[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Weir. I am delighted that Mr Speaker has granted this debate, and I am thrilled to see so many colleagues here who clearly have a similar interest in the subject. That demonstrates the extent of the significant problems with the issue across the country.
It has been seven months since the debate on 7 December about Gypsy and Traveller sites. Given the Government’s decision to extend until August the consultation on the proposed new planning circulars on Traveller sites, this is an opportune moment to discuss the matter directly with the Minister—I am grateful for his time.
The issue has taken on additional importance in the county of Essex after the decision to evict the occupants of Dale farm, a large site in Basildon. The decision could have a knock-on effect as those evicted seek places to live in other parts of Essex, and probably across the east of England. This is likely to be the last opportunity to debate the matter in Parliament before the consultation period ends, so I know that the Minister will listen closely to the views expressed and the representations made today.
I have a constituency interest in the subject. During the past 14 months, I have heard about several cases of significant concern about the planning system for Gypsy and Traveller sites. Those cases have involved the Planning Inspectorate overturning the decisions of local authorities and granting permission for unauthorised sites. Although I appreciate that those incidents were caused by the inadequate planning system that was inherited from the previous Labour Government—a system that epitomised their culture of top-down targets, particularly through the infamous planning circulars 01/06 and 04/07—this is an opportunity to get it right. People throughout the country have put their faith in the Government to rebalance the planning system through the localism agenda, and it is imperative that the Government do not let them down, so they must take prompt and significant action.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On her point about the top-down culture, the Medway local authority was faced with a regional body saying that we had to take an extortionate quota of Gypsy and Traveller sites, which was completely wrong. I urge the Minister to take on board the fact that it is absolutely right and proper for residents and local authorities to be able to determine need where it arises, rather than having a quota imposed on them.
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. I will mention some local examples before I move to the substantial points to which I would like to draw the Minister’s attention.
The Minister will be aware from a vast amount of correspondence that I have several such sites in my constituency, including Pattiswick. A few weeks ago, the Planning Inspectorate decided to impose a Gypsy site on Pattiswick retrospectively. The site has been an unauthorised development since last autumn, when the occupants arrived—this might sound familiar to colleagues—over a weekend, which is the time when local authorities are least able to respond. The local community in Pattiswick then came together to press Braintree district council to take action. I pay tribute to the local residents of Pattiswick, who worked hard and rallied a lot of resources to start a good campaign. Dozens of letters were sent by members of the community and a petition was started opposing the development. That petition received widespread support, and in the absence of a planning application, Braintree district council began enforcement proceedings against the occupants of the site.
The case went to the High Court. The council had some success in the Court, but the occupants of the site appealed to the Planning Inspectorate against the original enforcement action. A subsequent hearing with the Planning Inspectorate took place in Braintree during the Whitsun recess. I attended it, and I must say that it was quite an eye opener and an education. Although the occupants had shown absolutely no regard for the planning process, the inspectorate gave them planning permission.
Two reasons were given for the decision. First, the inspectorate claimed that permission had to be granted due to a lack of any suitable alternative sites. It then concluded that unless the occupants continued to live on the site, their human rights would be violated. The inspectorate wrote that the
“dismissal of the appeal would have a disproportionate effect upon the rights of the appellants under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights”,
which deals with the right to a private and family life. According to the inspectorate, requiring the appellants to vacate the site
“would represent a significant interference with their home and family life which…outweighs the limited harm caused by the development in terms of its effect upon the public interest.”
However, it is clear to me that any disruption caused to the occupants by requiring them to leave would be no more than the disruption that they caused themselves when they came and occupied the site in the first place. Such a use of the European convention on human rights is clearly misplaced and wrong.
It is wholly unjust to local residents of Pattiswick that although the Planning Inspectorate gave significant weight to what it felt were the human rights of the occupants, it failed—colleagues will not be surprised to hear this—adequately to consider the rights of the local settled community and the disruption that the incident caused them. Although the council did the right thing in supporting the community through an enforcement action, the planning system ultimately failed the community by favouring people who refused to go through the correct planning process to occupy and develop the site, and who then chose deliberately to play the system and cause maximum cost and disruption to the council and community.
Braintree district council contacted me yesterday, because I asked for the figures on how much the incident cost. The council has racked up considerable costs. Including VAT, the fees for counsel for the High Court injunction came to just under £10,000. The cost of getting the injunction was £20,000, and fees relating to obtaining the breach of stop notice were £14,000. We should not forget that that is hard-pressed taxpayers’ money. Not only did the decision run roughshod over local people’s views, but the costs involved will deter local councils from taking action when other unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller sites appear.
I agree fully with everything that my hon. Friend has said, but does she agree that one thing that causes lots of problems is the fact that the system—whether it is the local authority’s planning system or the Government’s—never seems to be even-handed? If anybody else were to create an illegal development, it would be taken down in five minutes flat, whereas Gypsies appear to get away with anything they like. Does my hon. Friend agree that the system should treat everybody equally in the face of the law?
The hon. Lady makes a strong case for the unacceptability of unauthorised development, whether that is a shop, a factory, a house or anything else, including an encampment of the type that she is discussing. Planning law clearly needs to be enforced. However, if Gypsies or Travellers had the opportunity to live on authorised sites, there would be no need for such developments. Does she not agree that the Government and local authorities must concentrate their minds on ensuring that we increase the number of authorised sites available for Gypsies and Travellers throughout the country?
Does not my hon. Friend agree that the point being made about Travellers and Gypsies also applies to settled organisations? In one area of my constituency, it is difficult to find land to build on, let alone to put caravans on. We need a balanced approach.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. There is no doubt that this is about balance across all our communities. I shall refer to two other cases before I talk about the consultation.
My constituency has had endless cases. In Tolleshunt Knights, a planning application was made for a site for travelling show people in a wholly unsuitable location, but again Maldon district council’s decision was overturned by the Planning Inspectorate on the basis of the requirements in the current planning circulars. The council rightly pursued a localist agenda while the Planning Inspectorate remained wedded to the paradigm of centralist command and control. As the Minister will know from the substantive correspondence I sent to the Secretary of State about the case, it was badly handled by the Planning Inspectorate, which clearly showed no regard for the Government’s planning policies as laid down in the coalition programme for government. There is a problem with the Planning Inspectorate.
