that hers does. We do not want a honey pot situation that attracts people from local authorities that are not taking their share and providing appropriate approved sites.
If we could restore a proper balance to the adequate provision of sites, things would be calmer for local residents and there would be a huge boost to the security and quality of life of the most disadvantaged minority in our country. It would also be a lot cheaper for local authorities and better value for money for local residents.
Good afternoon, Mrs. Dean. I have never had the privilege of serving under your chairmanship. It has been great; I have had a wonderful time this afternoon, because my mind has been changed on this subject on so many levels—not least by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), whose speech I shall long remember. I shall especially remember her most vicious attack on local Liberal Democrats in Hertfordshire and castigation of Cuncillor Chris Brazier in particular. I suppose that he at least has an advantage over the hon. Lady in knowing where Hertfordshire and St. Albans are.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will in a second; I have not yet finished with the hon. Lady. Despite the fact that Councillor Brazier lives in the area and has come to a decision, the hon. Lady apparently knows better than him—so much for subsidiarity.
I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a second. We were also quite astounded to see the way in which she dealt with the statistics, which were clearly wrong. I assumed that some spotty researcher had given her that bucket of rubbish, but it turned out to be the Minister. Perhaps she should be a little more careful about people from other parties who give her information, and about relying on those figures. We are grateful for her admission that Solihull under the Conservatives is a well run authority. I thank her for telling me why we need a regional body—apparently, we need a regional body to take regional decisions.
I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman seeks to demonise any individual who cannot stand in this place and defend themselves. He is talking about a specific instance. I am not from Hertfordshire, as he points out, but I have been trying to the best of my ability to draw out principles that Liberal Democrats adhere to, wherever they are in the country.
But apparently not in St. Albans. I was not demonising Councillor Brazier; I think that I was trying to demonise the hon. Lady.
Another reason that I enjoyed the debate, and that it substantially changed my mind, was that I had always felt that the Government were carrying out some great Stalinist plot, whereby they merely looked at the figures, sent down to their people and said, “Give us more pitches; give us more figures,” in the way in which the great dictator used to say, “I want more tractors; I want more tanks; I want more executions.” Apparently, there is no logic at all. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) put it rather well. At times, I felt that he was describing a combination of King Lear and the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland”. The Government are essentially saying, “Supply us with pitches. We know not where, and we know not in what number, but they will truly be the wonder of the world.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) made a magnificent point. It apparently does not matter whether there is a local connection or whether local Travellers have sites, just so long as there are sites. Local provision does not matter at all. It is possible under the system to provide as many sites as one likes. Travellers could come in from entirely different parts of the country, leaving Travellers in Hertfordshire without pitches, and still the Government’s criteria would be met.
I have been remiss in not congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. I thought that she put her point across civilly and reasonably, and she showed a marked understanding that these decisions are not easy. It is immensely difficult to decide where pitches are going to go, and the conflict between the settled community and Travellers can be injurious to good community relations. Where those decisions work and there is an established understanding, things are excellent and we can be proud. However—I agree completely with Trevor Phillips on this point—in truth, in a lot of parts of the country that conflict is exactly what is happening. The regulations and the decisions from the regional bodies do not accept that, because the formula is difficult and incomprehensible. As my hon. Friend said, there is a feeling that such decisions are being bulldozed through by a remote authority and that they are a done deal.
My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) raised the difficulty of green belts and other areas, and of finding brownfield sites. He made the reasonable point that not that many sites are available on the green belt. A sensible community might eventually have to come to that decision, but we must clearly demonstrate beyond peradventure that the authority and the council have gone through the correct process before that decision is taken.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere rightly said that the Government must accept some responsibility. He clearly demonstrated that the whole process is about ticking the box, and showed that his local community feels extremely badly done by. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said that it was important for a sustainable approach to be taken and he is absolutely correct.
The Minister has clearly not enjoyed the debate. Her body language and attitude have shown that she has not been entirely happy, and nor has she had much support from her own side. She could, no doubt, have done without such support as came from the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps I could give her some solace. We are not entirely critical of the Government. We recognise that they have moved some way since we presented our seven point action plan some time ago. They have moved towards us, particularly in making some moves to tackle some of the more flagrant abuses, such as those typified by the encampment at Crays Hill. We also recognise that the Government understand the importance of private authorised sites and the role that they can play.
