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Unauthorised Encampments (Brighton)

Volume 529: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2011

I am grateful to have secured this Adjournment debate. In recent weeks, my constituents have become increasingly concerned about the influx of Travellers into Brighton, the creation of unauthorised encampments, and the attitude taken by the city council’s new Green administration to that important issue. Furthermore, a “tent city” protest against Spanish-style austerity has recently been organised by the so-called Real Democracy Now campaign on the historic Old Steine in Brighton. That protest was not moved on by the police, and it was welcomed by the Green party as the kind of peaceful protest it wants to see.

A number of houses in the Ovingdean and Roedean areas of my constituency have been used as so-called “party houses”, and former homes in residential streets have been turned into the equivalent of nightclubs for 24-hour partying over the weekends. As you will imagine, Mr Streeter, none of that sits well with the majority of law-abiding citizens and constituents, who pay their taxes and obey the rules.

Brighton has been a magnet for Travellers for many years. Previous councils created a site for Travellers at Horsdean in Brighton, which was refurbished by the recently departed Conservative administration. That site is located in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas).

The hon. Gentleman mentions the fact that the previous administration set up a transit camp. Does he also acknowledge that it did not succeed in finding any kind of permanent site? The lack of such permanent sites is one of the main causes of the problems he describes.

I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Lady. The problems we see today—which will get worse if something is not done—are caused by the Green administration and the lack of desire to move people on. We have a perfectly adequate transit camp that is largely unoccupied. Yet over the past few weeks in Brighton and Hove we have seen Travellers at the Victoria recreation ground, at Benfield Valley park, at Withdean park, on farmland adjacent to 39 Acres off Ditchling road, on the Ladies Mile open space, at Happy valley, at Wild park and in east Brighton. The camp at Horsdean remains, at a cost to the taxpayer, and it has empty pitches.

As I have said, Brighton has been a magnet for Travellers for many years, and the good intentions of previous administrations do not seem to have stemmed the flow of Travellers to the area. When Travellers arrive, groups set up unauthorised encampments wherever the mood takes them. That could be on publicly owned land, which is often owned by the city council, or on privately owned land such as the Portslade cricket club in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley). Understandably, residents get annoyed and phone the police or the council. The council and the police are supposed to work together, but there is often a delay while legally mandated welfare checks are carried out, and consideration is given to seeking an order that would instruct the Travellers to move under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

This problem is not uncommon. Yesterday I visited a newly-established illegal Travellers site in Layhams lane, Coney Hall, in my constituency. I told the Travellers to move on and they told me that they would not unless compelled to do so by the police. In the meantime—as they have done before—they make a hugely expensive mess for the local council. In this specific case, some people have uncontrolled dogs that bit one of the teachers in the local school. Anything we can do to increase the speed with which police and enforcers can act would be a great help for decent people who have to put up with the mess.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point and I agree with him. Only recently we saw similar antisocial activity in the Happy Valley area of Woodingdean in my constituency. Allegations of damage, fouling and abusive behaviour were made to the police and council.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he may remember, a few months ago I raised this issue during Prime Minister’s questions and asked what could be done. I asked whether intentional trespass could be made a criminal offence, so that if people move on to other people’s land without permission they can be removed without the need for a court order. The Prime Minister said that he was encouraged by the proposal and that he will look at the issue. Does my hon. Friend agree with such a measure, and will the Minister tell us what point the Government have reached in looking at that proposal?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Many people in my constituency find it difficult to understand why people can take the law into their own hands and do what they like, disregarding the feelings and needs of others.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the foolish decision by the council makes it harder for the travelling community to live in harmony and be accepted in the way we would wish it to be? Settling in orderly sites is the right way to proceed. In my constituency, we have discovered that the only way to deal with the problem is to be absolutely consistent. If we are consistent and the law is properly enforced, Travellers and the local community find that they can live in greater harmony.

As usual, my hon. Friend makes a valid point. We need clarity and consistency, and for everybody to know where they stand.

We are talking about the legality of moving Travellers on. In the Severn Beach and Pilning areas of my constituency there is a new school, and we have had a spate of problems with unauthorised Traveller sites. I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), about making exclusion and eviction orders site-specific rather than individually based. At the moment, if a group of Travellers is asked to move on, other people can quickly reoccupy the site. If the eviction or exclusion order is made specific to a particular site, the problem will be solved once and for all.

