Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)
I ask all who speak in this important debate to do so in a calm and measured way as we discuss sensitive issues concerning our fellow citizens.
A separate planning system for Gypsies and Travellers has been developed in this country since part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 was enacted. That part was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, but the Human Rights Act 1998 and section 225 of the Housing Act 2004 recreated a parallel planning system for Gypsies and Travellers. I have no doubt that that was done with the best of intentions, but it is no longer appropriate for the settled or Traveller communities. Many local councillors share that view.
We know from the 2011 census that 76%—more than three quarters—of Gypsies and Travellers live in houses, bungalows or flats, while only 24%—less than a quarter—live in caravans or mobile homes. Thus, the existing separate planning law for Gypsies and Travellers applies only to less than a quarter of their population in the United Kingdom. I cannot think of any other group in the UK, whether vulnerable or not, that we seek to ghettoise in such a way. We must look at whether such separation in the planning system has worked for the benefit of Gypsies and Travellers; I think that the evidence suggests that it has not.
At 47%, Gypsies and Travellers have the lowest level of work of any ethnicity. The comparable figure for the English and Welsh population is 63%. Of Gypsy and Traveller adults, 60% have no qualifications, whereas the corresponding figure for the rest of the nation is 23%. A compassionate case can be made for integrating Gypsies and Travellers into one assessment of housing need in every local authority. If it is necessary to provide places to park for travelling caravans and some fields for grazing horses belonging to Gypsies and Travellers to bring about one cohesive planning system for the whole population, I believe that that should be done.
When I look at Polish residents in my constituency, I note that they have an active social centre and, indeed, their own Polish Catholic church, both of which are close to my constituency office. We do not have a separate planning system for Poles, allowing them to live together with planning rights not available to the rest of the population, but they have managed to maintain their identity and cultural heritage by meeting together regularly.
I see no reason why there should be any loss of Gypsy or Traveller identity from what I am proposing. To achieve what I am proposing, I am calling on the Minister to introduce primary legislation in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech to amend section 225 of the Housing Act 2004, which requires a separate housing needs assessment for Travellers and Gypsies. I am also calling for the Human Rights Act 1998 to be similarly amended as well as, if necessary, those sections of the Equality Act 2010 that apply to Gypsies and Travellers.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I do not disagree with him about a single planning policy; we should not differentiate Travellers, or any other ethnic group. However, does he agree that it is important that, wherever it settles, the Traveller community should abide by the rules of the local community? We have had serious problems with the condition of sites in Northern Ireland. That issue must be dealt with as well.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are all equal under, and have a duty to obey, the law.
The current twin-track, separated planning system—one for Gypsies and Travellers and one for settled residents—greatly threatens and undermines community cohesion and causes significant fear, distrust and upset to both Travellers and settled residents. If someone can demonstrate, or simply declare, that they are a Gypsy or Traveller, they acquire highly lucrative planning rights not available to the rest of the population. Such rights are granted to some individuals who are very wealthy, or become so as a result; they are not all vulnerable individuals. That opens up the system to massive abuse from some people seeking to gain such lucrative planning rights.
Many able-bodied Travellers do not in fact travel for a living. Often, settled residents travel more, on business, than some so-called Travellers.
Is there not another point, which is certainly true in the case of Sussex police? If someone claims to be a Traveller, the police simply accept that as fact. No effort is undertaken to ascertain whether they really are of that ethnic identity.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The reality is that anyone can self-declare as a Traveller. I very much welcomed the written ministerial statement made by the Minister on 17 January in which he committed to looking at that issue.
I cannot believe that it is right that some schools, such as that in the village of Braybrooke in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), should be entirely occupied by Traveller children. I do not believe that that is in their own best interests, not least given Traveller children’s high rates of absence. For Irish-heritage Travellers, the 2008 national pupil database showed primary school absence rates of more than 24% and secondary school absence rates of more than 27%. I believe that if the children of Travellers were integrated across a greater number of schools, they would be more likely to conform to the higher attendance rates of the majority.
The current separate planning system for Gypsies and Travellers often takes no account of the proper provision of facilities in rural locations, specifically those for sewerage and sanitation. Harm is often caused to the local environment by hedgerows being illegally pulled out, pollution of the local water courses and farmland, and sometimes encroachment on others’ land.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting case. In view of the difficulties he is describing, does he accept that a lot of problems have been caused over the decades by a severe shortage of both permanent and transit Gypsy and Traveller sites around the country as a whole? If that shortage was addressed, we would not be having to deal with all the problems he has described.
I would welcome a proper analysis of how many transit sites we actually need. Many of my constituents have said to me that they in the settled community travel more, for business, than many Travellers. I am proposing a single, compassionate, overall housing needs assessment for everyone—everyone in this country needs housing. I would also point out that more than three quarters of Travellers already live in bricks and mortar houses, and that I would not take away their right to own caravans.
Many villages in my constituency, such as Billington, Stanbridge, Tilsworth, and Heath and Reach, feel very threatened by the large number of Travellers and Gypsies being sited in their communities to comply with current Government requirements. Specifically, the current requirement to accommodate a growth in the Gypsy and Traveller household net formation of 3% every year is causing massive problems. Although I would like to scrap the whole system, it is imperative that while it continues a more accurate figure is used, which I believe would be nearer 1.5%. I also believe that the Pat Niner review that called for a 3% figure was based on the arrival of large numbers of Travellers from Ireland after the Irish Government changed the law. The Irish Planning and Development Act 2000 made development without planning permission a criminal offence.
After that, in 2002, Irish law changed again to make trespass a criminal offence in certain circumstances, which I believe caused numerous Irish Travellers to come over to England and Wales, resulting in a spike in the numbers that led to the 3% figure that is causing problems at the moment.
