In my constituency of North East Hertfordshire, there have recently been intentional unauthorised developments of caravan sites on land bought by Travellers. This is becoming more common nationally and has been increasing locally.
It is important that the rule of law is upheld. To local residents who abide by the law, it just seems wrong that planning law can be flouted and treated with disdain. If planning permission is needed, it should be applied for in advance. My constituents are concerned that there should be a level playing field for the planning system. Unauthorised sites are frequently a source of tension between the travelling and settled communities. Although councils have some powers to deal with unauthorised sites, deliberate unauthorised development remains a significant issue.
In July 2018, there were 3,093 caravans on unauthorised sites nationally, of which 2,149 were on land bought by Travellers. The number of caravans on unauthorised sites increased by 17% between July 2017 and July 2018. So, what is going on? In a typical case, it seems that a Traveller will buy land where there would be little or no prospect of someone obtaining planning permission for a home. In my constituency, examples have included land in the green belt and land in a conservation area—I believe that all the sites were ones where planning permission to build a house or to develop a business had previously been refused.
On some occasions, on the Friday evening of a bank holiday a fleet of lorries, caravans and building equipment has arrived on a site, and people have started to lay internal roads and hard standing on the site without planning permission. In some instances, children are brought on to sites. This could be coincidental, or it could be designed to be used in later legal proceedings to demonstrate a family life for Human Rights Act purposes. Where notices are served by the council for enforcement or an injunction, they are ignored. As council enforcement proceeds, with a good deal of development already on site, applications are made for retrospective planning permission.
I have a deep interest in planning matters and am perturbed to hear what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said. Does he agree that the purpose of the planning system is to ensure that there is protection for the environment and neighbourhoods, and that planners need to work with developers or potential developers to find a way forward? If no such way is found, swift and firm action must be taken by local councils and, ultimately, by the judiciary.
I accept that point. It seems to me that we are trying to have an orderly planning system on which people can rely as a level playing field, equal for all. If the planning system is not enforced, we end up with a system that can be railroaded, which is in effect what is happening.
As I was saying, as council enforcement proceeds, with a good deal of development already on site, retrospective planning permission is applied for. The process is delayed, with the inevitable inertia of court or planning inquiry proceedings, and the scope for applications for adjournments, so months can pass into years. Perhaps a personal permission is eventually obtained on appeal. Then, I am told, more unauthorised development might take place for a family member here or a living room there. Over a period of years, the initial failure to apply for planning permission has been rewarded with a full caravan site. That might help to explain why the number of caravans on unauthorised sites has increased by 17% in the past year.
If a site is intentionally developed without permission, should it not be put back into the state that it was in before, and then a planning application could be made? Should not the enforcement notices all be followed, and then, from the position of anybody else applying in advance, we should have that proper process.
As the Minister is aware, I have had considerable difficulty in my constituency. Some of the sites have been fought over for 14 to 18 years. I have a very aggressive one at the moment. Perhaps the Minister might consider enabling the local authority to put a stop order on any development at all, emphasised and backed by the courts.
That is a very constructive proposal and I would be interested to hear how the Minister responds to it. At the moment, if a site is intentionally developed without permission, there does not seem to be much of a disincentive to ignore planning law in the first place. The Government’s planning policies and requirements for Gypsy and Traveller sites are set out in “Planning policy for traveller sites”, which must be taken into consideration in preparing local plans and taking planning decisions. In theory, that encourages local authorities to formulate their own evidence base for Gypsy and Traveller needs and to provide their own targets relating to pitches required, which is a good thing. Where planning authorities are unable to demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable sites, that in turn might make it more difficult for them to justify refusing planning applications for temporary pitches. However, where a council does what is suggested, that does not provide the certainty for the council or the local residents that is intended.
In preparing its local plan, East Hertfordshire District Council undertook a thorough process to establish Traveller needs. That was scrutinised by the planning inspector as part of the public examination of the draft plan and, after due consideration, the plan was approved by the Secretary of State and adopted in November 2018. Yet within weeks, it was being argued successfully on a retrospective planning appeal before another planning inspector that this did not adequately reflect Traveller need in the district because it did not include the appellant, who was not actually living in the district at the time of the council survey a few months earlier. Surely the local plan should have more force than that. There should be a period from adoption of the plan within which it is not possible to reopen issues such as that of need. The plan should be determinative—at least for a reasonable period.
