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Gypsy and Traveller Sites

Volume 483: debated on Tuesday 18 November 2008

Between 2006 and 2008, the Government have awarded grants to provide more than 400 additional socially rented pitches, and 120 sites have been refurbished. The timetable for allocating suitable land for Gypsy and Traveller sites is set out in local authorities’ local development schemes. However, where there is a clear and pressing need, work should begin now on identifying land for sites.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate the Government on their initiative in trying to provide an adequate number of Gypsy and Traveller sites. Does he believe that there is a net increase in the number of pitches being provided? In some situations, refurbishment leads to a reduction in the number of pitches because it expands the size of individual pitches. Does he feel that there is an expansion in the number of pitches that are being provided by local authorities at the moment?

I congratulate my hon. Friend; as chair of the all-party group on Gypsy and Traveller law reform, she has been the catalyst for much of the progress that has been made. She raises a serious point about whether, in our enthusiasm for investing in refurbishment and providing additional pitches, some may be lost in other parts of the country. The important point for local communities and local authorities to recognise is the benefit that the provision of well-managed, authorised sites can offer. They help to reduce the number of unauthorised sites and mean that there are more levers at the disposal of local authorities when it comes to removing unauthorised sites. We will ensure that we encourage local authorities to continue to provide additional pitches and to refurbish those pitches that are already in existence, as they should do.

Does the Minister agree that the rules and laws of this country should apply to everybody equally? If so, does he understand how my constituents in the villages of Wilburton and Haddenham feel at the prospect of another 14 Traveller pitches being granted permission? That permission is being granted not because those sites are wanted there and not because the district council wants them, but because the council is being forced to grant permission on land for which it would not otherwise do so, because of pressure from the Government and from the regional planning policy. One of the two sites has already been rejected for use in building conventional housing. The other is a greenfield site. If anybody else applied to carry out normal development, they would not have a prayer.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that demonstration of his prejudice against Gypsy and Traveller sites—[Interruption.]

Gypsies and Travellers are bound by the same planning laws and human rights legislation as everyone else, which means that they should apply for planning permission before moving on to or developing land that they own. In the same way as everyone else, they are subject to enforcement action if the proper planning processes are not complied with. Local authorities, rather than the Government, should decide what happens in local communities.

Traveller provision might not be politically popular, but does my hon. Friend agree that if every local authority made good provision for Traveller families there would be an overall saving, as illegal sites would not be used, saving all the money that dealing with them frequently costs—not to mention the rental income that would come from official sites?

I thank my hon. Friend for that sensible question. The independent taskforce on site provision and enforcement concluded that the Government’s policy framework was sound, but her point is very important. The provision of additional well-managed and authorised sites will help to reduce the number of unauthorised sites. Authorised sites also enable rent and council tax to be created and utility bills to be paid. I hope that we would all welcome that.

The Minister must recognise that no one on the Opposition side of the House objects to reasonable rights being given to Gypsies and Travellers. However, he and his Government are taking away the rights of other people in my constituency. Decent, normal, law-abiding, hard-working, tax-paying people are under threat of having the little pieces of land right next to their houses taken away by his Government, by compulsory purchase, to provide sites for Gypsies. What about the rights of the decent, hard-working taxpayers in my constituency?

Let me deal with the hon. Lady’s first point. Local authorities spend £18 million a year on enforcement action on unauthorised sites. If we can reduce the number of unauthorised sites by encouraging local authorities to provide authorised sites, that will reduce that bill. Secondly, I know from a letter that I have been passed by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), that the hon. Lady has been involved in a campaign that some would characterise as scaremongering about compulsory purchase orders in her community. There is no truth in the headlines. There is no requirement for local authorities to compulsorily purchase land for Gypsy or Traveller sites. I would ask, caution and counsel hon. Members to use their words carefully and to temper them when it comes to spreading stories that are factually incorrect and misleading.

Leicestershire lies at the heart of England and is very well served by the motorway network, including the M6, M1 and M42, but the county has much more than its fair share of unauthorised Traveller encampments on both private and public land. Would my hon. Friend like authorities to share best practice in respect of how rapidly they deal with such concerns? Northamptonshire, for instance, has a far better record than Leicestershire in that regard. Does he plan to give authorities greater powers in legislation to move Travellers on rather more quickly than they can at the moment?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he is doing with his local community. I should be more than happy to visit examples of good practice, and MPs who articulate it. He is of course aware that the police have greater powers to move Gypsies and Travellers from unauthorised encampments if there are suitable pitches available for them to move to. I hope that the examples of good practice in his community will be adopted elsewhere in the country.

The Minister will be aware of how controversial this issue is. He said that the point about compulsory purchase made by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) was unreliable, but will he confirm that in 2006 the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister issued guidance instructing councils to meet their regional targets for Traveller camps by using compulsory purchase powers? Does he appreciate the ill-feeling that that advice and guidance has aroused, and the harm that such heavy-handed, top-down state interference has caused to community relations?

Frankly, the hon. Lady should know better. Compulsory purchase orders are entirely a matter for the local authority. If a local authority wished to compulsorily purchase any land, it would have to demonstrate that there was a compelling case in the public interest before confirming a compulsory purchase order. Such an order should be a last resort that is used only when efforts to purchase land by agreement have failed. However, it is a basic courtesy—[Interruption.]

Order. The Minister has been asked a question, and hon. Members should let him reply. [Interruption.] I do not see what is difficult about it: people should just keep quiet while the Minister replies.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I was going to end by saying simply that it is a basic courtesy to listen to the answer when a question is asked.