Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—(David T.C. Davies.)
I thank the Speaker for granting this very important Adjournment debate about the choice of Narrow Lane as a transit site in my constituency. Narrow Lane is one of the oldest historically identifiable places in the neighbourhood of Pleck in Walsall. It currently includes a vacant site, which recently has been used for a neighbourhood office and a small home for the elderly. The site is surrounded by a densely populated and densely developed residential and commercial area and stands at the junction of two very busy major roads.
Along with thousands of local residents, I was flabbergasted when Walsall Council decided to choose this site for development as a temporary Gypsy, Roma and Traveller transit site. How the council made that decision and why goes to the very heart of why residents and voters feel that they are ignored and trampled over by politicians who refuse to include local communities in decisions that affect their lives. I know that the Minister will have a lot more representatives beating at his door with the planning Bill for very similar reasons. Not only has the decision-making process been completely flawed, but the site is environmentally unsuitable for a Travellers site because of severe air pollution issues, which would place serious health risks on children and families living in vehicles and caravans.
On behalf of the people of Pleck and the wider Walsall community, I want to persuade the Minister to do something about this, to launch an investigation into the decision-making process by Walsall Council, and to request Walsall Council to withdraw the current planning application and revisit its decision to place a transit site at Narrow Lane.
This is not about local residents rejecting the GRT community; on the contrary, it is about supporting my constituents and supporting the GRT community to ensure that the most suitable site is chosen in Walsall if one is required. It is also about preventing serious health issues for children and families who are already subject to poor health outcomes in comparison with the population generally.
Why did Narrow Lane appear from nowhere to be the council’s choice for the GRT transit site? The council had already identified and approved sufficient new Travellers sites to accommodate a transit site proposal. The Walsall borough site allocation document, which I will refer to as the SAD, was only recently approved by the planning inspector, in 2019. The proposals for new Travellers sites were presented to the public and the stakeholders for consultation, approved by Walsall Council and finally approved by the planning inspector.
The SAD is Walsall Council’s key land use document. It identifies sites that can be developed for new Travellers sites: Willenhall Lane caravan site, two pitches; the rear of 48 to 72 Foster Street, Blakenall, three pitches; and Dolphin Close, Goscote, 10 pitches. Dolphin Close is identified as particularly suitable because integration with the local community would be helped by the presence of a
“large GT community in bricks and mortar housing nearby”.
There is no distinction in the SAD on whether their use should be as a permanent site or a transit site. I have visited Dolphin Close. It is tranquil; it overlooks the canal and has open space. It has cleaner air for children to breathe, is close to a primary school, has road links nearby in every direction, and the Traveller community has settled links in the local community that will encourage community cohesion. There is a reason why Dolphin Close was identified as recently as 2019: it is the most suitable larger site in the borough, whether for permanent or transit pitches.
Legal opinion confirms that the decision taken by Walsall Council’s cabinet was flawed. It failed to take steps to properly inform itself; it took into account irrelevant considerations; and there was apparent bias. Regarding the council’s failure to take reasonable steps to inform itself, it could have looked at the relevant materials, in particular the SAD—the key land use document, which should have been central to the decision on where the site should be allocated and which had been the subject of extensive consultation. Yet no explanation or consideration was given to why the three sites identified in the SAD, which were capable of satisfying the more demanding criteria for permanent sites, were not considered.
What about consultation? The council designated this as a key decision—a very important one with significant financial or community impact. Article 11 of the council’s rules states that all decisions of the council have to be made in accordance with principles that include due consultation and a presumption in favour of openness. There was a working group, which met two representatives of the National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups and fifteen other people, mostly council employees. There was no wider consultation, and a host of other stakeholders, including the people who live nearby and even the democratically elected Member of Parliament and councillors, were not consulted. There was no list of potential sites.