We have danced around this issue for so long. Many hon. Members present are from the new intake, but some are not. The question about intentional trespass is interesting, and I am delighted that we are pushing the Minister to provide an up-to-date statement on that. In South Derbyshire, I have found that when Travellers trespass intentionally on private land we can get them shifted within 24 hours by using bailiffs. I want to encourage all hon. Friends to let local residents and councils—and perhaps the local police force—know about the possibility of using bailiffs to move Travellers on within 24 hours. We still have an issue with council protocols, and perhaps the Minister will clarify our position on releasing councils from the draconian issue of 28 days’ notice. I hope that hon. Members will accept my apologies; I will not be present at the end of the debate because I need to go to prayers.

I thank my hon. Friend for making a valid point, to which I am sure the Minister has listened. She is absolutely right. It is not only the two communities—the settled community and the travelling community—that need clarity. Local government itself needs a clear steer on this matter and the tools to carry out the task.

Order. I encourage the hon. Gentleman who has the floor to ensure that he leaves enough time for the Minister to respond to the debate and enough time to make his own points. Of course, I cannot stop him allowing others to intervene, but he may want to implement a rule of one intervention only.

Thank you for your wise advice, Mr Streeter. If I can make some progress, perhaps I can give way shortly. Figures from Brighton and Hove city council show that in the past three years, costs of about £233,000 have been incurred simply in clearing up unauthorised encampments.

I apologise for intervening so soon, but my hon. Friend has made a specific point. In my constituency of Romsey and Southampton North, there has recently been an illegal Traveller encampment at Monks Brook. That is one incident among recurrent incidents at that site. A significant amount of mess, of varying types—some of it very unsanitary—has been left behind for the councils to clear up, and of course the ultimate cost of that will fall on the hard-pressed council tax payer. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us about any support that might be available for councils, even if it is just in the form of strengthened powers to ensure that encampments can be moved on more quickly.

I thank my hon. Friend for making a valid point. Clearly, the money that is spent in tidying up and clearing up the mess in these instances comes from taxpayers. I for one would like to see that money spent on parks, libraries, grass cutting or any number of other, more constructive things—[Interruption.] Perhaps it could even be spent on weekly bin collections, as a colleague of mine suggests.

In addition, as I mentioned, the previous, Conservative-led council spent some £160,000—again, no mean sum in local government terms—on refurbishing the Traveller site built 10 years or so previously. I understand that the annual budget of the council’s Traveller team is £310,000. Often, the criticism is classed as nimbyism or, worse, racism, yet nothing could be further from the truth. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) mentioned communities living in harmony. That is exactly what we all seek to achieve. What people in my constituency and, I suspect, in other constituencies say is that people should be able to lead their lives in their own way, but not if their doing so creates an inconvenience and a cost for others.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this vital debate. Does he agree that it is vital that the support of the new Green administration in Brighton and Hove for Travellers, which appears to be linked to some unlawful instances of destruction of public green spaces such as in Victoria park in my constituency, is reversed as a matter of urgency?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I agree with him. The Green council seems to have given the green light to Travellers to create unauthorised encampments in the city.

On a point of order, Mr Streeter. What has been said is simply not true. The hon. Gentleman talked about—

Thank you, Mr Streeter. The comments of the lead councillor of the city council, who said that the group of Travellers had “reluctantly” been moved on by the council, do not imply a willingness to see fewer encampments rather than more.

To be fair, I understand, following discussions with senior officers in the council, that the policy has not changed in terms of moving Travellers off unauthorised encampments as soon as possible, yet the tone of public statements by the Green council sends a very different message. We shall see who is right when a large group of Travellers leaves Essex in the near future. Where will they go—to a council that is not sympathetic or to one that because of the statements of its senior figures appears to be so? The Greens have set a dangerous precedent by their public attitude and comments, and residents are genuinely worried about what may be about to be visited upon them in terms of nuisance and cost.

I mentioned that a further type of unauthorised encampment has been created in the historic Old Steine area of Brighton. That is a large, open, grassy area close to the seafront with a café and fountain. It is possible to see the pier from the Steine and it is a favourite attraction for residents and visitors alike. Several weeks ago, several people, protesting on the eve of the Spanish general election regarding the austerity measures having to be taken in that country, decided to create a tent city on the Old Steine. They had a very happy time, banging drums, writing protest placards and creating a focus for world revolution, yet the reality is that their camp was unauthorised. They are now moving on, but some still believe that it is their right to reoccupy the area whenever they choose.

