[Annette Brooke in the Chair]
The debate title given in the Order Paper is “Unauthorised encampments and development in the countryside”; when that topic comes up, it is often accompanied by the words “Gypsies” and “Travellers”. When seeking this debate, however, I deliberately omitted reference to any community or tradition. I did so for the simple reason that most Gypsies and Travellers are not engaged in unauthorised development. What we are talking about today would be just as problematic for any community.
The vast majority of Gypsies and Travellers are entirely law-abiding. Four fifths of caravan pitchings are in authorised locations, and many more among these communities live in bricks-and-mortar homes. We are therefore talking about a small segment. We should acknowledge up front that Gipsy and Traveller communities face particular problems. In health and education, they are among the most disadvantaged groups—their life expectancy is 10 years less than the national average and their attainment at GCSE is less than half the national average. As politicians, we have to rise more fully to those challenges, to ensure good life chances for all. Without doubt, the provision of decent sites in workable locations is an important part of that; so, too, is mutual understanding with others in the community, to ensure that everyone is on board.
As I said, most Gypsies and Travellers are entirely law-abiding, but the small segment who are not—those who occupy land illegally or make unauthorised developments to land that they own—can sour relations with local communities. That, in turn, can make it harder to secure the improvements in life chances and outcomes that we all want to see.
Problems that arise can be roughly categorised under one of three headings: first, trespass and occupation of public land by Gypsies and Travellers; secondly, their trespass and occupation of private land; and thirdly, unauthorised development on land owned by them. That last category has seen big growth in recent years and is the source of the greatest problems in my constituency of East Hampshire—and, I dare say, in many other constituencies.
Since 2004, there has been a national increase of more than two thirds in the number of Gypsy or Traveller caravans stationed on unauthorised sites owned by Gypsies or Travellers. I note in passing that that increase occurred at the same time as a large increase—indeed, in absolute terms a much larger increase—in the number of authorised sites.
This is a typical scenario. Someone buys a field from a farmer to keep horses, for example; after a while, an electric line and water supply are installed in connection with the keeping of the animals; then, over a weekend or a bank holiday, one or two caravans or mobile homes arrive, along with the heavy machinery needed for laying a hard surface and other works. A retrospective planning application is then made. It often turns out that the field in question is located on the edge of a settlement in what the planners define as a sustainable location. Temporary permission may be given, and so a cycle begins.
It is said by some that local authorities have only themselves to blame because they do not make adequate provision for sites within their borders—even if, for example, a site is available just outside the boundary. The assumption may be that one new authorised site will mean one unauthorised site less, but that will not always be so. Nevertheless, I repeat that I support provision of good authorised sites, and I welcome the Government’s inclusion of Traveller sites in the new home bonus scheme; I hope and trust that that will result in more sites.
Hon. Members may have read in the press about the village of Ropley in my constituency. The local community woke up to find that a Traveller site had been developed overnight. It was not the first in the area. The villagers knew that the matter could lead to months or years of appeals and uncertainty. So little faith did they have that the matter would be resolved that they clubbed together through voluntary subscription to buy the site at a substantial premium over what it had changed hands for previously.
If a small village community feels compelled to find a six-figure sum because they simply have no faith in the fairness of the legal and planning systems, there is clearly something wrong with the system. We need to find new ways to deal with the problems of unauthorised development and encampments in which the whole community can have confidence. People want fairness; they want to see the same rules applying to all.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I entirely support his proposals, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. Does he agree that, in trying to rebalance things to recognise the human rights of those who live next to Travellers’ unauthorised sites, we should give greater recognition to those already living in the location, tipping the balance away from what was proposed by the previous Government? They appeared to favour greater human rights for those who illegally occupy sites, such as the three that have been occupied in Gloucester during the last 12 months. They are all public sites and the most recent is on school land.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. What he says goes to the heart of the issue. I believe that people want to see not so much a tipping of the balance towards or away from one group or another; they want to see the same rules applying to everyone. That is what underpins the compact of a cohesive society.
Some steps are already being taken. I welcome the announcement made by the Department for Communities and Local Government on 29 August, which revokes flawed Whitehall planning circulars. It gives new incentives to provide sites, which is important, and it gives stronger tenancy rights to Gypsies and Travellers on official council sites. The Secretary of State said in the same announcement that he was looking for new ways to empower local authorities to deal with rogue developments. I wish to suggest one, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s opinion of it.
I understand that there is a role for retrospective planning applications, but it must be possible to construct a set of principles that allows for genuine mistakes yet excludes the wilful abuse of the system to create wholly new dwelling places. That would not solve every problem, but it would go some way to restoring public confidence in the system, which has become badly discredited. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will consider the idea.
I conclude where I started, by stressing that we are talking about the actions of a small segment of the Gypsy and Traveller community. We need fairness and equality before the law. I am confident that that would aid rather than impair community cohesion and mutual understanding, with further improvement of the conditions and outcomes for members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities. I know that many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall stop there. I look forward to hearing their contributions.
I am grateful to you, Mrs Brooke, for calling me in this debate, not least because I have in my constituency a very large community of travellers, some of whom have been resident there for a very long time. Some live on the Good Friday site, which came about, predictably, on Good Friday when a group of Travellers moved in. They fell under the third category of Travellers mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), whom I congratulate on securing this debate. Those in that category buy land and then illegally improve it.
The group moved in with diggers and concrete-laying equipment, and laid out a properly made up caravan site. They had no permission, and, unfortunately, the council was caught napping. The chief executive was not available and nor were the councillors who might have been able to do something about it. As a result, we have a major problem there. Other sites in the area that have been purchased and then improved without permission have also proved to be very difficult to remove. That infuriates local communities more than any other issue. We have seen such developments across Warwickshire, Hampshire and Gloucestershire, and it infuriates law-abiding constituents to see the law flouted in such a way.
A related issue is the allocation of housing after an appeal. In the Markfield area of my constituency, a site went to appeal and, as a result, 112 new houses, which had been opposed by local people, are now being imposed on the community. That further increases the tension, not least because at Groby, just by Markfield, I have had another problem of illegal encampments on roads.
What we need is a new policy. I very much welcome the plans of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to introduce new powers for councils in relation to Traveller sites. The plans do not excuse councils from not implementing the existing rules; for planning officers, that can be a huge challenge because such an issue is not necessarily at the top of the list. Nonetheless, I welcome the plans to give new powers to local authorities.
