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Social Landlords (Permissible Additional Purposes) (England) Order 2006

Volume 686: debated on Friday 3 November 2006

rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 26 July, be annulled (S.I. 2006/1968).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not opposing the order, but simply using the device of praying against it to discuss some of the problems of enlisting social landlords in the provision and management of Gypsy sites. This is not a simple matter, as one can see from the fact that it was two and a half years ago when the then Minister, Yvette Cooper, said in another place that she would amend the purposes for which the Housing Corporation could provide funding to include the construction, maintenance and management of these sites. We agree with that policy, which we advocated under the heading “Enlisting Social Landlords”, in a document that the Liberal Democrats published in 2002, although we do not claim any particular monopoly of the idea, which was widely canvassed at the time.

At a meeting last week with the Minister, Gypsy and Traveller organisation representatives expressed disappointment that it was taking so long to get in place the new system of site provision, of which this order is an essential component. The delay in bringing forward the order was occasioned by the need to consult on the definition of Gypsies and Travellers. As your Lordships’ Merits of Statutory Instruments Select Committee explained in its useful memorandum on the subject, we now have two definitions, for reasons which are comprehensible but which may lead to some confusion. The one used here is based on nomadism rather than ethnicity, but it is extended to include those who are no longer nomadic because of illness or old age, and travelling showmen, who I am glad are included because frequently in the past they have been left out of these discussions. It includes people who are not Romany Gypsies or Irish Travellers but who follow a cultural tradition of nomadism or living in caravans. For the purposes of the Housing Act, under which local authorities are required to assess the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their areas, a broader definition was needed to encompass ethnic Gypsies and Irish Travellers, many of whom are permanently settled either voluntarily or because of the huge difficulty of following a nomadic way of life now that it is unlawful to stop anywhere except on transit sites, which are few and far between.

The first thing to say about the order is that social landlords are not expected to make provision for ethnic Gypsies who may be tempted to resume living in a caravan because of the greater availability of land for Gypsy sites as a result of the permissions that will be granted following the implementation of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act. Yet there may be cases where extended families, some of whose members are in bricks and mortar and others on caravan sites, would like to be reunited on a site provided by a social landlord. Is the order flexible enough to cope with that kind of demand, when some people may come from bricks and mortar and others from substandard sites or sites that are to be eliminated?

Secondly, at the recent meeting between the All-Party Group on Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform and Meg Munn MP, it was made clear that the priority for social landlords would be to cater for those among the 3,000 families living on unauthorised sites who will be unable to buy landto develop sites for themselves when the landfinally becomes available following the completion of the needs assessments and the incorporation of the numbers resulting from those assessments in the regional spatial strategies. It will be many years before Travellers who are living on some of the grossly unsatisfactory sites provided under the 1968 Act—some of which are next to sewage works or under motorways—can be rehoused. As far as I can see, there is nothing in the order to prevent schemes to rehouse people from sink sites. If they are identified as needing to be rehoused in the needs assessments, social landlords might well have a role to play. I hope that the Minister will say something about that.

In some areas, local authority sites are being closed without alternative provision for the residents being made. In London, there has been a sharp decline in the number of pitches: 76 were lost in the 10 years to 2004, according to the London Gypsy and Traveller group and sites in Newham and Hackney on land needed for the Olympic Games are threatened with imminent closure, with no agreement on how they are to be relocated. It would be ironic if the Olympic Games, which were touted as a means of reducing social deprivation in London, were to decrease further the supply of accommodation for the most deprived community of all. I hope that Ministers will knock heads together, particularly in the LDA, to see that that does not happen.

I mentioned that case to indicate that the longer it takes to mobilise social landlords, the bigger the task confronting them will be. They cannot really get going until the local authority has been through the needs assessment and has produced the development plan document identifying the land needed for the purpose. In the mean while, they might occasionally be able to use Circular 1/06, as described in the Planning Inspectorate letter of 24 July, to get planning permission on suitable land that has not yet been designated in the DPD. However, as with private individuals, that approach means additional trouble and expense and might sour relationships between social landlords and local authorities.

That brings me to the question of whether RSLs are going to come forward in sufficient numbers and with sufficient resources to match the need. During the passage of the Housing Bill, the Government rejected a proposal to give local authorities a reserve power to develop sites in areas where the need for rented pitches was not being met, so RSLs are assumed to be capable of rising to the challenge and providing rented sites throughout the country. At the meeting of the all-party group, we were told that there were new entrants—until recently, Novas has had the field to itself. Who are those new entrants, in what areas of the country are they operating and what sites have they provided or are they in the course of providing? What efforts is the DCLG making to enlist new providers?

