rose to call attention to government planning policies on new house building and the control of Traveller sites; and to move for Papers.
My Lords, when I put down the Motion I had not imagined there would be such interest in the subject. On first glance the Motion may seem to cover two quite different subjects: the creation of distant and unaccountable regional planning bodies and the growth of illegal Travellers' camps. Under closer scrutiny, however, there is a clear common theme between these two issues—that of "the forgotten majority".
Since 1997 there have been easily discernible trends of certain people, who are not part of the metropolitan elite, do not work in the media, and are not heads of trade unions or quangos, being ignored. They are the millions of ordinary people who work hard, take responsibility, and respect others and their property. It is these people who are angry at the proposed massive development of greenfield sites: the people who are frustrated by illegal Traveller camps flouting planning laws while local councils and the police stand by powerless. In the debate today, I hope to speak on behalf of these people, some of whom I have the privilege of representing as a district councillor and as a parish councillor. I also declare an interest as a landowner.
There is a tendency by Government to dismiss as "opportunist" and "disgraceful" attempts to raise issues of importance to the electorate. But in truth the Government's attitude to illegal Traveller sites is another manifestation of how remote Government have become from the anxieties and concerns of ordinary people.
In this country there are strong and detailed planning controls, reaching even to the control of twigs on small trees. Such laws are justified on varying grounds, such as the protection of the environment, the need to prevent indiscriminate building or to enable people to live in harmony with each other. One can debate whether all such laws are needed. In my view there are far too many. But however much one may agree or disagree over the necessary extent of regulation, it is an accepted fact that the rules have to be obeyed. If they are not, then rectification is required and insisted on. We have all read of children's Wendy houses having to be demolished and other similar incidences.
In the case of new houses, complex and detailed regulation governing everything from fire hazard to the square millimetres of airflow in a room must all be complied with.
The Deputy Prime Minister has decided that for one section of the population—Travellers—these laws need no longer apply in the same way that they do to other citizens. It cannot be right that one section of the public should be exempted from the law of the land in a way that acts to the detriment of others. For laws to work they must apply equally to everyone and the rule of law must be supreme.
Planning laws being unfairly applied to different communities creates resentment and undermines confidence in the system. What can be the feelings of someone who has to apply for planning consent to trim a branch of a tree or of a farmer who has to apply for permission to change a field from grass to arable when he sees parts of the countryside being turned into mobile home parks, with whole trees being torn down and concrete being laid with complete disregard for the law? It is no wonder that there are such strong feelings on the subject.
Up to now, one of the factors assisting Travellers to break the law has been the human rights legislation which has provided cover for an unscrupulous minority of Travellers to do things which society as a whole has assumed and desired to be illegal. Since the Human Rights Act came into force, the number of unauthorised Traveller encampments in England has risen year by year. Local authorities have counted 1,855 Traveller sites where there has been development without planning permission and a further 2,377 where the development is not only unauthorised but the land itself has been seized illegally.
This is an example of how human rights legislation can deprive the majority of citizens of their traditional freedoms and protections. There is even a Travellers' website which advises its readers to move on to land before making a planning application. By so doing they will be able to take advantage of the Human Rights Act. Let us hope that the verdict of the court yesterday will put an end to, or at least severely limit, that abuse.
A recent government statement emphasised the importance of adequate provision of appropriate accommodation for Gypsy and Traveller communities and raised the possibility of the use of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to enforce this.
Where special provisions are made for certain members of society, there is a strong and corresponding obligation for them to conform to the law and not to inconvenience or irritate other citizens. Rights and privileged treatment carry obligations. The argument made by Government that illegal occupation of property is caused by an inadequate number of sites is open to doubt.
There are far greater numbers of recent arrivals in this country, such as asylum seekers, than there are Travellers. These new arrivals have found accommodation without breaking the law. Except for financial gain, there is no obvious need for Travellers to contravene planning laws. Planning consent for caravan parks is often given. There is nothing to stop Travellers seeking sites which comply with planning laws, or where planning permission could be obtained before occupation.