In addition, we should not automatically be expanding areas on which we have a large number of existing sites. There should be a fairer distribution across the country. [Interruption.] I am most grateful for the applause from my hon. Friends. It is absurd that this tiny community in my constituency, between Bagworth, Newbold Verdon and Barlestone, should have a disproportionate number of sites. Moreover, why should we not put the new sites nearer roads, so that travellers can actually travel? Not all the communities are settled.
Why allow travelling people who are coming into the area to park their caravans way off the roads? The situation has been further exacerbated by the policy in the Republic of Ireland, which, paradoxically, took a very tough line with itinerants. As a result, we have a large number coming over here.
Moreover, we also have large numbers of illegals coming over from the European Union. Romanians, for example, have chosen to come into the area. I have to say that Leicestershire county council has been magnificent in the way in which it has helped the children of those communities in the schools. In particular, Barlestone Primary Church of England School, which has a disproportionate number of Traveller children, has made very great efforts.
Notwithstanding how we feel about trying to help such minority communities, we have to come back to the fact that the majority is very dissatisfied. If we have a situation in which most people think that the law is an ass, they will take the law into their own hands. On that note, I will end and ask the Minister to take note of my concerns.
I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) when he said that we needed fairness, which is why I am speaking out on behalf of the settled community in Sittingbourne and Sheppey. People there are fed up to the back teeth with the way in which the previous Government allowed a two-tier planning system that explicitly gave preferential treatment to Gypsy and Traveller sites. Settled people in my constituency do not object to Gypsy and Traveller sites per se, but they believe that planning applications for those sites should be treated in exactly the same way as any applications from the settled community.
I could give any number of examples of unauthorised sites that have sprung up in my constituency. They have infuriated a number of communities, including that of Upchurch, which is surrounded by seven unauthorised sites, and Brambledown on the Isle of Sheppey. I should add here that, historically, the Isle of Sheppey has never had any Travellers or Gypsies, yet a site has now been installed.
One site in particular epitomises the concerns that settled people have with the two-tier planning system. In the small semi-rural community of Bobbing, just outside Sittingbourne, a crematorium has been established for just a handful of years. Opposite is a large field that was being used as a paddock. A couple owned the paddock. Unfortunately, the chap’s health deteriorated about three or four years ago and he became disabled. He wanted to be close to his horses so he put in a planning application to Swale borough council for a bungalow to be built on that land.
The planning officers and the development committee turned down the planning application on the grounds that the building of a bungalow in a countryside gap was inappropriate. The couple then decided to sell their land to somebody who lives in Medway, which is outside my constituency. As soon as the land was purchased, a planning application was submitted for a static caravan and a Travelling caravan to be installed on the site and for outbuildings to accommodate them.
The planning officers, who only 18 months before had turned down a planning application on the grounds that it was inappropriate to have development in an important countryside gap, recommended approval of the planning application on the grounds that, because the applicants were of Gypsy extraction, it was appropriate to have a development in the countryside gap.
That type of contradiction infuriates settled people. People go through the correct procedures to submit planning applications and then somebody else comes along and gets approval. The officers were following Government policy; they were not making it up on the hoof. They were following guidance put out by the previous Government. I very much hope that, as a priority, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will scrap that particular guidance note, which persuades local authorities and makes them give preferential treatment to one community over another.
I know that there is some talk about local authorities not being able to move people on because they are not providing sufficient sites. In my view, however, this issue is not about providing additional sites; too often, it is about somebody making a fast buck. That is epitomised by the case that I have just mentioned.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for raising this issue.
I want to talk about the issue of people illegally developing land, and to focus particularly on the issues caused by multiple temporary consents. The established practice of a community’s moving on to land and putting down infrastructure before the local planning authority can respond has been referred to already. When that happens, the usual procedure is for the local authority to invite the people carrying out the development to apply for permission and, if that permission is granted, for it to apply retrospectively. That is not just in respect of this type of development; it is in respect of all types of development.
However, when somebody goes on to agricultural land and puts down infrastructure, in most cases the application is refused. Of course, that application then goes to appeal and in many cases the appeal process is very lengthy. The matter then becomes one of enforcement, but enforcement cannot take place while an appeal is pending. All these things take time.
During that time, development becomes entrenched, roadways are often made up, hard standings are put in place for mobile homes and fences are erected. While that is happening, the law-abiding settled community sees laws apparently being disregarded, often by another group, and they become frustrated at the lack of progress. So it is clear that the system needs attention and that councils need stronger powers.
The concept of retrospective applications should not be available in certain cases. By way of example, I want to focus on a particular area that has suffered from multiple temporary consents. It is a village or hamlet called Barnacle in the northern part of my constituency and it is in the green belt, where there is a presumption against development.
Barnacle is a small community, with 105 households and a population of 267, according to the 2001 census. It is approached by narrow country lanes and its parish council describes it as an ordinary place where working people enjoy living in a friendly, sociable environment. However, those people now have on their doorstep a site comprising 50 caravans and 10 mobile homes, and it is believed that there are 28 separate households on the site. It is the contention of those who live in Barnacle that the scale of the site is out of all proportion to a village containing 100 households.
I want to set out the sequence of events that has led to this situation, which started as long ago as April 2003. On the Good Friday, unauthorised use of a paddock began and the local authority immediately issued an enforcement notice. An appeal was immediately lodged against it. It took until February 2004 for the Planning Inspectorate to uphold the enforcement notice, but it set the period of compliance at 18 months.
At the end of that period of compliance, in August 2005, a planning application was submitted for a temporary two-year permission to be granted for people to reside on this particular site. That application was heard by Rugby borough council in October 2005. The council refused the temporary consent, but it extended the period of compliance, with the enforcement notice delayed until August 2006.
In April 2006, four months before the new compliance period expired, a planning application was submitted for a permanent dwelling. It took until July 2006 for the local authority to refuse permanent consent, but at that time the authority extended the period of compliance, so that the enforcement notice ran until August 2007. An appeal against the refusal was submitted and in September 2007 consideration of the planning appeal was deferred while the council considered the matter further.
We now move on to January 2008, when the Planning Inspectorate again granted a temporary planning consent at the site for a further two-and-a-half years, to expire in July 2010. At that time, the residents got in touch with me, as I was the new Member of Parliament for the area. The application made in July 2010 has not yet been heard; it is likely to be heard by Rugby borough council in October. The anxiety of the residents of Barnacle is that a further temporary consent may be granted, meaning that there will be no resolution to the issues that they face.
