I beg to move,
That this House has considered Gypsies, Travellers and the planning system.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I also thank other hon. Members for being present today, including Members who have long spoken out on these issues such as my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), and others. I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council.
I have called this debate because it is my contention that the Government’s planning policy with regard to Gypsies and Travellers is simply not working. I call on the Minister to ensure that during this five-year term of Conservative government, we finally get on top of this issue, because the policy is going in the wrong direction. Planning policy with regard to Travellers has as its aim
“to ensure fair and equal treatment for travellers in a way that facilitates their traditional and nomadic way of life while respecting the interests of the settled community.”
What I want, and what I think most hon. Members want, is for everyone in the planning system to receive fair and equal treatment regardless of their background. The present policy regarding Travellers does not respect the interests of the settled community. The Government go on to say that in respect of Traveller sites, their aim is to reduce tensions between the settled and Traveller communities in plan-making and planning decisions. I say to the Minister that far from reducing tensions, the present planning system is inflaming them, because Travellers effectively have preferential treatment within the planning system.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when we talk about the settled community, we do not just mean residents—although they can be deeply troubled by this issue—but people who are seeking to earn a living through their businesses in local communities? Within the past few days, a business has written to me to say that it is having repeated difficulties because of wrongful occupation of a business site in my constituency. I know that is not the only place where this is happening; it is a repeated occurrence.
My hon. Friend makes a superb point in an excellent way, and I entirely concur. However, the settled community does not include only residents and businesses, but Travellers. During one of his excellent debates on this issue, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire pointed out that we know from the 2011 census that three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers live in houses, bungalows or flats. Only a quarter live in caravans or mobile homes, yet Gypsies and Travellers as a whole have an existing, separate planning law for themselves that only applies to a quarter of their population. That kind of special treatment within the planning system applies to no other ethnic group.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree—perhaps he will not—that historically, planning laws have discriminated against Travellers who live a nomadic lifestyle, the percentage who are not in the bungalows he describes? Those laws have sealed up areas in which Travellers have traditionally stayed; have prevented Travellers from being able to move easily from site to site; and have created hostilities not because they have given preferential treatment to Travellers, but because they have given them discriminatory treatment. Is it not an indictment that five councils in this country have still not identified any Traveller sites, and very few have identified their full limit? That is the discrimination in the planning system, not the other way around, as the hon. Gentleman seems to suggest.
I do not think anyone has any objection to Gypsies and Travellers who legitimately want to travel, so long as when they park up, they do so lawfully, on land that they either own or have permission to park up on. The problem is that the quarter of the Traveller community who do travel all too frequently park up on land that they do not own, and where they do not have permission to be.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Regarding his last point, he will know that although the Government did not use this phrase, they effectively committed in the Conservative party manifesto to what is known as the Irish option, making acts of deliberate trespass a criminal, rather than civil, offence. However, he will also know that doing so will require primary legislation. I ask him to press the Minister to give us some timings for when that legislation will be introduced in the Commons, and to confirm which Department will be leading on it.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I will do so straight away: I put it to the Minister that this legislation needs to be brought forward as soon as possible, so that we can address this problem head on. Of course, this has been done in the Republic of Ireland, which in 2002 changed trespass from a civil offence to a criminal offence. That is actually inflaming the problem in this country, because many Irish Travellers are not in Ireland any more; they are here.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He will know that in the Republic of Ireland, the criminalisation of trespass is part of a much wider, holistic package of equalities, rights and social programmes for Gypsies and Travellers that do not exist in this country. When pressing the Minister on the progress of this legislation, will he join me in pressing him on the flawed nature of the Home Office consultation, which was conducted during Dissolution and with questions that were, at the very least, loaded?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Like her, I do not regard the Government’s consultation as satisfactory. I do not regard it as ambitious enough, and she is right to identify that there are issues with the Gypsy and Traveller community that we need to address outside the planning system. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, in one of his excellent debates on this issue, highlighted the fact that Gypsies and Travellers have the lowest level of work of any ethnicity, at 47%. Some 60% of Gypsies and Travellers have no qualifications at all, whereas the figure for the rest of the population is just under 23%. He has said quite rightly that a compassionate case can be made for integrating Gypsies and Travellers into one whole assessment of their housing needs within a local area, rather than treating them as a separate group.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the debate. He is clearly trying to find a delicate balance between integration and making sure that councils do what they should be doing, and I appreciate that; it is the way I like to view this issue as well. Following on from the thoughts that he expressed in his last few words, does he agree that in order to build relationships with the Traveller community, there needs to be more encouragement for their children to attend local schools and clubs, and that we must ensure they are a valued and heard part of our community? Further, does he agree that this relationship, which is something that he and I both want to grow, will be solidified by mutual respect and a future in which the Traveller community is accepted within the wider community?
I am grateful for that helpful intervention. I am so pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of educational attainment in Gypsy and Traveller communities, because it is a national disgrace that so many Gypsy and Traveller children do not get the education that they deserve and are statutorily obliged to receive. That is the fault of local education authorities, but it is also the fault of the Gypsy and Traveller communities themselves, and we need to do far more to address that issue.
Another important thing in the hon. Gentleman’s intervention was the two key words, “mutual respect”. Mutual respect works both ways. Gypsies and Travellers demand respect from the settled community for their needs, but do not seem to respect the settled community when they park up on land illegally or build pitches without planning permission, often terrifying local communities with their presence. Of course, there are arguments on both sides of the debate, but the issue needs to be addressed. We are at the beginning of a five-year Parliament. By the end of the parliamentary Session, there will be no excuse for not dealing holistically with all the issues that Gypsies and Travellers pose for all of us.
It will be helpful to give some figures to identify the scale of the issue. The latest figures that I have are from July 2018; if the Minister has more up-to-date figures, perhaps he can supply them. In July 2018, the number of Traveller caravans in the country was just under 23,000, up something like 30% from July 2008, of which 3,100 were on unauthorised sites. Of those 3,100, just over 2,100 were on land bought by Travellers. We are talking about 3,100 caravans on unauthorised sites, 2,100 of which were on land bought by Travellers and the remainder on land that they do not own.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that it is a small minority of Gypsies and Travellers who are on unauthorised encampments. As he said, three quarters are in bricks and mortar, even if they do not wish to be. Does he think that the failure of local authorities to provide sites, whether they are transit or permanent, and the lack of provision of social housing, is a factor in the necessity for Gypsies and Travellers to stop in unauthorised areas or on land without planning consent?