As it is a departure from the widely consulted-on SAD, the council should have consulted on the Narrow Lane site and any other potential sites that were considered but not identified in the SAD, on the grounds of fairness, transparency and good administration. The issue was raised by local resident Shakil Younis, who told the council’s scrutiny committee:
“Wolverhampton City Council have got a similar project that they’re doing with their transit site; what they did was a public consultation. They invited all the people directly affected by these proposals and they sat down and had a discussion with them. But what have Walsall Council done? Nothing. we’ve not even had a letter, nothing. we mean nothing to them, just got to pay Council Tax .
Also at a meeting of the scrutiny committee, a council officer said that
“it is absolutely right to say that there was no direct consultation around this site”.
The council will say that it will consult on the planning application that was made on 19 March, but section 70 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 says that the planning committee is unlikely to consider site selection. That consultation will not address the issue of how Narrow Lane has been chosen; and whether there are more suitable sites that were overlooked or rejected.
What about the other criticisms—failing to take into account relevant considerations and taking into account irrelevant considerations? It is unclear why the existing criteria in the SAD were not used. If there were new criteria, there should have been a wider consultation process. It is not clear who drew up the criteria set out in appendix A of the council’s report to the cabinet or how they were settled on. No explanation has been given of how those criteria are applied as part of the desktop review.
The refined set of criteria has not been disclosed to residents or councillors and is unexplained. There is no evidence that cabinet members themselves were presented with the refined set of criteria or an explanation for its use and how that affected the choice of Narrow Lane. That prompts questions of what the criteria were, how they were formulated, how many development sites they were applied to, how they were applied, and why Narrow Lane emerged as the only suitable site to put to cabinet.
In Bushell v. the Secretary of State for the Environment, fairness was said to require disclosure of sufficient information about the reasons relied on by a public authority so that members of the public can challenge the accuracy of any facts and the validity of the arguments. Decisions based on undisclosed policies or criteria may be unlawful. Is the Minister going to say that that is acceptable?
Why were environmental and health factors not taken into account by the cabinet in the decision? The Minister will know about a landmark case that established that air pollution from an adjacent road was a material cause of the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah. Walsall Council appears to have given no consideration to the implications of that case for any children who will be affected by the decision. The Narrow Lane site is adjacent to the junction of Darlaston Road and Old Pleck Road, two busy A roads with signal controlled traffic. The Narrow Lane site suffers from extremely poor air quality—a criterion Walsall Council stipulated must be used in determining that locations/sites are not suitable for Travellers’ sites.
Walsall Council’s own document “Air Quality—Walsall Nitrogen Dioxide Areas of Exceedance 2020” clearly identifies the junction and area surrounding Pleck as a nitrogen dioxide exceedance area. I raised that in a letter to the chief executive on 9 February, but received no response. The headteacher of the local primary school, Lynne Cherry, also raised that issue at the scrutiny meeting. She said:
“I do think the site is a poor site; I know for a fact how busy the roads are around there, I know how poor the air quality is and also how fast the roads are because the emergency vehicles will go to the Manor Hospital; it is really dangerous.”
Dr Hesham, who also gave evidence to the scrutiny committee, commented:
“The effect on children is particularly significant. The vast majority of children in hospital present with infections and the majority of those infections are respiratory infections, infecting the heart and the lungs in upper airways”.
The report that went to cabinet claims in paragraph 4.34 that key council priorities for children will be met by the proposal for a Travellers site at Narrow Lane. Yet there are no comments or input from the director of children’s services in the report to justify that bold statement. Where does the director notify the cabinet that she supports families and children living in caravans and vehicles at a polluted junction of two busy main roads? She does not. No reasonable or responsible director of children’s services would.
The cabinet report also claims that the health priorities of the council will be met. Where is the data on air quality and air pollution at this busy junction? The council identified this spot as suffering from poor air quality. A reasonable portfolio holder would be very concerned about housing children in a polluted environment when cleaner alternatives are available. Where are the director of public health’s comments and analysis of the Narrow Lane site? There are none.