However, waiting for the regional spatial strategy to be ticked off before sorting out the authorised sites is a mistake, as it is leading to a drift. In particular, circular 01/2006 from the Department for Communities and Local Government has led to a number of decisions on planning whereby sites that would be singularly inappropriate have been allowed to go through while people are waiting for the spatial strategy to arrive. Essentially, Travellers’ sites are being developed based on drift rather than authority.
I shall conclude as I started. Such decisions are difficult. Tensions tend to rise. Above everything, people want a feeling of equality before the law. The settled community and the travelling community want to be in roughly the same position so that planning permission should not, must not and cannot be given to the travelling community in circumstances in which it would undoubtedly be turned down for the settled community. Until that is firmly established in the public’s mind, there will be resistance, as we have seen this afternoon. Until the Government can demonstrate clearly that they want to treat all their citizens in equal measure, a significant part of the population will not believe that the Government come out of this with clean hands—forgive the use of the word—and a degree of integrity.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. The Government believe that everyone in the community should have the opportunity to have a decent place to live. The shortage of authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers means that there is currently no such opportunity for households in one in four Gypsy and Traveller caravans. That is an unacceptable situation, and we are committed to significantly increasing site provision to address it.
Local authorities are required to undertake a strategic housing market needs assessment for the whole community. No one is being singled out—those assessments should be undertaken for the whole community. Unfortunately, Gypsies and Travellers were rarely included, hence the need for a specific requirement for the assessment of need. It has already been said that the Conservative Government ended the requirement for local authorities to provide sites in 1994, and that is what has created the significant difficulties that we experience today.
Many grown-up children of those in the Gypsy and Traveller community have their own young children but cannot access a home of their own and are on overcrowded sites. The situations affecting people in the settled community and the Gypsy and Traveller community therefore have some similarities, but the difference is that unauthorised sites can cause genuine problems. The settled community can experience those problems through, for example, unauthorised encampments that prevent the use of important local amenities. The problems can also be experienced by Gypsies and Travellers who find themselves in places that lack even basic facilities and are sometimes even downright dangerous.
The shortage of authorised sites, however, is not a big problem and not the huge social problem that the hon. Member for St. Albans would have us believe. As the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said, just one square mile of land is needed to accommodate the caravans for which there is currently no pitch on an authorised site.
The problem can be particularly challenging to solve. Many people do not want sites to be built near them as they have fears about them based on rumour and misinformation. There is groundless prejudice and I should like to take this opportunity to dispel some common myths. Data collected in Northamptonshire showed that an encampment does not result in a spike in crime levels. Gypsies and Travellers are required to, and do, pay council tax, whether or not their sites have planning permission, and they are active in their local communities. They are local councillors, and young Gypsies and Travellers are represented on the UK Youth Parliament. Everyone—Gypsies and Travellers, the settled community and local authorities—stands to gain from site provision.
If the Minister so roundly believes that my area is being unfair in not wanting to accept any more sites, will she instruct the local Labour councillors to drop their campaign against them and the hypocrisy in their literature, which implies that only they are on the side of local residents?
If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I shall get to the situation in Hertfordshire.
Providing more authorised sites will reduce unauthorised camping and the tensions that it can create. Having good-quality accommodation will also help to tackle the serious social exclusion experienced by Gypsies and Travellers and improve health and education outcomes. The life expectancy of a Gypsy or Traveller is 10 to 12 years less than that of a member of the settled community, and Gypsy and Traveller mothers are almost 20 times more likely to experience the death of a child. Gypsy and Traveller children do not do anywhere near as well in their GCSEs as settled children.
Site provision will also reduce the resources that authorities spend on costly enforcement action, estimated by the Commission for Racial Equality at £18 million a year and described by the Audit Commission as a “wasteful use of resources.” The enforcement costs of one council have dropped from £200,000 a year to £5,000 a year since it built a new site. Site provision also makes it easier for authorities and the police to take enforcement action when unauthorised camping takes place.
To achieve the significant increase that we are seeking we have established a new framework for site provision. Local authorities are now required by the Housing Act 2004 to undertake accommodation needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers in the same way as for the rest of the community. I understand that assessments are now under way or have been completed in 90 per cent. of local authorities. We want all of them to be completed by the end of the year.