There are two issues. We will probably disagree, but I struggle with the idea that local authorities should be obliged to provide such sites. I do not see why the public purse should purchase land for a particular group of people to live on. If Travellers were to purchase land and then apply for planning permission for a Traveller site—a suitable site in the right location—the local authority should give planning permission for that, but personally I do not see why the public purse should subsidise sites specifically for one ethnic group.
I apologise for having a second bite at the cherry. It is true that the provision of sites varies around the country. Basildon Council has a number of sites, but part of the problem is that the Travellers often do not want to stay on them. They want to go where they like. Providing sites is not a panacea, if the people for whom they are theoretically provided ignore them.
My right hon. Friend does not have to apologise for having a second bite at the cherry. He is welcome to intervene as often as he likes, because he is an expert on the issue. He makes an extremely good point in a thoroughly competent way.
I called for the debate because the activities of Gypsies and Travellers are a huge issue in the borough of Kettering. It is a combination of Gypsies and Travellers parking up on publicly or privately owned land without permission, and of their purchasing land in the countryside and immediately building plots without any intention of applying for planning permission. They clearly realise that the land is an unsuitable place for such a development, but they are cocking a snook at local authorities. There are therefore two issues. First, there is the trespass issue of parking up on land that they do not own. Secondly, there is the issue of purchasing land and developing Gypsy and Traveller sites with no intention of applying for planning permission.
In local plans, councils must identify land that is acceptable for private housing and for business to meet the needs of the local community. If they do not identify suitable pieces of land, the local plan will be rejected. Why can councils fail to identify pieces of land suitable for being converted into sites for the Traveller community and have their local plans accepted?
Kettering Borough Council has identified suitable sites for Gypsies and Travellers, but it is being abused by them. In the village of Broughton in my constituency, a Traveller encampment has permission for a limited number of plots, but the number of Gypsy and Traveller families living on that site far exceeds the permitted number of plots available, and is expanding all the time.
There is another case near the village of Loddington, where Gypsies and Travellers recently purchased land in open countryside. On a Friday, they moved in all the heavy building equipment, put in hard standing and started erecting plots without any kind of permission. The local borough council immediately served a temporary stop notice, which was ignored, and then a permanent stop notice, which was ignored. The development is there. Planning permission may or may not be sought. If anyone else were to dig up a field in open countryside and build a house, the local authority would intervene in the same way and the individual would stop the development, but that self-restraint does not seem to apply to Gypsies and Travellers.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that in its local plan, Kettering Borough Council identified a number of sites, sufficient for local need, that can be purchased and that, if purchased, will be given planning permission only for Traveller sites? If he is, there should not be overcrowding, because there would be other sites for Travellers to go to. Overcrowding is surely a sign that there is not enough provision. If there were too few houses, the local plan would be rejected, unless the council identified sites that could be converted only to housing. Has Kettering Borough Council identified more sites for conversion only to Traveller sites, and for which it will not allow any other planning use? If it has not, surely it has under-provided in its local plan.
Yes, there are two additional sites for Gypsies and Travellers with up to 16 plots that are not occupied. The problem is that more Gypsy and Traveller families are arriving from other areas all the time and are overloading the existing sites. It is simply not fair on the local community in Kettering to have to provide ever more provision for Gypsies and Travellers from across the country. That is why we need the planning system to work effectively, and why we need Gypsies and Travellers to respect the law.
The Government should ensure—I would like the Minister’s response to this—that someone in breach of an enforcement notice cannot apply for retrospective planning permission until that initial breach has been remedied. The Gypsies and Travellers who have moved into the site near Loddington, who have had a temporary and permanent stop notice served on them, should not be allowed to apply for retrospective planning permission until they have restored the field to its original state when they moved in on that Friday afternoon. That would be a real disincentive and would stop Gypsies and Travellers abusing the planning system in that way.
Is it the hon. Gentleman’s view that such a change in the law should apply to any planning situation? We hear examples all the time of illegal structures being put up, alterations being made to buildings and even new buildings being built, against which the local authority takes enforcement action. Is he saying that the change should apply in all cases, not just to Gypsies and Travellers?
Yes, I would like that to be the case. It seems to me that if someone is intentionally seeking to build an unauthorised development and is subject to a temporary or a permanent stop notice, they should do what that notice says—stop the work and restore the land to its original state. To my constituents, that would seem a sensible way forward.
My hon. Friend is talking about the huge increase in retrospective planning applications. The Times ran an article quite recently showing that there were 39,200 retrospective applications over three years, and only one in eight of those was rejected. If somebody develops land without consent, there is a good chance that they will ultimately get consent. There is a huge incentive for Gypsy and Traveller encampments, because in most circumstances the land is acquired at agricultural value and once consent is achieved, it has a worth as developable land. There is a big incentive for people to try to abuse the system in that way.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Local planning authorities should have the ability to enforce a requirement that people occupying sites without permission should not be permitted to remain on site while it is going through the planning process. That would stop the problem.
Where intentional unauthorised occupation has occurred, the requirement on the local planning authority in the decision-taking process to consider
“the availability (or lack) of alternative accommodation for the applicants”
should be removed. If a member of the settled community built a dwelling on land in the open countryside without first obtaining planning permission, the local planning authority would not, as part of the retrospective decision-taking process, consider the availability of alternative sites or be obliged to have to hand alternative sites to which the applicant could relocate. All I am asking for is equal treatment for everyone under the planning system, not preferential treatment for Gypsies and Travellers.
Often when Gypsies and Travellers find themselves in that situation, they say, “We’ve got nowhere else to go.” One of the problems for local planning authorities is that it is very difficult for them to check, when they are told that by Traveller families, whether those families own land elsewhere. We need a sensible arrangement with the Land Registry to help local authorities accurately check and verify an applicant’s other land holdings. That is difficult for local planning authorities to do, and it is something I believe the Minister can tackle.
I know that the Minister is here representing the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the Home Office will probably have the lead on the trespass issue—I would welcome his confirmation on that. When changing the rules on trespass, can we lower the number of vehicles needed to be involved in an illegal camp before the police can act? At the moment, I think it is six; it needs to be at least two, and I would go lower.
The police need to be given powers to direct Travellers to sites in neighbouring local authorities, not necessarily just in the local authority where the trespass takes place. Officers should be allowed to remove trespassers from camping on or beside a road, not necessarily just on land, and the time in which Travellers are not allowed to return to a site from which they have been removed should be increased from three months to at least a year, and I would go further than that.
There are lots of distinguished Members seeking to contribute to this debate. I thank you, Sir George, for your indulgence. On behalf of my constituents in the borough of Kettering, I press the Minister and the Government to seize the initiative on this issue and get something done.