The current law penalises authorities that have made significant Traveller provision, such as my own, Central Bedfordshire council, which had 197 pitches in November 2013. In addition, almost 60% of the total 247 pitches and plots listed in the Gypsy and Traveller local plan are within four miles of the village of Stanbridge, contradicting the Secretary of State’s statement on 25 November 2013 that Traveller sites should not dominate villages.
Large pitch numbers tend to produce large further needs assessments, leading to ever-increasing pitch requirements. The travellers on the unauthorised Mile Tree Farm site in my constituency are from Aylesbury, I believe, yet are counted against Central Bedfordshire’s needs assessment. That is wrong and unfair, as are the enormous legal costs that council tax payers must bear when local authorities challenge the unfair system.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is sometimes not only local councils but local communities that bear enormous legal costs? In one case in my constituency, an applicant at a planning appeal has sought costs against local residents, purely because they had the courage to stand up and speak about what they believed in for their community and their village.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that point on the record. She highlights the fact that there are many legal disputes. They do not promote community cohesion and are expensive for all concerned, whether individuals or, as often happens, council tax payers through local authorities.
Paragraph 15 of the March 2012 planning policy for Traveller sites seems to blunt the impact of the Minister’s written ministerial statement of 17 January on the green belt; that is another reason why I believe that nothing less than primary legislation will do. I do not believe the current situation is tenable, because central Government are forcing local authorities to take many extremely unpalatable decisions that are causing a great deal of anxiety and anger in rural and urban communities. As I said, that does not aid community cohesion. I believe strongly that we are all equal under the law. That is an important principle, but many of my constituents in the settled community do not believe that equality under the law exists at the moment and feel highly discriminated against.
The education and skills of Traveller children are more likely to increase if they are integrated with children from the settled community over a much wider area, so that they do not dominate any particular school. I also believe that Traveller children and their parents would follow the example of the majority of children and have higher rates of attendance and a greater desire to achieve the qualifications and skills necessary to secure sustained employment.
I repeat my request to the Minister to introduce primary legislation to deal with the situation in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech and, in the interim, immediately to lower the 3% net household formation annual growth requirement for Gypsies and Travellers to around 1.5%, as I do not believe that the evidence supports the 3% figure and it is causing huge difficulty to local authorities and our constituents.
On a point of order, Mrs Riordan. You will know that at the start of this debate, there was a 10-minute delay while the microphones were not working. This is an important and well attended debate. What advice have you had from the Chairman of Ways and Means about whether 10 minutes could be added to the end of this debate, and subsequently to the rest of the day?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate.
The term “Travelling people” covers groups found across the country, in Scotland, Ireland and England, and across Europe. All regard travelling as an important aspect of their ethnic and cultural identity. This debate is not concerned with certain other groups such as, for example, fairground travellers—show people—or new age travellers, although obviously some of the issues that we will mention, such as the education of children, affect all sorts of travelling people.
In my own area of the country, Scotland, references to the presence of Travellers can be found as early as the 12th century. There is a number of theories about the origin of Travellers: some people argue that Travellers can trace their roots to a Celtic or perhaps pre-Celtic population; others suggest that they may descend from Roman slaves brought over to Britain, although on the evidence that can be identified, that sounds improbable. The most recent estimate is that there are more than 1,500 Travellers in Scotland at any one time, but the true figure is unknown. The Scottish figure excludes thousands of Travellers living in housing for some or all of the year, and many people are afraid to identify themselves as Travellers because they fear discrimination. Travellers themselves estimate that there are more than 15,000 Travellers in Scotland at any one time.
We recognise that Travellers engage in a wide variety of employment, including in the world of entertainment. Famous people connected with Travellers include Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hoskins and Shayne Ward—it is even claimed that former US President Bill Clinton is descended from the Scottish Gypsy kings and queens—but as we know, it is not just famous Travellers who attract press coverage. Travellers are no longer a forgotten minority: both the local and the national media regularly cover stories relating to Traveller issues. Unfortunately, it usually results in the majority of people, who may never have met a Traveller, holding firm and often negative opinions about them. Although we should be concerned that press coverage is often unbalanced, we should also accept that Travellers are as diverse as any other group and recognise that, as in any other ethnic group, a small minority of individuals do engage in unlawful behaviour. In short, we should not be so gullible as to accept that they are all just misunderstood and hard-done-by angels.
For decades, Travellers’ accommodation needs have featured low on the priority list, and they have largely been the subject of heated debate. It would seem that in council chambers up and down the country, there are few subjects more hotly contested the provision of Traveller sites. Travellers require a range of accommodation provision, encompassing sites, housing and roadside camps, in order to meet their individual needs and circumstances. For many Travellers, travelling is not so much a lifestyle choice as a strong part of their cultural heritage. Traditionally, many Travellers had a wintering place and then travelled throughout the rest of the year, and some follow a similar pattern today, living in one place during the winter so that, for example, their children can go to school, and travelling during the summer.
The first council-owned site in Scotland was established only in 1978, in Argyll and Bute. During the 1980s and early 1990s, local authorities made use of a Scottish Office grant scheme to build sites, but some sites have since fallen into disrepair and others have closed. Existing council site provision in Scotland does not meet demand or the needs of Travellers, but many communities are still averse to supporting local Traveller sites—all agree that there should be sites, but not near them. In my constituency, we find that although we need to provide a campsite, local people object if it is to be situated near them. They all want an official campsite, but not beside them.
Recently, my council set aside moneys to establish a site, but communities disputed both the site position and whether it was the best use of money in these austere times. That is understandable, but money will still have to be spent to clean up unofficial sites used by Travelling people, such as roadside camps. In recent years, councils have blocked off many of the traditional roadside stopping places used by Travellers; as a result, Travellers have been compelled to camp in places that are closer to the settled population, which has often become a source of tension. Given the inadequate provision of council-owned sites and the difficulties in getting planning permission for private sites, roadside camping can be the only option for some families. As I say, roadside camping is often blamed for causing mess, which can incur rather hefty clean-up costs.