The final case is about Lea lane in Braxted, where a planning application for a Gypsy site is pending and is with the Planning Inspectorate. The development is clearly inappropriate for the area, but there are concerns that the Planning Inspectorate, which has form, will grant permission on the basis of the applicant’s arguments about limited site provision and, again, human rights, despite serious question marks over the validity of the application and a series of irregularities that have been pointed out. While it is under consideration, I ask the Minister to do everything in his power to ensure that the Planning Inspectorate fully and comprehensively reviews the representations made by Maldon district council and the local community. It would be shocking and appalling if the Planning Inspectorate continued to progress applications and grant permissions for all the wrong reasons.
Many Members have mentioned a common theme that councils and communities still have their hands tied by previous targets, and it seems that the Planning Inspectorate values the human rights of one group over the rights of the settled community. That has created an unsustainable planning system full of problems, which is a big problem because our communities do not trust the system: they have no faith and confidence in it, so they automatically feel discriminated against; and if they do not have a voice, they do not feel represented. Our communities are left feeling pretty disfranchised and our councils feel powerless to act. There is a challenge for the Government, because they have a strong localism agenda that this problem could undermine.
Those are the reasons why we are here and why the system needs substantial reform. I am strongly in favour of giving local communities greater say and ensuring that their voices are heard. At the last general election, I was pleased to stand on my party’s manifesto, which would have addressed many of those fundamental problems through the pledge to give communities greater control over planning, to limit appeals to the Planning Inspectorate and to return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils. “Open Source Planning” highlighted that the Conservatives’ would take action in government to ensure fairness between the settled and the Traveller communities. We need to start to address the problem.
On fairness and even-handedness for the settled community and the unsettled community, which includes those who live in squats and caravans who are “settled” but cannot find adequate accommodation, does the hon. Lady agree that all reports have shown that the life expectancy of Travellers and Gypsies is significantly lower than that of the settled community and that infant mortality and maternal mortality are much higher? In addition, Travellers are hugely disadvantaged in education, with 75% of children regularly in education compared with—
We have touched on the fundamental problem, which is the real unfairness in the planning system. Ultimately, that has to be resolved.
We can see in the detail of the proposed circular some of the problems that local communities and councils will encounter. It still instructs local authorities to set pitch and plot targets for 15 years and to identify specific plots for the first five years. As now, those targets could be legally challenged in the courts and appealed at the Planning Inspectorate, with people trying to get planning permission or to fight enforcement action by arguing that the targets set are inadequate. It would also force local authorities to consider favourably applications for temporary planning permission if they cannot demonstrate an up-to-date five-year supply of desirable sites. It states that councils should determine applications from Travellers from anywhere, not only those with local connections, and that provision can be given to Gypsy and Traveller developments on green belt land.
Although the emphasis on locally agreed targets is an improvement on the previous Government’s insistence on top-down national and regional targets, I hope that the Minister will look again at the necessity of implementing the draft circular, which will maintain a damaging imbalance in the planning system. That imbalance must be redressed. We need real balance and fairness.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her speech. Does not that same policy also require local authorities to take into account historical demand? That could lead to communities such as mine, which have historically had a Traveller population, having an influx of people who have no real local links.
I absolutely concur.
Returning to the circular, I have talked about the damaging imbalances in the planning system. If Ministers want to continue to have a separate planning circular for Gypsy and Traveller sites, I encourage them to consider including measures to support the rights of settled communities. For example, the circular could contain a presumption against retrospective applications and appeals to the Planning Inspectorate. It could also emphasise the importance of decision makers valuing equally the rights and representations of the settled community and of Gypsies and Travellers. Communities such as those in Pattiswick, Tolleshunt Knights or Braxted are not asking for special treatment or favours: all they want is a planning system that fully represents their views, gives them a fair chance and does not disadvantage them because of their residential status.
I want to impress on the Minister the importance of ensuring that councils and communities are adequately resourced and able to set appropriate pitch allocations. I can tell him now that that is a grave concern to the three local authorities that cover my constituency. They simply do not have the resources they need; when they try to deal with the problem, they come up against endless barriers. Any requirements in future policies on local authorities to set targets must enable them to do so with the confidence that they are in control of developments and not at the mercy of the courts or, in particular, the Planning Inspectorate.
Finally, I would like the Government to tackle what I consider to be an alarming culture in the Planning Inspectorate. From the cases I have come across in the past 14 months, it seems that the inspectorate is too willing to cower down in the face of human rights arguments, which are the first port of call in the cases that I have seen. That is not surprising given that the Planning Inspectorate has held workshops for its inspectors to learn from Gypsy and Traveller groups about their planning needs. In the interests of balance, I ask the Minister to encourage the Planning Inspectorate to hold workshops with our constituents, who have all been disproportionately and inappropriately affected by developments, so that the inspectorate gains a better understanding of their needs and rights. There is a greater than ever need for that now, because we will have neighbourhood plans that our constituents will influence.
My hon. Friend is making some powerful points about planning law being applied equally to all people. Does she agree that there are also laws about how people live, whether they are settled in a legal camp or not? Gypsies will not earn the respect of the settled community until they agree to be subject to the same tax laws as everybody else, start paying into the national insurance system, give an address by which they can be contacted, abide by the byelaws of an area and start cleaning up after themselves. They will not earn the respect of the settled community until they live and plan like everyone else.
No, I am going to make some final points. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) is right: with rights come responsibilities.
I address my final points to the Minister. Will he ensure that Government policies support councils in taking enforcement actions against unauthorised developments and that the planning system is genuinely fair to all parties? Action needs to be taken to end the practice of placing the rights of one group above those of others, and the powers of the Planning Inspectorate to interfere with decisions taken by democratically accountable councils should be limited. Finally, will he guarantee that local communities and councils are in control of future development in their areas and that they have their destinies in their own hands? That is very much at the heart of localism. I thank the Minister for his time today and for listening to me, and I look forward to other contributions from colleagues.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate and on her excellent speech. My constituents would want to be associated with many of her points. I declare an interest as a serving councillor on Kettering borough council.
I would like to tell hon. Members about a village called Braybrooke in my constituency. There are 22 villages in the parliamentary constituency of Kettering. Braybrooke is situated between the towns of Desborough and Market Harborough, right on the edge of my constituency and on the edge of the county of Northamptonshire. About 325 residents in Braybrooke are on the electoral roll, so it is a small village. However, it is unique in having the only primary school where the pupils are 100% Traveller children, and where the local settled community do not send their children at all. Such a situation exists because of the increase in settlements—pitches—from the Gypsy and Traveller community around the village.