In a welcome January 2014 written ministerial statement, the Government sought to re-emphasise existing policy that
“unmet need, whether for traveller sites or for conventional housing, is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt and other harm to constitute the ‘very special circumstances’
justifying inappropriate development in the green belt.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 573, c. 35WS.]
I asked the Minister whether that still applied.
In September 2014, the coalition Government published, “Consultation: planning and travellers”. This made intentional occupation of land without planning permission a material consideration in any retrospective planning application for that site. Will the Minister confirm that that remains the case?
The guidance “Dealing with illegal and unauthorised encampments: a summary of available powers” was published in March 2015. Since then, there have been a number of debates in which hon Members, including my hon. Friend Sir Paul Beresford, have highlighted these issues. On
“Practical and financial support for local authorities including new good practice guidance and funding for planning enforcement to support local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments more effectively…Supporting traveller site provision through planning policy and the Affordable Homes Programme…Support for the travelling community to improve life chances”.
Many Gypsies and Travellers now live in settled accommodation—mostly in bricks and mortar—and do not travel, or do not travel all the time, but they do consider travelling part of their identity. The number of Traveller caravans is on the increase. In July 2018, the figure was 22,662—an increase of 29% since July 2008. There are concerns expressed by Select Committees of the House that this is leading to unsatisfactory conditions in unauthorised sites. It is also worth making the point that Travellers have the worst outcomes across a wide range of social indicators, so work to improve their life chances is welcome.
The Government have said that they will consider writing to local authorities that do not have an up-to-date plan for Travellers, to expedite the requirements of national planning policy and highlight examples of good practice. But this may be ineffective if the general view of councils becomes that, even if they prepare a plan and it is approved as part of the local plan by the inspector and the Secretary of State, such a plan can still be impugned within weeks in a retrospective planning appeal. I understand that the Government intend to publish further consultations on options for strengthening policy on intentional unauthorised development, but action is needed now to uphold the rule of law, provide a level playing field, and remove the stress and tension caused to local communities by intentional unauthorised developments.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Oliver Heald on securing this debate. He has been a persistent and formidable champion for his constituents, and has raised this issue with me on a number of occasions. I am pleased that we are now able to address it in the open air.
The Government take unauthorised encampments extremely seriously, and a lot of work is ongoing in this area. Both I and the Secretary of State have listened extensively to views from across the House on this highly important issue, and recognise the strong feelings and concerns that have been raised in recent debates and discussions. As both I and the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend
In February this year, we published the Government’s response to the “Powers for dealing with unauthorised developments and encampments” consultation, working with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. Since then, ministerial colleagues and officials have been working together closely towards delivering on the commitments made in that response. Among the concerns that have been raised by colleagues in the House and members of the public, there were particular concerns over fairness in the planning system, illegal activity and the wellbeing of travelling communities. Indeed, I can understand the frustration that is felt when it appears that the law does not apply fairly to all. We want to ensure that the system is fair, so we must take into account the concerns being raised—whether those concerns are from the travelling community or members of the settled community. This means ensuring that all members of the community have the same opportunities and are free from the negative effects of those who choose to break the law.
The responses we received to our consultation on unauthorised development highlighted several aspects that we need to improve on in order to address this issue. Our response put forward a package of measures, including consultation on stronger powers for the police to respond to unauthorised encampments, practical and financial support for local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments, support for Traveller site provision and support for the travelling community to improve their life chances. My colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend
First, let me address the concerns raised by my right hon. and learned Friend about intentional unauthorised development, and, in particular, how this type of development is taken into account when planning permission is sought retrospectively. The Government do want to ensure that fairness and confidence exists in the planning system, and I believe that this can be partly achieved through the strengthening of policy in this area. In 2015, the Government introduced a policy that made intentional unauthorised development a material consideration in the determination of planning applications and appeals. As set out in our response, we are concerned that harm is caused by the development of land that has been undertaken in advance of obtaining planning permission. We will therefore consult on options for strengthening our policy on intentional unauthorised development so that local authorities have the tools to address the effects of such developments. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will contribute to that consultation.