Not all Travellers choose to pursue their distinctive lifestyle in an illegal way. Indeed only a minority do so. The majority of Travellers obey planning laws and live within them. For them, it is essential that the law be applied impartially before the law-abiding majority of Travellers come to be judged in the same way, and share the same odium, as the minority who break the law. It is a minority of Travellers who have decided to go outside the law and treat building law and regulations with contempt.
By acting in this way, the minority of Travellers bring the whole of their community into disrepute. Worse, a fear and dislike of Travellers is created. Lack of action by the authorities on illegal sites is against the interests of those law abiding members who form the majority of the travelling community.
The way of life of Travellers is a long and distinguished one. The single largest group, the Romanies, have been known in Britain since the 16th century. It is dreadful that a minority who insist on pursuing their lives in an illegal manner ruin the esteem in which this community should be held.
Claims have been made that insisting that the rule of law should apply to all, including Travellers, is racist and discriminatory. That is such a superficial accusation that one can only assume that people making such comments have not yet learned joined-up thinking. The great majority of Travellers respect the rule of law and happily practise their chosen way of life within the laws and customs of this country. It is not those who call for the law to be respected and applied equally to all citizens who are damaging the reputation of Travellers, it is the minority of Travellers themselves who act illegally which is creating problems.
We have seen over the past few days the sensitivity of this subject. It has been complicated greatly by the existence of the Human Rights Act, which sooner or later must be revisited if these and other injustices are to be addressed. At the very least, the Government should allow and give powers to local authorities to act in a way that will protect homeowners from having their peace shattered and the value of their houses destroyed. There are thousands of homeowners living in fear and trepidation of an illegal encampment appearing next to them. At rural parish meetings the biggest complaint in recent times has been the lack of police. Concern about illegal Travellers has taken over, and this should not be ignored.
I look forward to hearing other contributions to this debate. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I believe that this is the first time in this Chamber that I have debated with the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising. Indeed, we shall have a true debate this afternoon, because my views could not be more different from his, in many respects. In my short contribution, I shall seek to remind the noble Lord why we have arrived in the situation that we have in this country. In doing so, I must declare an interest as a Somerset county councillor and point out that when, previously, I was leader of South Somerset District Council and as a parish councillor I had a long involvement with the provision of Traveller sites.
I was slightly taken aback by the lack of recollection of the noble Lord, Lord Howard, because I shall provide more detail than I had intended. Between 1968 and 1994, there was a continual provision nationally of Traveller sites to solve exactly the types of problems that he outlined in his speech. In my own county of Somerset, for example, we established six fixed sites and one transit site—sometimes, it must be said, in the face of Conservative opposition, but often with good co-operation from Conservative councillors, sometimes in whose patches these sites were to be found. We also developed, in conjunction with the private sector, 50 private sites that varied in size. Altogether there were about 150 pitches.
However, in 1994, the noble Lord's namesake, Michael Howard, who was then Home Secretary, issued the infamous Circular 1/94, which removed the duty from local councils to provide sites and was one of the most divisive examples of what could have been done with regard to the settled community and the Traveller community. It opened up several issues. First, it raised the question as to why councils were providing such sites at all and, secondly, it started to raise the question—an easy campaigning question for those who chose to campaign on that type of platform—as to why councils should spend any money providing Traveller sites. So it became far more difficult to pursue the, until then, successful provision of sites in conjunction with the community, which involved working with parish councils and district councillors. In that one act of introducing Circular 1/94, Michael Howard undermined many years' work of calm and effective provision—albeit sometimes difficult.
I am so surprised by the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Howard, has not remembered, or perhaps was not aware in 1994, that that is why we have arrived at the situation we are in now, that I felt it necessary to make those points.
The noble Lord mentioned that there was nothing to stop Travellers seeking other legal sites. Strictly speaking that is true, if he is looking at the letter of the law. But if, like us, he tried to find a solution now, in the face of the type of divisive attitude that was introduced by the Conservative Party with that one circular, he would find it impossible to work with communities in the same constructive way. Raising the level of the debate, as is the case this afternoon, should encourage the Government—and, I hope any future government—to take a firm grip of the situation and resolve it in a far more constructive way, as I believe that this Government intend to do.