The planning system’s failure to deal with the spread of unauthorised development means that the demographics of the village are being changed in an unacceptable way. I lay the blame for that on the circulars issued by the previous Government and the previous Deputy Prime Minister, which my hon. Friend the Member for Witham mentioned. However, the coalition Government have a chance to change that. My constituents in Kettering, the residents of Braybrooke and myself are looking to the Minister to do something about the matter. We have been in government for 15 months and a consultation is under way. We need to get a move on because my constituents’ hopes have been raised by initiatives such as the Localism Bill and the consultation. We want the Minister to introduce some appropriate policies to stop these unauthorised developments in the future.
No. What I am saying is that local primary schools are comprehensive and they should attract children from the local area, regardless of their background. This is not an issue of race; it is an issue of behaviour. When I visited the school recently—it is an excellent school that provides good education—I discovered that one of the big problems was that, especially in the summer term, a lot of the Traveller children do not turn up because they are off travelling. A member of the settled community would be reluctant to send their child to a school with such a disruptive atmosphere. I am trying to approach the subject in a sensitive and thoughtful way without going down the route of saying that this is some kind of racial problem. It is an educational and behavioural problem, which needs to be addressed.
As usual, my hon. Friend is making a very astute speech. Does he share my concern that the disruption and huge turnover of children in the Traveller community has a massive impact not only on the education of children who are not Traveller children, but on resource allocation for teachers and teaching support staff in those schools? In the long run, that has an impact on standard assessment tests and other results.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He speaks out on behalf of his constituents in Peterborough extremely well. On this issue, I am sure he has the pulse of not only his constituency but the nation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witham said, Travellers are using the Human Rights Act 1998 in relation to access to local schools and as a way to get permission for their previously unauthorised developments. I am trying to say that we should look at the matter the other way round. What about the rights of the settled community in the village of Braybrooke, who are not sending their children to the local school?
After pressure from me and my constituency office, we have managed to persuade Brighton and Hove council to charge some long-term van dwellers at Medina house some rates to pay for the services they use. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a good way forward and that some councils could consider doing that to make these people integrate more into the community, or at least to get some return for the services they use?
I am most grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention; he makes an extremely powerful point. As our mutual hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) said earlier, it is all very well for Travellers and others to jump up and down about their rights, but on the other side of the equation is their responsibilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) makes an excellent point. Everyone else pays their taxes in the normal way, so Travellers should also pay their fair due to society.
As indeed they do on the authorised sites, where those charges and, indeed, local taxes are paid in the proper manner. I do not know about the circumstances in the villages in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but the conundrum that we as Parliament and the Government are facing is that we have to accept—the hon. Gentleman said he is looking at the matter in a sensitive and thoughtful way— that there is a significant unfulfilled need for Traveller sites in this country. The question is, how do we fulfil that need in a way that does not involve Travellers taking their rights and demanding to live on unauthorised developments? We clearly must not allow that to carry on.
I just do not get this point. In the borough of Kettering, lots of people do not have access to the accommodation and housing they need, and thousands of people are on the local authority housing waiting list. It would clearly be wrong to say that, because somebody cannot find the house they need, they can go into the countryside and start building a home of their own. The law would rightly come down on those individuals. Yet members of the Travelling community seem to be able to do exactly that, and they are using the Human Rights Act to get away with it. That is wrong.
My constituents’ fears are being heightened by the latest development around the village of Braybrooke: a site called Greenfields, which is a 37 acre plot. According to the map that has been given to me, the site seems to have been divided up into some 60 plots. It was acquired in the 1990s by a property speculator and the plots are being sold off individually, largely to members of the Travelling community. Buildings—dwellings—are already on some of those plots. The worry is that retrospective planning applications are being made in respect of those dwellings. Given the very poor decisions that are being made by the Planning Inspectorate, the applicants are pretty confident that they will be given retrospective permission to remain there.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I think it has been one of the longest interventions in the history of Westminster Hall. My hon. Friend mentioned the planning rules in relation to illegal sites. Does he agree with residents of the village of Churchill in my constituency—an illegal Traveller site has been set up there in the way he has described—that one answer would be to get rid of the rule that allows retrospective planning permission? Planning permission would therefore have to be sought before sites were set up, rather than retrospectively, with all the nonsense about human rights and the rest of it that goes with that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention, and I agree with him. The Government need to be far more proactive in tackling the problem of retrospective planning applications, particularly where it applies to the countryside.
There is another issue, which probably affects Wyre Forest as much as Kettering. Those of us with rural or semi-rural constituencies hear all the time about the protections against development in the green belt, but the open countryside in our constituencies seems to have less protection than the green belt. That is sad and regrettable, and it is enhancing the problem of unauthorised development by Gypsy and Traveller groups.
Before the break, I was talking about the new Greenfields site in Braybrooke, which has 60 plots on 37 acres. If it were developed in full, it would be bigger than the village of Braybrooke, near which it is situated, and the local demographics would be changed even more. The difficulty the local council has lies in enforcing the existing planning regulations.
Let me give Members a brief potted history of the site. The land was first acquired in the 1990s by a business that subdivides fields and then sells small parcels of the land via the internet as what it calls leisure plots, or simply as land investments. Early sales resulted in some plots being fenced off, and physical works were undertaken, which were unrelated to agriculture. Caravans were brought on to some plots and used for residential purposes. Wooden buildings were built, and the land was used for keeping horses.
Enforcement notices against such development were issued and served on two specific plots and on the site as a whole. None of the owners appealed the enforcement notices, and those requiring the removal of caravans and associated development are still in force, placing a continuing liability on the landowners. Since the early 1990s, a series of other enforcement notices and stop notices has been served, but the council’s hands are increasingly tied by the guidance on enforcing enforcement notices, which imposes on it the duty to weigh up the likelihood of success, the costs and the proportionality of different courses of action. The end result is that nothing is done.
Does my hon. Friend agree that existing enforcement powers in relation to unauthorised encampments such as the recent one at Happy Valley in Woodingdean in my constituency are totally insufficient, and that temporary or permanent sites can be only part of the solution? We need to be clear that councils need more powers to enforce notices on what are clearly unauthorised encampments.