The problem that I want to draw attention to is the number of temporary permissions and extended compliance periods that have been granted. Temporary consents were granted principally on the basis that suitable accommodation would be available at a later point in time at a redeveloped caravan park nearby. That development has not happened, and it is feared that that new site is still not available. The concern of the residents of Barnacle is that there will be a further temporary consent. They have suffered from the “nowhere for them to go” issue; despite continued unauthorised development, that issue has enabled the site to be occupied for seven years already. And as each year passes, the site becomes more established and more permanent in its nature.
The residents of Barnacle find on their doorstep a development that contravenes both national and local planning policy and one for which local elected representatives have consistently refused consent. Yet they have lived with it for the past seven years. This issue needs to be redressed, with a review of the legislation, so that residents of places such as Barnacle can again enjoy their normal quality of life.
I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this debate today.
I think that many if not all of us in Westminster Hall today have had to deal with the very difficult problem of Gypsy and Traveller sites. It is an absolutely critical issue in South Staffordshire. Only last weekend, in the village of Coven Heath we had an illegal invasion of a field, involving nine caravans. I can see an application going in to make that site permanent in the very near future.
South Staffordshire already has to carry a great burden in terms of providing accommodation for Gypsy and Traveller sites. From 2007 until today, 30 pitches have been granted planning permission in South Staffordshire for Gypsy and Traveller sites. Every single one of those 30 pitches was rejected by local people and local councillors, but they were forced on them by the last Labour Government. That is an utter and total disgrace.
It does not stop there. We already have three applications involving another 16 pitches that are going to the planning inspectors at Bristol. Because of the last Labour Government’s idea that there should be one law for the settled community and a different law for the Gypsy and Traveller community, there is every chance that those applications could get passed, too. What is even worse is that it does not stop there. Another 13 pitches have already been applied for that are due to go to planning.
Through their famous circular on Gypsy and Traveller caravan sites—ODPM 01/2006—the last Government have created an imbalance in the law, which discriminates against every person in this country who is not a Gypsy or a Traveller. I know that it has been announced that that circular will be changed, but I urge the Minister to ensure that it is changed swiftly.
The Government have announced that the regional spatial strategies are going to be abolished—
I am told by my hon. Friend that they have been abolished, but we know that the Gypsy Traveller accommodation assessments are being used to get these sites passed on appeal. I urge the Minister to do all he can to ensure that they are scrapped.
The Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment for the west midlands was pulled together by Salford university, which went around the west midlands and decided that, if there were 40 encampments in a district, it therefore needed another 40, and if a district had one encampment, it needed one extra. That is incompetent. My daughter of five could have done a better and more worthwhile report than Salford university’s. I urge the Minister to freeze every single planning application until new rules are drawn up. This Government have signalled their intention of dealing with the problem. I demand of the Minister not just to talk but to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this important debate. I have been moved to contribute by a recent situation in my constituency involving incidents in Southwold and, subsequently, Brampton. When I voiced my concern and my support for the local permanent community, I was accused of racism. As a consequence, I feel strongly that many of the viewpoints being expressed today are not about racism but about fairness, being seen to be fair and having a law that backs those who want to be fair.
The situation that I am going to describe is not too different from many others. Some hon. Members may have been on holiday to Southwold; the last Prime Minister certainly visited once. Those who have can imagine the surprise when a sudden development happened on the common. It was, I think, no coincidence that it happened at the weekend, when access to lawyers and councils was an issue, or that when the community were approached, they said, “We’re only coming here on our holidays; we’ll move off in a week.” My retaliation was, “Well, why don’t you pay to go down to the Caravan Club site rather than encroaching on the common?” It is a fine piece of open land that exists for the enjoyment of all the community and visitors.
Concerns were also expressed—I did not see this myself, so I cannot categorically affirm it—that a scrap metal business was being developed, which suggested that the encampment was not going to be temporary. There were concerns about what would happen further along the line. I believe that the community kept their word and moved on, but only a few miles down the road to Brampton, which is also in my constituency. Again, similar issues gave rise to a need for intervention.
We all know that police are reluctant to intervene. To some extent, I do not blame them, because of the cost and the resources required and the possible issues involved in moving on families. Councils and trustees of commons up and down the country must face legal costs every time the situation arises, which is not fair either.
I do not think I am alone in thinking of examples—perhaps not in Suffolk but in Hampshire, where I used to live—of the temporary, almost semi-permanent sites of more traditional Traveller communities. I can think of one on the Harroway near Whitchurch and another on the way to Hurstbourne Tarrant where people have taken up a sort of residence set away at the side of the road, deliberately not trying to create an effective empire with a number of permanent pitches.
The unfairness of retrospective planning has been discussed extensively. I support the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in tearing up some of the nonsense that came before us under the last Government, recognising that councils may wish to provide sites appropriately and giving them financial incentives to do so, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire mentioned. It irritates me that people are often buying agricultural land at cheap rates. Once planning permission is obtained, of course, we all know that the value increases astronomically.
I am not attacking transient communities. They are a welcome part of society. Everyone in society makes choices about how we live, but we must also accept the responsibilities that go with those choices. We should also be considering not only our own solutions but other countries’. I find it ironic that the landmark ruling in 2000 giving Irish Travellers ethnic status does not apply in Ireland, which has made a different decision about how to categorise them that does not afford them protection under the Race Relations Act 2000 or subsequent legislation.
It is not racist to be concerned about unauthorised development. It is not racist to press for fairness for our constituents. It is not racist to say that the law of the land should be respected or that wilful trespass should be dealt with promptly and effectively, without costing a small number of local taxpayers a fortune. I welcome the actions thus far and look forward to seeing more.
I am grateful to you, Mrs Brooke, for calling me so early in the debate, and to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing it. It is hugely important to the situation in South Derbyshire. Since February alone, we have had 24 illegal incursions, in a district with authorised sites. That is why it is so galling for the people and voters of South Derbyshire. When we do the right thing, we are taken for mugs. Frankly, we are fed up. We will not put up with it any more, and nor will our voters. I assure the Minister that there will be civil disobedience over the issue.
I am grateful for the strong messages issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government. We have finally won our appeal with the inspectors against illegal encampments and planning permission. It is the first that I have known in all my time in politics in South Derbyshire, which I assure hon. Members is a long time. We have an achievement, so I thank the new Government.
For goodness’ sake, when councils do the right thing and authorise encampments, can we please push forward with eliminating the John Prescott 21-day rule? It requires public authorities to go through a long process of sorting out whether there are human rights implications and goodness knows what else for these people, and it does not apply to anybody in our settled communities. It is complete nonsense.
