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Travellers (Mole Valley)

Volume 600: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2015

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Travellers and planning in Mole Valley constituency.

I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and to see the Minister joining us. Having been in that position some years ago myself, I do not envy him.

Mole Valley constituency consists of Mole Valley District Council and the eastern wards of Guildford Council. It is close to London and to Epsom downs so it is attractive to Travellers from afar. Mole Valley District Council is smothered—I think that would be the right word—with building restrictions. Sites of special scientific interest, areas of outstanding natural beauty and the green belt protect, in total, an astonishing 90% of the district. The level of protection for the Guildford wards in my constituency is probably the same.

The councils and the population accept the need for Traveller sites but not without limit. For example, Mole Valley District Council has 11 authorised sites and has recently given planning permission for an enlargement of two of those sites. The majority of the sites are private. In drawing up its draft local plan, which is still in progress, there are indications that the planned housing numbers might be reduced to reflect the difficulty of allocating land for houses where the proportion of green-belt land is so high. This, however, does not seem to apply for the requirements for Travellers. The current assessment for Mole Valley alone is 42 additional sites by 2027. When looking at this, would the Minister reflect on the fact that Surrey County Council, which runs the local authority Traveller sites, has a waiting list across the whole of Surrey for 65 families, rather than the 42 just for Mole Valley alone? My first plea, therefore, is for the Traveller site requirements to be dramatically lowered for Mole Valley District Council, Guildford Council and councils with similar problems but without quite the demand when we look at it in the large.

I wish to focus on the way in which a very few Travellers manipulate the system in ways that would not be entertained by settled residents or by planning authorities looking at the action of settled residents. In saying that, I re-emphasise the number of successful, popular sites in the area that cause no difficulties and no arguments, and where there are agreements on planning.

I wish to touch on two examples. One is in Guildford—a site on a little narrow private lane off the A246. The A246 is a busy two-lane road linking Leatherhead with the A25 to Guildford. There is, nearby, an authorised site off a similar small road to the west of the A246. The wee road I am focusing on is narrower and off to the east. There are a few properties in the lane but generally development is severely limited as the road goes through, or close to, an area of natural beauty and ancient forests, and is entirely in the green belt. A Traveller from outside Mole Valley inherited the land, squatted on it and, over a short period of time, placed a number of caravans, trucks and cars there. He ran a number of different businesses from the site, as indicated by advertisements but denied by the owner when questioned. He originally claimed that his children were living with him but that appears to have ceased apart from his 18-year-old son, who works there from time to time.

Currently, a mother and children originally from the site on the other side of the A246 are there periodically but claiming residency. This is refuted by the neighbours, who have kept tabs and notified Guildford Council. Guildford Council wrote to the mother telling her not to move on to the site. That instruction was ignored. Guildford Council has interviewed the Traveller about the children and their residency. The children are registered in the local school and with the local GP. However, that would apply from the site that they moved from in the first place; the residency is still claimed. Of course, when the council officer goes to check, she makes an appointment and, of course, forewarned is forearmed.

The planning situation is that the Traveller applied for permission for a Traveller site, which Guildford Council—correctly, in my opinion—rejected. That went to appeal, which the inspector also rejected, setting the middle of July this year as the date for the site to be vacated and set back to its original state. This was to allow the Traveller time to find alternative accommodation. Of course, nothing has happened. Instead, there has been an increase in activity and it appears to me that the presence of the children is being brought to the fore in anticipation of the council placing an enforcement notice, which, if the pattern follows, will be appealed, causing a further delay.

The Mole Valley District Council case relates to green-belt land adjacent to a farm and the River Mole. This pastoral land was sold to a handful of Travellers in 2003. Mole Valley District Council served an injunction on the families not to move on to the site, which was ignored; they moved their caravans to the site in August 2003. They then applied for a nine-pitch site in October 2003, which was refused. The appeal on that refusal was refused in November 2004. A year later, a further application for four pitches was refused in December 2005. The appeal in May 2007 refused it but allowed residency for four years, expiring in May 2011, to allow for alternative accommodation to be sought. One month before the expiry date three further applications were submitted. All were refused, all were appealed and all appeals were refused, except that temporary permission was granted until 10 April 2016. Again, that was to find an alternative site because of the children.

Since the Travellers’ 2003 arrival at the site, the area has been fenced, a fast-growing hedge has been planted and a number of caravans and a few other buildings of a more permanent design have been placed there. Also, to my amusement, two large, high, wrought-iron electrically-operated gates have been erected between pillars, as if they were the entrance to a minor stately home.