I am grateful for that helpful intervention. We are beginning to get from the debate some specific courses of action that we would like the Minister to take on board. One would be to deal with the issue of retrospective applications; another would be to beef up the enforcement mechanisms. Unless we have an effective enforcement regime, the problem will grow and become even more of a headache.
We have talked a little about whether there should be a requirement for local authorities to plan for authorised Traveller pitches. If the Government make that a requirement, the proposal is for there to be transitional arrangements whereby local authorities will have six months to put in place a five-year land supply for Traveller sites. My local authority, Kettering borough council, says that six months is not enough and it needs at least 12 months to identify suitable places.
Another thing I want to stress is that, even though consultation is under way, I understand that proposals to change planning policy guidance should be treated as emerging legislation as far as local planning authorities are concerned. Yet there seems to be doubt among some Kettering borough council officials about the weight of the advice. I should like the Minister to state clearly that local authorities should heed the direction of emerging planning guidance from the Government when they make decisions on planning applications.
Finally, please can we do something about the planning inspectorate in Bristol? It is not good enough that it has taken some of the decisions it has, especially on Gypsy and Traveller planning applications. Often, the people concerned do not visit the local authority in question. They do not really know about the local area on which they make decisions. If the coalition Government are serious about devolving decision making down to local residents in the communities where they live, we must take those appeal decisions at a more local level, to ensure that the true voice of local opinion is heard loud and clear.
I shall try to be quick, and will concentrate mostly—directly or indirectly—on enforcement. The Minister can turn to his page on enforcement, so he will be ready.
One thing that I like about the consultation, which has been mentioned already, is the sentence:
“Many people think that current planning policy treats traveller sites more favourably than it does other housing and that it is easier for one group of people to gain planning permission particularly on Green Belt land.”
Hear, hear. In my area, Surrey, 87% of the land is green belt. The situation is difficult for Travellers and Traveller sites, and it is also difficult for the settled community. My constituency has a number of official Gypsy sites. There are few or no problems, and the Gypsies are part of the community. Everything is settled and clear. We have two planning authorities in my constituency, Mole Valley and Guildford. Because we are close to Epsom downs we have trouble, particularly with Gypsies who come in from across a little patch of water, with a distinct accent—not mine; not even similar. They come and squat.
The Travellers tend to use expert legal advice. There are a couple of agencies involving solicitors that are expert in such matters, and they are paid for by Travellers’ groups. They enable the Travellers to become the Artful Dodgers of the planning system. One of the techniques, in some of the better areas of my constituency, is to purchase a patch of land where there is no hope of any form of planning permission for residence. Either Travellers or people pretending to be Travellers make those applications, forcing the locals to panic, club together and purchase the land at an outrageous price. If enforcement were sure, and those local people knew that the inevitable refusal of the application would be followed by enforcement that really happened, those scams would fall apart.
The second technique that I want to mention is squatting, something which the Government are, I understand, looking at. Squatting in rural areas is done by Travellers. They do not squat in buildings, but they bring their buildings with them and squat on the land with caravans and so on. In my area, they also squat on the land with their animals—horses. The difficulty is that at the moment when the bailiffs arrive, after a court order has been obtained, at least one mare, if not every one in the paddock, is about to give birth. A human would be put in an ambulance and whisked off to a maternity ward, but if the bailiffs approach a mare that is about to give birth, the rules apparently require the animal to be left there. Whether a birth happens or not is highly speculative—I am quite sure that it does not. However, what happens is that some of the farmers in my constituency—I know of one in particular—cannot use the land, because it is occupied by a couple of dozen horses.
When, finally, enforcement happens, the mess that is generally left behind is unbelievable. Perhaps the way the site is left could be included in consideration of the matter, so the people pushed off by the enforcement order pay for the removal, clean-up and restoration of the site. That would be helpful and might encourage many of those who cover the site with gravel and other things not to do so.
The third technique is to buy the land, generally with cash, from whatever source. That generally happens at the weekend, when the people arrive with caravans, trucks, bulldozers, loads of gravel, piping and so on. By the end of Sunday, they are installed. The electricity and water are tapped in, whether legally or not, and then the nonsense starts—hopeless applications, refusals, appeals and more refusals. To be fair, the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol has been quite good in my area and has backed the local authority, mainly. However, when the enforcement notices are delivered, there is an appeal against the notice. Then, as the Minister is obviously well aware, another, subtly different, application is put in. On and on it continues.
As has been mentioned, the people concerned do not pay council tax or taxes. They use the local system—the schools, health authorities, and so on—and the arguments start. The neighbourhood barneys are horrendous—there are accusations of theft and burglary—but I must be fair; I am sure that in one case, although the people who committed the crime might have been associated with the people on the site, they were not people from the site. Nevertheless, there is, to put it mildly, community disharmony.
I want to outline two cases. The first is in Guildford on the A246. It is a greenfield pasture, which is fenced in. There have been three applications and three refusals, and at least two failed appeals. There are two derelict caravans on the site. As one hon. Member has mentioned, the council are wondering whether it should bother with its enforcement notice, because the cost will be astronomical and it can imagine that, once it gets part of the way there, another application will be made, and it will be back to square one. We need that side of enforcement to be pushed.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about planning in general, although not particularly about Gypsy encampments; those who want to abuse the planning system often use the ruse of making retrospective applications, then appealing, and then reapplying, exactly as he has described. It is a weakness of the planning system, which is not necessarily the issue before the Chamber.
I noticed the nature and the subject of the debate, and have not strayed, although the hon. Gentleman has.
Anyone trying to sell or improve their property finds a big sign on the A246, which is the main road, saying “Romany Stables”. Opportunities to sell property have fallen in number because of that apparent threat. The situation is becoming disgraceful.
The second case involves a Gypsy who does not live in Mole Valley. He lives many miles away and used to—he probably still does—drive a lovely Rolls-Royce. He bought greenfield pasture land in the green belt. He sold it to his wife, who sold it to her cousin, who sold it too, and on it goes. Finally, a small group moved in there in the way in which I have described: gravel, electricity and water were built in over the weekend. There were five caravans, one of which looks like two mobile homes linked together. There was the usual pattern of enforcement notices, appeals and planning applications. The last appeal was quite a clever one. The order was to allow temporary accommodation, while the local authority looked for alternative sites over a period of time.