We know, Mr Streeter, how permanent so-called temporary tent cities can become. We have only to look feet behind the chair in which you sit to see one across the road from the Palace. Many constituents rightly argue to me that if a group of protesters is allowed to set up camp like this and, crucially, are not moved on by the police, why cannot they, with a group of friends, take their caravans and tents to the Old Steine and make a holiday camp for themselves? The only difference seems to be that one group has placards decrying the democratic processes that actually allow dissent and protest and the other does not. There is no excuse for long-term tent cities such as this. We have a vigorous Parliament, where issues are debated and decisions on the management of national debt and other important issues are made on a daily basis.

I strongly regret and deplore the way in which the hon. Gentleman is using a very sensitive issue as a political football. That does no credit to him or his constituents. What we should be doing across the south-east is working together to find more permanent sites. That is the crux of the problem that we are discussing. He will know, because council officers have said so, that the number of Travellers and Gypsies coming into Brighton is no greater this summer than it has been for any other summer recently. He will also know that the very first act of the new Green cabinet—the very first thing that it did within minutes of being sworn in—was to evict people, very sensibly and responsibly, from the Woollards Field site in Brighton. I therefore urge him to treat this issue with the sensitivity that it deserves, not to conflate the issue of the Old Steine with what is happening with Travellers and Gypsies. Those are two separate things. The actions on the Old Steine were such that they minimised—

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I would like to move on and briefly mention party houses. Those are homes, generally in quiet, residential areas, that are often used to sleep about 20 people. That can lead to days of non-stop partying until the early hours. That disturbs residents, who are entitled to the quiet enjoyment of their homes. It destroys the amenity of an area and creates a further sense of a flouting of the rules by which most sensible communities live. If people choose to live in the centre of Brighton, they can expect noise and disturbance. If they choose to live in an area that is mainly residential, they should be able to expect to go to sleep at night. The previous leader of the council held round-table discussions with council officers, the police and fire authority representatives to see what could be done. What she heard was that, essentially, the hands of public authorities seem tied. That cannot be right.

I urge the Minister to consider the following. We need to strengthen the powers of the police to move Travellers on much more quickly than is the case now. There should be clear guidelines about when the police must act, and those guidelines must err on the side of protecting the property and amenity rights of the settled population. The issue of mandatory welfare checks needs to be urgently reviewed, as well as the level of resources that local authorities need in order to undertake the work required when Traveller incursions take place. On protest camps, the law of trespass needs to be firmly enforced. Again, the police must be given clear instructions on how to handle such situations. On party houses, I believe that we need an amendment to the Localism Bill, which is now in the other place, to give local authorities more powers in that regard.

People in Brighton tell me that they have had enough of their lives being disrupted by outside groups that use the city for their own ends. The settled majority have rights, too, and they are looking to Parliament to uphold them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I apologise to you and to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) for arriving a little late and missing the very beginning of his speech, but I quickly caught up with the gist of it. We will get the clocks department at the Department for Communities and Local Government checked.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue and to those Members who have participated. From my postbag as a Minister and from the postbags of my colleagues, I recognise the strength of feeling among Members of the House and constituents on this issue. I am also aware of it from my experience as a constituency Member of Parliament; indeed, my next-door neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), inherited the site he talked about from me in the boundary revision. The issue therefore needs to be approached proportionately.

Without being invidious to others, perhaps I can single out one of the Members who intervened. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames)—I hope that I may call him that already, and I am delighted to be able to use that term, which is thoroughly well-deserved—got it absolutely right: the key test is fairness, a sense of balance and consistency, and that is where the difficulty arises.

The Government recognise that Gypsies and Travellers have a right to exercise their traditional lifestyle. It is equally true, however, that anyone exercising their lifestyle must have regard to the concerns of their neighbours and the communities in which they live. The Government are seeking to achieve balance and consistency on that. When there is a perception that one group can, for whatever reason, achieve objectives that other members of the community cannot, perceptions of unfairness arise. As my right hon. Friend rightly said, that presents a risk to community cohesion. The Government want to address the issue in a way that recognises that the majority of Travellers behave lawfully and properly. However, the minority who do not do so make life much harder for the law-abiding majority, as well as for their neighbours. We therefore seek to strike a balance.

We have sought to adopt a proportionate twin-tracked approach. We have abolished the regional strategies, because arbitrarily imposed, top-down targets on Traveller site provision did not work, alienated communities and did not always accurately reflect the need on the ground. On the other hand, we have sought to encourage the appropriate provision of more authorised sites in the right places. To that end, future authorised sites will attract the new homes bonus. We are also making available £60 million to support local authorities and other authorised providers in delivering further authorised sites.

