Skip to main content

Caravan Sites Bill [HL]

Volume 738: debated on Friday 29 June 2012

Second Reading

Moved By

My Lords, perhaps I may start by giving the House a bit of history. Under the Caravan Sites Act 1968, local authorities were required to provide sites for Gypsies residing in or resorting to their area. If they failed to comply, the Minister had the power to direct them to provide such number of sites with such number of pitches as was specified in the directions. That Act produced 350 pitches until it was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. No further progress was then made until 2007, when local authorities were required to conduct a Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs assessment, a GTANA, under the Housing Act 2004, and to produce a strategy for meeting identified needs under the Local Government Act 2003. The needs assessments were subject to public inquiry, and there was a process for redistributing the numbers to take into account the failure of some authorities to make any contribution in counties where general need had been demonstrated.

At the most recent election, the Liberal Democrats were in favour of abolishing the regional spatial strategies. In our manifesto we called for the retention of the numbers that had been agreed for Gypsy site planning permissions in two regions, and of those that were on the way elsewhere. However, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government scrapped the plans immediately after the general election, leaving a planning vacuum in which councils had carte blanche to decide whether any sites were needed in their area and, if so, for how many caravans.

As a result, the number of families living in caravans on unauthorised sites is expected to increase from 2,400 in 2010 to 3,000 by 2015. Local authorities are not expected to reduce this shortage by providing sites themselves. In 2010 an Equality and Human Rights Commission survey of local authority provision of caravan sites found that in more than half of local authorities there was either a zero or a negative change in the number of council-provided pitches between 2006 and 2009.

In theory this bleak scenario ought to change as a result of the £47 million that the Housing and Communities Agency will make available to councils and social housing providers between now and 2015 for new and refurbished sites, and the additional £13 million that was to be allocated by tomorrow. However, as we know, the minute that there is any sign of an intention to develop a site, there is an immediate campaign against it by local residents that councillors find it inexpedient to resist. At best, there are long delays in implementing the plan; at worst, it gets cancelled altogether. It would be useful to have a progress report on the HCA’s traveller pitch funding scheme—not this afternoon but through placing a copy in the Library—and for the report to be updated quarterly. I ask my noble friend to see that that is done.

Even if the HCA programme is completed in the next three and a half years, the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain calculates that it would produce 520 new pitches rather than the 750 suggested by DCLG. There was a shortage of 2,000 pitches in the latest DCLG caravan count, so only one-quarter of the deficit would be eliminated—even without taking into account any increase in the number of Traveller households over the period. I wrote to the Secretary of State asking for his comments on the ITMB arithmetic and the reply from the Under-Secretary, Bob Neill, did not rebut its calculations, nor did he deny that Essex, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Surrey and Hertfordshire, with one-quarter of England’s caravans, had received only 4% of the money.

No doubt the Government will say that private development by Travellers of their own sites will make up the deficit under DCLG’s planning policy for Traveller sites, the PPTS. This requires local authorities to produce an evidence-based development plan demonstrating a five-year supply of deliverable sites, with pitch targets, by 27 March 2013. I understand that the local plans team in DCLG has a file listing the progress towards this objective in every local authority in England. I would be grateful if my noble friend would kindly arrange for a copy to be placed in the Library, now and at the end of each quarter until the deadline, so that we can see what progress is being made.

If any local authority fails to produce the required plan by 27 March next year, and thereafter until they do so, PPTS says that that will be a significant material consideration on applications for grants of temporary, but not of permanent, planning permission. To the extent that, as a result, some families may be given a precarious tenure under which they may occupy the land that they own themselves, this provision will merely add to the 1,600 caravans on the so-called tolerated sites rather than contributing to a permanent solution for the shortage.

An inspector has to conduct an inquiry into the local development plan, but this will not make up the deficiency. On the one side of the hearing will be vociferous local objectors to any sites at all, and on the other there will be the poorly resourced Traveller organisations, who will not be able to appear before 350 separate inquiries between now and the end of March next year.

In parenthesis, much of the blame for the universal hostility to Travellers rests on certain sections of the media that have incited hatred by racist articles and broadcasts. This was discussed at a round-table meeting held in a Committee Room upstairs on 19 June, organised by the ITMB and attended by Travellers and media representatives, at which the media did not deny that there is a cause and effect relationship between the incessantly racist reporting of stories about Travellers and the attitude of settled communities.

