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Travellers in Mole Valley

Volume 658: debated on Thursday 25 April 2019

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

I thank the Minister for being here as the last man standing. It is an awful position, one I used to have, too. However, this is an opportunity to raise a vexing issue that has plagued my constituency and Surrey as a whole. We are now in what we call the summer Traveller season; it is like a disease. Mole Valley constituency consists of Mole Valley District Council south of the M25 and the eastern wards of Guildford Borough Council. It is close to London and to Epsom downs, so it is attractive to Travellers from afar, and many of those come with a distinct Irish accent.

We have two distinct, different types of Traveller problem. The first involves those who suddenly appear and squat on a site. The second involves those who squat on a site that they say they own or have access to, and then proceed to openly defy planning regulations. The first group very occasionally have permission to camp—as I have noticed—use the site and then they leave it as it was found. That is rare, and normally things are quite different. This is exemplified by an incident at the end of March, when five caravans and various vehicles squatted on a public commuter car park near Leatherhead station. The council moved fast—or, rather, as fast as possible—and after a few days it served a section 77 notice for the caravans to move. Predictably, that was ignored and a couple of days later the police arrived in force and moved them on, with the council then doing the clean-up. This was a waste of time and money, and a blockage, with a loss of space, of a busy commuter car park.

Last Traveller season, Surrey had hundreds of these incidents, and Mole Valley had more than its share. Surrey’s councils and the population accept the need for Traveller sites, but not without limit. Currently, the Surrey districts are working together to provide one or two transit sites, which will help the police and councils to justify their action. Elmbridge Borough Council, a Surrey council, has tried something revolutionary. It mapped every public space—churchyards, schools, playgrounds and so on—in Elmbridge and then obtained a three-year injunction against Traveller squatting on those mapped sites. That meant the police in Elmbridge could act straightaway, regardless of who the individuals were, and whom the vehicles and caravans belonged to. However, this approach has several downsides. As a member of the National Farmers Union, I note that no private land, including farm land, was covered by the injunction. The injunction was for only three years, and huge public efforts and expenditure went into setting up the maps. What this approach does provide is an indication that if such land squatting was criminalised nationally, as I believe applies in Ireland, direct action by the police could take place, whoever owns the land, although obviously at the landowner’s request.

The second area of Traveller abuse relates to abuse of planning law. Mole Valley District Council and the Mole Valley constituency are smothered with building restrictions; we have sites of special scientific interest, areas of outstanding natural beauty, green belt and so on. This includes the Guildford wards next door. Any constituent from the settled community that builds without permission, particularly on land where these restrictions apply, can expect to be required to remove the development. Some of the Traveller community do not believe these laws apply to them—or they choose to ignore them. I wish to focus on how a very few of these Travellers manipulate the system in ways that would not be entertained by settled residents or by planning authorities. In saying that, I emphasise that there are a number of successful, popular Gypsy, Traveller sites in the constituency where there are no difficulties and no arguments, and where the community is integrated.

First, I shall touch on two long-standing examples. One is in Guildford, on a site on a narrow little private lane off the A246. The A246 is a busy road, but the lane is tiny and narrow, with few properties. Development is severely limited as it is an area of natural beauty, with ancient forests—it is green belt and so on. A Traveller from outside Mole Valley inherited the land, or access to it, squatted on it and, over a short period, placed a number of caravans, trucks and cars there and ran several different businesses from the site.

The second example is in Leatherhead, on green-belt pasture land. Since what I believe are Irish Travellers arrived at the site in 2003, which is a few days back, the area has been fenced, a fast-growing hedge has been planted, a number of caravans have been placed there and a few other buildings of a more permanent design have been built. To my amusement, two large, high, wrought-iron, electrically operated gates have been erected between pillars at the entrances. It looks like the entry to a minor stately home.

On both sites, it is apparently the norm that all injunctions have been ignored; numerous applications have been made, rejected and appealed; and relations with the local community are fractious, with numerous threats to community members. As I said, the Travellers arrived in 2003, so this has been going on for years, without success in ensuring that the planning laws respected by the settled community are not ignored or dodged by devious legal means by the people who have squatted there.

A third case commenced this Easter weekend in Capel. By chance, I drove past and came across the site. Going by the accent, it was probably a group of Irish Travellers, with two or three small caravans squatted on a two-acre field. They claim that they own the land, which may or may not be true. The land is accessed by a narrow agreed-access way over another person’s land. The squatters bought in a small digger and widened the access way, and they wooden-fenced the widened way without the landowner’s agreement. This morning, I observed that the fence has been taken down while the access is being further enlarged and re-fenced to allow through bigger vehicles, such as horse-carrying vehicles and bigger caravans. The standing passage right of way for this field specifically bans caravans.