I am not going to impose a time limit at this point, but I would ask speakers to take into account the fact that there are seven people hoping to speak in this debate. If speakers exercise a little restraint in the length of speeches, we should be able to get everybody in with a reasonable amount of time left for them to speak. I call Andy Slaughter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir George. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate. As he said, we are often here to debate this subject. My view is that he looks at the issue down the wrong end of the telescope, but then he probably thinks the same about me.
The hon. Gentleman quotes statistics, and I will probably quote some of the same statistics, but he draws the opposite conclusion from the one that I draw. I do not think there is any dispute that Gypsies and Travellers are not just a deprived community in this country, but possibly the most deprived community. Some of the statistics that apply to Gypsy and Traveller communities are quite horrific. Only 3% to 4% of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller population aged 18 to 30 go into higher education, compared with 43% of the general population; 90% of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller population have experienced racism; life expectancy at minimum is 10 to 12 years shorter than that for the general population; and the suicide rate in the Traveller community is six times higher than in the general population. Those are really shocking statistics.
The hon. Gentleman said that there are different people on whom the blame could be placed, or to whom the explanation could be ascribed, but that Gypsies and Travellers would need to bear some responsibility themselves. He said that planning policy or planning law discriminates in favour of Gypsies and Travellers, and he called for harsher remedies, including the implementation of the current consultation, which would criminalise trespass. I think that is the wrong analysis. Both the history of the planning process and the current situation suggest that the opposite is true: that there is discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers in the planning process; that it is more likely that applications from Gypsies and Travellers will be refused than from the general population; and that there is a large level of discrimination and hostility, which goes into the statutory sector as well. That is what needs to be challenged, first of all. Then, perhaps, we can come back to whether there is a continuing issue.
It is right that three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers are in bricks-and-mortar accommodation. A lot of those, even if not necessarily all, would like to continue with a nomadic lifestyle but do not have the opportunity. One reason why that has become institutionalised is a relatively recent change in definition, which effectively says—it is a Catch-22—that even if someone’s ethnicity is Gypsy or Traveller, if they stop travelling and end up, against their better wishes, in bricks-and-mortar accommodation, perhaps for reasons of health, perhaps because they need to settle in an area for education for a while, or perhaps just because of a lack of pitches or stopping sites, they are no longer counted for that purpose. Suddenly the assessed needs in any local authority area go down, because of that statistical change—perhaps by 60%, 70% or 80%. The issue is suddenly no longer there. It reminds me of how my local authority, when it was Conservative controlled, solved the housing issue by abolishing the waiting list. It is not a long-term solution; it simply hides a continuing problem.
We do not have time to go over the whole history of the provision of sites and the different policies adopted by different Governments over the past 50 years, which go back to the Caravan Sites Act 1968, but the change that was introduced in 1994, which for the first time removed a requirement for local authorities to provide sites, was a game changer. Without any national requirement, and now with the encouragement of national Government not to provide permanent or transit sites, local authorities simply do not provide those sites. There is a shortage. Whatever the hon. Gentleman may say, there is a lack of such provision. Until that is remedied in some way, stopping at sites that are not authorised will continue.
I have never met members of the Gypsy and Traveller community who want to stop on unauthorised sites where facilities are not provided, and who would not prefer negotiated stopping, transit sites or the ability to use permanent sites. It seems to be commonplace to say that that must be the case. Local authorities that take their responsibilities seriously and have tried to provide a remedy—most local authorities try to escape their obligations—have found that they have either no problem or a much reduced problem with that kind of stopping.
Let me give a pointed example. Since Brighton opened a transit site and expanded the permanent site, the number of encampments in unauthorised locations has reduced by almost half. Where they do happen, a negotiated move is often done within a day. That is an example of how we can solve the issue with a carrot rather than a stick.
I could give a number of examples, but I am conscious of time.
The long debate, which is wearisome for everyone but particularly for Gypsy and Traveller communities, is about how we solve what is not a huge problem once it has been broken down by local authority area. The need for additional pitches and sites in this country will no doubt continue until we have a Government who can grasp that nettle. I am concerned that, while that rather sterile debate is going on, there is an increased attempt to vilify and criminalise the actions of Gypsies and Travellers. We saw that in the cross-borough injunctions that the Court of Appeal found to be unlawful, in a landmark judgment only last week—that was the Bromley case. It was no longer possible to stop anywhere in entire boroughs, some of which are very large. That was effectively a blanket ban that would have extended across parts of the country.
The attempt by the Government, through their consultation, to criminalise trespass in a way that goes far beyond what happens in Ireland, and without the compensatory duties to provide sites, is a regressive and intimidatory step. We need a change in approach, and we need to be constructive and positive. The last thing we need to be doing is further victimising Gypsy and Traveller communities.
It is a delight to have your eagle eye on us, Sir George, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate. I will heed your advice to be short and will focus on one tiny point—as I look around the Chamber, there is a sigh of relief that I will be sitting down soon.
Mole Valley is an interesting and beautiful area covered with green belt, areas of special scientific interest and so forth. Anyone who applies for permission to build on land there has extreme difficulty, unless they are applying for land within the limited amount that is available for normal building. That applies to the settled community and to the Traveller community. Most Travellers in our area are on settled sites and are part of the community, and most of the kids go to school. The situation works normally and is accepted by the settled community.
However, we must recognise that any constituent who builds on land in Mole Valley, especially green-belt land, without permission can expect a heavy hand to apply to them. We have had a few such cases, and the properties have been completely demolished. However, some of the Traveller community—I emphasise that it is some—do not seem to believe that the laws apply to them, or they just ignore them. I will give just one example of many. It is on a green-belt pasture land site in Leatherhead. In 2003, Travellers with a distinct Irish accent arrived out of the blue and squatted on the site. They said they owned it, and they may have—I am not absolutely sure. They fenced it and put in a fast-growing hedge and a series of caravans. They put up buildings of a more permanent design than caravans. To my amusement, they put in two high, wrought-iron, electrically operated gates of the sort that one might expect to see at a manor house. It really is quite extraordinary.
Over the years, the usual series of planning applications have been made and rejected. They have been appealed, and the appeals have been rejected. Deadlines that have been set for departure from the site have come and gone. Just as a deadline approaches, new and slightly different planning applications are delivered to the local authority, sometimes hours or minutes before the deadline. The Travellers are still on the site—they have been there since 2003. The newly Liberal Mole Valley Council that was elected last May has just published its draft local plan. To the absolute dismay of the law-abiding settled community, and despite local resistance at every stage, the council has decided to designate the green-belt site as a Traveller site, in addition to the other Traveller sites that are being created.
