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Traveller Sites (Dorset)

Volume 542: debated on Monday 12 March 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

I am pleased that the House has disposed of its business rapidly so that we can have a proper debate on Travellers in Poole, Bournemouth and Dorset. In a minute, one or two of my colleagues might run into the Chamber having been caught by the collapse of business.

Before I start, let me say that I have just emerged from hospital, having had appendicitis, and I would like to thank Oliver Allenby-Smith, his team and all the nurses on ward B4 of Poole hospital, who have been nursing me for five days. I am now on the mend and able to represent here my constituents in Dorset.

We all recognise the importance of making provision for Travellers. My experience throughout my political career is that if we make proper provision we have the legal powers to move people on from inappropriate places. It was a retrograde step when the John Major Government decided to move away from paying for pitches, because that diminished the infrastructure for many of the Traveller sites and has caused us problems ever since.

The difficulty in Dorset is that in 1996 Bournemouth and Poole both realised their aspirations of becoming unitary authorities again, and therefore strategic authorities. However, consideration was not given to the boundaries of either authority, so both remained fairly tightly drawn. From central Poole or central Bournemouth one can get to rural Dorset in about 10 or 15 minutes, so there is logic in having a policy for Travellers that encompasses not only Dorset county council, but the two other strategic authorities, Poole and Bournemouth.

Under the Housing Act 2004 Poole undertook a review of the housing need of Travellers. It carried out a consultation on the number of sites and came up with 20. It reduced that to three sites within its boundaries. One of the joys of having a local authority with no overall control is that the committee then decided to consult on all 20 sites. So I have many concerned and worried constituents who think they may well have a Traveller site in their own back yard.

I would like more co-ordination and co-operation among the three authorities. They all want to work together, but there are certain things that are causing a problem. One of the issues relates to policing, which does not impact directly on the Department for Communities and Local Government. The issue of joint transit provision is not one that strategic authorities are able to consider, because the Criminal Justice Act 2004 does not give the police powers to move Travellers across strategic authority boundaries. In Dorset, joint provision between lower-tier authorities is possible because under Dorset county council the higher tier is the strategic authority. Poole and Bournemouth do not have this opportunity because they themselves are both strategic authorities. Those authorities therefore have to provide facilities within area. That is not necessarily an easy fix. It seems bizarre that Dorset has one police force, the Dorset constabulary, yet under the law as it relates to policing, the force cannot move Travellers across Poole, Bournemouth or Dorset because they happen to be unitary authorities. That needs to be dealt with.

I would like a Minister to set out when we are likely to get the Travellers review. It would be helpful to see what obligations the local authority has. Does the Localism Act 2011, which introduced the duty of co-operation in plan-making, set out whether that will override other duties? What we need is co-operation among the three authorities. It is logical and it follows from our history and our geography that they should work together. Both Bournemouth and Poole are happy to make their contribution in financial terms, but the very tight geographical boundaries that both have make it extremely difficult to identify sites which do not have another purpose. In my constituency in Poole, for example, the only green area we have is Parkstone golf club. To the west is water, and to the north is an area of outstanding natural beauty and green belt, so identifying an efficient site within Poole will be extremely difficult.

Then there are the issues of permanent sites and transit sites. It is important that there should be transit sites. The advantage of Poole is that the transit site could easily be only a few miles up the road in rural Dorset, yet at present we seem to be precluded from taking action. I should like more information on what is envisaged. Earlier this year the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) replied to a written question on Travellers from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). My right hon. Friend said that he understood that there was widespread concern about rules and guidance on Travellers sites. He stated that the Department for Communities and Local Government had published the new draft planning policy for Travellers sites for consultation in April 2011, but I still do not think we have clarity.

On a number of occasions I, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole and my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) and for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) have tried to pin the Government down to give us more specifics, but the Government have not been able to do so. The situation is difficult. Logic demands a collaborative approach among Dorset, Poole and Bournemouth in discharging our duties towards Travellers. We have not been able to do so because of slight legal impediments, the police impediment that I set out, and the lack of clarity.

I hope that the Minister will be able to set out clearly the requirements under the Localism Act 2011. I had great hopes of the Act. This is the great new dawn for local government. The Act specifically introduces a duty to co-operate in plan-making, although there are no definitions of what the duty consists of. The authorities are meant to come together to agree a plan strategically. This is, in effect, what is happening between the three strategic authorities, Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole, with the joint Gypsy and Traveller work. However, that does not mean that we can offload our responsibility to provide appropriate sites, and we would not wish to do so.