What of the UK-wide situation in sectors that affect Travellers, such as health and education? Many health services continue to exclude Travellers. Some GP surgeries refuse to register Travellers as patients, and doctors are reluctant to visit Traveller sites. Consequently, Travellers sometimes have no alternative but to seek care through accident and emergency clinics. Moreover, living conditions have a direct impact on health—more than 50% of Travellers have spent at least part of their life without access to running water. Travellers have one of the highest maternal death rates in the UK, and a study in Scotland estimated that the average life expectancy of Travellers could be as low as 55 years.
Attempts to meet the educational needs and concerns of Travellers are patchy. Some Traveller children are unable to attend school because they are concerned about their safety—in a recent survey, three quarters of young Travellers interviewed said they have been picked on or bullied, and some parents have even been advised by teachers to tell their children not to let the other pupils know that they are indeed Travellers. Interrupted learning as a result of travelling may also have an impact on Traveller children’s ability to access mainstream education, including further education. Few schools keep formal contact with Traveller pupils or record information about their attainment.
Clearly the provision of sites, including official sites, for Travellers requires the agreement and support of the communities who receive frequent visits from Travellers.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I congratulate him on giving a balanced picture of the challenges facing the Traveller community. He describes a set of circumstances affecting the Traveller community and explains the nature of their marginalisation, which was exemplified by the statistics cited by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), but does he agree that what underlies this situation is that there are simply not enough lawful and official permanent and transit sites for travelling people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely right to say that there are not enough official sites, and that is one of the causes of the friction and tension between the travelling community and the established community.
I will finish my remarks by highlighting that very point. It cannot remain the position that people say, “Yes, we recognise the need for sites, but not here.” Travellers will continue to visit areas of the country regardless of whether facilities are made available for them, which will result in calls for Travellers to be moved on from unofficial stopping sites as soon as possible. However, to remove them from unofficial sites, councils up and down the country will have to identify official sites and agree their use with the communities that they serve. Otherwise, they will forever pick up the cleaning-up costs.
Thank you, Mrs Riordan, for calling me to speak; it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this morning. And I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this really important debate.
In my short speech, I wish to raise an issue that is causing many of my constituents deep concern: the siting of Gypsy and Traveller encampments by local authorities. My local authority, York city council, is in the early stages of developing its local plan, and in its first set of draft proposals, which were consulted on last summer, 63 Gypsy and Traveller pitches were suggested. Of those 63 pitches, 41 have been proposed in what I would class as inappropriate countryside locations in small rural communities in my constituency. A further 21 travelling show people pitches have been proposed, again in rural locations on the edge of village settlements.
All the Gypsy, Traveller and show people pitches allocated to proposed sites are on York’s established green belt. The council has promised that the remaining 22 Gypsy and Traveller pitches are to be allocated to “suitable” sites as they emerge during the next 10 years, but the council’s blatant disregard for the green belt gives one little faith about what they class as “suitable” sites. Sadly, when identifying sites the council has actively pursued a “green belt first” policy, rather than the “brownfield first” policy that is explicit in the national planning policy framework. I shall be grateful if the Minister clarifies or reiterates today what I believe to be the current position: that local authorities should pursue a “brownfield first” policy when allocating Gypsy and Traveller sites, and that they should consider publicly owned land before privately owned sites.
Disappointingly, in York the council appears to have used the willingness of the landowner as the only criterion for designating sites, much to the detriment of my constituents and the affected communities. Countless constituents have contacted me to express their deep concern about the ability of landowners to use the local planning process to coerce—some might even say “blackmail”—communities into accepting inappropriate housing developments by threatening to put the land forward for Gypsy and Traveller sites. As people can imagine, that does not help anyone involved in this process, from the Travellers themselves to the affected communities.
I will also touch on the question of unmet need for Traveller pitches. There seems to be some confusion among certain local authorities—I am sorry to say that mine falls into that category—about whether unmet need constitutes the “special circumstances” required to place new Traveller sites on the green belt, even when no other option is available. Will the Minister clarify that situation for me? I would also be grateful to learn whether he feels that the “five-year supply” rule on new pitches should apply to Gypsies and Travellers, who are nomadic in their living requirements and whose accommodation needs are likely to fluctuate greatly during the 15-year life of a local plan, as has already been mentioned.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about how supply is determined? Salford university undertook a study, including in my own constituency, that basically asked the Gypsy and Traveller populations how many pitches they thought they would require during the next 15 to 20 years. Unsurprisingly, the number was very substantial: the Gypsies and Travellers deemed that they needed a 60% increase in the supply of pitches in quite a short period.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, he might have been reading my speech, because I will touch on that important issue when I talk about how local authorities have assessed future needs.
As we all know, under the national planning policy framework local authorities have sole responsibility for assessing the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their area. I am not saying that it is an easy task—far from it; it is very difficult. However, I am concerned that there are insufficient checks and balances in place to ensure that these assessments are being carried out in an objective and proportionate manner.
As I said, York city council has assessed that it requires more than 80 pitches for Gypsies, Travellers and show people during the 15-year life cycle of its local plan, but when my constituents and I reviewed the figures and the methodology used for identifying that specific need, we found some disturbing inaccuracies and errors, which suggests the council is proposing to provide for well above the “appropriate level of supply” required. The council based much of its background research on the 2008 North Yorkshire accommodation assessment. The report identifies that York has a shortfall of 36 pitches, which the council astutely picked up on in its own assessment, but that 2008 document also states that the number of households moving off sites and into bricks and mortar housing has vastly outstripped the projected need from concealed Gypsy and Traveller households. It concluded that the trend in York was of declining need, with the total number of additional pitches required between 2008 and 2015 having gone into negative figures, standing at minus 17—an important fact that was strangely absent from the council’s own assessment. Under huge protest, the council is now revisiting its assessment process.