I should like to suggest a few pointers to a more constructive way forward than simply decrying the current lack of legal sites and then blaming those who are on illegal sites for that situation. We now need a regional approach to the provision of sites, so that it no longer is a question of one district or county doing its very best, only to be frustrated by the next county, which may be under different political control—perhaps Conservative control, given what I have heard from at least the Conservative Back Benches this afternoon—which will provide no sites and will cause the flooding of Travellers over the county boundary into the responsible county's area. A regional approach would therefore be productive.
Secondly, the Government should bear in mind the lessons that were learned over the years when councils were able to provide sites, as a duty. That is: that small sites work best. As a councillor, some of the time that we spent sorting out difficult issues between sites and the community was when site provision was for 10, or 18, or 20 pitches, or more. Certainly, the sites that worked best were those making provision for eight families or fewer.
Thirdly, can the Minister comment on the rent services involved? When it comes to private sector provision, a reference rent is fixed at £26 per family, per week. That is far too low to encourage helpful involvement from the private sector. Those are a few of my observations on a constructive way forward.
I particularly look forward to hearing the contribution of my noble friend Lord Avebury, who has done more than anybody in this House to raise this issue—and to underline the seriousness of the lack of provision, and the imperative need for a duty upon councils to provide sites. Having said that, I also look forward to hearing other contributions—particularly from the Conservative Front Bench, for the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, is known for her constructive approach to problems. I expect to hear some of her solutions today.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Howard for giving us the chance to have this debate. In a way, I hope that there is not much point in this debate—and that this Government's planning policies will be a thing of the past in a month or so, when we can look forward to a rather more constructive regime. But on the off-chance that they are something that we have to live with for a bit longer, I want to address myself to them in a general sense—at least, to begin with—and to the concept of fairness that has been raised. This is a terribly important concept in planning.
As in many other areas, we have decided to give up many personal rights in the common good. It hurts us a great deal when we see people getting away with flouting those restrictions that we have imposed upon ourselves. Most of us will have experienced sitting dutifully beside a bus lane, only to see people whizzing up on the inside, knowing that they are not going to be caught. These days, they do get caught—thank goodness for bus lane cameras—and that pain has been removed from us. Yet generally, where we have accepted a set of restrictions, we want them to be enforced and obeyed. That really applies to planning in a big way.
One difficulty with planning is that so much of it has become centralised. It has very much been a tendency of this Government—when we were dealing with the last planning Bill, and previously—to try to centralise planning decisions, and take them away from the local community, or "regionalise" them, which amounts to the same thing. I would like to see a planning system which paid a great deal more attention to what a particular community wanted.
One effect of centralisation is that an enormous number of villages around the UK which want development; which want better provision of affordable housing and which want to be allowed to develop themselves in ways which will give additional provision of facilities, find it an extremely hard thing to do. It seems all that they are allowed to do is to sit there and wait for some developer to try and dump a housing estate on them. The initiative is not with local communities to develop themselves. The system is imposed on them from the top: by regional, county and district planning authorities—and by the whims of developers.
I would like to see a system where what a community wanted to happen was much more important in deciding the pattern of provision. That would help too when one was dealing with obligations. Clearly, there do have to be obligations imposed on communities. If we are to have wind farms, somebody has to have them. If we need more housing, from a national point of view—which I believe we do—then it has to go somewhere. It is the function of central government to make sure that these things happen. Yet, rather than someone sitting in Whitehall saying, "It will be you, Ashford—it's your turn to have 70,000 more people" I would like communities to be allowed to bid for the provision of housing.
If the planning gain—which otherwise wanders off into other things that local authorities happen to want to do—was to attach itself to those who volunteered for the provision of new housing, we would find a lot of communities saying "Well, yes; another 100 houses would be great. That would secure the future of the school. It would mean that the local shop was viable. The bus service would not require our subsidy any more. It would be good for the local cricket team too". One way and another, there are many benefits that come with development—if you are allowing a community to decide that this is what it wants, that these are the kind of houses it wants to provide, and that this is the location it wants to put them in. If the Government would let things run down to the local community much more, it would find that these big problems in the middle would not be so high. None the less, there does need to be a system which deals with obligations.