My concern is my local authority. I am worried that, having looked—not very well and in a limited area—and weighed up the fact that a sympathy that has no grounds in planning is being generated, the local authority may use a sympathy consideration, not a planning consideration, and allow the application on a greenfield site to go ahead. If someone such as the local farmer had built a house on that site, it would have been bulldozed—even though his children go to the local school and use the local hospital and doctor’s service—but that has not happened in this case because, as insinuated by the first sentence I read out, such groups are perceived to have an opportunity and a right that the rest of us do not. I ask the Minister to have a look before my local authority stubs its toes and gives permission, to the fury of many of us.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate and on an excellent speech. I must confess my utter disappointment that we have to have this debate, the third on Gypsy and Traveller sites in this Parliament: the first was in September, next was the one I secured in December and this one now. What adds to the disappointment is that although during the December debate the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), made it clear that the planning circular was to be reviewed and that the consultation would start early in the new year, we had to wait until April, I think, for the consultation document. Having read through it, I cannot help but voice my deep disappointment at the changes suggested.
In my constituency, since December’s debate on the planning circular and on Gypsy and Traveller sites, another nine pitches have granted in the village of Calf Heath by the Minister. That happened just last week, against the express wishes and desires of local people who do not want those pitches. Why do they not want them? For the simple reason that, in South Staffordshire, more than 40 pitches have been developed in the years since 2007, many of them granted on appeal. It is not a matter of “not in my back yard”. Only the other week, the local planning authority granted planning permission for new Gypsy and Traveller pitches on a site that it believed was appropriate and sensible for such pitches. It is a matter of getting pitches where they are suitable and where there is proven demand—ensuring that they are in the right places. I do not think the Planning Inspectorate gives much consideration to or has much knowledge about where the right places are; nor, I am sorry to say, judging by a decision the Minister made last week, does he seem to have much common sense when looking at this matter or in making the correct decision. Just before this weekend, in the village of Hatherton, we had another invasion on land owned by a Gypsy and Traveller family where hard standings have started to be laid down. Again, it is the taxpayers of South Staffordshire who have to foot the bill to get the enforcement notice to stop the building.
The proposals in the planning circular consultation document are weak-willed and lily-livered and will not deliver on the promises that we made as a party before the general election or in the coalition agreement. I remember quite specifically in the coalition agreement a specific promise to protect the green belt. I must take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who said that the green belt is far more protected than everywhere else; I wish he were correct, but it certainly is not protected when it comes to Gypsy and Traveller policy. More than 60% of applications from Gypsy and Traveller communities on green belt land that go to appeal are granted, compared with 19% of applications from the settled population. Equality for the settled population is not something that the Department for Communities and Local Government understands.
I ask the Minister to deal with protection of green belt land when he winds up the debate. Looking through the consultation document, the only thing that I noticed that seems to be different in the new circular is the removal of the word “usually” from the old circular’s reference to “usually inappropriate development” on green belt land. I am not sure whether that is seen as a dynamic policy shift in Eland house, but in South Staffordshire it certainly is not. I am slightly concerned that the change in the policy will have no effect for residents and for my constituents. We need to make it clearer that inappropriate development on the green belt should not be allowed. Of those sites in South Staffordshire given planning permission by the Planning Inspectorate, every one has been said by the inspectorate to be inappropriate development in the green belt, but it still awards permission. The balance is not right. The policy proposal does not go far enough, it is not strong enough and it is not clear enough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering picked up on the important point about the six-month transition period. I think he was voicing the view of Kettering borough council in saying that 12 months is an adequate time; I think that even 12 months is an incredibly tight period, bearing in mind that the provision is for a five-year period. We need to be looking at between 18 months and two years. I hope that the Minister takes those comments on board.
Temporary pitches are a real problem. Increasingly, the Planning Inspectorate awards sites temporary permission. I never thought I would be in the Chamber defending regional spatial strategies but, ironically, we would almost be better off had we maintained them, compared with where we are now with Government fudge. I am shocked to be giving some support to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), but the simple reality is that temporary pitches are not being taken into account as part of the provision for accommodation needs in a local area. That is wrong. Can the Minister give us details of how many temporary applications have been granted for Gypsy and Traveller sites over the past 15 years? I am sure his officials, who are busy working away behind me, can provide details of how many of those temporary pitch grants have then been rescinded, enabling them to be got rid of. I hazard a guess—I do not know this, but I am sure your officials will be able to give you the information before you get to your feet—
The Chair has not got to his feet.
I am sure, Mr Weir, when the Minister gets to his feet, he will say that the figure is between zero and five—closer to zero, I imagine.
The simple fact is that when temporary permission is granted, it might as well be permanent permission, because there is no way of getting the sites closed down and cleared off. In his summing up, I hope that the Minister can explain how the Government will deal with that, so that temporary permissions are indeed temporary. I very much look forward to welcoming the Minister to South Staffordshire, to talk to the many people affected by the decisions of the Department and to give the people of South Staffordshire a clear understanding of what the Government are striving to do to improve the position.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the primary purpose is to bear down on the problem of unauthorised sites. Presumably, however, he accepts that there is substantial unfulfilled need. How does he propose that the Government go about meeting it?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, although I am curious about how many Gypsy and Traveller pitches there are in St Ives and the extent to which they are a problem. There are many vacant Gypsy and Traveller sites in my constituency of South Staffordshire. What is happening is that some in the Gypsy and Traveller community are using the loophole in the law for personal gain—they are exploiting it. That is costing my taxpayers in South Staffordshire a vast amount of money to pay for enforcement action. There are surplus sites, but unfortunately the good people at the Planning Inspectorate are not able, or do not seem willing to take that into account. What we have is a community exploiting a bad law—a bad planning circular—for personal gain. That is what makes so many people in South Staffordshire so very angry.
Will the Minister ensure that the consultation results in proper protection for the green belt? Will he also ensure that temporary provision is taken into consideration? If he can offer some guidance on how temporary provisions may be removed, that would be greatly pleasing, as would a date when he will visit South Staffordshire. We look forward to welcoming him to the very few green fields that are left after the previous Government’s policy, which remains in place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on this timely debate in the light of the current consultation. I want to raise the concerns of villages to the north of my constituency near the urban fringe around Coventry, and to concentrate on the planning issues. Given what we have heard about the planning system, it is entirely right that the Government should set out to change the system. I echo the concerns expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) about the delays in the Government’s introduction of changes. We spoke about that during the general election campaign and as soon as we came into government. We have raised expectations in communities, but we are failing to realise them. The broad thrust of the Government’s action to deal with such issues is the Localism Bill, which aims to give power back to local communities, and to enable them to shape their areas.