The 18 concealed households that city of York council included in its assessment included Gypsies and Travellers who are currently accommodated in bricks and mortar housing but wish to be on local authority-run Travellers’ sites. Will the Minister clarify the definitions attached to Gypsies and Travellers? I strongly believe that, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire so eloquently stated, those who reside in bricks and mortar housing and have done so for some time should not be taken into account by local authorities when assessing Traveller pitch requirements, regardless of whether they would like to be back on a pitch.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. That is clearly the nub of how local authorities have assessed needs. I do not know about his local circumstances, but is he aware of any local authority or official site of pitches that is underutilised? How does he explain the many examples of unlawful pitch sites? Traveller people have no other alternative, because there are not sufficient lawful sites available.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I can only speak from my experience of my local authority and constituency. There is underuse on privately run pitches in my local authority area and we see few, if any, illegal encampments in the city of York. There are illegal encampments in neighbouring local authority areas, but none specifically in the York council area.
It would be sensible—this also applies to the point that I have just picked up on—of the Government to do more to encourage neighbouring local authorities to work together to carry out accurate assessments of Gypsy and Traveller needs, to ensure they are appropriately accommodated and that the responsibility for doing so is apportioned fairly. York, for example, is behind many other neighbouring local authorities in the local plan-making process. That has served to highlight the disparity between the needs assessments, with the council committing itself to far more pitches than any of its neighbours. I fear that that is because it is including the unmet need of surrounding local authorities in its own assessment.
I have a lot of respect for the Minister and the work he is doing on this issue, and I look forward to hearing his comments on the points raised in the debate. On the whole, I feel that much greater clarity is required about both the appropriate siting of Traveller pitches and the assessments of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs. That would provide much-needed transparency in a complex area of law and would prevent local authorities, such as city of York council, from the irresponsible and complacent conduct that has, sadly, caused my constituents so much distress.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) onsecuring this important debate and on his thoughtful speech. Having initiated a similar debate in July 2011 on Gypsy and Traveller planning, I am pleased to be able to contribute to this one, because this is a challenging area of constituency work for all right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber.
The Minister will be aware that, like other parts of Essex and England, some communities in my constituency—I thank him for visiting it last week—have become blighted by the negative consequences of ill-thought-out planning policies, as well as illegal and unauthorised developments. The way those cases have been handled through various planning processes has alarmed many of my constituents, who take issue with that and now feel that there are two planning systems running in parallel—one for the settled community and one for travelling communities.
Let me provide some context. Three local authorities and a county council cover my constituency, so, as one might imagine, there are complexities relating to local development frameworks.
On that point, although certain matters are devolved in Wales, does my hon. Friend agree that the consequence is that, rather than enhancing and integrating the Traveller community, resentment towards that community has developed, along with a complete lack of confidence in the local authority, leading to the opposite effect of what was desired?
My hon. Friend is right. We are dealing with questions of public confidence. The planning system needs to address the many concerns that he and other hon. Members have raised, but there are endless examples where the planning system has been perceived as deeply unhelpful, particularly in respect of travelling communities and, of course, settled communities.
I have dealt with cases where human rights legislation has been used in favour of the travelling community. That legislation appears to provide a licence for planning developments to be granted on a particular scale, even though similar applications from the settled community would be refused. This is about ensuring that everyone is dealt with fairly and even-handedly within the planning system. Evidence seems to suggest that the planning process favours travelling communities over settled communities, and I have examples of that happening.
I praise Conservative Ministers, particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), and his team, who deserve considerable credit for trying to resolve many historical problems associated with the planning system in relation to the travelling community. I praise them also for calling in some appeals and for some of the reforms that have been made since we have been in government. Much more work is needed to ensure that we have a single planning system that is fair and, importantly, has the confidence of the public in all our communities.
I shall highlight ongoing problems in the village of Great Braxted in my constituency. It is a small rural community with an amazing, strong community spirit. All the neighbours know each other and new developments are not only unexpected, but are more often than not unsuitable for the area. In a well known case, a road in the village, Lea lane, has in recent years become the focal point of a number of planning applications, planning appeals and enforcement actions.
One family, who have lived in Lea lane for more than 20 years, have been left terrified by the constant bombardment of planning activities and development taking place on the land surrounding their property. In recent years, they have faced more than 30 planning applications from members of the travelling community and their associates. Every couple of months a new application or appeal seems to be lodged. Some applications have been successful, particularly on appeal, and pitches have been approved but remain unoccupied, but when applications are refused, new applications of a similar nature are submitted or unauthorised development continues.
My hon. Friend the Minister is aware from my correspondence with him about this situation that there seems to be no mechanism built into the planning system to protect my constituents from this bombardment of planning misery. I urge the Government to consider introducing new powers that can be exercised locally, to prevent persistent applications of a similar type from being made for a period of time.
In one example, a planning inspector granted permission on appeal by disregarding my constituents’ concerns and putting the rights of the travelling community above theirs. The inspector’s judgment stated:
“any harm to the living conditions of”
“would clearly be outweighed by the benefits arising from the provision of a site for Gypsies and Travellers.”
The Minister knows that judgments such as that one shatter public confidence in the planning system and exacerbate the sense of unfairness in settled communities, particularly when their rights and views are effectively bypassed. Furthermore, my constituents have incurred significant costs—we have heard about this already—as a third party in the planning appeals process, and they have no way of recouping those costs, even when the application is refused. Works undertaken at the site on Lea lane have been very inconvenient, and my constituents have suffered disruption to their utilities—on top of the misery the planning process causes them, their utilities are being cut off. What is more, the area’s planning history naturally makes if very difficult for my constituents to sell up and move on.