The report claims improved health for children living next to a busy road junction. Where is the evidence? The council employs experts for public health and children’s services. Their analysis, based on data and real evidence, and their opinion and recommendations must form—and should have formed—an integral part of such a report. That is shockingly absent. There was no consideration of air quality and no evidence of an air quality assessment.
Sadly, in press reports, the children and families who would use a new Travellers site for transit purposes were described as “renegades” by members of Walsall’s cabinet. However, I did not think I would see in 2021 Traveller families being deliberately housed in an unhealthy environment, subject to poor air quality and pollution, when there is a perfectly viable alternative available and agreed upon.
Turning now to bias, what would a reasonable or informed observer conclude? Councillor Adrian Andrew was the portfolio holder for regeneration and is deputy leader of Walsall Council, and the report went to the cabinet in his name and was presented by him. As confirmed by his entry in the council’s register of interests, he worked for the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), who is aware, as I have told him, that I am mentioning his name in this debate. That is what was on the council’s website and what was held out to the public. That was until, at the scrutiny committee meeting, in response to the suggestion that this affected Councillor Andrew’s decision making, as the three sites identified in the SAD for the future Traveller sites but not chosen by the cabinet were all found in Walsall North, he said, “This is not true.” At the scrutiny committee meeting, the leader of the council said that he had this information in his pocket for eight months. That was not disclosed, yet the requirement under the members’ code of conduct, at paragraph 2.1(3), requires members to disclose this to the monitoring officer within 28 days of the change.
Within days, Councillor Andrew amended his entry in the register of interests to state that he is employed as the campaign manager for the Conservative party, although he has not included the fact, as confirmed on his LinkedIn profile, that this is for Walsall North and Walsall South. The fact that the three sites designated in the SAD were in Walsall North could lead to an informed observer thinking that the cabinet’s minds were closed to alternatives because they did not serve their party political agenda. The fact that we now know that Councillor Andrew is paid by the Conservative party to further its interests in the locality of the Narrow Lane site and in Walsall places an even greater question mark over the issue of bias in the making of this decision.
But there were other inconsistent matters raised at the cabinet meeting. Councillor Andrew said the Narrow Lane site was suitable as it was “near to motorways.” He appears to be completely unaware that air pollution is a criterion that must be used in determining suitable Traveller sites, despite this being Walsall Council policy. Councillor Perry said that the transit site option should not be rushed into:
“Legislation is changing and it’s going to change again, which will give further protective powers to the authority and to the police.”
I agree. Rushing into the transit site option is exactly what Walsall Council is doing, with the application put on an expedited timescale in time for the summer: not only that, but rushing through a decision at the height of the pandemic lockdown, when it would be far more difficult for residents to express their opinions or hold the cabinet to account. Councillor Bird concluded at the cabinet meeting:
“It may be and has proven to be the case in Sandwell, where the temporary transit site has never been used, because the travellers know that if they go into Sandwell, they will be directed to that site and they don’t want to do that.”
So the leader of Walsall Council believes that the transit site may never even be used by the GRT community in Walsall, and yet approved a budget of £160,000 for the construction of the site before consulting with residents in the area. He thinks that the transit site may act as a deterrent for Travellers entering into Walsall, which undermines his very claim that this site is being proposed in the best interests of the GRT community.
What does this tell us about the governance at Walsall Council? I would suggest that the Minister, if he could, view the proceedings of the scrutiny committee, which resulted from a call-in by Councillor Aftab Nawaz and ward councillors Harbans Sarohi, Khizar Hussain and Naheed Gultasib. All our councillors must abide by the Nolan principles of behaviour in public life when making decisions. The focus is on objectivity, openness and transparency. By law, the scrutiny committee’s purpose is to act as a check and balance on the cabinet of Walsall Council, not a rubber stamp. Members of a scrutiny committee must adopt an independent mindset. Members must put aside the natural impulse to support decisions made by their own party. The way that the scrutiny committee examined this matter does not bear out these principles at all.