The individuals have brought in a number of lorry-loads of hardcore, which was laid and spread by a fairly large JCB digger. The wooden buildings were knocked down to make space for what I understand are going to be new buildings, including stables. A local neighbour I talked to was threatened by the individuals in respect of the water supply, which I understand has been accessed probably without the water company’s agreement. Moreover, other neighbours have been threatened and told not to interfere or they will suffer severe retaliation.

The local council is seeking legal advice pending an approach to the courts. The Travellers have put in the usual foot-in-the-door planning application for caravans and stables for a horse business. This probably means that the council cannot act on any injunction until the application is heard, presumably reviewed, refused and then appealed. That will probably be followed by a further sequence of applications and appeals, and in around 20 years’ time these people will have continued to breed there, raised their horses, increased the whole site, or at least the number of vehicles on it, and added numerous caravans and more businesses.

The behaviour is along the lines of what I have seen of the Mafia in Sicily. One might ask why these people would act in this way; the answer is, of course, because they can and nobody, including the courts, the police and the local authority, seems capable of stopping them. The Minister and his Department have being running a review for months, now running into years. It is time for a speedy and tough response.

First, in cases of squatting on possibly-owned land and the ignoring of planning regulations, I would like the Government to change the legislation to enable local authority planning officers to place an immediate stop notice on even minor development, with heavy fines and ultimately jail for failure to comply and return the land to the condition it was in before. Leave it to the Travellers rather than the local authorities to go to court if they wish to oppose the stop notice. Where Travellers squat on other people’s land without permission, this should be made a criminal offence. That is how it is done in Ireland and it seems to work, enabling the police to take direct and immediate action.

Next, will the Minister consider tightening up the legal definition of Travellers? It is too loose at the moment, and one thing that those who squat do not do is travel. Related to that is the extraordinary requirement that the claim to need to live in caravans should overcome the normal and understandable offer of bricks and mortar accommodation. That is particularly relevant where children and infants would by normal standards be accommodated in a better and healthier environment in a normal dwelling. I have a number of other suggestions, but I will test just one more. Will the Minister enlarge on the definition of repetitive similar applications, so that these can be accumulated and rejected at a stroke?

There is a belief among many of the settled community who brush up against these individuals—that is a polite way of putting such contact—that such Travellers ignore normal law-abiding activity because the law is weak and ineffective. My experience supports that feeling. Change is years overdue; and, because of the Easter events, let me make a vain request: can any change be made retrospective to the day before last Easter? Over to you, Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on securing this important debate. Reading through the materials to prepare for this evening, I saw very clearly his long-standing commitment to standing up for his constituents on, as he described it, this vexing issue. It was also clear that he has consistently pushed the Government to support his residents, and I commend him for that.

I am pleased to say that the Government take the issue of unauthorised encampments extremely seriously. Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing have listened extensively to the views of those in this House on this highly sensitive and important issue and recognise the strong feelings and concerns raised by many Members. Just as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley has articulated powerfully about his own constituents, many other hon. Members have also highlighted the sense of unease and intimidation that residents feel when an unauthorised encampment occurs, the frustration at being unable to access amenities and premises and the waste left and cost once an unauthorised encampment has moved on. The Government were also troubled to hear about the widespread perception that the rule of law does not apply to those who choose a nomadic lifestyle and that the sense of available enforcement powers did not protect settled communities properly—all points that my hon. Friend has made on many occasions previously.

The Government therefore sought evidence on this issue through a formal and substantive consultation. Our “Powers for dealing with unauthorised development and encampments” consultation received more than 2,000 responses, and I am pleased to say that the Government published our response just a couple of months ago. Among the various concerns raised by colleagues in the House and members of the public, particular issues were highlighted regarding illegal activity, enforcement or the lack thereof, concerns about planning policy and the green belt, and concerns about outcomes for the travelling community.

I am confident that I speak for everyone in this House when I say that we recognise that the majority of the travelling community are decent, law-abiding people, but we need to ensure that the system is fair for all members of our communities. That means ensuring that everybody has the same opportunities, is subject to the same laws and is free from the negative effects of those who choose to break the law.