At that meeting, we raised the problem of rising land prices, which are likely to create problems for RSLs as well as for private developers of sites. Once the land has been identified in a DPD, its value is likely to be considerably higher than it would be for agricultural land, which would have to be reflected in the rent charged by the RSL. In the case of county council and RSL-owned sites, which have been brought under a procrustean system of regulation so that the amount of housing benefit payable is less than the economic rent, many existing sites are now loss-making, and there is no incentive for social landlords to develop new sites where the rents would need to be higher if they cannot recover the amounts from tenants who are on benefit. Research carried out for the DWP led to a recommendation that the allowable rent for benefit purposes on all Gypsy sites should be increased by £15 per pitch to reflect the cost of management on the site, depending on its attainment of quality standards for maintenance and health and safety. Families who need a lot of support will not be well catered for under these arrangements and the assumption that all Gypsy sites require the same amount of management resources is manifestly untrue. RSLs would naturally tend to offer places on their sites to Gypsies who they think will not give rise to major problems, leaving difficult families who need a lot of support to fend for themselves. The arrangements recommended by Spark are not flexible enough to cope with the wide range of situations, and it would be preferable to abolish rent controls for social and local authority landlords, who may be expected to act responsibly without that incentive.

I welcome the extension of funding for Gypsyand Traveller sites to RSLs as well as local authorities—£28 million will be available in 2006-07 and £35 million will be available in the following year in order to provide new sites or refurbish existing ones. The extent to which RSLs were involved inthe bids for the current year and their expressionsof interest for 2006-07, which had to be in by30 September, would be an indication of their likely interest in the Housing Corporation funding resulting from this order. I would be grateful if the Minister could give us the figures. It would also be useful to know how many RSLs have constitutions that allow them to take on the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites or have applied for consent to the necessary changes to their constitutions under paragraphs 9 to 11 of Schedule 1 to the Housing Act 1996.

When we meet Gypsies and Travellers, as in the meeting with the Minister last week, they are naturally sceptical about the ultimate success of the strategy for ensuring that members of their communities have a place to live. Inevitably, residents in the neighbourhood of unauthorised encampments are dissatisfied with the rate of progress that is being made. It is important that the Government should keep both sets of people informed of what is being done, and this order is one essential piece of the jigsaw.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 26 July, be annulled (S.I. 2006/1968).—(Lord Avebury.)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for raising this important issue. To my knowledge and, on occasions, to my cost, he has a long-held interest in Gypsy and Traveller issues, and we have debated them in your Lordships’ House on a number of occasions. I have enjoyed those debates and the noble Lord’s thoughtful approach has greatly aided us in considering some difficult issues. I know that the noble Lord has spent a lot of time and effort promoting the provision of more authorised sites, and he has asked telling and effective questions about government policy. I also thank him for his involvement in those debates and in the All-Party Group on Gypsy and Traveller Law Reform.

I shall try to answer the noble Lord’s specific queries, but first it may be useful if I place on record the Government’s policy on Gypsy and Traveller issues. The latest available caravan count figures, for January 2006, show that around 21 per cent of Gypsy and Traveller caravans are on unauthorised sites. This situation is not sustainable, and the presence of unauthorised sites can create tensions between Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community. In order to remedy the problems often associated with unauthorised sites, we are pursuing a dual approach: more site provision coupled with more effective enforcement.

Pursuing an enforcement approach alone simply moves unauthorised campers around; so more sites are crucial if we are going to solve the problems of unauthorised camping. To enable the provision of more sites, we have put in place a policy framework to ensure that the needs of Gypsies and Travellers, which have so long been overlooked, are assessed and planned in a strategic approach.

The Housing Act 2004 will place a duty on local authorities to assess the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers, in the same way that they currently do for the rest of the population. The accommodation needs assessment process will identify the need for caravan site pitches in each local authority area. I understand that assessments are under way or have been completed in 80 per cent of local authorities.