I call on the Minister to carry out an investigation into the way that Walsall Council made its decisions and, in particular, the decision to place a GRT transit site at Narrow Lane. The reasons are compelling and can be summarised as follows: flawed decision making that did not take into account relevant considerations and took into account irrelevant considerations; failure of the council to take reasonable steps to inform itself; hidden conflicts of interests; failures by members to declare relevant pecuniary interests and to maintain the Nolan principles; perceived bias of key decision makers; lack of scrutiny of cabinet decisions; and a failure to abide by statutory guidelines.
I know that the Minister, who is a straightforward person, will look at the facts. My constituents, the residents of Pleck, have had their rights trampled on. The selection of the site was wrong and the planning application should be withdrawn. I am confident that the Minister will come to the right conclusion and intervene with an investigation into this erroneous decision of Walsall Council. I will be very pleased to meet him to discuss this urgently.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) on securing this debate, about a town that is close to my heart; it is the town of my birth. I know that the matter is of great importance to the right hon. Lady as she has brought it to my attention and that of my Department previously.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the planning deal. The Government are committed to providing the homes that our country needs, and in this debate we have an excellent opportunity to discuss how all groups in the community, including Gypsies, can have their needs met. In terms of the overall issue raised regarding local authority conduct, I am sure that the right hon. Lady understands that Ministers, rightly, have limited remit to intervene in the day-to-day affairs of local authorities, and clearly it is not appropriate for a Minister such as me to comment on specific planning cases or on the local plan, because of the quasi-judicial role that I fulfil. Given that the proposed transit site is subject to obtaining planning permission, and that the decision on the planning application has not yet been made, I would encourage her to continue her discussions directly with the local authority, because the decision, whatever it may be, is subject to the obtaining of planning permission, and therefore interested parties—I am sure that she has encouraged interested parties to express their view—have been able, and are able, to offer their view.
However, if the right hon. Lady considers that there are grounds for complaint against the council, I would direct her to the council’s own complaints procedure and suggest that she continues to use her voice in this House. She has used privilege, as we are all able to do, to raise a concern that she has about bias and a specific councillor in Walsall. I would say, by the bye, that Councillor Andrews is, I believe, councillor for Pheasey Park Farm, which is a ward not in Walsall North but in her Walsall South constituency.
In planning for Traveller sites, the Government’s overarching aim is to ensure fair treatment for Travellers in a way that facilitates the nomadic way of life while respecting the interests of local residents. The evidence is clear. Gypsies, Roma and Travellers face some very considerable challenges—a matter that the Government take very seriously. That is why we wish to encourage local authorities to make their own assessments of need for Travellers, and to have in place local plans to meet that need, in the same way as they plan for all forms of housing. Such plans should identify sites to meet need and contain criteria-based policies to guide decisions on applications that come forth. The Government believe that local authorities are best placed to make decisions about the number and location of such sites, and to ensure that they are sustainable environmentally, economically and socially, including consideration of the health and wellbeing of Travellers that may locate there.
Through an increase in the provision of both permanent and transit sites in appropriate locations and with planning permission, the Government trust that local authorities will be able to reduce the occurrence of unauthorised encampments in their local area. We have a proud record: the number of authorised transit sites provided by local authorities had increased to 356 locations in England and Wales as of January 2020. That is an increase of over 41% since the previous decade. Through a written ministerial statement in February 2019, we reminded local planning authorities—of course, that includes Walsall—of their duties to assess the need for sites and make transit sites available. Through our affordable homes programme, we are investing £11.5 billion in affordable housing over the next five years—the largest investment in over a decade. As part of this, local authorities and registered providers, including housing associations, can bid for funding for permanent and transit sites. Some excellent permanent and transit sites have been built and managed by councils and housing associations. I encourage more authorities to bid for funding, and I encourage the right hon. Lady to encourage Walsall to bid for such funding.
The right hon. Lady raised the issue of consultation. Effective consultation is, of course, essential when considering any planning application, because it enables local authorities to identify and consider all the relevant issues associated with a proposed development. In this particular case, the application was lodged on 24 March, and local residents and others have an opportunity to consult the council.