I am pleased to say that the Government response puts forward a package of measures to address those issues, including consultation on stronger powers for the police to respond to unauthorised encampments, practical and financial support for local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments, support for Traveller site provision, and support for the travelling community to improve life chances. I thank ministerial colleagues in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice for their assistance in this work.

I will summarise the various strands of work that the Government are now undertaking. In doing so, I will respond to the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. I will first address my hon. Friend’s concern regarding intentional unauthorised development—in particular, how intentional unauthorised development should be taken into account when planning permission is sought retrospectively. In 2015, the Government introduced a policy that made intentional unauthorised development a material consideration in the determination of planning applications and appeals. As set out in our response, we are concerned that harm is caused where the development of land has been undertaken in advance of obtaining planning permission; the Government have listened to my hon. Friend on this issue. The Government have now committed to consulting on options for strengthening this policy on intentional unauthorised development so that local authorities have the tools to address the effects of such development. This will help to ensure greater confidence and fairness in the planning system.

On a related matter, I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government remain committed to strong protection of the green belt, which my hon. Friend has also championed many times in this place. The Government have been very clear, through the national planning policy framework, that inappropriate development—including Traveller sites, whether temporary or permanent —is harmful to the green belt and should only be approved in very special circumstances. The document “Planning policy for traveller sites”, which was updated in 2015, makes it clear that personal circumstances and unmet need are unlikely to clearly outweigh harm to the green belt.

The planning system is of course continually reviewed, and I will take on board the comments made by my hon. Friend tonight as the Department looks at updating its guidance for Traveller sites to bring that in line with the national planning policy framework. Indeed, the Department always reserves the option of issuing planning practical guidance documents to fine tune our view on particular interpretations of planning guidance.

This Government are also committed to continuing to address the disparities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. As a result, we have provided £200,000 of funding for six projects that aim to improve outcomes in the areas of educational attainment, health and social integration. We have also funded 22 projects that support Roma communities across England through the controlling migration fund. Interventions include improving access to services, improving health outcomes, outreach and supporting children and English language learning. We have also provided two projects with £55,000 each to tackle hate crime against GRT communities.

I will finish by summarising our ongoing work on enforcement against unauthorised encampments, because I am aware that this has been a particular concern, as highlighted by my hon. Friend. I am pleased to say that we have identified a set of measures to extend the powers available to the police to enable unauthorised encampments to be tackled more effectively and hopefully to reduce the frustration felt by many constituents of my hon. Friend and others that these issues are not being dealt with as they would like.

As highlighted in our response to the recent consultation, the Government will seek parliamentary approval to amend sections 61 and 62A of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. These amendments will include increasing the period in which trespassers directed from land will be unable to return from three months to 12 months.

Will that apply where the individuals concerned claim to own or actually own the land, or just on public-type land or other people’s land?

This is a matter for the Home Office, which will soon be launching a public consultation on the specific nature of these measures. I am sure that it will welcome my hon. Friend’s views on how they should be implemented and the detail behind them. I would be happy to ensure that his views are passed on to the Department as it constructs the consultation.

The amendments will also include lowering from six to two or more the number of vehicles needing to be involved in an unauthorised encampment before police powers can be exercised and enabling the police to remove trespassers from land that forms part of the highway, which is another very specific barrier that has been identified.

My hon. Friend said that England should consider adopting the Irish model to criminalise unauthorised encampments. Like many others, he notes that this process in the Republic of Ireland had led to an increased number of Travellers in this country, and many have urged the Government to adopt the Irish model. I would like to reassure him and all those interested in pursuing this that the Government will conduct a review of how this can be achieved.

My Department will support local authorities with up to £1.5 million of funding to support planning enforcement. Finally, my hon. Friend raised temporary stop notices. These allow local authorities to act swiftly to tackle unauthorised developments, and I am pleased to tell him that the Secretary of State has confirmed that he is minded to extend the period for which these temporary orders can be put in place.

I am also pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State is looking forward to sitting down with him to discuss these issues in more detail and, in particular, to ensure we can learn from the experience of his constituents as we look to improve measures to tackle this greatly vexing issue.

I thank my hon. Friend for all his contributions to this debate. He should without question be commended for ensuring that the views and needs of his constituents are raised in this House with force and power and repeatedly with Ministers so that we can act to improve the lives of his residents through changing these policies. I hope that he feels reassured that the Government are listening to his concerns and progressing the commitments we made in response to the consultation. I look forward to working with him on these issues in the coming months.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.