In other words, if the Liberals have their way, 17 years of blatant abuse of the planning laws will have paid off for those Travellers, who do not travel. A proportion of the green-belt pasture land will be gone, and the series of rejections, repeals and so forth will be set aside and ignored. From what I have seen, this is the sort of behaviour that one expects of the Sicilian Mafia. One might ask why those Travellers act in such a way. The answer, of course, is because they frequently can. Nobody, including the courts, the police, the local authority and various Government Departments, seem capable of stopping them.
The Minister and his Department are running a review, which has been mentioned. It has been running for years and the time has come for some action. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said that it will be completed within five years, but we do not want to wait that long. We are making local plans, and we need something in short order. We need the Minister to consider tightening up the legal definition of Travellers, which is too loose at the moment—many of those who squat have no intention of travelling. Extraordinarily, the claim to “need” to live in caravans frequently overcomes the normal and understandable offer of bricks-and-mortar accommodation, especially where the local authority is required to house Traveller families. That is particularly relevant where children and infants would, by normal standards, be accommodated in a better, healthier environment than a caravan or some of the out-of-the-way sites in the middle of the green belt.
Local planning authorities should be in a situation where they can force vacation of the land prior to approval or rejection of a planning application. If a house builder started building on a site without permission, a stop notice would be applied. The change should be applicable to, and enforceable on, Gypsies or Travellers —I had better change that to Travellers, because I know many Gypsies who are the most pleasant, law-abiding people I have come across. It is time we did something, because the law-abiding population—the settled community—would not test the system as they know they would be rejected, but the Traveller community abuse it.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for securing the debate, and I appreciate the tone in which it has been conducted; we have not always had the restrained and thoughtful language that we have heard this morning.
I want to make just two or three points. I think hon. Members of different parties recognise that this is a matter of balancing rights and responsibilities, but I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Kettering that the balance is currently in favour of the Traveller community.
As has been noted, the travelling community has a right to enjoy a nomadic lifestyle, but law and practice are restricting—and indeed in some cases preventing—its exercise. My hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) talked about how planning policy changes over the years have reduced the supply of sites. We have heard, for example, that the removal in 1994 of the requirement for local authorities to provide sites, and the national planning policy framework provisions more recently, have meant that local authorities are, in many cases, either not assessing need properly or not bothering to assess it at all.
In practice, although the Government have made shared ownership and affordable homes funding available for the provision of more pitches, not a single local authority has taken up access to that funding, as was revealed in a written answer from Lord Bourne to Baroness Whitaker in the House of Lords on 23 January 2019. It is clear that, whatever the law may suggest, in practice local authorities are again and again failing to make any provision or plan for Travellers in their local plans. The Government are toothless, unwilling, or both, as they are not preventing that indolent neglect of local authorities’ responsibilities.
At the same time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, local authorities suggesting in their plans that there is no need have also been seeking wide injunctions to prevent Travellers from occupying land in their boroughs. The two cannot both be true. If there is need, they need to provide for it. They cannot say there is no need and fail to plan for it, and then seek an injunction to prevent it anyway. Both those things cannot sit side by side.
I am sorry to say that I very much disagree with the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on the definition of “Traveller”. It has been tightened, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, which has exacerbated, not reduced, problems, because it means that there is no requirement on local authorities to plan for the need of people who do not travel all the time. That de facto has obliterated the right to travel, because it means that Travellers are no longer recognised as enjoying that right. They are not counted or covered by the provisions of the definition of “Traveller”. That has suppressed the culture, rather than protecting its rights.
I appreciate that the Home Office consultation and plans on unauthorised trespass are not the Minister’s direct responsibility, but I am sure he will speak to his colleagues in the Home Office about our concerns. The proposals are for the criminalisation of unauthorised trespass, and for that to apply in the situation of very few caravans appearing on unauthorised land. As my hon. Friends said, of course people will have to use unauthorised sites if there is a lack of authorised ones. Even when they are on unauthorised sites, the powers already available to the police and local authorities are sufficient to take suitable action—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) is shaking his head, but the police themselves in their submission to the Home Office consultation said that they did not want additional powers. They believe that the powers are sufficient. I refer him to the freedom of information request submitted by Friends, Families and Travellers, which elicited that information from a number of police forces.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that, in many instances, the police are not using the powers available to them? That is part of the problem with the system. The statement that there are sufficient powers at the moment does not seem to be reflected in the action that gets taken. When unauthorised encampments turn up, the police are sometimes too afraid to take any action.
It would be unfair of me to draw attention to the massive reduction in police numbers over the past 10 years, which may be contributing to that problem, but that is not what the National Police Chiefs’ Council told the all-party parliamentary group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. It said that it believes that negotiation and communication with the community is more effective than enforcement, and that is what it tries to do. No police officer has ever told me that he or she has been afraid to engage with Travellers on unauthorised encampments. It is important that we do not make policy by anecdote.
It is really useful to have this debate. It is right, as the hon. Member for Kettering said, that we look at the responsibilities, obligations and rights of the public as a whole—the settled community and the travelling community. We must get the right balance between them. I do not believe that the balance is currently weighted in favour of the travelling community. Quite the opposite: too many of them are living in disadvantaged, marginalised situations on unsuitable—sometimes authorised and unsuitable—sites. We need a proper national planning framework that is properly managed to balance the interests of the settled community and the travelling community. I invite the Minister to think broadly about how that can best be achieved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. I declare an interest: I am a member of Sutton London Borough Council.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that there needs to be a change. We have heard about the difficulties that the current state of affairs causes for the travelling community, especially in terms of work, health and schooling. In the previous Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) introduced an excellent Bill that would have addressed those concerns. It was incredibly well-balanced, and I would have thought that it would have had immense support in this place. I am incredibly sorry that it did not make it.
The current policy on Travellers puts an obligation on local authorities to come up with their own assessment of need, but I want to give an example from my constituency to illustrate why I think it does not work. My constituency of Carshalton and Wallington also lies in the London Borough of Sutton. It is another Lib Dem council—my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) is laughing; I think he knows what is about to come. It conducted its assessment of need when it was coming up with its draft local plan in 2016. The Roundshaw Downs site at the end of Hannibal Way in Beddington was considered for a new permanent site. After an assessment of need, the council came to the conclusion that it needed another site, despite the fact that there was room to expand an existing site down in Woodmansterne—also in my constituency.
After massive public objection and a botched public consultation, the council eventually withdrew the Roundshaw site and agreed to extend the existing site in Woodmansterne, but because of the poor way it had conducted its consultation and assessment, the planning inspectorate has not accepted that that is sufficient to see it through to the term of the local plan. Therefore, the Lib Dem council now has to come up with a further Gypsy and Traveller site plan by 2023.