We have good police action in Derbyshire, where we seek to assist private landowners to go down the 24-hour bailiff route to remove people where—I say this again—vacancies are available on authorised sites. But when the land is owned by the authority, Severn Trent, the Highways Agency or similar, there is still the nonsense of having to do the dance of the John Prescott 21-day rule. Will the Minister assure us as much as he can today, and later in writing, that that rule will be scrapped?
We are delighted by the strong ruling to get rid of the regional spatial strategy and the pitches rule. It assisted enormously when we wrote to the Planning Inspectorate and helped us fight off the latest planning inquiry. That was the first one ever. I wrote the strongest letter I have ever written in my life. The language was not particularly parliamentary, but it got the point through and we won. Will the Minister please carry on with the issue and ensure that it is sorted out? My electorate expect it to happen in the coming Session, and I look to him to see it through.
Like my hon. Friends, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this debate. He said in his opening remarks that he wanted to focus on three aspects of the issue. I will make a few remarks about the first aspect, trespass and occupation, based on incidents in my constituency, although I do not claim that we have had the same number of incidents as the constituencies of other Members who have spoken.
I wanted to highlight the fact that some small groups of Travelling communities are clever in exploiting tactically chosen sites. The ownership of the land might be disputed, it might take some time to find out who is responsible and a lot of time is wasted before an enforcement notice is made.
We have had particular problems with this in Folkestone, where a single group of Travellers have moved between different sites. They have been able to stay at sites for several months. Recently, a community spent three months on a piece of land backing on to a residential community in Birkdale drive in the Park Farm area of Folkestone before an enforcement notice was made. That was largely because of a dispute between Kent Highway Services and the Highways Agency as to which of them was responsible for the site. It turned out that the Highways Agency believed that it had transferred ownership to Kent Highway Services, but there was no record of any such transfer, and the community stayed on the site during the to-ing and fro-ing.
I have every sympathy for the district commander of the local police, who was keeping a careful eye on the site, but who was powerless to do anything until the enforcement order was made. Even then, when the dispute had been resolved, and Kent Highway Services agreed to go to court to try to get the enforcement notice—it was still not clear whether it owned the land—it took time to get court time and to get the notice granted. Residents felt that no one was really doing anything to resolve their plight. The Travellers cleverly exploited the ambiguity to enable them to stay, and they have moved from site to site doing the same thing.
My constituents’ question is whether we could look at the law on trespass, alongside some of the other points that have been raised, and which I know the Department is considering. If Travellers have gained access to a site, and it is clear that they do not own the land and have made no efforts to establish contact with the landowners or do not know who they are, there should be some obligation on them to prove that they have a right to be there. It should not just be for the public authorities to prove that the Travellers do not have the right to be there, particularly when the process might take quite a long time, and it is clear that we are dealing not with a temporary encampment, but with a permanent occupation of the land until an enforcement notice has been granted.
In the example that I gave, the Travellers made no attempt to create an illegal, permanent camp or to alter the land in any way; they were simply going to stay on the land for as long as they could, until they were moved on. However, they did that in the full knowledge that that could take quite some time, and there was nothing that the resident community could do while we were going through the relevant processes. I would be grateful if the Government looked at the issue and gave us some advice as to whether we can simplify or revise the law. Could some consideration be given to the databases and the land registry for the ownership of public land where land is passed between public bodies and there may be some confusion as to who is the responsible party?
I will try not to fill the long period that you described between now and the winding-up speeches, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on raising this issue, which I have heard debated four or five times in this Chamber in the past five years or so. That, along with the number of my hon. Friends seeking to speak in the debate, demonstrates what an extremely important issue it is. Indeed, it affects communities across the whole of England, and those hon. Members here today probably represent only a small number of those on both sides of the House who have significant worries about the issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) raised the particularly interesting topic of trespass. As far as I can recall, the issue was dealt with quite well in one of the last Acts passed by the previous Conservative Government in 1997, which made some efforts towards putting the point right. Although the legislation no doubt needs improving, the basic machinery is there. With the exception of my hon. Friend, however, all the others who have spoken in the debate have addressed the identical problem of people of one sort or another—I will come back to who they are—illegally occupying a vacant site, of which they have taken ownership, nearly always on a bank holiday Monday. Within a few days, they insert hard standing.
The interesting point about trespass is that there is no criminal trespass law on which we can rely in relation to public authority land. We are looking for our new coalition Government to bring forward from our manifesto a new intentional criminal trespass law that will allow us to have the same rights for public authority land as for private authority land. That would be a major development, and I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to mention it.
My hon. Friend makes a similar point to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe. Both my hon. Friends are quite right, although their point is not absolutely central to the topic of today’s debate, which is the illegal occupation of land owned by Gypsies, Travellers and others.
As I said, the pattern we see is a similar one, and many people have described it in the debate. People move on to land, often on a bank holiday weekend. Before anybody knows what is happening, hard standing has gone down, toilet blocks have been erected and gardens have been put in. Often, little bungalows—we are not talking about caravans—are established in a very short time, as I have seen in Minety in my constituency. I have eight or 10 illegal Gypsy encampments in my constituency, including at Calcutt park, near Cricklade, and various other places. In a short time, something that looks for all the world like a village has been established. There are wheelie bins at the end of the drive, electricity has been laid on and these people have established something that no one else would be allowed to establish.
I will not bore hon. Members by repeating what a number of my hon. Friends have eloquently described. However, I want to address the reason why such developments are allowed to occur. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) referred to the way in which the noble Lord Prescott—what a noble Lord he is—introduced planning circular 01/06. Hon. Members will recall that the circular told planning inspectors that where local authorities are not able to demonstrate that there is adequate provision for Gypsies and Travellers elsewhere in their area, there should be a presumption in favour of illegal Gypsy and Traveller encampments. That has meant—I have had several such cases in my constituency—that where the planning inspector sits on an appeal, the law requires him to say that unless the local authority can demonstrate that there is adequate provision elsewhere, he must give the Gypsies and Travellers permission for their illegal encampment. I do not blame the inspectors; they have no other option but to do that, because that is what the single planning note requires them to do.
Leaving aside the two-tier planning system that such an arrangement implies—I will come back to that in a second—there are several specific problems associated with the circular. First, it does not stipulate who Gypsies and Travellers are. No distinction is made under law between hippies, new age travellers, people who are homeless, traditional Romanies, of whom there are many in my constituency, Irish Travellers, Roma and people coming in from France. Indeed, the French Government recently expelled a large number of Roma, and there is nothing to prevent them from coming here and declaring themselves to be Gypsies or Travellers. There is therefore no definition in the law to distinguish between those people.