However, there are other ways of resisting planning applications built into PPTS. Local authorities are enjoined to strictly limit new Traveller site development in open countryside, and sites in green belts are labelled inappropriate. Thus Dale Farm, from which 60 families were evicted at a cost to Basildon Council of £4.8 million, plus Essex Police costs of £2.4 million, will stand no better chance in future in spite of the fact that its previous use was as a scrap yard.

The National Planning Policy Framework says in paragraph 89 that while construction of new buildings should be regarded as inappropriate in a green belt, there are exceptions,

“including limited infilling or the partial or complete redevelopment of previously developed sites”.

There is no express reference to this paragraph in PPTS and the expression “construction of new buildings” is not as wide as “use of land”. Can my noble friend give an assurance that paragraph 89 is intended to cover Traveller sites as well as other types of development? Otherwise I suggest that it might be held to be discriminatory under the Equality Act.

Included in the Dale Farm figures mentioned was a grant from DCLG of £1.2 million, originally vetoed by my honourable friend Andrew Stunell but then approved by Grant Shapps. Your Lordships may well think that it was perverse to spend all those millions on that operation at a time when local and central government were supposed to be making cuts. It seems that the mantra about reducing the deficit does not apply to spending on kicking Travellers out of their homes. We were deaf to appeals from the Council of Europe High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination not to allow this eviction to take place.

The effect of the PPTS restrictions on the location of Traveller sites will be to drive Travellers towards land on the edges of towns and villages, where not only is the resistance to their presence likely to be most intense but the cost of the land is going to be highest. How can the Bill deal with some of these problems? The current indications are that local authorities are likely to produce pitch targets that collectively are significantly lower than the actual need. A survey of 100 local authorities in three regions found that where pitch targets had been developed, they were 82% lower than in the former regional spatial strategies, inadequate as those were. The Bill would address this situation and lead to the development of sufficient pitches to meet the actual need. The Bill translates into statute the policy in the PPTS that states that local authorities should identify specific land for Travellers residing in or resorting to their areas, and requires them to have regard to the needs assessments—the GTANAs that I have already mentioned—produced under the Housing Act 2004. If the figures that emerge from the current process, under which 350 local authorities have been given carte blanche to make up their own minds, are lower than the ones in the GTANAs, that would be a factor in future appeals.

As a longstop, where the PPTS process arrives at a manifestly inadequate supply, the Bill gives the Secretary of State power to direct the local authority to grant planning permission for caravan sites for the accommodation of such number of caravans as may be specified in the directions. This is an analogue of the power in the 1968 Act to direct a local authority to provide the actual sites themselves. The provision of sites under that Act only really got under way when the direction power was used on a few authorities. It had a significant effect in encouraging others to come up to the mark and, in the absence of an equivalent today, the objective that I hope we all share of eliminating unauthorised encampments will be unsatisfied another 45 years from now. The fashion these days is to leave more decisions to the unfettered discretion of local authorities but, with regard to solving the shortage of Traveller sites, the experience of the last half century shows that that does not work.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to one other departure from the PPTS in this Bill. The definition of “Gypsies and Travellers” used here is taken from the Housing Act 2004 because it is essential to recognise that Travellers are no longer only,

“persons of nomadic habit of life”,

but include,

“persons with a cultural tradition of nomadism or of living in a caravan”.

The people who we are dealing with in this Bill may have a cultural aversion to living in bricks and mortar, and that is why sites need to be provided for them, but the majority of them have ceased travelling because there are practically no transit sites left in the whole country. They may visit fairs such as the Appleby Horse Fair, but that lasts for only one week and is more of a holiday destination than a stopping place in an itinerant life. The PPTS definition has led to difficulties in the courts because, in order for a Gypsy or Traveller woman to be treated as such, she needs to be able to show that at some point in the past she has followed a nomadic way of life.

From many points of view, we should welcome the fact that Travellers are now prepared to live mostly in one place because that enables them to access education, health and other public services, in all of which they are severely disadvantaged. In education, for example, Travellers are at the bottom of the scale for attendance, exclusions and achievement and, although some progress has been made in recent years, it has proved far harder to raise standards with families that are still mobile.