These assessments will inform revisions to the regional spatial strategy, where the regional planning body will take a strategic view of need across the region and set out the number of pitches which each local planning authority or sub-region will be expected to deliver. Each local planning authority must then identify land in its local plans in line with the pitch requirements specified in the regional special strategy. The land identified can be for both private and social provision, allowing individuals to apply for planning permission on the land or for the local authority or registered social landlord to develop sites.

While we know that many Gypsies and Travellers would like to buy their own plot of land to develop privately, there are many who simply cannot afford to go down that route. The provision of affordable sites, either through local authorities or registered social landlords is therefore an important aspect of our strategy to deliver more sites.

We have significantly increased the resources available for site provision over the next few years. We have made £56 million available for Gypsy and Traveller site grant over the period 2006-08;£22 million in 2006-07; and £34 million in 2007-08. Prior to this around £8 million had been made available annually, since 2001-02.

Until recently, local authorities were the only housing provider that could access our Gypsy and Traveller sites grant. However, the order enables registered social landlords to apply for our grant to develop new sites.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, played an active part in discussions on Gypsy and Traveller issues during the passage of the Housing Act 2004. As he has explained, he was one of the main supporters of allowing registered social landlords to provide sites. Following discussion at that time, the Government committed to providing RSLs with the power to provide sites and receive government funding to do so. Today’s order honours our commitment.

RSLs are important as potential providers of sites for Gypsies and Travellers, particularly given their expertise in housing vulnerable groups. Their involvement will contribute to increasing site provision and reducing unauthorised camping. The order, which came into force in August, amends the permissible purposes of RSLs to enable them to provide and manage Gypsy and Traveller sites and therefore receive grant funding for that purpose.Both local authorities and RSLs are encouraged to develop schemes and bid for the funding available. Responsibility for recommending schemes to Ministers now rests with the regional assemblies. Giving the regions this responsibility enables them to steer investment towards emerging priorities.

In the first bidding round for grant in 2006-07, we allocated £17 million to 80 schemes that will provide around 140 additional pitches, secure a further40 pitches for longer-term use—for example, by bringing unoccupied private pitches into public ownership—and enable the refurbishment of nearly 60 sites.

Two RSLs have been allocated funding in the first round of grant for 2006-07: Novas has been allocated around £214,000 for refurbishment work at the Star Lane site in Bromley; and the Richmond Housing Partnership has been allocated £112,000 for refurbishment work at the Bishops Grove site. Since the order has come into force they have been formally notified of this.

Bidding for the second round of grant to use up the remaining funding for 2006-07 has recently closed, and we hope to announce successful schemes early next year. In the second round, three RSLs have either bid for remaining funding for 2006-07 or have expressed a firm interest in funding for 2007-08.

We want to increase this involvement and develop RSLs’ interest in this area into active involvement. We are working closely with the Housing Corporation to encourage RSLs to become more involved in providing and managing Gypsy and Traveller sites. We are establishing a forum of interested RSLs to help us understand how we can facilitate this involvement; engage them in developments such as the preparation of guidance on site design and management that will impact on them; and provide an opportunity for networking and the sharing of knowledge and experience in this area. I understand that the next meeting of the forum will be held shortly.

We are also involved in other work streamsthat will help encourage the involvement of RSLs in Gypsy and Traveller sites. An important aspect of any site provision is its management. A well managed site ensures that Gypsies and Travellers living on it can live peacefully with each other and, importantly, with the settled community. We are currently working on site management guidance and will be consulting and considering responses from stakeholders shortly.

As we see proposals for new sites coming forward, site design will be an important issue and, in conjunction with the Housing Corporation, we have commissioned some site design guidance to ensure that new sites are designed in sustainable locations.

As I think we all agree, new sites for Gypsies and Travellers are desperately needed, not only to cater for need which may arise in the future but also to address the significant backlog which has arisen as a result of lack of provision over a number of years. The order the noble Lord has brought forward for discussion today provides additional opportunities for the provision of new sites.

The Government believe that RSLs are an important stakeholder and potential provider and can translate their expertise gained from providing bricks and mortar housing to the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites, and the management of those sites.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made a number of other points, which as a matter of courtesy I should try to respond to. He referred to the flexibility of the definition. We think that the definition of Gypsy and Traveller used in the order covers those Gypsies and Travellers living in bricks and mortar housing, and we think that the breadth of that definition will make provision much easier and enable those particular groups to move between different sorts of accommodation.