As another speaker mentioned a moment ago, when the Gypsy and Traveller assessments were made under the regional spatial strategy—I am glad that that document is now defunct—local authorities were required to assess how many Travellers there were in their area and what provision there was for them. However, there is no way of doing that. By definition, these people are Travellers. Are we talking about the Travellers resident in the county of Wiltshire, the south-west of England, the west of England, Wessex, England or what? There is no scientific way of assessing who these people are, because, by definition, they do not live in one place. A very large number of the Travellers in my constituency come from Ireland. Others come from the continent of Europe.
Incidentally, one interesting side issue is that the Irish and the Romanies will not live on the same site. The site at Thingley junction in my constituency has vacancies, but it is occupied by Irish Travellers. The Romanies, perfectly reasonably, say that they do not want to go there, because the two groups do not like each other. I am just not certain, however, that society has a duty to provide for people who do not happen to like each other. If somebody came to my constituency surgery and said, “I want a council house, but I’m not going to live in that council estate full of Irish people, because I don’t want to live with the Irish,” I would say, “I’m extremely sorry about that madam, but you’re jolly well going to have to put up with it.” The same applies in this case.
As I said, we do not know who these people are. By definition, they are Travellers. The Traveller population in the United Kingdom has been increasing exponentially over the past 30 or 40 years, and I will come back to that in one second. Asking a local authority whether it has enough provision for these people is an impossible question to answer. It cannot, by definition, say, “Yes, we do.”
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has witnessed a similar situation in Wiltshire, but a number of Gypsies and Travellers in South Staffordshire have successfully applied for planning permission and obtained established sites. I then notice in the local newspaper that those sites are being commercially marketed to people who are not Gypsies and Travellers. People are exploiting the law for personal profit.
I noticed that episode when it was recently mentioned in the newspapers, but that has not been my experience. All the illegally occupied sites in my constituency, and I think throughout the west country, have gone on to be fully occupied by Gypsies and Travellers. I have not seen any being sold on, although I suppose there is no reason why they should not be. However, I have my doubts about whether a local authority would give planning permission to a settled person to take over a Gypsy encampment afterwards. I certainly recommend that it should not.
The numbers are extremely interesting. When I was special adviser to the then Secretary of State for the Environment we had the great joy of repealing the legislation that required local authorities to make provision for Gypsies and Travellers in their counties. We did so because when the Labour Government passed the provisions there were, from memory, 3,500 illegally parked caravans in England. In 1996, by the time we had repealed them, there were 6,000 illegally parked caravans, so the illegals had more or less doubled. That was in addition to the 7,000 pitches that local authorities had by then provided. Those authorities had provided twice as many pitches as they were required to under the Act, and a further 6,000 were illegally parked. That total of 13,000 caravans in England has now become 18,355, according to a recent survey. The number went from 3,500 to 18,500 in as many years.
My hon. Friend is right. It is what I would describe as a Parkinson’s law of Gypsy caravans. No matter how many sites are provided for them, more appear. That takes us back to the original question of the definition of what those people are. Who are Gypsies? What are Romanies? What definition do we have under the law? The answer is none at all: the more sites are provided, the more people appear to fill them.
I therefore do not subscribe at all to the underlying principle behind planning policy guidance note 01/06 that somehow a local authority must demonstrate that it has made adequate provision. It is not possible for a local authority to demonstrate that. No matter how many sites it provides, it is perfectly possible for the Gypsy and Traveller community to say that there are not enough. Indeed, there seems to be a moth-to-a-flame attraction: the more sites are provided in a county, the more Gypsies and Travellers appear to try to fill them. Wiltshire and the west country as a whole seem to be a bit of a hot spot for that.
That seems to me to be completely wrong, and the Government have indicated their intention to address the situation. We must do so by abolishing Lord Prescott’s planning guidance note and the regional spatial strategy and by telling local authorities exactly what they are told in relation to homeless people from the settled community: the rule for the settled community is that if someone needs a council house they go to see the local authority or—too often—their MP, or a housing association. To get a house one must demonstrate need, in a certain prioritised way, and a local connection. If someone came to my constituency surgery and said, “Hello; I come from Inverness and I am homeless. I want you to get in touch with the local authority and get me a council house,” I would say, “I’m awfully sorry. You must get back to Inverness and get your council house there. You aren’t going to get one in Wiltshire because we demand a local connection.” Precisely the same applies to the Gypsy community. They are very nice people. A number are close friends of mine. Those who live in Wiltshire have a right to proper Gypsy encampments there. However, those who come to Wiltshire from elsewhere have no right to demand that the people of Wiltshire should pay for sites to accommodate them. Exactly the same rules should apply to them as to anyone else with regard to planning and housing.
An example from my constituency, which I think is an outrage, highlights what has gone wrong with our planning process. A very nice lady came to see me. She had an organic farm in the village of Box in my constituency. She had a caravan, in which she lived, in the centre of the organic farm, which was about 15 acres. Rather bizarrely, the local authority looked at the profitability of the organic farm and concluded that it was not profitable and was not a going concern, and that she could not make it a going concern. Had it been profitable my constituent would have been allowed to carry on living in the caravan. That in itself is bizarre. She was required to leave the caravan, although, incidentally, she was allowed to leave it for chickens. It could remain where it was as long as she did not live in it. Fine so far.
Next door, just down the road, is an entirely vacant field that was bought at a very high price by a group of Travellers. They moved on to the site and are in the same position as the non-Traveller organic farmer. They went to appeal and said, “We are Gypsies” and the inspector was required by law to give them permission to remain in the field, adjacent to the one from which someone from the settled community had been removed. That seems to me to be disgraceful. There is no reason why any group in society—white, black, green, gay, straight, Chinese or anything you like—should have different planning rules from those affecting anyone else. There should be one law for one, and one law for all.
I am curious about the example that my hon. Friend has raised, and the more general implications. He has rightly said that there is no formal legal mechanism for assessing whether someone is a Gypsy or a Traveller, yet local authorities regularly make such assessments. Does he have any experience of how local authorities make the decision? Perhaps the Minister will elucidate the matter and tell us how local authorities can make a better job of assessing who is, or is not, qualified under the Human Rights Act 1998 or other legislation.