Provisions in the Localism Bill will deal with the existing situation when someone develops land without planning consent. The system is that they are encouraged to apply for retrospective planning consent with a right of appeal against the enforcement notice. The intention in our policy document was that both issues would be dealt with. The purpose of the changes we are introducing is to address the issues of local communities. My communities have raised three reservations, and there are three more that I would like the Minister to respond to.
First, I echo the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering and for South Staffordshire about the transitional time scale. There is a group in my constituency called BRAID—Barnacle residents against inappropriate development. As at Braybrooke in Kettering, illegal development in Barnacle threatens to overwhelm the village and the host community. I support BRAID’s contention that the imposition of a six-month time scale for councils to put in place a five-year deliverable supply of sites for Travellers is simply too short. BRAID argues that many authorities will not have time to carry out an assessment of needs, and will find themselves having to treat such applications favourably—I will return to that expression—before finalising their five-year plan. Whenever there is a time limit, there may be discussion about it, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire referred to a year. My community would like a realistic period of two years for local councils to carry out that task.
The second issue is the presumption to “treat favourably”. The draft policy document states:
“Where a local authority does not have a 5 year deliverable supply of gypsy and traveller places (within 6 months of the publication of the new policy), a local planning authority should treat favourably any applications for temporary permission”.
Clearly, that provision is intended to encourage local authorities to identify appropriate sites, but communities fear that the phrase, “treat favourably” is likely to reinforce views that there will be special rights for certain communities in planning matters, in a similar way that circular 01/2006 states that “substantial weight” should be given to unmet need when considering temporary permission. There is a real fear that the policy may unintentionally encourage unauthorised developments when a developer knows that they are likely to be “treated favourably” because a council has not yet set out its policy.
A third matter, to which my colleagues have referred, is the behaviour of planning inspectors. Rugby borough council in my constituency has for many years had to consider a variety of applications for new sites, and in 2009 it approved its draft core strategy, which included a requirement that future developments should be limited to a maximum of 15 pitches per main rural settlement or parish area. That decision by locally elected councillors was due to the fact that two areas already have substantial Traveller provision.
When that strategy was submitted to the Secretary of State earlier this year, the planning inspector decided to strike out the requirement for a maximum number of pitches, citing as justification the guidance in circular 01/2006. Local representatives are frustrated that that justification is based on five-year-old guidance, when it is now more than a year since the Government came to power with a pledge to change the system, and that when the consultation is concluded and the law is introduced it may no longer be in existence.
I raised these matters with the Minister, and he confirmed the existence of the circular. Perhaps he will respond to some of the points to which he referred in his letter to me. I recognise that there is a real opportunity now to change the system to achieve a fair balance for both local communities and the Travelling community.
I have just lost my bet. Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Weir.
I shall be as brief as possible, because I know that a colleague wants to speak. My constituency has a long history with the Travelling community, not least because of our historic horse fairs. We have attracted Travellers for many centuries, and some of my ancestors who were horse dealers in the area may have had interactions going back centuries. That does not mean that we do not have problems today. My local council seems to be distinctly unimpressed with some of the Government proposals in the consultation, not least because local communities believe that the planning system has been weighted too much in favour of the Travelling community in recent times. We are not convinced that the consultation will push that back in the other direction.
In particular, my council is worried about the targets, which include, as I said when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), historic demand. The local authority and local residents do not believe that those targets take adequate account of local knowledge, and we are worried that they will lead to attracting more people with no links to the area simply because of historic demand.
Brigg in particular has had a problem in recent years with illegal encampment. One in West Lindsey in Lincolnshire, which is just outside the local authority area, has managed to acquire planning permission in exactly the way that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) highlighted. Planning permission has been granted for green belt land at the end of a country lane through what I believe is an abuse of the planning system.
That does not mean that we in Brigg do not enjoy good community relations between the settled population and the Travelling community. I am always temperate in my language, because I want to ensure that we continue to maintain those good relations, and that our historic link does not boil over. But the risk of continuing the reality that the planning system works in favour of people in the Gypsy and Traveller community must be addressed, and that means that any assessment of Traveller site needs and demands should include the views of the settled community.
I could say a lot more, but my hon. Friends have said a great deal and I am aware that other hon. Friends want to speak. North Lincolnshire council will respond to the consultation, and it seems that it is distinctly unimpressed by what is being offered. I urge the Minister to look at what we promised during the general election. I want to return to both sides of my communities and tell them that this is about fairness on both sides of the debate.
I shall be brief. Given that we are talking about a devolved issue, the Minister may be forgiven for wondering why somebody who represents a Welsh constituency is taking part in the debate. However, perhaps I can share some experiences of a policy that is a little more advanced. Pembrokeshire has the highest concentration of Gypsy sites anywhere in Wales. Almost without exception, they are well integrated into the local community, and they provide value and valuable jobs. Gypsies are part of the community and welcomed by it. With the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), I have been concerned by the general presumption during the debate that all Gypsies are bad. That is definitely not the case where I come from; we have a long, happy history and relationship with Gypsies.
During the planning process, I hope that the Minister will guard against people contributing to the debate with ongoing prejudice and discriminating against a minority community. Such discrimination leads to all sorts of social difficulties such as kids being bullied at school, people not getting jobs for which they are perfectly qualified, and friends being thrown out of pubs simply because they happen to live on a legitimate Traveller site. I hope the Minister will confirm that such pitfalls will be avoided when the measures for England are set out.
There are, of course, some planning anomalies and difficulties in Wales. There is an ongoing case at Clayford lane near Saundersfoot, and there are some difficulties concerning the definition of a Traveller, what constitutes a Traveller in a legal sense, whether an application for a site has to be in the name of a Traveller, and whether those who may subsequently occupy the site would meet Traveller criteria. That case has resulted in considerable anger on the part of the 60 or more residents in the area. They feel that it is somewhat harder for them to jump through the planning hoops as part of the non-Traveller community than as part of the Traveller community, even though that community includes people who may not even legitimately be part of it. There is no doubt that by making special provision for the Traveller community—albeit for all the right reasons—we have almost by accident created a situation in which we are causing resentment towards a community rather than respect for it, which is the opposite of what we intended. I hope that the Minister will take that into account during the consultation in England.