The noble Lord referred to the challenges posed by the development of the Olympics site. We are working with the LDA and local authorities, and Gypsies and Travellers in Newham and Hackney on relocation of sites, and to ensure that land needed for the Olympics is replaced where it affects the interests of Gypsies and Travellers. That is a very sensitive issue which will continue to require delicate handling over the next few years.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made reference to the housing benefit differences between different types of Gypsy and Traveller site. We are aware of the anomalies in how the housing benefit is calculated between those different types of sites. We are working very carefully with the Department for Work and Pensions to resolve those issues.

I think that the noble Lord also asked how many RSLs have changed their constitutions to enable them to undertake the management of sites. I have no answer to that. I will try and find it out. There are a number of RSLs applying for grant who are looking to provide services in the future, and they will obviously have made some adjustment to their constitution to do that. I would have thought, however, that housing associations in particular would have the necessary flexibility. It might be an issue in some cases, however. If the noble Lord has examples of any difficulties, we would obviously be grateful to hear from him.

In conclusion, we have increased resources, particularly to provide new sites. We are the first Government to have done that for some time. We recognise that the policy of simply shifting the problem around—as many have seen it—does not work well, and we must have a dual approach. The refurbishment grant will enable local authorities and RSLs to bring the standard of existing sites up to more appropriate and modern-day standards. Moving away from the 1968 policy has enabled us to reassess the position and think about the demands that Gypsies and Travellers place on settled communities, how we must work more sensitively in that area and about a broader range of social provision. That enables us to take a more progressive approach to some of these issues than has perhaps been the case in the past.

Our policy is right, brave and encourages partnership. The use of the regional spatial strategy has been the precursor to a major step forward. No doubt, we will return to the issue of sites on other appropriate occasions, but I congratulate the noble Lord on raising this issue as he has. I hope that he will now feel confident in withdrawing his Motion.

My Lords, it has been useful to allow the Minister the opportunity to explain how the Government’s policies fit together. They are not exactly simple, with the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, the Housing Act 2004, this order and the various other components which dovetail together. As I said in my initial remarks, they have not yet produced the sort of results that Gypsies and Travellers had hoped for. The Minister said that we still have 21 per cent of Gypsies and Travellers living on unauthorised sites, which happens to be about the same percentage we had in January 1997, before this Government came into office. We cannot say that policies have been very successful over the past nine years.

We can now look forward to a situation where there will be a more rapid progress arising from the various components the Minister has described. In particular, he explained how the £56 million has been allotted to the refurbishment and construction of new sites. He said that the amount allotted in the first year was £17 million, which fell some way short of the £21 million allocated. Was that because some of the submitted schemes were substandard or because there was not enough demand for the £21 million? Perhaps he could write to me on that.

The Minister said that there were two RSLs in the first tranche, and three had either put in bids or expressed interest for the £35 million coming up in 2007-08. That seemed rather disappointing. I hope that, as a result of the forum that the Minister mentioned, he will be able to enlist a number of other RSLs in this important task. Since we have already been through the bidding round for 2006-07 and 2007-08, that must be for 2008 onwards. When the regional boards make their recommendations to the department, perhaps the Minister could announce how the additional £35 million is being allocated, and how much of it is being taken up by the RSLs.

I welcome the Minister’s assurance that the flexibility of the definition in this order is sufficientto allow RSLs to make provision for the accommodation of Gypsies who may be coming from either bricks-and-mortar dwellings or sites. As the Minister will be aware, both Roman Gypsies and Irish Travellers have a strong sense of family cohesion, and there may well be cases of extended families which have been split up as a result of some of them having been evicted and, because of force majeure, having accepted accommodation in housing while others remain on sites. Such families would like to be reunited under the auspices of one or other of these schemes.

I also welcome the Minister’s assurance that the department will continue to try to find a solution for the Olympic sites—although this is not strictly relevant to the order because, as I understand it, the problem is not who is going to provide the sites but where the planning permission can most suitably be granted. It is a test case because, as I said, we have lost 76 pitches in the past 10 years, something to which the London Gypsy and Traveller group referred. If we cannot get this right, when there is plenty of money available with all the agencies involved, it does not inspire confidence in the success of the rest of the programme.

However, it will be useful to have the Government’s plans on record. It is important that we keep everybody informed—not just the Gypsies and Travellers, but the several communities where unauthorised encampments have led to friction in the past. I welcome the Minister’s assurances and beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.