We know, however, that this is not only about having the necessary policies and regulations in place, but about local authorities having the powers and resources to enforce them. There is already an extensive range of powers in place, as set out in the 2015 guidance, to allow local authorities to clamp down quickly on unauthorised encampments. The Government expect authorities, working with the police as necessary, to use these powers to take swift and effective enforcement action. The responses to our consultation on unauthorised developments and encampments demonstrated that local authorities generally believe that the powers available to them under sections 77 and 78 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 are adequate. Local authorities have extensive planning enforcement powers under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The Government believe that, if used effectively, these are sufficient to tackle unauthorised development and reduce the risk of it occurring.
We note, however, that some local authorities may deal with unauthorised encampments less frequently than others, and the Government have heard that it can be difficult to develop expertise and good practice in all areas. We recognise that resourcing, training and skills are a concern in relation to planning enforcement. That is why we have committed to practical and financial support for local authorities, including new good practice guidance and funding for planning enforcement to support local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments more effectively.
I hear my hon. Friend’s view of the legislation, but, as I say, it is not the generally accepted view that came through in the consultation. I am more than happy to take a submission from the local authorities in Surrey if they believe that there are lacunae in their powers that mean they are unable to enforce successfully. However, there are local authorities across the country that do successfully enforce in this area. I would be more than happy to put his local authorities in touch with those local authorities who are successful in this regard, particularly the one that is always held out as an example—Sandwell in the west midlands, which has a particularly assertive and successful policy in this area, and might, I am sure, be able to offer some tips and tricks on what is available in the armoury of legislation for local authorities to use.
We want to ensure that local authorities use their powers to full effect and, as I say, draw on good practice across the country, at county or district level, in the ways that they can work more effectively with police and neighbouring authorities.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for the discussions we have had. However, what about the point that a person who is in breach of an enforcement notice is still able to apply for retrospective planning permission? Surely, he should remedy the breach before he is allowed to do that. What about the point on the local plan where a council goes to the trouble of surveying the need and getting the thing looked at by the planning inspector, it is signed off by his boss and the Secretary of State, and then, two or three weeks or a month later, it is being argued that it does not adequately reflect the need?
On my right hon. and learned Friend’s first point, those are very pertinent issues that should be submitted as part of the consultation on how we can strengthen measures against intentional unauthorised development. I am very focused on this issue. In particular, during the Department’s work, I was keen that we should enforce against that, because I agree that people need to have confidence in the planning system and know that there is a level playing field. If someone intentionally breaches the rules, there should be a higher bar for them to pass. However, we should bear in mind that a planning system with too much rigidity can often cause problems for those who stumble across the line or did not necessarily understand the rules in the first place, which can happen with ordinary domestic planning applications. I would be more than happy for him to submit that as part of the consultation. His second point has slipped my mind.
I will come on to this in a moment, but, as my right hon. and learned Friend will know, along with all elements of a local plan, five-year supply is often the subject of legal challenge and challenge through the planning appeals process. I have consistently said to local authorities on all types of housing that if they want to be bulletproof on planning, they should aspire to a supply beyond five years. Too many authorities spend a lot of time in court arguing about whether they are at 5.1 or 4.8, but if they plan their area with authority and perspective—even as far out as 10 or 15 years—there is no argument to be had, particularly if it has been evidenced through the local plan process and supported by a planning inspector.
We want to ensure that local authorities use their powers to full effect and draw on good practice across the country and at county and district level. That can include ways in which public bodies can more effectively work with the police, neighbouring authorities and the travelling and wider communities—for example on welfare issues and clarifying roles and responsibilities, to move unauthorised encampments on efficiently and successfully.
We will in due course create a power to place this guidance on a statutory footing, to ensure that all local authorities are following this advice and using their powers effectively. Our package of support for local authorities includes a commitment to make up to £1.5 million of funding available to local authorities to support planning enforcement. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will publish details of the fund and how to bid shortly. Alongside that, the Government will continue to keep local authorities’ powers in this area under review, following the proposals to reform police powers and where there are deliberate and repeated breaches of planning.