The farmer adjacent to the site has, with considerable difficulty, obtained planning permission to enlarge his home to accommodate his modest family. The difficulty he had was that the same planning regulations applied to him as to his Traveller neighbours. I suppose he could have gone ahead and built to his desire and then run a long series of applications and appeals using his children to squeeze the authorities. He did not. He went through the proper procedures, slowly and carefully, and got the appropriate permission. If he had not done so, as I am sure the Minister would agree with me and the planning authority, it would have forced him to demolish. Interestingly, that happened to a neighbour in the Guildford case, whose property happened to be three inches too large and had to be pulled down and rebuilt.

Both of the Traveller examples I have given are a flagrant abuse of our system. Our system was made for people to recognise it and to use it for the benefit of themselves and the community. Neither group of Travellers is from Guildford or Mole Valley, yet the councils feel—or, in the case of Mole Valley, have been told—that they have a responsibility for the families. If those families had arrived asking for social housing, they would have been told, “No.” They would have been told that they were intentionally homeless.

I ask for four small things. First, as I mentioned at the beginning, I ask for a reduction in the expected required numbers to reflect the green belt and similar restrictions for the authorities I mentioned and others like them. Secondly, I would be interested in the Minister’s interpretation of his recent changes in the regulation. Could they influence cases where the children are being used to manipulate planning? I realise that he cannot specifically use the two examples that I have mentioned, but he can talk broadly enough for me to be able to interpret with a bit of help.

Thirdly, does the Minister accept—I hope he does—that, in cases where the Travellers are not originally from the council area, the local authority should not be landed with the responsibility for accommodation or sites? Effectively, the Travellers are homeless by their own hand.

Finally, as we probably will not get quite what I would like out of this debate, is the Minister willing to accept a small—I mean small—delegation from Guildford and Mole Valley to come with me to discuss the problems? These are not the only Traveller problems in the area, and the problems will continue unless we can finally put a stop to this. As the Government have said, and as the Minister has said, the same should apply to settled families as applies to Traveller families.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on securing this debate about planning for Gypsies and Travellers in his constituency. He has outlined examples that many of us have experienced either as councillors or Members of Parliament, let alone as Ministers. There is frustration in communities about such behaviour. I make it clear that we are committed to encouraging sustainable development, and it is important that local authorities plan for the future of their communities, including Travellers, in a way that is locally appropriate.

The Government attach great importance to the protection of our green belt. The green belt prevents urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open, and we do not want to see that protection eroded. We understand that green belt is highly valued by local people in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the country. That is why our policy makes it clear that most forms of development on the green belt are inappropriate and should not be approved except in very special circumstances. He raised four particular queries at the end of his speech, and I should be able to address all four in the next few minutes.

Local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given in their planning decisions to any harm to the green belt. We have made it clear that Traveller sites, whether temporary or permanent, are inappropriate development in the green belt and that local planning authorities should strictly limit the development of new Traveller sites in the open countryside. Increasing the amount of authorised site provision should not be at the cost of the countryside, the green belt, other sensitive areas, such as the ones he outlined, or the interest of the settled community.

This is a challenging issue, and I share my hon. Friend’s concern that planning decisions can sometimes appear to fail to find the right balance between adequate supply and protection of our treasured landscape. However, applications for such sites undergo rigorous scrutiny by the local planning authority, informed by comments from local communities, and such decisions are rightly for the local planning authority to take. He has outlined a number of examples where appeals have held up the local authority’s decision.

As Members will know, the previous coalition Government consulted on proposals to ensure fairness in the planning system, to strengthen protection of the green belt and the countryside and to address the negative effects of unauthorised development of land. We announced new planning policies in August 2015, including an updated planning policy for Traveller sites, implementing many of the proposals on which we have previously consulted. We changed the planning definitions of Gypsies and Travellers so that they now refer only to those who lead a genuinely nomadic lifestyle. We believe that if a Gypsy or Traveller has ceased to travel on a permanent basis, they should have their planning applications considered under national planning policy with the rest of the settled community, with everybody being treated exactly the same.

Through the Housing and Planning Bill we are seeking to ensure that the assessment of housing need covers Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community together, fairly addressing the perception that some groups receive favourable treatment—that is not the way forward. We have also introduced policies further to protect our green belt and sensitive sites. If a local planning authority cannot demonstrate an up-to-date five-year supply of deliverable sites, it should no longer be a significant material consideration when considering applications for the grant of temporary planning permission in those areas. We have made it clear that, subject to the best interest of the child, unmet housing need and personal circumstances are unlikely clearly to outweigh harm to the green belt and any other harm so as to establish very special circumstances.