As a councillor, I have on several occasions asked for assurances that the Roundshaw site, and indeed the other site being considered at the time—next to Sutton cemetery in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully)—will not be revisited because they were identified as inappropriate. However, the Lib Dems have failed to provide that reassurance. That is perhaps not surprising, given the way they have handled encampments in the London Borough of Sutton in the past.
Only a few short years ago, our borough was subject to an entire summer of illegal encampments arriving on parks across my constituency and that of my hon. Friend. As hon. Members know, that was immediately followed by rising tensions in the constituency—sometimes violent flare-ups, unfortunately—and things such as fly-tipping. In one instance, unfortunately, smashed glass was left behind on purpose in a park, which caused injuries to children and pets. Many right hon. and hon. Members will have experienced such a difficulty when encampments happen in their patches. Because of that, the unwillingness of the local police to do anything about it, and the local authority’s slow progress in beginning the process of evicting people from the sites, I believe that a change in the law needs to be made.
The first subject I want to touch on is welfare checks, which are rightly conducted to ensure that people arriving on encampments, especially children, are in good health and get access to the support they need—unfortunately, as we have heard, more often they do not, which is a shame. However, those who know the planning system and how to work their way around it also know that if there is a change in the make-up of the site—if someone new arrives—the process starts again, which causes a delay.
High Court proceedings are not exactly fast and, although faster options may be available to local police forces or local authorities, they seem unwilling or unable to use them. Once an encampment is finally moved on, it will often move to another park later that day—as we found a couple of years ago in Sutton, despite the existing site in Woodmansterne. That is clearly not sustainable and a change needs to be made. I reiterate my support for the Bill introduced in the last Parliament by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire. I suggest that the Government should consider that as a potential starting point for looking at the issue in this Parliament.
I hope that the Minister will provide some reassurance that, as we try to address the problems, work on community cohesion and address the scandals of housing, work and schooling in travelling communities, we can update support and guidance for local authorities, improve enforcement and, perhaps, replace the requirement to provide permanent sites with a requirement to provide transitory sites, to which deposits and rent can be paid to cover the cost.
The current state of affairs does absolutely nothing for either the settled or the travelling communities. We need a balanced approach to ensure that both sets of communities feel comfortable living alongside one another.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I am a new Member and this is my first Westminster Hall debate, so I came this morning with a little trepidation.
I have listened with alarm at what the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and other Conservative Members have said. Gypsies and Traveller communities are not a “problem” that needs to be “tackled”, nor should legislation “crack down” on them. They are citizens entitled to equal treatment and the protection of their way of life. The dehumanising language we have heard should have no place in society or in the halls of power.
I appreciate that this debate is about planning law and relates to the Gypsy and Traveller communities, but that topic cannot be understood outside the context of the prejudice that they face. All too often, they are othered as outsiders unworthy of equal rights. As with all types of bigotry, it comes from the top down—including, I am sad to say, from Members of this House, who have in the past compared Gypsies and Travellers to a “disease” and a “plague”. Such scapegoating catches on.
A report by the Traveller Movement found that 91% of people in the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities had experienced racism because of their ethnicity. Some 70% had experienced discrimination in education; 49% had faced discrimination in employment; and 30% in access to health. More than three quarters said that because of this prejudice, they have hidden their ethnicity to avoid discrimination.
Such bigotry—like all bigotries—has consequences: 77% of Gypsy, Roma and Travellers report having experienced hate speech or hate crime. Racist attacks are common, such as the burning of three caravans in Somerset at the end of last year and the killing of Johnny Delaney, a teenager kicked to death in 2003— his assailants reportedly shouting that he was only an “effing Gypsy”.
This prejudice has a long history: from 16th-century laws that threatened nomadic peoples with exile or death, to the Thatcherite Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which repealed the duty of local authorities to provide sites for Roma and Travellers. Since then, there have only been further reductions in stopping places and authorised sites, which has left many with the choice either to use unauthorised sites or to abandon their identity. The inadequate provision for Gypsy and Traveller communities is the principal cause of the problems that hon. Members have mentioned. It is hardly surprising that a mess is made when adequate sites are not provided for them. The advocacy group Friends, Families and Travellers argued that the main cause of unauthorised camps was
“the abject failure of the government to identify land for sites and stopping places.”
It is a mistake to blame the effect, when the underlying cause of inadequate provision is at fault. That is why the Government’s consultation document, released early last year, as well as Tory manifesto commitments, are of great concern to me. The sweeping new police powers would be unnecessary and authoritarian. Existing powers are already more than enough, as shown by the fact that the majority of police who responded to the Government’s initial consultation opposed increased eviction powers. The powers are also authoritarian. One traveller said:
“The police will have the power to kick my door in, take my home, arrest me and take the children into care. We won’t get them back because we won’t have a home.”
That is the fear that those proposals cause in the Gypsy and Traveller community.
Sorry, I will not.
The proposals do not solve a problem; they further oppress a marginalised group.
What, then, are they really about? Why was this bigotry so prevalent throughout the Conservatives’ election campaign? Was it because this is a major issue faced by working people of this country? Of course not. It is because, in the words of the chair of the Gypsy Council, the Tories are trying to
“criminalise Gypsies to hide their own failures”.
I know what it is like to be part of a scapegoated community. According to research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 22% of people openly express negative feelings towards Muslims, while 44% openly express negative feelings towards Gypsies. We are both scapegoated communities blamed for problems not of our making. I note that the hon. Member for Kettering, who calls for oppressive measures on the Gypsy and Traveller communities, has also demanded that the burqa be banned.
Some people—often children born to wealthy families, sent to expensive private schools and educated at prestigious universities—are intent on blaming people they deem to be outsiders. I know where the real blame lies: not with Gypsies or Travellers, migrants or refugees, Jewish people or Muslims, but with a class of people born into privilege who dominate society and use their power and privilege to deflect the blame for a failing economy away from themselves. Instead, they scapegoat others.
At a time when there is rising racism against Muslims, Jewish people and the Gypsy and Traveller community, we must all stand up to bigotry wherever we see it and recognise that our struggles are one and the same. There is safety in solidarity, which is more powerful and more beautiful than anyone’s hate.
I want to consider the policy intentions on this matter and what good outcomes look like, both for the Government and for everyone else. I hope that we agree across the House that we want to see really well-integrated, cohesive communities and to have good outcomes for all citizens—Travellers and settled alike. Critically, that depends on giving everyone, particularly children, good life chances so that they can get those good outcomes. As we know from the race disparity audit, introduced by the last Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), Traveller children have some of the worst educational, employment and health outcomes in the country.