I am afraid that my hon. Friend and I will not agree on this issue. I take the view that it is not up to local authorities to decide who is a Gypsy, who is a Romany, who is an Irish Traveller, who is a dropout, who is a hippy and who is a settled person. Every human being, of every kind, whatever their colour, race, background or class may be, should be treated identically by the local authority, which does not need guidelines about what to do. The same applies with respect to the Human Rights Act, about which some hon. Members in the Chamber have reservations. I do not think that it should come into the consideration of whether land should be set aside for Travellers or anyone else. The Act is about human rights, but the issue that we are talking about is planning, and I do not think that Travellers or anyone else should be given preference over the settled community merely because they are Travellers. What a perfect definition of racism that is—for a local authority to say “We are required to do something for you, not because you are a good man, or a bad man, but because you claim to be some kind of Romany, Irish, Roma, Gypsy or who knows what. You claim you are that, and therefore I must do something for you that I will not do for someone else.” That seems to me to be unacceptable in 21st-century Britain and I hope that the new Secretary of State will do away with it.
I apologise to the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for missing the opening speeches; I was detained on other business. I intervene on the eloquent speech of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire) to ask whether he is denying the existence of Travelling people as a community in the UK. If so, presumably he would disagree with the approach that I believe the Government have retained, that local authorities should, wherever possible, find and provide sufficient official sites to meet the needs of the Travelling community. If that were done, we would not be debating the issue of illegal encampments because sufficient pitches would be available for those in need.
The hon. Gentleman and I have crossed swords for many years on many subjects. He was late for the debate and I am not sure whether he missed any of my speech as well; I certainly was not denying the existence of the Travelling community. Quite the opposite. I said at the beginning of my speech that I felt strongly that the Travelling community had a perfect right to be Travellers; good luck to them. That is fine. It is not my way of life. I cannot stand camping at all. However, if they want to be Travellers, that is fine. It is right that the local authority should make suitable provision for the Travelling community, as it does for the settled community. It is right to do that for the local Travelling community, but I see no reason to do so for the wider Travelling community. I certainly do not deny its existence, nor the state’s responsibility to make proper provision for it. It is right to do that, but we are discussing the means by which that happens, not whether it should happen.
I welcome the stricter stance taken by the incoming Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and the abolition of the regional spatial strategy, which is the document behind much of what we are debating. I hope that as part of what happens we shall do away with the Gypsy and Traveller assessments, which were flawed, to say the least, whoever did them—Salford technical college or anyone else. I call on the Secretary of State to stipulate that the planning status of Gypsies and Travellers is precisely identical to the planning status of everyone else—indeed, their rights in every other respect should be identical to everyone else’s. I also call on him to introduce stronger enforcement powers, so that when these outrages occur, local authorities have the power to go on to these sites and deal with these people as they would anyone else. I very much welcome the fact that he has stipulated in his general approach to planning that the people who decide whether or not these things occur, whether with regard to Gypsies or to houses, should be local councillors who are answerable to local people. They should make up their mind about how such things happen; it should not be down to Lord Prescott or his successors in the DCLG.
I will try to be brief, Mrs Brooke, so that other hon. Members may contribute. Thank you for calling me. My comments may seem repetitive to the Minister, but I am told that repetition sometimes helps when dealing with Ministers. The huge number of hon. Members present should demonstrate to him how much of a national problem the issue is, although the Labour party does not seem to be aware of that. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on initiating the debate and on how he has balanced his comments. All hon. Members recognise their obligations to the Traveller community, as they do in respect of every other community in Great Britain. No one would wish to detract from that, and I congratulate hon. Members on how they have dealt with the matter.
The focus of the debate has moved geographically; I think my seat, Lancaster and Fleetwood, is the most northern one represented by hon. Members here. That surely proves the national scale of the problem. I first became aware of the matter that I wish to raise on the evening of 6 November 2009, which happened to be a Friday. At 6 o’clock on a Friday evening, council offices and the planning department shut down.
I was informed by the residents of a small hamlet called Preesall Hill—just 50 or 60 houses—that a triangular piece of land surrounded by roads was suddenly covered in Travellers. They told me that hardcore was being moved in, electricity was being supplied and boarding was being put up. That development went on all over the weekend, when no one could get to the council. I would like to repeat the reference to the word “wilful.” My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire made a significant point about that, and we hope that the Minister will reply to it. If anything can be called wilful, the actions that I have described must fall into that category.
On Monday, the police were called, so they were diverted from other matters. The council was also called—everyone and his aunt were called to consider the matter. It was then discovered that the Travellers had actually bought the land, which posed the council with another problem. The council sought an injunction—in the end, it had to seek three injunctions—to call for a retrospective planning application. By that stage, some of the Travellers’ children were going to the small village school, on which there was also an impact. So, the impacts were starting to add up. The people living in Preesall were saying, “What is going wrong around here? Who can get away with this?” Other hon. Members have mentioned similar responses.
On 2 September last week, the matter finally got to planning—by the way, when it first went to planning, not enough information was supplied, so it had to be deferred. As I say, the matter got to planning on 2 September and there were all the relevant reports—ecology, engineering, highways and so on. The land had been designated as countryside by the local Wyre district plan, and was actually a field. The difference with this case is that a company called Green Planning Solutions turned up at the planning. Its website states:
“we specialise in winning planning permission on difficult sites, usually rural locations including the green belt.”
Meanwhile, a Preesall action group of concerned neighbours had been set up and people who were in the process of selling their properties were unable to do so. People who have jobs and other things to do were taking action to try to restore their community. To be fair to those people, they were also trying to establish some sort of relationship with the Travellers who were by that time arguing that they needed a permanent pitch. By the way, twice over the past 12 months, the Travellers have disappeared somewhere for three months, so they must have sites in other places.
I return to when the matter got to planning. At the meeting, a Mr Green—who apparently runs Green Planning Solutions, which advertises in the way I have described—boasted to the Wyre planning committee that he usually wins most of his cases. He said that 47% of his cases go to appeal and that he usually wins 94% of those. Apparently, he warned the council that if it dared to appeal, it would cost the council and taxpayers dear.
I hesitate to interrupt because my hon. Friend is in mid-flow and, as ever, he is excellent to listen to. What I find absolutely galling—this may help other hon. Members in this Chamber—is that we have had five planning permissions go through under which Travellers have now got authorised sites, but the Travellers are not there. Where are they? Why do they need those sites? They have got them, apparently, only because of need, but they have not been on them for 12 months. Lancaster and Fleetwood should get on with it. This is just outrageous.
Thank you, Derbyshire. I totally agree—whether Travellers want permanent or non-permanent sites. I should also compliment my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) as he has some history on this matter. The point about the definition of Travellers and so on was really pertinent.