The local planning authority is Maldon district council. Its draft site allocations plan, a copy of which I have here, deems that Lea lane should host 11 of the district’s 54 pitches and that priority should be given to intensifying or expanding current sites to accommodate new applications, irrespective of the plot’s unsuitability. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will encourage the local authority to reconsider its approach to Lea lane. I offer him an open invitation to pop by and see the site for himself when he is passing through on the A12, which he knows well. I am sure he has a great deal of empathy for my constituents, who feel trapped by the situation.
This weekend my constituents launched a petition to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the settled community is treated equally and fairly in the planning process. Within hours of the petition’s launch, there were more than 200 signatures. I have a copy of the petition here, and I would be delighted to hand it to the Minister. I hope he will take note of the concerns raised in the petition.
Business premises and industrial estates are also affected by Travellers who turn up totally uninvited. Witham Industrial Watch has had some horrendous cases. Thousands of pounds of damage was caused last summer alone, not just on one occasion but on three. Businesses are the engines of our economic growth, creating jobs, prosperity and wealth. It is appalling to see the extent of the devastation and damage that has been caused on our industrial estates in Eastways and at two other locations. Action was taken though section 61 notices. I commend Witham police, with which I spent some time two Fridays ago. We discussed the cases, and the police were on the ball. I praise Witham Industrial Watch, too, for working in partnership with Witham police. I think there will be some best practice and good learning that we can all use when dealing with such cases.
The Government have done the right thing by making squatting in people’s homes a criminal offence and I urge Ministers to consider introducing a similar criminal offence to protect businesses and landowners by deterring illegal occupancy of land.
I agree with what the hon. Lady says about commercial sites and businesses. In my constituency we have had serious problems in which companies have had to pay Travellers to move on because international visitors were coming in and the place was a mess. It is a disgrace that that has to be done.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is a classic example of why the system needs to be changed. The status quo is not an option; we need to do something. I believe that we can have an effective planning system that addresses the needs of both settled communities and Traveller communities and addresses the tensions that we have discussed today, but we need to change the culture and the attitude within the planning system, which means taking robust action on some of the areas that I and other hon. Members have raised.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on introducing an important debate that touches so many of our constituencies. A general frustration has been expressed this morning that giving special status to one category of people tends to trample on the rights of many of our ordinary, law-abiding, tax-paying constituents who, frankly, get very angry when they see their lives, their children’s lives and their grandchildren’s lives being blighted. In the Bournemouth and Poole area, particularly in the summer months, we face a number of groups that move down to find work. There is a good general argument for reviewing the law and the status of such groups.
I recently had a meeting with the Minister and other representatives from Dorset, and I will repeat what we discussed for the record. I thank him for meeting us. We have a particular problem in that we have one Dorset constabulary that covers Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole, but Bournemouth and Poole are unitary authorities. Under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the police cannot move a Traveller group over a unitary authority boundary, which puts pressure on both Bournemouth and Poole to find provision. Because we have very tightly drawn boroughs, and because we have green-belt and heath land, it is terribly difficult to identify sites within the conurbation that are not next to settled communities. That causes a lot of difficulty and trouble, and it would be much easier if the issue were managed over in Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole, with all three combining to do their best to manage the problem in the summer.
Poole has always tried to be as sensitive as possible, and the health authority has always tried to be as good as possible by knocking on the door and asking after the health of the mothers and children of the Traveller community, but law-abiding people—local residents who pay their council tax—get very frustrated that there seems to be a special status. Sometimes, neither the police nor the local authority seems able to take action to address the problem effectively and efficiently.
At the moment, Poole is trying to identify a temporary site, and it has considered some 90 sites. Poole is thinking of putting in for planning permission on a site at Marshes End in Creekmoor, which is causing a lot of controversy and trouble. Marshes End may not even be the best site because it is near a fast road, is next to a fire station and has few facilities. Leaving that aside, because the planning process will sort out whether it is the most appropriate site, the real frustration is that it is expensive. Poole is not a highly funded authority, and people, again, get frustrated that resources have to be put in to deal with what they consider to be a difficult problem.
Generally, I think there is a case for modest reform in a Bill in the next Session. We need to reform sections 61 and 62 of the 1994 Act, and the Government should consider whether people ought to be treated fairly and equally, rather than having a privilege for one specific group that tramples on the rights of others.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate.
As a quick disclaimer, when I raised the subject of a constituent and endorsed the local authority, which referred to him as “unkempt,” it later transpired that that person claims to be of Traveller origin and a six-month criminal investigation against me by Sussex police ensued. The investigation of course got nowhere. When the case was dropped, I raised the matter in the House, at which point the references to “Traveller” were registered as a hate incident by Sussex police, and six months later I was served with a police information notice that has subsequently been the subject of a Committee of Privileges investigation. I put it on record that I will not be sending a copy of Hansard to anyone, which is what sparked the complaint.
I have no argument with Travellers, but I do have an argument with illegal encampments, which cause such devastation, angst, pain and cost to my constituents. They disrupt the leisure, education and business activities of legitimate council tax-paying constituents who just want to go about their business. In my constituency, Adur and Worthing have been the destinations of choice for illegal encampments for many years. I take issue with the fact that the residents of such illegal encampments seem incapable of vacating without completely trashing the site and leaving a heck of a mess for local people to clear up. One of my parish councils, which has been the subject of multiple illegal encampments, had to raise council tax last year by 28% purely to pay the bill for clearing up and reinforcing some of its public sites.
I will not give way because there is very little time.
The problem is that illegal encampments seem to have no consideration for the communities in which they park themselves. As hon. Members have said, there is a perception among our constituents that there is one law for Travellers and illegal encampments and another law for law-abiding citizens, who would have to fund the clearing up if they undertook such activity. My concern is that our police, and certainly Sussex police, seem to be engendered with a feeling of political correctness, such that when one challenges the legitimacy of people calling themselves Travellers, or the legitimacy of what they are doing, one is put in the frame by the police. That is just not fair, and it creates great resentment among constituents who have to pay to clean up the mess.