We are in a state of flux. The borough council wants to do the right thing, but because there is no overall control, it has consulted on too many sites and there are many worried people. Our geography and our history mean that identifying appropriate sites is very difficult. As I stated, we went from 20 sites down to three and consulted on the three. One of the three sites under serious consideration, which was in the Branksome triangle, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West, is already being used for car parking for Liverpool Victoria and is therefore in employment use. It is very difficult for us to identify a site that could be used as a permanent or a transit site without losing employment land. We want to do the right thing, but that is extremely difficult because of our history and our geography. That is why I hope for some answers from the Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the Adjournment debate. Does he agree that one of the major issues that we face is uncertainty, which is upsetting and unsettling many members of the local communities that we both serve across the Bournemouth and Poole conurbation?

I agree. That is an important point. As a local politician, I am trying to get some certainty, as I am sure is my hon. Friend, so that there is a much clearer sense of direction. Therefore, we need a few more answers from Ministers. If we do not get them tonight, clearly we might need to have further meetings with the Minister concerned. The uncertainty means that people are becoming much more worried than they need to be, not least because Poole is consulting on rather too many sites, some of which are not appropriate, and worrying a lot of people. My postbag is filling up with letters from people who have genuine concerns, as I am sure is my hon. Friend’s. Poole wants to do the right thing.

One thing that is causing considerable anxiety locally is the fact that our councils are being forced to do the consultation that they are now undertaking. My understanding is that the consultation is part-funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and that it is a central Government requirement on local government. The point my hon. Friend made a moment ago about definition and clarity around the Localism Act 2011 is extremely important in relation to the Minister's response.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I think that the 2011 Act is a landmark piece of legislation, and we have high hopes that it will transform local government. He is right that we need a little more clarity on whether it will offset some of the other requirements that the Government have put on Poole. We want to do the right thing and provide sufficient sites. We want to provide what we have a duty to provide and to pay for it, but the difficulty is that he and I have extremely compact constituencies. It is difficult to find appropriate sites in our constituencies, yet there might be appropriate sites five or 10 minutes away from the conurbation. However, because we have unitary and strategic authorities it is very difficult to do that and leave Dorset constabulary in a situation where it can move Travellers on if it has to.

I know that Bournemouth has problems with Travellers on occasion and a number of temporary sites to deal with them at certain times of the year. Later in the debate I would be interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West set out his constituents’ concerns on what is a difficult and worrying subject, but one on which we as politicians need to get more clarity. Essentially, we want three authorities to work together on this, which is the whole thrust of the 2011 Act and which they want to do. We want to combine financially and make provision for Travellers in the appropriate way; the most appropriate way might be for the three authorities to make that provision on a collective basis. That might mean not necessarily having the sufficient number of sites within the boundaries of Bournemouth or Poole.

We need more clarity, and I hope that we will get it from the Minister. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West has similar views and concerns to mine and I would be interested to hear them, so that the Minister may reply with conviction and give us more reassurance on this very difficult policy issue that our local councillors have to comply with. That is really all I have to say. I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) in his place and am sure that he will respond brilliantly to the debate. If we do not get the answer we demand tonight, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West and I will look forward to further meetings with Ministers so that we can meet our objectives of providing for Travellers, safeguarding our constituents and getting efficient and effective local government.

I begin by again congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) on securing this debate and apologise for arriving a moment late. This afternoon I travelled up from the constituency of Bournemouth West, which I have the honour of representing, after attending the opening of a visitor facility in a café at the Cherry Tree nursery by Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal. That is relevant to the debate only because the nursery is surrounded by a large amount of greenfield land that has previously been occupied by illegal Gypsy and Traveller encampments, causing enormous distress to the people who work there—some wonderful young and old people who suffer from severe learning difficulties. The presence of those communities, often unannounced, has been a great source of concern to those people.

My hon. Friend is putting on the Minister responsible, who is yet to arrive, an extraordinary expectation in hoping that he will respond in detail to all the points that we are making, but I am sure that his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), who will reply to the debate, is taking all these points on board. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole went to the heart of the problem we face, which is that the previous Government’s policy remains in place. Before Christmas I spoke with the head of Gypsy and Traveller policy at the Department for Communities and Local Government, a lady called Nicola Higgins, who confirmed that the previous Government’s policy is still in place.