In the case that I have mentioned, the Travellers are obviously waiting to see whether there will be an appeal. Nothing has changed on the site, and they are assuming that there will be an appeal, which will lead to costs for a small district council. Meanwhile, Mr Green has boasted that he wins most of his appeals. What does that say to people who pay their rates and do the usual law-abiding thing? As all hon. Members have said, all they want is fairness and for local councils to have the ability and powers to deal with the issues that affect them and their residents.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on a crisp and temperate presentation of the issues that not only he but other hon. Members in the Chamber have encountered. I was particularly interested in his strong focus on the issue of unauthorised occupation—that matter has come across strongly today. Some of the difficulties surrounding that issue are very different from those surrounding the debate about the need for authorised sites, which again has been robust. I shall try to bring out some of those issues in my remarks.
I start by mentioning some of the facts and the chronology of what the previous Government did—or, indeed, attempted to do—regarding some of the matters raised. I understand that some Conservative Members may not be aware of those points. That is not surprising, given that a “year zero” approach seems to have been adopted by the Department for Communities and Local Government website; all reference to what was done in the six months before the election has been removed. However, with your permission, Mrs Brooke, I shall touch on some of the things that were done in that period.
In March 2010, DCLG launched guidance that was sent to police, local authorities and other agencies. That guidance focused particularly on adopting a multi-agency approach to helping communities tackle the problems of antisocial behaviour on Travellers’ sites, including the use of antisocial behaviour orders and acceptable behaviour contracts. I shall return to those important points.
In introducing that document, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), the then Secretary of State, said:
“local councils and the police have strong powers and tools to crack down on anti-social behaviour—and I expect them to be used to the full. This guidance will help ensure that the local agencies understand the powers available to them.”
The Home Secretary at that time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), said—it is important to make this point because various hon. Members have mentioned it—
“The Gypsy and Traveller community is treated no differently than the rest of the community. Perpetrators of crime and antisocial behaviour will be punished and, where appropriate, taken through the criminal courts and jailed.”
From the Opposition’s point of view, I would like to emphasise that that principle, elucidated by the former Home Secretary, stands four-square.
In addition to that, on the question of unauthorised developments, a statutory instrument was laid before Parliament on 9 March 2010, which reduced the period of appeal against refusal of an unauthorised development from six months to 28 days. That reduced the ability for the time frame to be exploited where unauthorised developments are in situ.
That did not come out of the blue; it was based on the findings of the Briscoe report, which was set up in 2007 and revised in 2009. It is worth noting that that was regarded as a priority by DCLG Ministers, which is why it reached the statute book before the wash-up and Dissolution. That was because of the importance of the need to reduce the period of uncertainty for local residents after local authorities refuse a planning application. In addition to those enforcement measures, the previous Government continued to support local councils in their bids to establish authorised Traveller sites, and £32 million was pledged from the Homes and Communities Agency budget as part of the site grant for 2010-11.
I have mentioned the difference between authorised and unauthorised sites. Although I appreciate that in some circumstances there can be significant problems with authorised sites, I believe that the development of authorised sites helps to combat the problem. To be fair, the current Government believe that as well, but the question of where the money will come from is another matter. On that main point, however, there is a consensus between the Opposition and the Government. There is evidence that the creation of authorised sites saves councils significant amounts of money. Once Bristol city council invested in a transit site, for example, having relied on enforcement action before, it reduced its related annual costs from £200,000 to £5,000.
The previous Government also intended to amend the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to give improved security and right of tenure to Gypsies and Travellers on official sites. Unfortunately, as the present Government were kind enough to acknowledge in a statement to the House on 27 July, there was no parliamentary time to debate those statutory instruments before the general election. They do, however, relate to the application of the 1983 Act. The Minister will no doubt remark that the Government intend to make a decision on section 318 in due course, in the context of the wider strategy. There is no difference between the policies of the previous and current Governments.
I now turn to what the current Government have said and done since taking office. In May 2010, as part of the first round of spending cuts, the Homes and Communities Agency ended the Gypsy and Traveller programme grants for the creation of authorised sites. As far as I am aware, the regional spatial strategies have been revoked but not yet formally abolished. Their formal abolition will no doubt be presented later in the year as part of the decentralisation and localism Bill that the Government are promising—or threatening us with. That removed the obligation for local authorities to identify sites that could be used for authorised Travellers. However, nature abhors a vacuum, and I suspect that that will be the case if there is no formula whatever.
On the point about returning to regional spatial strategies, there will be no formula whatever for dealing with what will be a continuing problem. I put it to Members and the Minister that without some form of overarching framework there is a danger that local authorities will pass the parcel and try to shift the onus of provision on to neighbouring authorities, which will be doing likewise.
I would not accuse the hon. Gentleman of nimbyism, but I think that such action is common sense. Indeed, in his eloquent contribution he explained that Travellers move around a lot. Simply playing pass the parcel with those people is no mechanism for dealing with them, and I find the idea that it is rather bemusing.
I wish to elaborate on the issue that the hon. Gentleman is addressing. It is clear from many studies that authorised sites are far better for community relations within an area, and for the health and welfare of Travellers, than unauthorised sites. In areas where the Travelling community clearly needs an authorised site, but where the local authority refuses to provide it, how would a Government ensure that that need is met? That is the crux of the problem.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He is absolutely right; it is for the Government to decide how to deal with that conundrum. My point is that one cannot just assume that the problem will go away, so it needs to be addressed.
In his policy announcement in August, the Secretary of State talked about liberating local authorities from Whitehall control, but he did not offer any clear substance or resources with which councils could act on his guidance. It is all very well talking about improving security of tenure for Travellers on local authority sites, but what local authority sites are likely to exist when funding is cut and obligations are removed? Surely that will lead to a growth in unauthorised sites and the associated costs of enforcement.
The Secretary of State also announced that Traveller sites would be delivered as part of the new homes bonus scheme, but the details of that scheme will be set out in a public consultation later this year. Concerns have already been expressed about how the new homes bonus scheme will operate. I invite the Minister to elucidate further how the funding for Traveller sites might be delivered under the scheme.
A lot of strong rhetoric has been used in relation to planning circulars 01/06 and 04/07. Given the subject, I understand that but the Government have made no concrete announcements on how enforcement powers will be increased. Again, further announcements are to be made in due course. Once again—I am afraid that this has been a characteristic of DCLG Ministers since they took office—rhetoric and talk of abolition has come before any thoughtful addressing of new structures and guidance.