The situation in my constituency has got better, and that is largely because of our new police commissioner, Katy Bourne, who has made illegal encampments one of her priorities. She has made the police take the problem much more seriously. Adur and Worthing councils have certainly improved their responses enormously and there has been a much better team effort in dealing with the problem. Rather than the police telling us what they cannot do, the police and crime commissioner has compelled them to issue rather more section 61 and section 62 notices, which have moved many of these illegal encampments swiftly on. Those notices work. In one case last summer, 50 caravans turned up on an open public area where a church festival was being held. Within an hour they had been moved on. They went to a football pitch, and within 24 hours they had been moved on from there, because the police were prepared to use section 61 and section 62 notices.
In West Sussex, all the local authorities have come together to co-fund a transit camp for the whole county, which will improve the problem. We welcome the Government money made available to help fund that transit camp. I strongly agree with my hon. Friends the Members for South West Bedfordshire and for Poole (Mr Syms) that we need to reform the Housing Act 2004. Everyone should be treated the same in housing assessment, and we overestimate the real need. A recent census found that more than two thirds of Travellers have brick and mortar homes in other parts of the country. We must look at the vulnerability of these communities to very poor education, qualification, health and employment outcomes, and a long-term policy that addresses that is needed. Just treating them differently in the planning system is not the solution.
We need to use smarter measures to deal with illegal encampments. In my constituency, I am urging the police to ensure they have a hotline for constituents who see these encampments appearing, so that that can be reported quickly and a fast response by the police and the local council to stop that encampment getting bigger can be expected and achieved. I can never understand why, when an illegal encampment starts, the police allow further caravans and vehicles to enter the site. During the day, people will often leave the caravans in their four-wheel drive cars to do business of various sorts, and I do not understand why they are allowed back on to an illegal encampment in the evening. Why are we not using more disruption techniques and saying, “If you are going to leave the site—as we hope you will if it is an illegal encampment—you can only go with your caravan, and you certainly cannot come back in again in the evening”? Those are the sort of disruption tactics we should be using for better enforcement.
The problem in my constituency is that the council has spent an awful lot of money reinforcing entrances and putting down bunding, only for a whole fence panel to be taken out to provide an entrance or for bollards to be ripped out by the tow bar of a car. Recently, the bunding on one site, which had been put in specifically to stop illegal encampments, was removed by a bulldozer. Why do we not use CCTV more, once an illegal encampment has been set up, to see what further offences might be committed? Why do we not better check the number plates of these vehicles to see where they are registered, and whether the Travellers have other accommodation or are without any alternatives?
All those things need to happen, but, recognising the problem and the particular vulnerabilities of the Traveller community, we also need far better long-term planning, and we need the Traveller community to sign up to that. We need clarification of the law, joined-up solutions and, above all, a level playing field that is hopefully used for playing and not illegal encampments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I join the chorus of praise for my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), not only for securing this important debate but also for the quality of his remarks and how he addressed this difficult issue.
We are fortunate to have a Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government who knows what he is talking about. He has successfully done many things so far in his all too brief term of office, but three stand out. First, he has torn up 186 pages of equality and diversity Whitehall guff to do with Gypsies and Travellers and the planning system, which was produced by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Secondly, he has visited Kettering and Kettering borough council not once, but twice. The last time was specifically to discuss the problems caused by Gypsies and Travellers. The third thing, which I was pleased to hear but only heard today, was that on 17 January he published a consultation to tackle once and for all the issue of Gypsies and Travellers self-declaring themselves as Gypsies and Travellers when many of us know they are nothing of the sort.
The fourth thing he could do, which would crown his career so far, would be to accept my private Member’s Bill, the Planning Regulations (Removal of Provisions in Respect of Gypsies and Travellers) Bill. I wanted to call it the “Gypsies and Travellers (the Same Planning Rules as Everyone Else) Bill”, but I was told by the parliamentary authorities that that was not allowed. Basically, the Bill would do what we have all been asking for, which is to remove all special provisions for Gypsies and Travellers in the planning system so that everyone is on exactly the same level playing field when they make a planning application. Why should there be any special provisions for those calling themselves Gypsies and Travellers, especially when we have learned today that three quarters of those people live in houses like everyone else? I am not convinced that there are as many Gypsies and Travellers as everyone says there are.
Recognising that everyone should be treated the same on housing need, I point out that when a small built housing site was provided for the travelling community in one constituency in Northern Ireland, a well-noted family in the travelling community moved in and the rest of the houses were to be occupied by another family. However, the first family would not allow the other family to move in, so the authority provided another built housing site at the other end of the town for the other family. Would that be accepted in any other housing list?
No, it would not, and the hon. Gentleman is right to draw the House’s attention to that matter. This perversion of the planning system is reiterating itself through these absurd extra provisions that are bolted on. People in my constituency are being brought to tears worrying about the planning regulations on Gypsies and Travellers. It is not unfair to say that some parts of the rural and farming community are being terrorised by the threat of theft, crime, rubbish and antisocial behaviour from local Gypsy and Traveller groups.
In Kettering and other communities within my constituency, local people are understandably worried about where Kettering borough council, of which I have the privilege to be a member, will eventually decide to site up to 37 pitches by 2031. One area that is causing huge concern is the Scott road garages site right in the middle of Kettering, where there could be a number of pitches. A crucial council meeting is being held on 19 February, and local people will be paying close attention to its outcome. The issue is not Kettering borough council’s fault; it has to do what the Government are telling it to do. Government regulations say that the council has to provide sites for 37 pitches by 2031. Through my private Member’s Bill, I argue that that requirement should be abolished. There should not be pressure on local authorities to come up with a designated number of sites, and abolishing that requirement would allay a lot of fears in my community.