I understand that St. Albans was covered by the south and west Hertfordshire Gypsy and Traveller needs assessment, which has gone to the regional assembly. I am informed that the regional assembly has scaled down the assessment of need arrived at in that document—it has not gone up since the assessment that St. Albans was involved in, but has been scaled down. It was felt that waiting lists for sites may have been overestimated.
The assessments will inform revisions to the regional spatial strategy, and the regional assembly will take a strategic view of need across the region and set out the number of pitches that each local authority will be expected to deliver. Guidance commissioned jointly by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the East of England regional assembly will support that process, and local authorities will then need to identify in their development plan documents sites to deliver pitches. I understand that the research used by the East of England regional assembly was conducted by Pat Niner, who is a renowned academic and has worked on Gypsy and Traveller issues for many years. That is how the needs assessment is being drawn up.
Hon. Members made a number of criticisms of that process, but for a long time site provision has not been made and there are no data on it, so it is an early stage in the understanding of the range of needs. That is why there is a process of consultation with not only local residents but local councils to ask whether they believe that the assessments set out by the regional assembly are correct. Backing up that new framework, we have increased the resources available to provide and refurbish sites through the Gypsy and Traveller site grant.
The hon. Lady set out the two options in her area, and the decision on which is more appropriate to meet needs is for the regional assembly to take, taking into account the views expressed during the consultation. That decision will feed into the draft revision of the east of England plan, which will be submitted to the Secretary of State later this year and subject to further consultation before the final plan is published in 2009.
Compared with the amount of conventional housing that needs to be supplied, the number of pitches needed is tiny. On the basis of what the regional assembly set out, Hertfordshire will be required to deliver either 115 or 173 pitches depending on the option chosen for distributing them.
I have done the maths and there are 444,000 households in Hertfordshire. The number of pitches that the Minister gives is 0.00047 per cent., or similar, of that number, which goes to show the infinitesimal size of the problem.
I have some further maths: it is less than 1 per cent. of the number of new houses that Hertfordshire would be required to deliver by proposed revisions to the plan.
Hertfordshire needs to consider the need for pitches. The general principle is that they should be provided when need arises, and it is surely much better for that need to be met through good quality, well-managed sites than through unauthorised sites, which can create problems for the settled community and Gypsies and Travellers alike. When sites are allocated in development plan documents they will be subject to a sustainability appraisal, which will include an assessment of their environmental, economic and social impact. In fact, as we know, the number of pitches to be provided in south and west Hertfordshire has gone down because of what the regional assembly has done.
It is unacceptable for anyone to suggest that their area has its fair share of an ethnic group. That applies to Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers, which are identified as ethnic groups under race relations legislation, as much as to any other group.
Hon. Members mentioned the green belt. There is a general presumption against inappropriate development of any kind in the green belt, but we recognise that some local authority areas contain a high proportion of green belt and that no other suitable sites might exist. In those exceptional circumstances alterations to the green belt boundary may be made to meet a specific, identified need, whether for a new Gypsy and Traveller site or any other type of development.
I am conscious that the Minister has only two minutes, but I wish to say that local Labour councillors are campaigning, quite correctly, for not having more sites, on the grounds that we already have 50 per cent. of the sites in Hertfordshire. The Minister has just denounced that position. Will she either rein in her Labour councillors and ask them to get on message or denounce them?
I do have only two minutes left and I want to finish answering hon. Members’ other questions.
Local authorities are required to identify sites in their development plans and documents and to deliver the number of pitches allocated to them in the regional spatial strategy. The Scott Wilson report, which ranked a number of potential sites in south and west Hertfordshire, is intended to assist local authorities in preparing those documents. Not all the sites identified will be necessary to deliver the number of pitches allocated. The report considered sites against several criteria including whether the scale of a site would complement its surroundings; whether it was within reasonable distance of amenities, public transport and key services such as doctors and schools; whether it had access to essential services such as water, sewerage and drainage, and whether it avoided contaminated areas. The framework that we have established and the process that the East of England and other regional assemblies are going through are crucial to making progress on site provision. Only by significantly increasing the number of authorised sites will we ensure that all parts of the community have a decent place to live, thereby reducing the tensions that unauthorised sites can cause—
Order. We must move on to the next debate.