While we acknowledge that Government still have work to do on the issues associated with unauthorised encampments, I would like to reiterate the importance of appropriate levels of site provision provided by local authorities. The planning policy for Traveller sites requires local planning authorities to produce their own assessment of needs for Traveller sites in their area, to meet the needs and expected needs of the travelling community in the same way they would for the settled community, as my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out. However, when assessing the suitability of sites in rural or semi-rural settings, local planning authorities should ensure that the scale of such sites does not dominate the nearest settled community. The Government have committed to produce guidance on the concentration of sites and have made clear that the Secretary of State will be prepared to review cases where concerns are raised that there is too high a concentration of authorised Traveller sites in one location.
I would like to relay to the House our ongoing work on enforcement against unauthorised encampments, as I am aware that this has been an area of particular concern to many Members across the House, including those who have attended previous debates. As I mentioned, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend
From listening to our consultation responses on the matter, we have identified a set of measures to extend powers available to the police, to enable unauthorised encampments to be tackled more effectively. Those include our commitment to seek parliamentary approval to amend sections 61 and 62A of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The Home Office will soon launch a public consultation on the specific nature of these measures, to take the proposals forward.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. I was on the Committee in 1994 that considered the Bill, which introduced the five caravan rule. That has been excellent, and the Government might want to reduce it to three. But of course, that is all about moving on trespassers in encampments that are unauthorised for that reason. This debate is about land that is owned by the developer where all the planning laws are being ignored. Is there anything more he can say about toughening up on that and ensuring that people cannot drive a coach and horses through the planning laws?
As I said earlier, I am keen for us to strengthen the measures that can be taken against intentional unauthorised development, on which my right hon. and learned Friend is very focused, and rightly so, but the process by which we get there means that we have to go through a consultation, which we will be doing shortly. I hope that both he and my hon. Friend Sir Paul Beresford will submit to that consultation whatever measures they think are appropriate.
I think it fair to say that on this issue, given the interest of a large number of Members, the Government have listened and announced a comprehensive package, which will be implemented over the next few months—as my right hon. and learned Friend will know, the wheels of Government often grind slowly—so that in time for next summer, when there will be an uptick in activity, we will have measures in place that will not only allow local authorities to enforce sensibly, but encourage them to provide more transit sites to which Traveller communities can legitimately be moved.
As part of the consultation, will the Minister take it from me that we would like him to consider the ability for local authorities to step in quickly and put in place a legally binding stop notice on the development as the trucks are driving in, the caravans and kids are arriving and the green belt is being destroyed?
I certainly share my hon. Friend’s aspiration for local authorities to be able to move extremely quickly in these circumstances, and a lot of the measures that we are putting in place are intended to encourage them to do exactly that, with authority and in the safe knowledge that they are acting within the law. However, it is also critical that they have a legitimate place to which they can move Traveller communities, so in my view the provision of transit sites is one of the key issues. In my constituency, where we have the same issues—not necessarily with encampments, but certainly with summer visitors—unfortunately we do not have a transit site, and I have talked to my local authority about providing one so that those people who do arrive in Andover every summer can be moved somewhere legitimately and swiftly. I think that the two issues go together.
I would like to end by briefly updating Members on the work that the Government are doing on outcomes for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, which my right hon. and learned Friend quite rightly raised. We are committed to continuing to address the serious disparities faced by these communities. On almost every measure, those communities are significantly worse off than the general population. The Government have been working to improve their outcomes, but we recognise that we need to go further. That is why we recently announced that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will lead the development of a cross-Government strategy to improve their outcomes. We will work closely with other Departments, including the Race Disparity Unit within the Cabinet Office, the Department for Education, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Home Office, to develop the strategy. The strategy will seek to tackle the inequalities faced by these communities across a range of outcomes highlighted by the race disparity audit, including housing, education and health.
I would like to conclude by thanking those Members who have participated in this important debate. The Government have listened to Members’ concerns and are progressing on the commitments made in our response to the consultation and on the wider issue of unauthorised development and encampments. I hope that over the next few months all those Members will participate in the various consultations that will appear, so that we can reach a settled policy around which we can unite in solving the problem, while improving the lives of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
Question put and agreed to.