The village of Braybrooke has had particular challenges: 100% of the local school was occupied by Traveller children, and that school is now going to close. Braybrooke, which has 325 residents on the electoral roll, is being threatened with a growing number of unauthorised and authorised encampments that might eventually surround the village, including a greenfield site of 37 acres split into 60 plots, which Travellers are increasingly moving into. These important issues cause real concern to my constituents and, as we have heard today, to constituents around the country. I am only too pleased that we have a Minister in place who recognises those concerns, and I am confident he will do something about them.
It is a pleasure, Mrs Riordan, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate. It is clear that he and other hon. Members who have spoken care passionately about this matter and have sought to bring forward issues affecting their constituencies.
It has been suggested that primary legislation should be altered, but whatever is done, the needs of the Gypsy and Traveller community must be assessed and land must be allocated to meet their needs. The Minister may be surprised to hear me say that much of the March 2012 planning policy framework would address many of the issues that hon. Members have raised today if it were implemented for Gypsies and Travellers.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) and the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who is no longer in his place, for their extremely measured and thoughtful contributions, which sought to balance the practical problems facing Gypsies and Travellers with the difficulty of securing enough sites to meet their needs.
I will briefly outline what the Labour Government did. I will not go as far back in history as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire did, but it is important to say where we are. As the Library briefing note outlines, the Labour Government pressured councils to make adequate provision for Gypsies and Travellers, partly through the Housing Act 2004 and partly through regional spatial strategies and local plans. That required local authorities, when reviewing housing needs in their area, to examine specifically the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers residing in or resorting to their district. That was important because of the need to identify permanent and temporary sites.
Planning policy guidance circular 1/2006 put an obligation on local authorities to identify land in what are now local plans for three reasons: to enable Gypsies, Travellers and Irish Travellers to buy land and to develop sites; to enable registered council landlords to apply to the Housing Corporation for funds to develop sites; and for the Secretary of State to intervene, when necessary, to ensure that land is identified. The consensus seemed to be that that was making councils and communities find suitable land and that there were increasing opportunities for children to enter schooling. Some of the issues that have been addressed today were starting to be met.
Despite the coalition Government’s removal of regional spatial strategies, there is still an expectation that local authorities will make adequate provision for Gypsies and Travellers in their area. The March 2012 planning policy framework states that local planning authorities should make their own assessment of housing needs and sites for Travellers, and many hon. Members today made a powerful case for that need to be assessed objectively.
Local planning authorities should work collaboratively to develop fair and effective strategies and should be encouraged to plan for sites over a reasonable time scale, to protect the green belt, to encourage more private provision, to introduce measures to reduce unauthorised development and encampments, to have realistic and inclusive policies and to take action to reduce tension between settled and Gypsy and Traveller communities.
The policy raises several questions that I hope the Minister will answer today. What will happen if the local authority’s assessment of Gypsy and Traveller need is unsatisfactory and results in too little or too much land or too few or too many sites? How will he know that? What will happen if, as the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) mentioned, local authorities do not work collaboratively to develop effective strategies to meet needs, and what mechanisms will enable them to do that? What sanctions will apply if they do not work together and, again, how will he know that?
What is a reasonable time scale? How will it be obvious and what will be the mechanisms if private Traveller site provision is not adequate, or is proving problematic in the range of ways that hon. Members outlined? How will the Department for Communities and Local Government monitor the number of unauthorised developments and encampments, and what action will be taken to address that? How many local authorities have developed realistic and inclusive policies, and how are they evaluated?
How many additional Gypsy and Traveller sites have been provided since the March 2012 planning policy framework? How is the Department supporting initiatives to reduce tension between the settled and the Gypsy and Traveller communities, which are important given some of the comments this morning? Is the Department monitoring the use of rural exception site policy and if not, given that it is specifically mentioned in the guidance, what action will the Minister take?
Hon. Members will realise that I have little quarrel with the policy in the 2012 planning policy framework and guidance. It is right that we should have a more localist approach to determining need for the Gypsy and Traveller community and try to get local communities and councils to be reasonable in meeting that need. However, I would like to know how the Government’s policy is working in practice, and how they can be assured that that need is being met.
Research published in The Independent in March 2012 stated:
“The Government is underestimating the demand for new Gypsy and Traveller sites, exacerbating the already dire shortage and making ‘a future Dale Farm inevitable’”.
In January 2013, the Homes and Communities Agency announced grants of £47 million for 170 improved pitches and 620 new ones in schemes throughout the country, but it seems that fewer than 300 new pitches are likely to be built before 2015, and that by then funding may not be available. Many identified sites simply do not get planning permission.
We seem to be concentrating on sites that are inappropriately located, sometimes in the green belt and sometimes where problems arise for local communities, but the Minister and his colleagues must tell us where sites will be and how to facilitate local authorities and communities to meet existing needs in their area and to do so within an inclusive framework. No one is saying that that is easy. The issues are difficult, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire outlined. However, the complexity of the issues must be reflected not only in national guidance but in local strategies and actions. Monitoring is necessary so that we know what is and is not working and so that best practice can be shared. I do not see the Minister or his Department doing any of that at the moment.
There is a striking mismatch between need and where the money has gone, with few applications from London, the east, the south-east and the north-west. Essex, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Surrey and Hertfordshire had the most Gypsies and Travellers but were awarded only 4% of funding between them. The information we have suggests that the Minister should take action, and I would be grateful for answers to the specific points I have raised this morning.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this important debate about the general Gypsy and Traveller policy. It has been a high-quality, reasoned debate with many excellent contributions and suggestions.
I want to make it absolutely clear that, as hon. Members have said, Gypsies and Travellers are as much members of our communities as anyone else and deserve the same protection and the same rights. The key word is “same”. It has been suggested that there may be one law for settled communities and a separate law for Travellers, but we need to ensure that everybody is treated equally.
I gently suggest to the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) that it is difficult for this Government to take lessons from the previous Labour Government, who left us with the farce of Dale farm, which was mainly down to top-down, regional strategy approaches; she tempts me to return to those by taking a centralist approach to assessing what people are doing. We will certainly not do that.