In the run-up to the most recent general election, we raised our local electorates’ hopes and expectations that the matter would be a priority of the Government who are now in office. Ministers still make the point that the Localism Act 2011 will give our local authorities the powers that they need to get together in groups and remove from them the requirement that each must have their own, separate, single-authority provision. My hon. Friend who secured this debate and I want the Government to complete that unfinished business and to move with some speed to reassuring our local communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) told the Bournemouth Daily Echo that he had been assured—according to my hon. Friend, by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, our hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)—that

“once the Localism Bill becomes law, councils will have an opportunity to re-submit their local plans without the obligation to automatically identify gypsy traveller locations.”

In a letter to me, however, the Under-Secretary indicated that

“every local housing authority is required under section 8 of the Housing Act 1985 to carry out an assessment of the accommodation needs of travellers.”

The ongoing consultation throughout Dorset is being funded in part by money from the Department, so there is an urgent need for the Government to clarify when the powers that we promised local authorities will become available to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole mentioned that there are a couple of proposed sites.

The hon. Members for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) and for Poole (Mr Syms) are making compelling and straightforward arguments, and it is good to see so many Members on the Treasury Bench to hear them, but does the hon. Member for Bournemouth West think that the problem is a lack of transparency or a lack of urgency from the Department?

I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman back in his place after his no doubt successful visit to the Falkland Islands—and this on Commonwealth day. As he knows, sometimes Governments of all persuasions need a little push, and it is our constituents who are giving us a push as those sites go out to consultation.

The current consultation, which is being carried out by Baker Associates throughout Dorset and funded to the tune of some £300,000 by the Department, is profoundly unsettling the communities that my hon. Friend the Member for Poole and I serve. One proposed site out to consultation at the moment is Lansdowne, right at the heart of Bournemouth, known locally as the gateway to Bournemouth and visible from the Wessex way.

As I said in my contribution, the real problem is that Bournemouth and Poole local authorities became unitary without the boundaries being looked at. Both areas are very compact, and finding suitable sites is difficult unless we do so on a Dorset-wide basis.

My hon. Friend makes a valid and compelling point which I wholly agree with and endorse.

My final point is that those communities, which include some elderly, vulnerable and frail people, are worried that our councils have gone out to consultation on specific sites. There is an excellent campaign being run on the Lansdowne site by a lady called Alex De Freitas, who has mobilised local traders and residents to put across their concerns.

We really want to hear tonight a compelling answer of some urgency from the Minister as to when our local authorities will be able to move away from that consultation and take up the very sensible powers with which they were presented in both governing parties’ pre-election offerings to the British people: the opportunity to come together and to make provision across multiple-authority areas, thereby giving the police the powers to move on the illegal encampments that do so much damage to the communities that my hon. Friend and I serve.

I, like my constituents, look forward with eager anticipation to the words of reassurance that will doubtless now flow from the Minister at the Dispatch Box.

First, let me say what an unexpected pleasure it is to have the opportunity to address the House on a matter that is of genuine significance and importance to my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr Syms) and for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), who spoke with eloquence about the situation that they face in Dorset and in their unitary authorities of Poole and Bournemouth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poole on having secured the debate. I am delighted to respond to at least some of the points that he raised, although he will understand that I may not be able to respond to them all, including those that refer to specific sites and specific planning applications and situations, because ultimately they might finish up on the desk of the Secretary of State, and in those circumstances it would not be appropriate for me to offer a view from the Dispatch Box.

May I say how very pleased I am to have my hon. Friend the Minister here replying to the debate? Sometimes greatness is thrust on people at the last minute. I look forward to his response, but my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) and I will find it perfectly understandable if he cannot respond to all the points raised.

This debate is being conducted in a generosity of spirit that we could perhaps export to other parts of our proceedings at other times.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole said that he was disappointed that a previous Government had withdrawn funding for the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites and expressed the view that that had made the situation more difficult. I remind him that this Government have recently announced a grant programme that will enable some 700 Gypsy and Traveller sites to be refurbished and built across England. There is still some money left in the fund, and we are open to receiving bids for the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites to take advantage of that funding. I understand his point about the added difficulty created by the various planning constraints that arise if it is also thought that significant amounts of money have to be spent, but the Government have responded to that. I appreciate his request for the Government to provide additional encouragement for the three authorities to work together, particularly in the potential co-ordination of police action. I will come to those points in a few minutes.