Finally, the settled population must surely welcome greater efforts to eliminate the problem of unauthorised encampments. One can understand that people do not like having neighbours with no access to running water, sanitation or means of refuse disposal, but the stronger powers of eviction that have been granted to local authorities are not the answer. All that has been achieved by the evictions at Dale Farm, for instance, is that many of the families are still there either in the neighbouring Oak Lane or doubled up, still unlawfully, with friends and relatives on the legal site next door. There was literally nowhere else for them to go. You cannot uninvent people, as an official of the ITMB said to me yesterday.

A former resident on the Dale Farm site, Mary Sheridan said:

“For all that money all they’ve done is move us 50 metres. We will stay on the lane because where else can we go?”.

The same will be true on a lesser scale for other threatened evictions such as at Smithy Fen in Cambridgeshire or Meriden in Warwickshire. These and many more evictions are utterly pointless since the local authorities concerned will either have to deal with another unauthorised encampment on their own doorstep, as in Basildon, or manage to pass the parcel onto a neighbouring authority. If the Bill goes into Committee, I will propose an amendment suspending evictions from unauthorised sites that are owned by the occupiers until adequate accommodation has been provided in the county or borough concerned.

The objective to which the Bill is a contribution has been on the agenda for the last half-century and it is about time we solved it decisively, for the mutual benefit of both Travellers and the settled population. I beg to move.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for his steadfast campaigning on behalf of the Gypsy and Traveller communities. It is not always a popular cause but that has never deterred the noble Lord. I should also mention my noble friend Lady Whitaker who, unfortunately, is unable to be here today. She would have been strongly supportive of the noble Lord’s Bill.

This is fundamentally an issue about planning and whether current policy will deliver sufficient and appropriate sites for the Gypsy and Traveller communities. Our approach in government was to seek to press local planning authorities to set aside enough land for sites through targets in regional spatial strategies. This sat alongside the legal obligation in the Housing Act 2004 for every local housing authority to include in its housing needs assessments an assessment of the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers residing in or resorting to its district.

As noble Lords will be aware, regional strategies have been scrapped by this Government but we should be clear that the duties under the Housing Act 2004 remain. It is important also to ensure that local authorities are mindful of their equality duties. Ample evidence has been provided by Gypsies and Travellers to the CLG Select Committee of the multiple cases of discrimination that their communities endure. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to that, and particularly the discrimination that is exacerbated by the language used in many of our national newspapers.

Regional strategies may not have been perfect but regional and district targets for additional pitches were beginning to work. What has replaced regional strategies? As we have heard from the noble Lord, in March this year the Government introduced a revised planning policy for Traveller sites to sit alongside the National Planning Policy Framework. The requirement placed on LPAs to undertake an assessment of need and to work collaboratively across borders is not unfamiliar. Use of a robust evidence base and the requirement to identify and update annually a supply of specific deliverable sites sufficient to provide five years’ worth of sites against locally set targets are of course to be commended. But we know that there can be a huge gap between what the paper policy says and what happens in practice. We know that the Irish Traveller movement has expressed concern about the destiny of the evidence base accumulated in connection with RSSs. Given the centrality of local development plans, it has, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, also raised concerns about its capacity, on a comprehensive basis, to engage sufficiently with local authorities as local development plans are drawn up. Perhaps the Minister can say whether the Government accept this point and how they propose to address it.

We hold to the view, and argued it during the passage of the Localism Bill, that the duty to co-operate is an inadequate replacement for any strategic approach to planning with limited sanctions when LPAs do not take it seriously. Co-operating on the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites will be a stern test of the policy. Can the Minister say how the Government propose to monitor what is happening in practice? What systems are in place to assess whether local planning authorities are taking this duty seriously?

The Bill is predicated on the assumption that the new policy, in so far as it is new, will not deliver for the Gypsy and Traveller communities. Evidence from history might give the noble Lord some justification for that view. Clearly councils cannot be forced to grant planning permission when they simply do not have sites or where it would be outwith normal planning considerations. We support moves further to accommodate and respect the rights of the Gypsy and Traveller communities, but there are real issues about forcing councils to grant planning permissions in such a blanket manner. A community building approach is what we would support and is what we delivered in government.

At the end of the day, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is entitled to know what the Government will do when LPAs do not follow the guidance, do not undertake a robust assessment of need, do not identify sites and do not co-operate with neighbouring authorities to address need. At what point should the Government step in and insist? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, this is going to be quite a short debate judging by the number of people taking part, but none the less, this is an important issue. I, too, start by acknowledging that my noble friend Lord Avebury has a long-standing commitment to seeking to ensure that Gypsies and Travellers receive a fair deal. He has been persistent in this House in pursuing that point.