I invite the Minister to say a little more on the matter and on antisocial behaviour and acceptable behaviour contracts. We believe that those remain an important tool for preventing antisocial behaviour on Traveller sites. However, the Government, and the Home Secretary in particular, have talked about their desire to move beyond ASBOs and acceptable behaviour contracts. Would the Minister state what consultations DCLG Ministers will have with the Home Secretary before they spell out some of those changes in chapter and verse in the decentralisation and localism Bill?
I congratulate you, Mrs Brooke, on chairing the debate today and my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on his measured introduction to what is undoubtedly a difficult issue for many Members. Eleven other Members have also made speeches and a few more have intervened in the debate, so I hope that they will forgive me if I do not respond to every point that was made.
The Government share the concern that has been expressed today about unauthorised Traveller encampments and developments and their effect on local communities. The record will show some strong stories from across England. The Government want to see fair play and everyone treated equally and even-handedly, whatever community they come from or lifestyle they choose to pursue. We certainly will not allow a small minority of Travellers to set up unauthorised encampments and developments to create resentment and give other Gypsies and Travellers a bad name, worsening community cohesion along the way.
It is worth putting on the record the fact that 80% of Gypsy and Traveller families—those who are on the move and not already in bricks and mortar—are on authorised public or authorised private sites and therefore outside the scope of the complaints and discussions that we have heard today. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am pleased to hear hon. Friends acknowledge that reality. We must be careful not to demonise the community because of some bad behaviour by some bad apples, whether they are Gypsies, Travellers or individuals from any other community.
About 13% of Gypsy and Traveller families are on their own land, but unauthorised sites. About half as many again are trespassing and encamping on land that they do not even own. We want to ensure that we provide stronger enforcement powers for local authorities to tackle such unauthorised sites and encampments. We want to limit the opportunities for retrospective planning applications. I fully share the frustration and anger that has been expressed in the debate about how those applications can be manipulated in such cases.
I am sure that hon. Members who have recently joined the House will find, as their in-trays get fuller, that they get complaints of a similar kind about retrospective planning applications of all sorts, not simply about Gypsies and Travellers. The localism Bill will be taking a completely fresh look at planning legislation and will include specific provisions about that. I hope that hon. Members understand that I am not in a position to spell the provisions out in detail.
We want to incentivise local authorities to provide appropriate sites. The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), the Labour spokesman, suggested that we were speaking far too often before we had worked out the detail, but then he was pressing me to speak before we had the detail. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the detail is being worked out but, as with so many other things, as a junior Minister I must say, “Await the Chancellor’s statement on 20 October.”
I do not expect the Minister to have every dot and comma to hand—the devil is indeed in the detail, and he does not want to be tackling the devil until he needs to. However, I gently point out the issue about the regional spatial strategy. The Secretary of State set out his intention in a five-line letter, causing considerable concern—and, in some cases, hilarity—among the planning departments of various local councils as to its legal force.
For every sign of distress, I saw 10 signs of joy.
I want to make the point that we are also committed to addressing the discrimination and poor social outcomes experienced by Traveller communities. Some of those issues have been mentioned—schooling, health and the security of their living accommodation. In the longer term, we want to see a plan, policy or strategy that can deliver the Travelling community authorised sites, where they can live in harmony with the settled community and with the access to health and education that everyone else has and is entitled to.
As the hon. Member for East Hampshire said when introducing the debate, some of the figures are dramatically bad—length of life, maternal and child mortality, educational attainment—and ought to fill us with despair and a determination to do something about the situation.
Let me come back to the core of what has been said today. We have already written to local authorities, reminding them to be alert to the particular risks of unauthorised development over bank holidays and to be ready to respond to that. The revocation of regional strategies means that the decision making about housing of all types, including Traveller sites, will come back to local communities. We have announced our intention to revoke circular 01/2006 and to bring local authority Traveller sites into the Mobile Homes Act 1983, which was on the verge of happening before the general election, as the hon. Member for Blackpool South correctly pointed out. We believe that it is right that that should go ahead.
I have been asked to give more detail about the New Homes Bonus scheme, but I must hold back and refer hon. Members, once again, to the statement on 20 October. However, the work is there and everything is ready.
I now turn to exactly what the problem is. Under the previous Government, the number of caravans on unauthorised developments increased from 887 in 1997 to 2,395 in 2010. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) drew attention to that—the problem has not been getting smaller. The problem is not a reducing, residual one, but a continuing and, in some ways, growing one. We will ensure that the planning laws provide fairness between the settled and Travelling communities.
Given the vacuum following the removal of the RSS requirements and the Minister’s statement that local authorities must now provide adequately for the Travelling community in their own areas, what do the Government propose if the need is clear but the local authority is unable or refuses to ensure such provision? How can the need be met in order to avoid circumstances in which such illegal and unauthorised encampments occur?
I am not announcing the details of the Government’s policy on Gypsies and Travellers in today’s debate—I cannot pre-empt such an announcement. However, we are looking at such matters carefully, with some policies to be made explicit in the localism Bill, together with what we are doing about planning powers and enforcement, and some policies from other directions, as we work through the implications of providing incentives for local authorities to provide sites where needed.
The Secretary of State has made it clear that we are repealing circular 01/2006. I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that that is the answer he needs. If I have missed a point, he can write to me and we can explore the issue in a little more depth.
In the course of preparing for the debate, I had the opportunity to speak to the assistant chief constable of Warwickshire, who holds the Gypsy and Traveller portfolio for the Association of Chief Police Officers. He takes responsibility across England for the police approach. His views were clear. Of course it is right that there should be strong enforcement and that the existing law should be followed through—and promptly. There should not be long delays while sites that should never have been there in the first place get unofficially authorised, as outlined so eloquently today.
However, as a senior police officer speaking on behalf of ACPO, he was also clear that the policing of such issues cannot be tackled solely by increasingly rigorous enforcement. We must tackle the underlying conditions of deprivation and alienation that beset the issue. That is why, as well as following through on what the Secretary of State has already announced and on all the other work to ensure fair treatment for both the settled and the Gypsy and Traveller communities, we are also making sure that we tackle the underlying issues of disadvantage.
I was asked one or two specific questions and, for the most part, I hope that I have dealt with them. I have tackled and explained retrospective planning permission, which will be dealt with in the localism Bill. As far as treating planning applications equally is concerned—some examples were given by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson)—we will have guidance and a light touch, rather than a prescriptive national code overruling local common sense.
I noted a point made by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). He wanted to know whether we could have a proper land register of public land and assets. Oh, how I wish we could, and how I wish it was possible to settle all such questions. Hopefully, local authorities of all sorts, and the Government, will become more alert to what they own, why they own it and whether they need to, thus proceeding towards a more rational estate.