For many of my settled residents who live close to large numbers of Traveller sites, the current situation is not a happy one. I am sent here to speak truthfully and to speak up for all my constituents, Travellers and settled alike. I receive quite a large number of emails from constituents telling me that they do not feel safe in my constituency any more, and are looking to leave if they can afford to. A large number of businesses that regularly suffer theft, and whose staff are threatened, are very concerned. Businesspeople have recently come to tell me that they will not invest in my area.
I choose my words very carefully. There are good and bad in every community and many, many law-abiding Travellers absolutely respect the law, but I have to speak as I find and as my constituents tell me as individuals and as businesspeople in large and small businesses. It is not a happy situation for many of my settled residents, and many do not feel safe as a result.
My contention is that, unfortunately, and not because any Government wanted this to be the case, the current set of policies completely fails Traveller children, who have terrible outcomes, and causes great unhappiness and even suffering among many settled residents. What we have is not working for anyone at all. At the heart of Gypsy and Traveller policy is a fundamental muddle.
Planning policy for Traveller sites talks about “fair and equal treatment” for Travellers—absolutely: we all sign up to that—and about facilitating
“the traditional and nomadic way of life”.
The assumption seems to be that a Traveller site is needed to facilitate travelling. Why is that the case? Many of my settled constituents travel regularly. Many are caravaners, perhaps with a caravan they keep in their front garden. Indeed, many travel a lot more than my Traveller constituents do.
The situation is a muddle. To facilitate a traditional and nomadic way of life, we might need somewhere to keep caravans or somewhere safe for horses to be kept—unfortunately, a number of members of the British Horse Society have reported to me some pretty horrible incidents of cruelty to horses locally, so we need to look at that issue as well. There is a muddle because we do not need a Traveller site to enable people to travel. If we were honest, we would realise that we are prioritising the provision of sites and allowing the nomadic way of life over and above the right of Traveller children to have a good education.
I was so concerned that I asked the Children’s Commissioner for England to come to my constituency to visit one of the main village primary schools— lower schools. It has a lot of Traveller children. She went and reported back to me, in writing, that most Traveller children are not in school at all over the summer, when exams are taken, and that most stop their education in schools altogether around the age of 15. How can we expect Traveller children to be the engineers, lawyers, accountants and scientists of the future when the result of our current policy is that we do not value their education?
I have some of the best education and welfare officers in the business—I name Andrew Copperwheat in particular, from Central Bedfordshire Council—who try their very best to ensure that Traveller children go to school, but it is a losing game again and again. My constituents who volunteer in food banks tell me that it is common for adult Travellers who come to ask for food to say, “I can’t read and I can’t write”. We may think that Traveller children might get home education, but how will that happen if the parents are illiterate, through no fault of their own?
We need a little honesty. The people who speak for Travellers are the adults, but I am concerned about the outcomes for Traveller children—beautiful, wonderful children, who deserve the same chances as all of our children. When I went around six or seven Traveller sites a couple of weeks ago, I saw those children and my heart felt for them, because I could see their trajectory. Let us have a little more honesty about what “good” looks like, and let us think about what we are prioritising, whether it is right and whether we can do it better.
To cheer Members up—this has been a bit of a gloomy debate in some ways—let me say that there have been some great outcomes when my council has managed to get Traveller families into local authority housing in my constituency. The children go to school regularly, the parents have regular work and they are all making friends in the local community—people are being integrated. My constituency has proudly integrated wave after wave of Italian, Polish and Irish people happily and well over recent decades. We all pull together, get on and make a great contribution, and I want that for Travellers as well.
If Travellers are here legally, they should be part of our communities and be contributing and paying taxes; their children should be in our schools and having the amazing opportunities that all our children should have. But that is not happening at the moment. When I go around some of our Traveller sites, I see terrible housing conditions, green mould in water tanks, hot water coming out of toilets and conditions that, frankly, we would not keep animals in. That is not good enough. The legislation is not fit for purpose. Environmentally, we have sewage going into ditches, and a lot of the time the situation is not healthy. There is also a lot of sub-letting, often with violence. There are no tenancy contracts—this is sub-letting to non-Travellers on Traveller sites, enforced with vigilante violence, by quite wealthy Traveller landlords who have a lot of cash. That is not a good situation.
At the start of a five-year Parliament, I tell the Minister, who is a decent, humane and reasonable man: act with compassion. He should be progressive, do something good in this space, create brilliant outcomes for Traveller children and dial down the antipathy, the anger and the hatred between our communities. Do something that we can all be proud of in this space.
I will be mindful of your remark, Sir George. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on bringing this important issue before us, and on standing up for the concerns of his constituents, as he has done for many years. He drew attention to the failures of the planning system, which also affect constituents in the north-western part of my constituency, around the larger village of Bulkington in Nuneaton and Bedworth and the nearby villages of Ansty, Shilton and Barnacle, which fall under Rugby Borough Council. The fact that some of the issues occur on a local authority boundary adds to the complexity.
Understanding why the Gypsy and Traveller community find that part of the country a good place to be located is important. It is a little to do with how the Traveller community earn their living. Many of them have businesses that revolve around construction and property maintenance, and the big urban area where many of their customers are is Coventry, which is immediately adjacent to those villages. What adds to the complexity in the choice of location is the fact that it is in the urban edge around Coventry, where there is green belt and therefore a presumption against development. The fact that the Gypsy and Traveller community have been able to secure consents, or have developed without consent, has over time contributed to a feeling in the settled community that in some instances an advantage is being provided to that community.
All the sites in my constituency are in the green belt. The pattern of their development was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. A development often takes place on a paddock, on agricultural land, frequently starting on the Friday of a bank holiday weekend, which means a delay before local planning authorities can get to the site to start enforcement action, by which time some pretty substantial works have taken place. The procedure then is that the local enforcement officer goes out and invites the applicant to submit a retrospective application—we have spoken about this issue, and I am very supportive of my hon. Friend’s comments on looking at how this ought to be changed.
Eventually, that application reaches the local planning committee, which turns it down because the development is considered to be inappropriate in the green belt. More time passes and the applicant decides to lodge an appeal. The appeal is dealt with by the Planning Inspectorate, whose decision overrides that of the elected members of the planning committee. Often, a planning inspector will grant a consent, perhaps highlighting the issue that has been covered in this debate, which is the lack of authorised pitches and concerns about where else applicant families would go. On occasion, those consents are granted as temporary consents.