As the noble Lord pointed out, Gypsies and Travellers experience some of the worst outcomes of any group across a range of social indicators. That is why the Government set up a cross-government ministerial working group that has made 28 commitments. These commitments will help mainstream services work more effectively with Gypsy and Traveller communities in such areas as education, health, housing, criminal justice and employment.

However, I acknowledge immediately that the noble Lord’s concern in this Bill is about having sufficient Traveller sites. Having a safe place for Travellers to live and bring up children is clearly a cornerstone to realising equality in all those social factors. That was a point very well made by the noble Lord.

I say from the outset that the Government are committed to supporting Gypsy and Traveller site provision. Councils have been given incentives, particularly through the new homes bonus scheme, to help the provision of these sites, and there is a £60 million Traveller pitch funding programme to help councils and other providers build new sites or refurbish existing sites. This new fund will allow the creation of more than 600 new pitches and the refurbishment of existing ones.

The Government have also applied the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to unauthorised local authority sites to give Travellers better protection against eviction. As well as that, the Government are already encouraging local councillors to take a far greater leadership role in the provision of sites. I am glad to say that there is a training course to enable them to do so.

Community relations and cohesion in some areas have been and will be undermined by any perception of the unequal treatment of any particular group in the planning system, or by abuse of that system. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, this is very much a planning issue, which involves not only permission but the use and development of local plans. I will come to that in a minute. However, a small minority of Travellers set up unauthorised developments. I use the term “Traveller” in the context of the wider definition used for planning purposes, which refers to,

“persons of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin”.

This leads to tension and creates resentment towards the overwhelming majority of Travellers, who are law-abiding and do not live or try to live on unauthorised sites. The Government are concerned, too, about unauthorised Traveller encampments and their effect on local communities. We want to see fair play to avoid conflict between the Traveller and settled communities. That is why the Government published their planning policy for Travellers in March. I will refer to it later.

As has already been said, existing powers are primarily contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. They include a power for the police to direct Travellers from their unauthorised pitch to a vacant one or an alternative authorised site in the same local authority area. The Government are currently considering whether these existing laws and procedures should be enforced more effectively and whether changes to the powers are required.

The Government are committed to decentralising power, reducing bureaucracy and providing greater freedom and flexibility to local government. This includes passing control of strategic planning from the regional bodies to local authorities and the communities that they represent. The Government are committed to this because they believe that local authorities understand best what is needed for their areas. The provision of sites for local Travellers is very much a local issue. Therefore, it is right and proper that this should be a matter that is dealt with as locally as possible.

The Localism Act means that communities will now be able to have a far greater influence on deciding which developments take place in their local areas. That does not mean that much needed development, which includes Traveller sites, can simply be blocked. The Localism Act contains a minimum level of checks and balances to ensure that the neighbourhood planning process is not used to block development that is needed.

As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, at the moment, some local authorities are particularly strong in providing Traveller sites. Others are much less so, which can create extra pressure for the area in identifying and providing sites. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the duty to co-operate, which we believe will ensure partnership working by authorities on strategic planning matters, and will help the process of collaboration in identifying suitable sites and the provision of associated essential services. The latter is very important and does not refer only to schooling and health but to the provision of support for sites so that they are maintained in a proper way.

I was asked whether we would monitor what is happening about this. In the general local plans area, consideration will be given to what is happening in local areas, but there is no specific objective at the moment to monitor the outcome. This is a local matter and the local laws are there; it is up to local authorities to ensure that they are implemented.

I refer to the planning policy for Traveller sites, which was published in March and goes alongside the national planning policy framework. It puts the provision of sites back into the hands of local authorities, in consultation with their local communities. I should clarify, as I have just said, that the new planning policy for Travellers should be read in conjunction with the national planning policy framework, also published in March. Therefore local planning authorities preparing plans for, and taking decisions on, Traveller sites should also have regard to the policies in the framework so far as is relevant to them.