In short, a balance must be struck between the non-Traveller ratepayer, the legitimate Traveller community that brings—certainly in my constituency—so much value, and the ever-present and often misused and misquoted Human Rights Act that makes up part of the overall mix. Unless we get the balance right, it will not only be bad for the ratepayer, but it will be bad for local authorities that have to deal with the situation. Above all, my main word of caution in the social context is that that will be bad for minority communities which, as we stated in our election manifesto, we seek to respect and welcome where possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate. Debates about the Travelling community often tend to generate more heat than light, but today we have heard some useful contributions. I did not agree with everything that hon. Members said, but we heard some helpful pointers to a way forward. Anxiety about the issue clearly exists in a number of communities—that is stating the obvious—and it is incumbent on Members to represent the views and concerns of their constituents. I would like to make it clear, however, that the Opposition Communities and Local Government Front-Bench team believe that the law should apply equally to all sections of our community. There should be no special favours for any community, whether the Travelling or the settled community.
With all due respect to the hon. Member for Witham, her criticism of the previous Administration was a little unfair. They did not get everything right, and some criticisms are legitimate, but a good deal of work was undertaken under the previous Labour Government and a considerable number of additional sites were created. The introduction of temporary stop notices made a useful contribution to the whole issue of dealing with the Travelling community. The hon. Lady’s faith in the Localism Bill could be misplaced because it might not secure the outcomes to which she alluded.
The hon. Gentleman reminds me of a point about fairness that I missed out during my contribution but would like to put on record. He talks about fairness, but I can give one example of where the system is not working. We have had an application relating to the village green in Brigg for a considerable period of time. A Traveller family has now moved on to that site and we are unable to progress that application properly because the human rights legislation and planning circulars introduced by the previous Government have prevented us from moving that family on. Where is the balance and fairness to both parts of the community?
The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point and gives an example from his constituency. The Government clearly need to look at such situations and find a way forward. Such things no doubt cause considerable anger in the hon. Gentleman’s community, so he is right to put that on record.
I will return to the point that the hon. Member for Witham made about the Localism Bill because I am not convinced that it will secure the outcomes for which she hopes. The proposition is that there will be no regional targets, and it is expected that each local authority throughout the country will determine what is appropriate for its area. Given today’s discussion, there is a recognition among most—if not all—hon. Members that one of the biggest problems relating to Travellers arises due to inadequate numbers of legitimate official sites. If we were able to provide those additional sites, the problems of unauthorised encampments would be somewhat diminished.
If we put the onus to provide Traveller sites on to individual local authorities, they may take the view that there is no need for such a site in their area. We have already had that problem, and I fear that such situations may be exacerbated by the changes brought in by the Localism Bill. Paradoxically, the Bill could lead to an increase in the unauthorised encampments about which the hon. Lady is so concerned.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, under the Localism Bill, giving local residents opportunities and empowering them to make their views heard will be paramount when it comes to taking such decisions? Surely that would end the lack of balance in a system in which the views of local residents are not heard and a disproportionate voice is given to the Travelling community.
I am not sure that the Travelling community is given a disproportionate voice. Hon. Members have outlined examples of abuses and cases in which sections of that community may have exploited loopholes in human rights legislation. I repeat that we all want to ensure that there is adequate provision for the Travelling community, and fairness for the settled and Travelling communities, and we will achieve that only through a significant increase in numbers of legitimate sites. My fear and worry is that localism legislation may make that more difficult to achieve.
The hon. Lady also mentioned workshops for Travellers and suggested—rather tongue in cheek, I suspect—that there should be workshops on planning laws for the settled community. That is perhaps a bit unfair. We are talking about a minority community that has real difficulties, and the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) pointed to issues such as mortality rates and educational outcomes. It is appropriate and helpful to work with that community and to outline not only its rights, but its responsibilities under planning legislation. That was a positive step by the Department for Communities and Local Government.
On the subject of Government proposals, what is particularly encouraging is the proposal that they will provide £50,000 to support training for councillors in how the relevant legislation works and how to ensure that the problems that have been raised today can be settled within local communities.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that intervention because it was one of the points that I intended to touch on if there was time. There are indeed some helpful proposals in the consultation document, and that one is useful. It is important that councillors are given appropriate training and the wherewithal to deal with what is often a thorny and difficult issue when they are on the front line dealing with these complex problems.
I agreed with the point made by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) about rights and responsibilities but, again, the antidote would be more authorised sites—I keep returning to that point. He was probably being slightly tongue in cheek when he suggested that there was a comparison between homeless people building unauthorised settlements in the countryside and the way in which Travelling communities establish unauthorised encampments. Clearly, that is a silly point, if I may put it that way to him, because where would a homeless family or a homeless individual be able to get the necessary building materials and the wherewithal to construct a house without planning permission in the countryside? That false comparison does not help to take the argument forward.
The hon. Gentleman also commented about dealing with retrospective planning permission. I think that he is suggesting that the Government should consider eliminating the ability for planning authorities to grant retrospective planning approval. Although that might deal with the problem that we are discussing today, if it ever came to pass, it might involve unforeseen, unintended consequences that could be very detrimental to his constituents in the fullness of time.
I am listening intently to what the hon. Gentleman is saying and trying to understand the position of Opposition Front Benchers. Do they support the old circular? Do they support the proposed new circular? Do they think that it should be tougher or stronger? I would be interested to hear his views about that.
We are very clear that there is a need for some improvement in the present situation, which does create difficulties. As I pointed out, the previous Administration took significant steps forward. However, we welcome the consultation exercise in which the present Government are engaged and we will fully co-operate with them when that has concluded. I do not want to state firmly that our position is one thing or another at this stage, because we need to wait for the outcome of the consultation. It would be wrong to prejudge what the outcome will be. It might be that helpful improvements could be made, but I do not want to say that we must stick steadfastly with the existing arrangement, or that we should do x, y or z, until we know the outcome of the consultation.
I probably do not have time to deal with all the other points that were made, but I shall touch on a few. The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) referred to the need for stronger enforcement. Yes, of course there should be enforcement, but until we deal with the root cause of why unauthorised encampments are established in the first place, there will probably always be a need to undertake enforcement, however strong it is. There will always be unlawful encampments unless there is an adequate provision of legitimate, authorised encampments for the Travelling community.