I will deal a little more with the issue of retrospective applications, and with the issue of temporary consents within the planning system. I expressed concern about the nature of retrospective applications to my local planning officers, who told me that the issue is often the failure to understand on the part of the Gypsy and Traveller community.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke about the literacy challenges in that community, but they seem on occasion to be able to afford to engage the best planning lawyers, often as a consequence of the substantial increase in value that occurs.
The issue of temporary consents affects Top Road in Barnacle, which has a complex planning history. With each subsequent application, the temporary consent gets closer to being permanent, which is a matter of great concern for residents in Bulkington.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate. We may have had some idea about the nature of the debate. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Gypsy and Traveller community, the prejudices that we have heard are all too common, and they are as old as time itself. I would have expected, though, that in the Parliament that makes the laws of the land, the debate would be based far more on fact and evidence, and far less on anecdote and local constituency casework. I fully accept that there is always a need to provide balance in debates and to be honest about some of the pressures.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) on their contributions to rebalance the nature of the debate. I felt that I was in a different debate when we talked about a community that expects special treatment, that takes out but does not want to pay in, and that is ruining our country. It could have been a debate on Amazon or Facebook, but it was not; it was a debate about people—human beings; members of our community who deserve respect and empathy.
What is it like to be a member of the travelling community, travelling around to secure work, providing for their family and living a lifestyle that they choose for themselves? Some people do not believe that the lifestyle is legitimate. We have heard before, “Why live in a caravan if you can live in bricks and mortar?” It is as if the way we choose to live our lives is the way that everybody ought to live their lives, because our way is perfect and others’ are de facto imperfect.
There are legitimate issues that we should be honest about and debate, but those issues come from injustice, not a community that is not willing to play its part. That is where we should start. Let us have the debate about educational attainment, but let us talk about how an education system should reflect a lifestyle that requires more flexible education that follows and supports the child throughout their educational life. Let us talk about housing and provision.
We are not here to design an education system, but there could be a system similar to an education passport, in which the child’s curriculum follows them throughout the journeys they take around the country. That would at least be a start. Part of the issue is that education authorities do not talk to one another when children move from one school to another. The education experience that child might have had in one primary or secondary school is not necessarily carried on to the next. That is a big gap.
On land supply, when we talk about illegal sites, nobody supports breaches of planning law. The planning law is there for a reason, but we have to address the underlying causes. If I look at the terraced houses in Oldham and I see overcrowding, I do not blame the tenants; I look at housing supply and affordability. I see people being ripped off, paying massive amounts in private rent, but who want a decent social house that is affordable, safe and clean for their children. It is the same for the Traveller community. They want clean, safe and well-maintained sites, but all too often local authorities do not step up to their responsibilities. I say that as an advocate for local government and a standard bearer.
Too many authorities do not take responsibility. The nature of that presents in different ways, with a very different impact in a mainly urban area from in a rural area. Unfortunately, many urban authorities view the Traveller community as a problem that must be tolerated, rather than a legitimate community that should be supported. All too often the sites chosen as Traveller sites will be near the waste transfer site or the industrial estate, in the back of nowhere that we can ignore, hoping that the settled community does not kick up an objection. That is no way to treat people. What other community would we treat in that way?
We can call out bad behaviour. I get as frustrated as anybody else when a Traveller community comes in and commercial waste is left behind, but I can drive down a road in Oldham and see exactly the same from a tradesperson who does not want to pay the charges at the local tip, and who therefore leaves waste at the end of a lane or at the edge of a playing field. I do not say that the whole community of that person should be evicted as a result of the actions of an individual. That is where this debate goes wrong. We talk about anecdotes and the worst excesses of an individual member of a community, as if somehow that is the reputation of the whole. I might expect that on Facebook or an internet site, where people get angry and wind each other up, but I would not expect it in Parliament. We are here to make laws that are meant to be about rights, responsibility, balance and evidence.
Whatever we do, we need a proper joined-up strategy that covers health and wellbeing, housing, education, employment and the very real issue of the gap in life expectancy and the unacceptable levels of male suicide.
I tried to be as fair and balanced as I could in my contribution. If the hon. Member came to my constituency, he would meet many decent, tolerant constituents who would have harrowing tales to tell him about what they have experienced. That is not anecdote; it is fact, and it has gone on for well over a decade. That has to be reflected in this debate as well.
It is for the Government and local councils to be supportive and to facilitate good community relations. They do not do that when the planning, education and housing systems are stacked up to make the people we are talking about part of the problem, not the solution. The reason there are illegal encampments is that often not enough authorised sites are provided. Even so, 88% of the travelling community are on authorised sites, whether local authority or privately owned. We do not talk about that; we talk about the unauthorised ones, as if that is somehow representative of a whole community. It is not.
Those in positions of power and leadership have a responsibility to build bridges, not walls, and to bring people together. They must use the levers of government, whether about regulation, tax or spend, to make sure that we create a long-term solution. We will be having this debate in another 10 years. If the Government put in place even harsher laws, which the police will not even implement because they recognise the reality on the ground, that will not solve the problem at all. We need positive solutions, looking at communities as human beings and recognising that people have the right to live the life they ought to lead, whether as a Traveller or in a settled community.
Perhaps some cross-party support is needed. If the Government want to look at the issue from a human being’s perspective, I am sure that they will find useful participants in that conversation on this side of the House. If the Government do not want to do that, but instead build walls and further the division, they can expect very firm opposition.
Thank you, Sir George. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this thought-provoking debate. I will begin by touching on the comment by the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) about cross-party work. It is a hugely important point; it is crucial that we work on a cross-party basis and I am happy to meet him at any time to talk about these issues.
Fairness in the planning system is a matter that we take incredibly seriously. The issues raised today are not all new challenges; I have heard them raised by colleagues in past debates, and they affect my own constituency. Let me reassure colleagues that the Government are working to implement the measures we have promised in order to address unauthorised development—an issue we have talked about a lot. We have consulted on powers for dealing with unauthorised development and encampments. Some issues raised in the debate have reflected the consultation responses: concerns over fairness in the planning system; unauthorised encampments and intentional unauthorised development, particularly in the green belt; issues with planning enforcement; and, of course, the outcomes for travelling communities that we have heard so much about.
Under national planning law, national planning policies and local planning policies to guard against unacceptable development apply equally to all applicants who wish to develop. It is right to recognise that certain groups have protections in law, such as disabled people, the elderly and ethnic groups, including Travellers. Planners may also take into account the specific needs of individual groups when making decisions on development, which will be taken on their own merits. As is the case for all planning applications, planning applications for Traveller sites must be determined in accordance with the local authority’s statutory development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
In 2015, we amended the definition of Gypsies and Travellers for planning purposes to remove those who have ceased to travel permanently. That was to ensure fairness and transparency in the planning system for the whole community, and to avoid any misunderstanding. Those who have ceased travelling permanently will have their needs assessed, as with any valued group in our society, and a decision will be taken on whether a site can be made available.