I want to make it clear that the Government are committed to encouraging sustainable development, and it is extremely important that local authorities plan for the future of their communities, within which there will be Gypsies and Travellers. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government have taken steps to abolish the regional spatial strategies, and we have published the draft national planning policy framework on which a consultation has concluded and on which a further announcement can be expected shortly. That clearly states that local authorities have a duty to provide a housing supply for residents living in their area, including those within the Gypsy and Traveller community. I welcome the fact that both my hon. Friends said that they recognised the commitment to provide sites.

I apologise for being a bit delayed in joining the debate, which I was expecting to take place at 10 o’clock. It is always a delight to start these debates earlier, particularly today, as it gives us another hour and 15 minutes to debate this subject. [Interruption.] Not in an intervention, I am reminded.

The Minister talked about councils’ obligations to the community. Does he agree that councils also have an obligation to defend and support the green belt, of which they are the custodians for future generations? Three permanent sites inside the green belt have been earmarked for north Bournemouth. This is not against Travellers per se, but against any form of development on the green belt, which is believed to be sacrosanct. Will the Minister endorse the line that councils must be given the duty, responsibility and power to make sure that green belts are protected?

I welcome my hon. Friend as another late arrival at the ball tonight. He makes a valid point relating to the consultation that we have carried out on the planning circulars on Gypsies and Travellers. Indeed, he puts his finger on one of the central concerns that led to the initiation of the consultation. I will come on to the next stages of that process in a little while.

There is an obligation on housing authorities to provide for all their residents, including Gypsies and Travellers. They must therefore make an assessment of what that need is and ensure that their local plan includes appropriate sites. The statutory guidance that we inherited implied that different planning rules should apply when sites were being allocated for Gypsies and Travellers. It is that incongruity between the planning constraints on the development of housing for the settled community and for the Gypsy and Traveller community that has often created difficulties and that the consultation is designed to address.

In providing the funding for new sites, responding to the consultation and developing a new planning framework, we must ensure that we do not simply drive the problem to another place, but that there is adequate provision for Gypsies and Travellers where it is needed. Central to the case of my hon. Friends the Members for Poole and for Bournemouth West is that they want there to be co-operation between the three planning authorities of Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset to ensure that that provision is delivered in the right place in an appropriate and timely fashion. To respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Poole, the Localism Act 2011 places a duty to co-operate in planning matters on local authorities. I am sure that he will want to draw that to the attention of the local authorities and ensure that it is delivered.

Our aim is for the new draft policy to be short, light touch and fair; to put the provision of sites back into the hands of local councils, in consultation with communities; and to protect green-belt land. We are considering the response to the consultation and intend to publish our new policy as soon as possible. Although this goes a little beyond my brief, the House will understand that that is likely to be linked to the publication of the national planning policy framework. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), has put it on record that we intend to publish the framework before the end of this month. I hope that that is some reassurance that we are very close to producing the final version of the policy that my hon. Friend the Member for Poole seeks.

It is important to put it on record that, like the rest of the population, the majority of Travellers are law-abiding citizens. They should have the same chance to have a safe place to live and bring up their children as anybody else. What is not acceptable is for anybody to abuse the planning system, for instance by trespassing and setting up encampments or other unauthorised developments. Another purpose of the planning circular, on which we have consulted and which will be published, is to ensure that some of the rule-bending that has taken place will be ruled out in future. The Government are developing a package of changes, including the use of incentives, through the planning system to provide a better balance between site provision and enforcement.

To ensure fair treatment of settled communities and the majority of Travellers, we are putting in place a range of measures including the abolition of the architecture of regional planning through the Localism Act 2011—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I appreciate my hon. Friends’ support for that measure. We are putting in place stronger enforcement powers for local authorities to tackle unauthorised development and setting out measures to limit the opportunities for retrospective planning permission. My hon. Friends might not be aware that we are setting aside £50,000 to support a training programme run by Local Government Improvement and Development, which is aimed at raising awareness among councillors of their leadership role in relation to Traveller site provision and planning applications.

My hon. Friend helpfully says “Lots.” I would be quite happy to provide further information, but it will provide councillors with day-long seminars at local authority level.

I have already mentioned that we have included in the Localism Act a duty on local councils to co-operate. That will require them to engage constructively in the planning process. We have included Traveller sites in the new homes bonus, to reward councils that deliver additional sites. That will mean that councils get financial benefits for building authorised Traveller sites where they are needed.

