Gipsy Sites

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:06 pm on 10th July 1990.

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Photo of Mr Robert Jones Mr Robert Jones , Hertfordshire West 7:06 pm, 10th July 1990

I have the honour to present the third report of the Select Committee on the Environment on the Department of the Environment's main estimates for 1990–1991, with special reference to vote 4, Bl. It would be appropriate to record our thanks to Mr. Richard Dudding and Mr. John Adams at the Department of the Environment for their helpful co-operation, enabling the Committee to reach the conclusions of its report, and for their full anwers to the sometimes forceful questions that were put to them during our deliberations. I should also like to record my appreciation of the leadership of our Select Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), who brings us great experience and considerable enthusiasm and who helps us do an important job.

I am a great believer in the work that Select Committees do and in bringing their reports to the House. We appreciate the opportunity to debate a report hot off the press.

Select Committee do an enormous variety of work and cover detailed as well as broad subjects. I cannot help contrasting our previous debate with this one. A few moments ago we were debating the consequences of what my insurance people would call an act of God earlier this year. Now we are considering the consequences of an Act of Parliament passed more than 20 years ago. The consequences are still with us: that is the nub of the Select Committee's report and recommendations.

We recognise the difficult problems posed by itinerants. There are different points of view. I am sure that the viewpoint of Lord Avebury, who, as Eric Lubbock, steered the legislation through Parliament, would be different from my own. As a constituency Member of Parliament who, in common with some of my hon. Friends, has had problems with itinerants, I have received many representations from constituents about a variety of related issues.

Above all there is the problem of visual pollution. To some people gipsies may be historic Romany folk with brightly painted caravans towed by horses but those of us who have experienced the problem in recent years know that it has more to do with tumbledown caravans and beaten-up vehicles and piles of scrap and rubbish, and that those people often occupy inappropriate sites that are extremely visible to the general public.

There is also a problem associated with the vandalism of large areas of woodland to provide fuel for fires. Theft often occurs as well. A farmer in my constituency found after gipsies had camped on land adjacent to his farm that the water supply for his cattle was regularly used by the itinerants. He had to pay a huge bill and he could not reclaim the money from anyone.

My personal interest in the matter goes back a long way. I served on Chiltern district council in Buckinghamshire until I became a Member of the House. We spent long hours debating the location of official sites before we received designations. The galling aspect was that no sooner had the official sites been built and opened than they were vandalised by the very people who were supposed to benefit from them. At that time a pitch cost about £10,000; no doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will bring us up to date on how much one would cost now.

The Select Committee has considered the matter on several occasions. The first time I remember it doing so was in 1984–85, soon after I joined the Committee, and the problem has recurred almost every year since then. This time we have come up with some specific recommendations, which I shall attempt to summarise.

It is time to set a realistic timetable for site provision, with the threat of much more vigorous use of the Secretary of State's powers of direction against laggard authorities. Foremost among the reasons for his recommendation was the slow provision of official pitches. Hon. Members may be interested to hear some statistics. There were 211 more caravans on authorised sites in July 1989 than in July 1988, and 171 new pitches became available on local authority sites during the financial year 1989–90. That represents a decline from the 250 new pitches in the calendar year 1987 and no improvement on the 200 to 300 annual increases reported by the Department of the Environment for 1982 to 1987. The Committee estimates that, at the present rate of new provision, it would take 25 years to solve the problem.

The Secretary of State has only twice used his powers of direction under section 9 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. In November 1988 he directed Hertfordshire county council to make provision for sites for 110 caravans. It is no coincidence that I am the Member for Hertfordshire, West, because I had to bully successive Ministers at the Department over that matter before any action was forthcoming. In June 1989, Surrey county council was directed to provide for 180 caravans. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Committee recommended much more vigorous use of that power. The numbers involved are immense and there seems to be little progress.

The number of caravans on unauthorised sites continues to grow. Figures supplied by the Department in 1985 showed a decline in numbers from 4,245 in January 1980 to an estimated 3,472 in January 1985. In answer to a parliamentary question on 6 February 1987—at column 856 in Hansard—my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) identified about 3,000; but last year the DOE reported the proportion of caravans on unauthorised sites as virtually unchanged at about 34 per cent., despite the creation of about 250 new pitches, as more gipsies than usual were being recorded. Most worrying of all, this year's public expenditure White Paper reports the proportion on unauthorised sites at 35 per cent., which is an increase. That makes a total of 4,500 caravans, so the solution to the problem seems to be receding.