I pointed out earlier that the settled community also occasionally tries to do exactly what has been described, and the enforcement goes through quickly and the buildings are knocked down. However, the deviousness with which the planning system is manipulated by the Travelling community in relation to some of the sites in my constituency, where there is a considerable demand from both that community and the settled community, means that it persists beyond what is acceptable.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point to which the consultation exercise and the Government will need to respond.
I am delighted by the damascene conversion of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on the importance of the regional spatial strategies, so I hope that the Government will recognise that.
I concurred with the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), who made the very helpful comment that not all Travellers are bad. There is sometimes a dangerous tendency for people to misinterpret these debates and to caricature hon. Members as suggesting that everyone in the Travelling community is a rogue and a bad person—clearly that is not the case. I was delighted that the hon. Gentleman made that comment from the other side of the Chamber.
I conclude by reiterating that we await with interest the outcome of the consultation exercise. We will co-operate fully with the Government when the relevant documentation has been published.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate and thank all hon. Members who participated. Every one made legitimate and significant points, because these are areas of real concern. I thank the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) for the Opposition’s offer of co-operation once the consultation has concluded.
It is important to put the issue in context and say that we are in the process of consulting. I therefore hope that my hon. Friends will understand if I am at pains to ensure that the Government do not at this stage prejudge the consultation. We are consulting because we recognise that there is a problem. I appreciate, from the observations of a number of hon. Members today, that there is a sense of frustration, but I hope that they, too, will accept that, inevitably, the process of legislation cannot be gone through overnight. Some of the measures that the Government are taking to tackle this issue require primary legislation, which is currently in the other place. In addition, it is necessary to consult before we make changes to policy by way of guidance or regulation.
The Government think that it is more important to ensure that we get this right than attempt to rush it. In the past, things have gone wrong. We do not want a situation like the one that sadly we saw occur under the previous Government, in which the number of caravans on unauthorised developments increased from 887 in 1997 to 2,395 in 2010. No doubt the policies then were well-intentioned, but they were not thought through. We are determined to think this through, get it right and make it stick.
I commend the Minister’s keenness to ensure that everything is run professionally and well in his Department, but I am curious about why the consultation period has been extended. Twelve weeks is the usual consultation period. Why did the Department feel the need to extend that?
The Department took the view—this is not a unique case—that sometimes it is better to be a little more generous and sensible in consultation than to rush at fences. I am sure that by the time my hon. Friend has been in the House for as long as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), he will understand that, sometimes, taking things at a gentle pace gets a better end result. We want this to work, and the reason why we want it to work was encapsulated in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). It is essential that we have a system that is both fair and workable in the interests of the settled community and of the Traveller community, because it is right to say that the vast majority of Travellers are law-abiding. The majority of Travellers want to live on authorised sites and have social issues that need to be addressed, so it is as much in their interests as anyone else’s that we get something that is fair.
There is a very strong feeling that there is unfairness in the current system, which has caused the Government to take a number of steps to deal with the problem, all of which have been legitimately highlighted by my hon. Friends. Let me make clear what the Government seek to do. I know that time will not permit me to deal with every one of the legitimate points raised by my hon. Friends, but I undertake to write to them setting out some of the specific details for which they have asked.
I start with what the Government are doing, given the background. There is a real problem. There is a genuine sense in the country that the system is not fair and that it works against everyone’s interests. What are the Government seeking to do? First, we are committed to abolishing the regional strategies under the Localism Bill, which clearly requires primary legislation. It is frustrating for many that it should be necessary to take decisions in accordance with existing policies until they are revoked, but that is the law. When dealing with planning casework, Ministers have to act in a quasi-judicial fashion, but we are taking steps to abolish the regional strategies and the targets that go with them.
The Localism Bill also contains the primary legislation necessary to provide stronger enforcement powers to tackle unauthorised development. The Bill also contains important proposals to limit the opportunities for the abuse of retrospective planning permission. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley and others have referred to that important point. We are determined to ensure that retrospective permission is available if there has been a genuine mistake but not in cases of cynical manipulation, in which members of any community may be involved—I have come across cynical developers, too. We are taking steps to deal with that.
I hope that all who feel strongly on planning and on squatting will take part in the consultation. Indeed, I hope that all who have spoken in this debate, as well as getting their contributions on the record, will take the opportunity within the extended period of consultation to write on behalf of themselves and of their constituents. The Government take the matter seriously.
We have taken measures to ensure that supply problems are sensibly addressed. We have secured £60 million to help councils and other registered providers build new Traveller sites. The new homes bonus will apply to new Traveller sites to incentivise local authorities. We are applying the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to authorised Traveller sites to give Travellers who play by the rules a better sense of security. At the same time, we seek to deal with areas of abuse. We also want to deal with the fact that, at present, it is possible both to seek retrospective planning permission and to appeal against an enforcement notice. By manipulating the two processes, it is possible to extend the time for compliance almost indefinitely. The Localism Bill will remove that option and close that loophole. We are also considering strengthening enforcement powers.
The hon. Member for Derby North referred to the temporary stop notices introduced by the previous Government. They were a step in the right direction, but I know that concerns have been expressed about how effective they are in practice. We need to consider how they operate. It is critical that local planning authorities have implemented proper plans to deal with the needs of their areas. We are giving them the ability to assess what that need is. Hon. Members have spoken about the tests that should be applied, which is precisely what the consultation is for. We want to hear people’s views on the appropriateness of one test or another, and I hope that Members will feed their views into the consultation.
It is a protection for local authorities to have an up-to-date plan in relation to all planning matters, including the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites. Our approach, which involves an assessment of need and of supply over a reasonable period of years, will treat Gypsy and Traveller needs in a way that is much more closely aligned to that for housing generally. That greater symmetry of approach is part of our attempt to secure greater fairness for both sides. A number of steps have already been taken.
I appreciate the useful points that have been made by hon. Members, and I shall write in detail on the constituency points that they raised. I also encourage them to participate in the consultation. Once the consultation is closed, the Government will want carefully to consider the points that have been raised on this significant matter. It is therefore our intention to put in place a replacement circular, if we conclude that that is the best way forward, although one option proposed in the consultation is not to replace it. Once we have come to a conclusion, we intend to move swiftly.