That leads me directly to the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire about the 3% growth rate in Gypsy and Traveller household net formation. He believes the figure to be closer to 1.5% and will know from his research that the 3% figure originates in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s 2003 report “Local Authority Gypsy/Traveller Sites in England”, which was probably written with the same pens that we still have many thousands of, paid for with taxpayers’ money back then. The figure was restated in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s 2007 report “Preparing Regional Spatial Strategy reviews on Gypsies and Travellers by regional planning bodies”. My hon. Friend makes a fair point, so, bearing in mind that we have moved away from regional spatial strategies, I will go away and examine whether we can reassess the guidance.
We want fair play in the planning system. We are committed to encouraging sustainable development, and it is important that local authorities plan for the needs of all in their communities, including Travellers. We should not, however, tolerate any abuse of the planning system. We have introduced a broad package of measures to ensure a fair deal for both Travellers and the settled community. Members have raised the different things that have happened in various areas and more work needs to be done to encourage councils and the police to use the powers that they already have. Good examples exist of where the police are now using the considerable powers that we have given them.
We have replaced the top-down planning policy with a new planning policy for Traveller sites, putting the provision of sites back into local authorities’ hands, in consultation with their communities. We abolished the undemocratic regional strategies and the top-down housing and Traveller pitch targets that they contained. We have limited opportunities for retrospective planning applications in relation to any form of development through the Localism Act 2011. We have provided stronger enforcement powers for local authorities to tackle breaches of planning control.
In addition, we have reminded council leaders of the strong powers already available to them to deal swiftly with illegal and unauthorised encampments. We are encouraging authorised site provision, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned in relation to Adur, with £60 million-worth of Traveller pitch funding on top of the new homes bonus, which applies to Traveller sites as it does to conventional housing. We have given residents of authorised local authority sites improved protection against eviction by applying the Mobile Homes Act 2013 to those sites. We have also set up a cross-Government, ministerial-level working group to address the inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers, particularly in health and education.
Does the Minister have any sympathy with my point about it not being helpful to have a large concentration of people among whom joblessness is high, skills training is low and rates of absence are high? That could become the norm for that group, and if we really want to do the best for this community, I ask him to consider the matter.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about ensuring that communities are mixed and balanced, and I encourage local authorities to be aware of that in their planning work.
We also revoked the legislation that limited the use of temporary stop notices against caravans used as a person’s main residence, which might well have stopped the farce at Dale farm that developed under the previous Government. We removed unnecessary national regulation and now allow local authorities to make their own decisions about temporary stop notices.
Our policy aims to increase the number of Traveller sites in appropriate locations. It seeks to address under-provision and to maintain an appropriate level of supply, which may help to reduce unauthorised sites. Our planning policy aligns more generally with that for standard housing. It expects local authorities to plan to meet their Traveller needs based on robust evidence developed locally and to identify and update their supply of specific sites.
Our policy strengthens protection of the green belt and the open countryside by making clear that Traveller sites are inappropriate for green-belt development and that local authorities should strictly limit the development of new Traveller sites in the open countryside. My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) made a point about the balance between unmet need and the green belt. I am concerned that decision makers do not always afford the green belt and other areas special to us the level of protection that our policies seek to deliver, and I see that concern in the correspondence that I receive and in this morning’s comments. That is why I announced to the House in July last year that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government considers that the single issue of unmet demand—whether for Traveller sites or for conventional housing—is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt and elsewhere and to constitute the exceptional circumstances that justify inappropriate development in the green belt.
I also announced that the Secretary of State would recover for decision himself a number of appeals against the refusal of planning permission in order to test the relevant policies at national level. Earlier this month, I announced that those recoveries would continue and re-emphasised our policy position on unmet need and the green belt. I hope that that provides some comfort to hon. Members.
May I ask the Minister and his officials to re-examine paragraph 15 on page 5 of the “Planning policy for traveller sites” document? Although I welcome what he and the Secretary of State have said, I am concerned that the wording of paragraph 15 runs against what the Minister has just stated.
My hon. Friend highlights why it is important that we are calling cases in to make the Government’s position clear and to test the policy, but I will consider that specific issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) will understand that I cannot comment on particular cases due to the quasi-judicial planning issues, but her point about persistent applications was well made. I enjoyed my visit to her constituency last week, and I am sure that the residents of Little Braxted will be looking forward to its afternoon outing on ITV’s “Britain’s Best Bakery” this week.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) made reference to a meeting that we had and an idea that was put forward. We will be examining how we can take further that proposal, which may help to alleviate the problems that arise when things move back and forth in a small area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) always tempts me into new ways of dealing with issues, but I will deal with his suggestions when we come to consider his private Member’s Bill.
We want to ensure fairness in the system, and I stress that we announced our intention to consult later this year on whether the planning definition of Travellers should refer only to those who actually travel and have a mobile or transitory lifestyle. If someone has ceased to travel, it is right to ask whether they should be treated as a Traveller for planning purposes, and we will be seeking answers to that question. In the meantime, however, I am keen to hear the views of hon. Friends, Opposition Members and others.
I am keen to hear views on how planning policy for Travellers could be further refined to ensure that the green belt and other areas that we value are given proper protection. This debate has provided a welcome opportunity to pursue that discussion, but I hope that it will develop in due course. We have undertaken a range of things to ensure that councils have the powers that they need to deal with illegal encampments swiftly. We published some guidance last summer, and I am happy to provide copies of it to interested Members.
In conclusion, I stress that our planning reforms seek to achieve three things: an adequate supply of authorised sites to meet Traveller needs; a level playing field for all; and the protection of our natural heritage and open spaces. We are determined to ensure that everyone has the ability and aspiration to prosper and that we break down the barriers to social mobility through a planning system that is fair and equal to all.