We have taken into consideration the responses that we received to our consultation on unauthorised development and encampments. Those responses made it clear that, in certain areas, unauthorised encampments are causing significant disruption for local residents. We have made it clear that that must be addressed. In our response, we committed to introducing a package of measures to address those issues, including proposals for stronger police powers to respond to unauthorised encampments, practical and financial support for local authorities to deal with unauthorised development, support for Traveller site provision, and support for the travelling community to improve their life chances. My Department has been working closely with the Home Office on this issue to ensure that we take a rounded approach that provides positive results for both the settled and travelling communities.
Let me address some of the concerns that were raised about intentional unauthorised development, and in particular how that is taken into account when planning permission is sought retrospectively. Planning permission should not be granted retrospectively simply because the development has already taken place. We propose to strengthen the power of local authorities to stop that happening, and we will consult shortly on a range of options for strengthening our policy on intentional unauthorised development so local authorities have stronger tools and levers to address the effects of that type of development.
I am sorry that I was not able to join the debate earlier. Does the Minister accept that this issue costs many local authorities, such as Warwick District Council, as well as businesses and the community, huge sums? Surely, a good use of funds would be to support councils to use compulsory purchase powers to buy land to set up permanent sites.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point and sharing his local authority’s experience. I am happy to touch on that shortly, but let me turn first to the green belt, which was raised by a number of Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey). Our commitment to protecting the green belt is as strong as it has ever been. Changes to the green belt should happen only in exceptional circumstances, and should be fully evidenced and justified through plan- making. The policy is clear that once green belts are defined, local authorities should plan positively to enhance their beneficial use, such as by looking for improvements to access and environmental quality.
We have provided £1.79 million of funding across 37 local authorities to improve their capacity to respond to enforcement issues facing their area, and we are working with the Royal Town Planning Institute to overhaul the national enforcement handbook to provide the latest best practice and expertise on shutting down illegal building while ensuring that developers obtain full planning permission before a shovel hits the ground.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) mentioned powers to require an inappropriate development to be taken down and the site restored. Does the Minister agree those powers are used far too rarely and, whether we are talking about a development by the Gypsy and Traveller community or by anybody else, there is a sense that if someone builds something, the chances of their being required to reinstate the site are pretty slender, so it is often a chance worth taking?
I thank my hon. Friend for putting that point on the record. It is something I am very happy to talk about further.
Let me touch a little more on site provision. Last February, the Government reminded local planning authorities of their planning obligations to assess the need for sites and to make transit sites available, and, crucially, about the need for joint working between authorities on the setting of pitch and plot targets. It should be emphasised that enforcement becomes much easier once an alternative authorised site exists. Making adequate site provision in plans should reduce the number of unauthorised developments and encampments, and subsequently reduce the disruption they can cause to the wider community.
As such, we have committed to finalising the 2016 draft guidance on assessing housing need for those residing in caravans. That guidance will help local authorities to assess housing need for caravans, but it is not just about ensuring provision; it is about ensuring appropriate provision. Our policy makes it clear that, when assessing the suitability of sites in rural or semi-rural settings, local planning authorities should ensure that a site’s scale is not such that it dominates the nearest settled community.
I welcome the Minister’s remarks. Before he finalises the guidance, will he be kind enough to visit Kettering Borough Council? We do not have green-belt protection; we just have open countryside. Kettering is in the middle of England. It is experiencing all these problems. I think he would find such a visit extremely informative.
I would be absolutely delighted to do so.
In our response to the consultation, we committed to introducing guidance making it clear that the Secretary of State is prepared to review cases where concerns are raised that there are too many authorised Traveller sites for the local community to support effectively. The guidance will also assist local authorities in making better decisions about whether to approve Traveller site applications, and sets out a range of circumstances for planning authorities to consider when determining such applications.
Let me touch a little on enforcement in respect of unauthorised encampments. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) has particular concerns about this issue, and I thank him for putting his points on the record. On trespass, we are absolutely aware of concerns about the effectiveness of powers available to tackle unauthorised encampments. Local authorities can of course use temporary stop notices when they are concerned that unauthorised development has taken place. Those require that any activity in breach of planning control must be ceased for 28 days. However, we want to go further, so we are minded, following consultation, to extend the 28-day temporary stop notice period.
Furthermore, on 5 November, the Home Office launched a consultation seeking views on criminalising the act of trespass when setting up an unauthorised encampment. I know that hon. Members had questions about some of the proposed amendments, which include increasing from 3 months to 12 months the period for which trespassers directed from land are unable to return, lowering from six to “two or more” the number of vehicles that need 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. That follows the Home Office’s commitment to consult on a specific set of measures to enhance the powers police have to direct trespassers to leave unauthorised encampments. That consultation closes on 5 March 2020. A couple of colleagues asked who will have responsibility for leading that work. I can confirm that the Home Office will lead, and the Government will respond to the consultation in the autumn.
A number of Members touched on the importance of improving outcomes, so let me update the House on the work we are doing to improve outcomes for the travelling community. We are working to address the disparities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to ensure that they have the same life chances as other members of the community. As we heard, on almost every measure, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are significantly worse off than the general population. We have been working on that, and we recognise that we need to go further. We are committed to developing a cross-Government strategy to tackle inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities across a range of outcomes highlighted by the race disparity audit, including housing, education and health.
I am afraid I cannot, because of the time.
We are in the early stages of developing that strategy and will engage extensively with policy makers, practitioners and, of course, the communities themselves as we take the work forward. We will provide regular updates on progress in the coming months.
I thank hon. Members again for their contributions. I understand the importance of some of the issues that were raised. I am happy to work on a cross-party basis with colleagues across the House as we take this work forward, and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss it.
Thank you, Sir George, for your wise chairmanship. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who took part in this extremely informative and engaging debate, in which we heard quite a wide range of views. I thank the Minister both for his thoughtful response and for his pledge to visit us at Kettering Borough Council so that he can see at first hand the difficulties that the local authority faces in tackling these issues. I agree with the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), that we need a proper, joined-up strategy to tackle all the issues involving Gypsies and Travellers, but the top priority for my constituents in the borough of Kettering is sorting out the relationship between Gypsies and Travellers, the planning system, and the settled community.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Gypsies, Travellers and the planning system.