The Committee first expressed its worry about the legislation in its report of the 1984–85 Session, when we recommended that the Department should conduct a review of policy on gipsy sites. It was carried out by Professor Wibberley, professor of countryside planning in the university of London. He made several recommendations, the first of which a more specific definition of gipsies for the purpose of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, based on employment and life style, with the intention of excluding social drop-outs.

In response, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury said that he defined gipsies in terms of a nomadic habit of life—which seems a rather circular argument. In recent years not just itinerants, as they were called in the past, but many of what my constituents call diddikois seem to have joined this group; they are people from all sorts of background. There has certainly been an influx of peace people from various camps around the country. That is why the problem is growing.

The difficulty is not confined to unauthorised sites on land. As a member of the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council, I am conscious of the fact that exactly the same phenomenon is occurring on the water, in the shape of illegal moorings. The problem has more to do with the break-up of some parts of society and with general problems of homelessness than with genuine Romany folk. Professor Wibberley's recommendation is still relevant and I hope that the Department will again consider tightening the legislation's definition.

The professor also recommended a review of designated areas to ensure that the designation procedure works more fairly and efficiently. He recommended better and more frequent counts of gipsy families and measures to reduce resident hostility towards gipsies' sites, including speeding up planning decisions and facilitating discussions between gipsies and residents. Finally, he recommended encouraging gipsy groups to act as site operators, and quicker and more generous provision of capital grants for sites. Incidentally, I must commend the Department's improvement of the grant regime. I hope that that will encourage more local authorities to provide sites. As Mr. Dudding explained when giving evidence: there are other authorities which would … even if they had the £5 notes put in front of their eyes, be reluctant". I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green will touch on that aspect if he catches the Chair's eye—it is a problem that has been especially apparent in Haringey.

The real difficulty is that the goalposts are continually moving. Even local authorities that are motivated to try to achieve designation find that they run into increasing difficulties of litigation. As soon as a local authority applies for designation on the basis of the number of itinerants who are, in the terms of the Act, resorting to the area, there is another influx of people. That means that the designation order falls because there is no relation between the number of official pitches and the number of the gipsies in the area.

It is little wonder that some local authorities, faced with all the political problems of trying to set up sites against the will of local residents, give up, especially when confronted by vociferous gipsy support groups with access to legal assistance.

How does one define who resorts to an area? Is it someone who has come to an area for many years, or is it someone who has come to the area only recently? There seems to be no way to define it. I have always taken the view that we do not need more direction from the Department of the Environment, or a different grant regime. We need a reframing of the legislation so that, with fairer definitions, local authorities can get on with the job of providing sites for the genuine traveller and ensuring that the police move on those who are not genuine travellers.

I am encouraged by the Department's response to a question that I put to it. Mr. Dudding said: I think the Secretary of State's words in reply to the Committee last year were open to change; they were not ruling them out. And I think that is somehting that we shall continue to think about and I am sure that Ministers will be interested to read the views of the Committee in their Report because that is a source of advice to them by which, as you know, they have been influenced in the past. There is plenty of material for reconsideration.

I hope that the Minister will be able to provide more up-to-date information. The Department has commissioned a study to identify good practice among local authorities in achieving site provision. It has also commissioned another study to establish the accuracy of the half-yearly counts of gipsies. I understand that the results would be made available in June 1990. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has them with him and that he will be able to enlighten the House.

It has taken virtually the whole time that I have been a Member of Parliament for my local authority to be granted designation after its initial application. During that period, local residents, particularly in the parishes of Wigginton and Tring Rural, but also in Tring, became increasingly frustrated by what they believed to be the Department of the Environment's inability to act in such a way as to protect them from all the environmental problems that I described earlier. I had to explain to them many times that I believed that the cause of the problem was the imprecise nature of the legislation that had been piloted through the House. That is not surprising, since it was a Liberal measure. Nevertheless, a Conservative Government ought to do something about it.

I hope that the Minister will respond sympathetically to the pressing needs of communities throughout the country who wish to be rid of those problems. Genuine travellers ought to be provided with a decent life style and somewhere to live so that education can be provided for their children, but the law needs to be reformed to deal with the remainder.