Local authorities should also strictly limit new Traveller sites in the open countryside. We have made it clear that, in exceptional circumstances where a local authority is burdened by large-scale unauthorised sites that have significantly increased their need, there is no assumption that the local authority is required to meet that Traveller site need in full.

The Government are concerned about unauthorised development of land, which can cause irreparable damage to the environment, endanger the safety of occupants and neighbours and undermine confidence in our planning system, which is a point my hon. Friend rightly raised. We have already introduced measures through the Localism Act 2011 to enable councils to deal effectively with those who choose to ignore planning rules. Those measures give local councils the powers to deal effectively with retrospective or misleading applications. Again, he gave a good example of where that has happened. All should be treated the same.

Our new policy goes further by ensuring that intentional unauthorised development is a material consideration that should be weighed in the determination of planning applications and appeals. My hon. Friend rightly said that I cannot comment on individual sites in and around his constituency, not least because the circumstances of each case are unique and because of the quasi-judicial role, but I appreciate how controversial some Traveller sites can be. We have made it clear that that is no reason for local planning authorities to fail to provide the sites that Travellers need, as required by policy, within planning rules by which we all abide. Delaying the establishment of a robust supply of sites to meet need in a way that is consistent with policy as a whole merely exposes local planning authorities to unplanned development, which may prove more controversial in the long term than the provision established during a local plan process.

The previous coalition Government rightly did away with Labour’s top-down approach to planning, under which targets for Traveller pitches were forced on local authorities by unelected regional bodies. Instead, “Planning Policy for Traveller Sites” outlines local authorities’ responsibility to plan for their Traveller communities, just as they are required to plan for the rest of their communities. Our policy aims to increase the number of Traveller sites in appropriate locations, in line with objectively assessed need—no more, no less.

Will the Minister reflect on my point that, using the current procedures, it is estimated that Mole Valley District Council will have to find 42 sites by 2027, but the waiting list for Surrey as a whole is only 65? Will he therefore reflect on the possibility of changing the rules sufficiently to reduce the number required by the current regulations?

If my hon. Friend bears with me for a moment or two, I will address directly that point and his four other points.

We are ensuring that we provide fair treatment, which is why we share my hon. Friend’s concerns about unauthorised encampments and the disruption and expense that they cause for local communities. On that direct point, areas should consider their housing need when they develop their local plan, which also contains a duty to co-operate. There is therefore an issue about working with neighbouring authorities on a fair spread of Traveller sites, as they would for any other part of their housing need. That links to his fourth point, which was a request to come to see us with a small delegation from the authority. I am happy to arrange that meeting with Baroness Williams, the Under-Secretary who deals with such issues on a day-to-day basis. I will liaise with her after this debate and arrange for the delegation to come in to have that conversation.

Councils and landowners often think that they are powerless to stop unauthorised encampments, but I am keen to stress that extensive powers are open to them. My hon. Friend may be aware that in March 2015 the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice and I sent a joint ministerial letter to council leaders and police and crime commissioners, and I am happy to let him have a copy of the letter. We expressed our concern that local authorities and the police are not seen to be doing enough to stop unauthorised encampments. To accompany the letter we reissued a summary of the robust powers that councils and landowners have to remove unauthorised Traveller sites.

I will just make a couple of final points. I have touched directly on the issue about the changes around children and their assessed need as opposed to the needs of the green belt itself. Indeed, that answers my hon. Friend’s question about the local planning process that deals with the housing need for the area, so that the needs of Travellers are dealt with alongside those of everybody else in the area. He made a very relevant point in that regard.

We are committed to encouraging sustainable development. It is important that local authorities plan for the future of their communities and deliver the housing that is needed. Travellers are part of our communities and local authorities must ensure that they have appropriate provision, but Travellers should be treated in the same way as everybody else and abide by the same planning rules.

We attach great importance to the protection of our green belt, and local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given in planning decisions to consideration of any potential harm to the green belt; I expect to see that happening right through the planning system. Traveller sites, whether temporary or permanent, are inappropriate developments in the green belt, and personal circumstances and unmet need are unlikely to clearly outweigh harm to the green belt and any other harm.

We have updated planning policies for Gypsies and Travellers to ensure fairness in the planning system, to strengthen protection for the green belt and countryside, and to address the negative effects of unauthorised development of land. The Housing and Planning Bill will take that process one step further.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.