The new Traveller site policy includes a stated aim to increase the number of Traveller sites in appropriate locations with planning permission, to address under-provision—the main concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—and maintain an appropriate level of supply. The new planning policy requires local authorities to set pitch targets based on robust evidence and to identify and update annually, with the local authority monitoring its own work, a supply of specific sites to provide five years’ worth of deliverable sites against their own targets. The policy also requires sites to be identified, based on broad locations, at least for years six to 10 and, where possible, years 11 to 15. This, as a result, aligns planning policies for Traveller sites more generally with those for standard housing. Any failure to be able to identify an up-to-date five-year supply of sites should, after a one-year transitional period, be a significant material consideration in any subsequent planning decision. I hope that that addresses the point about the monitoring as well.

I turn briefly to the clauses in the noble Lord’s Bill. It would be fair to say that we think that the provisions in the new policy framework and in local plans are sufficient, which would mean that the Bill was not necessary. However, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will make his own views known on that.

Clause 1 puts a duty upon every local authority in England to,

“grant planning permission for Gypsy and Traveller caravan sites”.

This is unnecessary. Law and policy already impose a duty on local authorities to assess housing need, including that of Travellers, and make appropriate provision and land allocations in the local plan. It would also take us back to before 1964, when it was a requirement for all local authorities to have provision for caravans and Traveller sites, which caused a great deal of resentment and confusion against Travellers. What we are all trying to ensure now is that that does not happen.

Local authorities already have a statutory requirement under the Housing Act 2004 to assess the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers, as they do for the rest of the community. That remains in place.

Subsection (2) states:

“Facilitating the provision of adequate caravan site accommodation shall include the identification of sufficient land for such accommodation”.

This is also unnecessary. National planning policy, as set out in the national planning policy framework and the planning policy for Traveller sites, already requires local authorities to allocate land to accommodate housing need in their local plans, using evidence compiled from their housing need assessment. Subsections (3), (4) and (5) are effectively covered by those statements. We do not believe that there need to be further legislative demands on local authorities specifically aimed at accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers. We are, as I have said, fully committed to seeing that provision is made. There is sufficient legislation already to ensure that this happens.

The noble Lord’s Bill is, I am afraid, at odds with the Government’s priorities to decentralise power, reduce bureaucracy and provide greater freedom and flexibilities, not only to local government but to local people, about what happens in their areas. I contend that the Government’s package of measures, via changes in the law on the planning system and through the provision of incentives that I have outlined, will address the developing need and the accommodation required for Gypsies, Travellers and the settled community in the years ahead.

I thank the noble Lord for the trouble that he has taken to introduce this Private Member’s Bill. I wait with interest to see whether he carries it on into Committee but, if he does so, he will note the reluctance of the Government to see any further provisions for something for which they believe there are already sufficient.

My Lords, first, I am grateful to my noble friend for reaffirming the commitment that the Government have undertaken to provide adequate planning permissions for Gypsy and Traveller sites throughout the whole of England. However, she did not address the point that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about the gaps between what paper policy says and what happens in practice. This has always been the bedevilment of any policy on Gypsy and Traveller sites: Governments profess their intentions of doing the right thing but, when you come to the delivery at the grass roots, it does not happen. Nor did she address the point, which I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, reinforced, about the capacity of Travellers to engage with local authorities on local development plans. One can foresee that under the system that my noble friend outlined, the PPTS will result in Traveller site plans being produced locally, but the inquiries that will subsequently take place will not be on a level playing field but instead will be severely biased in favour of those who do not want to see any development of Gypsy and Traveller sites, against the pitifully small resources of the Gypsy and Traveller community. The Bill is predicated on the assumption that the Government’s policy is not going to deliver the required sites. That is the whole point of it. We should allow the Bill to go into Committee so that we can engage more carefully than we have at Second Reading on the details of these arguments.

My noble friend did not respond to the two points that I asked her about specifically, which were that we should have a quarterly report on progress towards implementation of the £60 million Traveller sites grant, and that we should know what plans the local authorities have under the proposed system. As far as I am concerned, not a single local authority in the country has come up with the figures that were suggested in March this year. We have another eight months to go before they have to produce that arithmetic. All the 350 local inquiries are being condensed into a very short time, which, as I say, will add to the pressures on Gypsy and Traveller communities in being able to contest the plans, if they think them inadequate.

I am grateful to both the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and to my noble friend for their agreement in principle that the task that the Government face is to provide proper accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers and to eliminate unauthorised encampments, which are to the detriment of both the settled communities and the Gypsy population.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.