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Traveller Sites

Volume 493: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2009

6. What assistance her Department will provide in identifying publicly owned land for use as a transit site by Traveller families facing eviction from the unauthorised site at Dale Farm. (277604)

It is for Basildon council to manage the process of managing the unauthorised development at Dale Farm. If and when it decides to proceed with eviction action, I expect the council to hold talks with neighbouring authorities to ensure that any eviction that takes place does so in a calm and orderly fashion.

The Minister will be aware that the 85 Traveller families at the illegal site have now exhausted their legal and planning options. The council rightly seeks to reclaim the unauthorised site and return it to the green belt. It hopes to avoid a forced eviction, as we all do: I know that the Minister does as well. The ball is now in the Travellers’ court, and they have to move off peacefully if that is to happen. However, as the Minister will know, there is a shortage of sites.

Given the scale of the problem and given that the Government are partly responsible for it, having granted the Travellers two years’ leave to remain—during which time the number of caravans on the site shot up—will the Minister do what he can to help to identify transit sites outside the district, as Basildon has done more than its fair share locally? Will he also meet me to discuss this important issue?

I understand the concern felt by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents about the friction caused by the unauthorised development and the problems that it has caused for the settled community, but he was present during yesterday’s debate, and will have heard Conservative Front Benchers criticise the Government for trying to work in partnership with local authorities and complaining about the fact that authorities are not given autonomy and power to solve problems.

I told the hon. Gentleman a few moments ago that it was for Basildon council to work with neighbouring authorities. He is now telling me that he does not think it will be able to do so, and that he wants me to intervene and help. I am happy to meet him and discuss with him ways in which he feels that his local authority may need assistance, but it is worth my reminding him of the contradiction between what was said by his party’s Front Benchers yesterday and what he is asking for today.

May I also ask my hon. Friend to do his utmost to find a solution to the situation at Dale Farm, and to do anything that the Government are able to do? As I am sure he knows, yesterday we launched Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month here in Parliament. It was a huge celebration of Gypsy culture, and hundreds of Gypsies, Roma people and Travellers were here. Overlying everything, however, was the worry about the lack of sites.

My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the causes of the problems is the fact that large numbers of Traveller and Gypsy families are on unauthorised encampments and sites. We need to encourage local authorities to provide more and more authorised sites. There are pitches where Traveller and Gypsy families can go, which will lead to fewer of the problems described by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron).

I am puzzled by the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) that the problem at Dale Farm could be solved by Basildon borough council. In relation to the problem in Wiltshire, he has said that not the elected Wiltshire county council but an entirely unelected, undemocratic quango, the South West regional assembly, must make the necessary decision. How do those two answers stack up?

I am always happy to lecture Opposition Members about the planning framework. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that local authorities assess Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs, and that the results of those assessments are passed to a regional planning body which uses them to allocate pitches to authorities as part of the regional spatial strategy. The proposals are assessed during a public examination at which arguments can be advanced for raising or lowering the number of allocations. It is then for local authorities to draw up development plan documents to accommodate pitch allocations. I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to explain how the planning framework operates.

Unauthorised sites such as Dale Farm exist the length and breadth of the country. What measures are in place to assist local authorities, as it is they—and therefore taxpayers—who have to pick up the cost of clearing up the damage done to sites? What tangible legislative powers does my hon. Friend have to sort this out?

My hon. Friend asks a very important question. Last year, local authorities spent £18 million on enforcement action. There is a local authority in England which has authorised sites, and the cost of enforcement fell from £200,000 a year to £5,000. That is an example of authorised sites reducing the cost to local authorities, and also the huge distress caused to the settled community.