We have set up a cross-departmental working group to look at some of the welfare issues that hon. Members mentioned. We have recognised that those who live on authorised sites are entitled to a measure of legal protection. Since 30 April, we have strengthened their position by applying the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to local authority authorised sites, giving people living on such sites greater security of tenure. All those are incentives to encourage Traveller families to seek authorised sites. That, therefore, is the positive side—the assistance to Travellers, which is an important part of the mix.

On the other hand, we recognise that it is necessary to strengthen enforcement provisions in relation to unauthorised sites, because those are where the damage to community relations and the environment is done. As well as abolishing the regional strategies, which were unfair and ineffective and which caused resentment, we have published proposals for a new planning policy for Traveller sites. They were published for consultation on 13 April, and the consultation will close on 6 July. We have already had a lot of responses.

The proposals seek to remove the two existing circulars—one on Gypsy Travellers and the other on travelling show people—that were introduced under the previous Administration. They have not worked effectively and have caused inconsistency and resentment. We intend to replace them with the light-touch guidance we have set out in the consultation document, which will provide a fairer balance. We have not yet removed the circulars, because there must, as you will know, Mr Streeter, be proper consultation on all such matters. However, it is worth bearing it in mind—local authorities should bear this in mind—that the Government’s intention to revoke the circulars is itself a material consideration, which local planning authorities can take into account when deciding to act on planning or enforcement matters, as is normally the case in planning law.

When the Government consultation ends in July, will information be made available on the allocation of sites? Will local authorities be given advice about numbers and the methodology for calculating the allocation of pitches?

I suspect that my hon. Friend has already done so, but if he has not, I urge him and any of his constituents with an interest in this issue to look at the consultation document, which is on the Department’s website. We are not in the business of centrally allocating sites—that was the vice of old regional strategies. In the consultation, we give authorities guidance on the appropriate steps they can take to assess need in their areas realistically and sensibly. That is the more proportionate approach. We are therefore dealing with the issue.

In the Localism Bill, which is in the other place, we are strengthening the law on enforcement, and there are several relevant measures. I accept that cynical breaches of planning controls are a particular vice. For example, a site can be occupied specifically on a bank holiday, when the council offices are often closed, which makes it difficult to serve the appropriate notices. Hardcore is then laid, for example, so that an element of development has taken place. To deal with such issues, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has alerted local authorities of the need to be vigilant over bank holidays, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) said.

In the Bill, we are also strengthening the penalties for non-compliance with a breach of condition notice. We are including proposals to limit opportunities for retrospective planning applications, which is a particular area of abuse. That relates not only to applications involving Gypsy Traveller sites. In my constituency, some cynical developers have built out a dwelling development in a way that is not in accordance with the plan and then gone back for retrospective permission to get a second bite of the cherry. All such practices bring the system into disrepute, and we intend to restrict the opportunities to undertake them. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, retrospective permissions should be there to protect those who make an innocent mistake, not those who cynically seek to manipulate the system.

I welcome the fact that the Minister recognises that the lack of authorised sites is driving many Travellers and Gypsies to use unauthorised sites, and I hope that even more resources will be made available to provide more sites. However, does he agree that compact agreements between councils and Travellers can be a useful tool in building good relationships? Will he therefore support Brighton council’s plans to go in that direction?

It is entirely for councils to adopt the approach they think is relevant. The Local Government Association has a useful working group on this issue, which is chaired by Councillor Richard Bennett, who is a Conservative councillor—no one party has a monopoly of interest on this. The group has done some pioneering work on encouraging good local practice, but the Government do not seek to impose a one-size-fits-all approach.

A proper supply of authorised sites is certainly necessary, and it is regrettable that the previous Government’s approach did not deliver them. We think our approach will be better. Strengthening enforcement in the way I described, restricting the ability to go back for retrospective permissions and strengthening the powers on temporary stop notices—another issue on which concern has been expressed to us—will achieve more of a balance, so that we can assist proper, appropriate, authorised development, while clamping down on inappropriate and unauthorised development in the way that has been suggested.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) mentioned extending the criminal law, and the Government would want to consider that with care, as the Prime Minister said. At the moment, we have a package that will deliver a better balance, and I would like the opportunity to take it forward before we move on to considerations that go beyond that. I hope that that indicates the Government’s stance.

Sitting suspended.