I have mentioned that we have allocated £60 million of Traveller pitch funding to help councils and other registered providers to build new sites. So far I have signed off bids totalling £47 million, which were announced in January and will lead to the setting up of more than 750 new and refurbished pitches for Travellers. Hon. Members may be interested to know that Dorset county council was a successful bidder for £1.75 million of support.

It is important to rise above the simple planning context, which is what we have mostly concentrated on, and recognise that the Gypsy and Traveller community suffers a very high level of discrimination and deprivation. It has some of the poorest social outcomes in education, health, access to financial services and of course housing.

May I gently put it to the Minister that neither my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) nor I has in any way sought to denigrate members of the Gypsy and Traveller community or be alarmist about them? We are interested in pushing the Government towards a position in which our local authorities can respond to legitimate need but at the same time give the police the power that they need to move on illegal encampments, which are often positioned in sensitive areas and have an impact on tourism and other matters in our communities.

I fully understand my hon. Friend’s point, and I hope to get to that in a sentence or two.

I can report to the House that a cross-Government ministerial-level working group has been preparing proposals on how we can address the discrimination and poor social outcomes that Travellers experience. We have applied the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to authorised local authority sites, to give residents of local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites better protection against eviction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West has once again brought to the House’s attention the question of unauthorised developments and what happens next. As a matter of definition, an unauthorised development is land owned by Travellers but developed without planning permission. The Government are getting tough on unauthorised development. We will not tolerate abuse of the planning system by anyone. Local authorities have a range of powers to deal with unauthorised developments, but the fact of the matter is that planning enforcement remains a problem. The powers include temporary stop notices, which do not normally allow the removal of a caravan that is a person’s main residence. In addition to the measures set out in the Localism Act 2011, the Government are considering strengthening temporary stop notice powers. The measures in the Act include increasing penalties for non-compliance with a breach of condition notice, from a maximum fine of £1,000 to one of £2,500, and limiting the opportunities for retrospective planning in relation to any form of unauthorised development.

Unauthorised encampments—Travellers trespassing on land not owned by Travellers—can be tackled not just through the planning system, but through the criminal justice system and civil courts. The police and local authorities have a range of powers to deal with such encampments. The full range of powers can be used when an alternative site is available in the local authority area. My hon. Friends have pointed out that because of the tight constraints and small geographical areas of both Poole and Bournemouth, it is difficult to establish the availability of such sites in the local authority areas. Their plea is for the Government to consider widening the scope of that measure, possibly using the duty to co-operate. I have taken note of what they said on that point and undertake to respond to them more fully.

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. With an hour and five minutes left, he has been extremely generous in allowing hon. Members to elaborate on aspects of this important debate. Will he clarify an important issue that affects both Poole and Bournemouth? The regional spatial strategy has been removed and regional development agencies are disappearing, with the 2011 Act replacing them. I understand that Bournemouth borough council now offers in the submission of its core strategy a different paragraph on where Gypsy and Traveller sites can be—it can make the case that Bournemouth is not appropriate and that those people should be placed elsewhere. Will the Minister confirm that? If he cannot do so now—I understand that he stepped in for another Minister—I would be grateful if his Department could write to me.

I should make it clear to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I do not feel any deep obligation to keep going for another hour and a quarter.

I would not want my hon. Friend to be too premature. The final version of the national planning policy framework has not yet been published. As I said earlier in my remarks, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells, has told the House that the intention is that the national planning policy framework should be published before the end of this month. At that point, there will also be a statement on how it comes into force. Until that moment, it would not be appropriate for a planning authority to proceed—indeed, the authority could not proceed, because our proposals of last year have not yet been confirmed. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East and I might have a reasonable expectation that when the framework is in force, the words he has used would be the appropriate ones to apply.

I thank the Minister for responding to this debate. He deserves time off for good behaviour. I am sure that any points that he has not covered can be dealt with later by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill).

Yes, it has been suggested that I mention that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) will be only too delighted to visit the constituency of each Member who has spoken. If it is thought appropriate, I will give that commitment on his behalf.

We have discussed matters of real significance and importance to the constituents of the Members who have spoken. I do not seek to trivialise that at all. They have generously said that if there are points that I have failed to cover appropriately, they will give my hon. Friend the Minister another chance. On that basis, I hope that the House will be satisfied with my responses and that in due course the matter can be drawn to a full conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.