As is the case for all planning applications, applications for Traveller sites must, except in exceptional circumstances, be determined in accordance with the local authority’s development plan and other relevant considerations. Local opposition or support is not in itself a ground for refusing or granting planning permission, but a consideration that needs to be taken into account alongside many others. Of course, the ultimate decision on the weight given to different considerations for any planning application rests with the local authority, which considers each application on its merits.
In advance of an authority making a decision on a planning application, there is an opportunity for any third party to request a call-in of the application for the Secretary of State’s own determination. Generally, the Secretary of State will only consider whether a call-in is appropriate once an application has completed the local planning process and if the local authority is minded to approve it. Call-in powers, as many right hon. and hon. Members in this place will know—to their, I suppose, great sadness—are essentially only used if issues of more than local importance are involved. As the case that the right hon. Lady raises has not yet been approved or rejected by Walsall Council, I do not believe that it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to intervene in these circumstances.
The Government recognise that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are among the most disadvantaged in British society; that was highlighted by the Government’s race disparity audit in 2017. Further steps are now being taken through a new and ambitious cross-Government strategy to improve opportunities across a range of measures, including housing, health and education. In developing the strategy, which we will publish soon, we are determined to address the disparities that we know some people continue to face
During the pandemic, which the right hon. Lady mentioned, the Government have invested £400,000 in education and training programmes for more than 100 Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children and young people so that they can receive extra tuition to catch up on lost learning, one-to-one support and expert guidance to help them to progress in education or find employment. We have invested £23.75 million in the community champions scheme to work with the communities—including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities—most at risk of covid-19. That is in addition to the £700 million package announced in February by the Department for Education for the expansion of one-to-one and small- group tutoring programmes, as well as to support the development of disadvantaged children in early years settings and summer provision for those pupils who need it most. I know that the challenges facing the education of Traveller children are of concern to the right hon. Lady and to many Members from all parties, including my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who has also raised the matter with me.
The adequate provision of sites, including transit sites, is likely to have a direct effect on reducing the occurrence of unauthorised encampments, which can cause harm and misery to those affected by them and can be costly and time-consuming for landowners who have to move and then clean them up afterwards. They also all too often give an unfair and unkind image of the majority of Travellers who abide by and respect the law.
Unauthorised encampments also fuel increased tensions between the Travellers and local residents, working against the creation of the sort of happy and cohesive communities that we aspire to achieve—an issue also raised with me by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald). That is why our manifesto committed to tackling unauthorised Traveller camps by giving police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers, making intentional trespass a criminal offence, and giving councils greater powers in the planning system. To that end, in March my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary introduced to Parliament a Bill that will make intentional unauthorised trespass that criminal offence in certain circumstances, including where the trespass has caused or is likely to cause significant damage and disruption or distress. I hope that will be of some benefit and interest to the right hon. Lady’s constituents.
The steps we are taking to tackle unauthorised encampments will complement the ongoing work of my own Department and the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), to strengthen councils’ planning enforcement powers to tackle unauthorised developments, which will be introduced as part of our wider planning reforms.
Once more, I congratulate the right hon. Lady on contributing to this debate so powerfully, eloquently and passionately on behalf of her constituents. I hope it is clear from what I have said that we are committed to delivering a planning system that works for all groups in society. We are taking strong action to improve opportunities for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, who are among the United Kingdom’s most disadvantaged. We are taking steps to increase the provision of transit sites and thus reduce the number of unauthorised sites. Where some Travellers break the rules, we are putting in place tough measures to prevent and deter unauthorised sites, which are, as I say, to the detriment both of local residents and of the Travellers themselves. We are proud of our record of increasing the number of authorised transit sites and will continue to encourage the provision of sufficient and appropriate sites in appropriate locations for the travelling community. We remain committed to delivering a fair planning system in which the needs of all groups in the community are met. On that note, I congratulate the right hon. Lady again and hope that I have gone some way to affirming her support for our general policies.
Question put and agreed to.