One obligation that I accept, and which we should accept as a nation, is to make proper provision for the travelling community. Human Rights Act or not, I cannot see that that is something we should seek to avoid doing, or do less than well. Therefore I share the regret of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, at Circular 1/94. That decision was one of the mistakes of the last government; I hope it is not one that we would repeat in a future government. To deal so one-sidedly with a problem is not, it seems to me, a proper response to our obligations as human beings. None the less, there is an obligation which has to be shared out—and we are in a position where many local communities argue extremely strongly against having a part in providing a solution to that obligation. That is probably fundamental and natural. The settled community has always fought with those who want to live a nomadic life; there is always a conflict of interest between the two.
I disagree with my noble friend Lord Howard in his implication that, in some way, the planning system can deal fairly with a nomadic community. It cannot, for it is run by—and in the interests of—the settled community. There have to be special provisions for the nomadic community. I do not, however, share the implied approbation of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for the Government's chosen solution which appears to be that, until a local authority meets the proper provision of sites locally, it is a free-for-all for anyone who wants to establish a site of their own. There really is no reason why individual, local communities should be made to pay in that way for the failure of their local authority.
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the excellent speech of the noble Lord, which I was enjoying. I did not mean to suggest approbation for that. What I was trying to say was that at the moment, because of the national difficulty which we have run into in providing legal sites—for the reasons that I outlined—and given the shortfall of thousands of sites, it has become impossible for there not to be illegal camps.
My Lords, understanding the reason why it is happening does not mean that I want to see it turned into a policy. I do not believe there are any circumstances in which it is reasonable for a community, with all the restrictions it has accepted on its developments and the way in which they impact on the environment and the locality, suddenly to find a neighbouring field turned into what amounts to a permanent village. In many cases, these are not transit sites; there is permanent occupation. Some of the communities which operate them—I would very much exempt the Roma—frankly, trash the sites and create a great deal of disruption and destruction.
There is no way in which provision should be made on a free-for-all basis, whatever the local community has or has not provided. Planning rules apply to all of us and must be properly enforced. Just because the local authority has not made provision for, say, sheltered housing for the elderly, does not mean that 1,500 grannies can suddenly put up caravans in a neighbouring field. We have to live with the deficiencies of local government.
However, that does not mean to say that central government must do so. I would welcome the return of some sharp-toothed obligations on local authorities to make proper provision. The use of compulsory purchase does not seem too strong a measure. If the obligation to make provision is clear to local authorities, by and large they will get on and do it. They would rather make their own choices than have them imposed on them, but their obligations need to be made clear. When, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, says, the sites are relatively small—six to eight families—which appears to work best, their impact locally is not harsh. Usually the big sites tend to be disruptive.
There should be a national obligation on local authorities to make provision and it should be nationally organised and, nationally, properly enforced. There are silly rules such as local authorities having to look first at their own land and exhaust all the planning possibilities before they are allowed to turn to, for instance, the Forestry Commission. Difficulties and restrictions are placed in the existing rules, but if there is a clear obligation on local authorities to make proper provision, I believe that that will happen. However, there is no excuse for waiting for proper enforcement of existing planning legislation for that to happen.
One cannot allow these mass invasions or the disruption of perfectly law-abiding communities in that way. I very much support those who have expressed a wish for the matter to be dealt with properly. Some say that the Human Rights Act is a wonderful instrument, but they have to show that it can operate fairly for all of us and not just for a few people.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, suggested that there should be a national obligation. He took part in the debate on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which created precisely such a framework. In the regional spatial strategies, there will be regional targets feeding down into the local authorities as specific numbers of pitches which must be provided over a given period.
I was surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Howard, in his speech appeared to be totally ignorant of everything we have been doing in the past two years as well as giving a complete caricature of how the present planning system works.
Two critical pieces of the jigsaw are missing. The first is guidance to local authorities on how to incorporate the needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their housing needs assessment, as required by the Housing Act 2004. That was supposed to appear at the end of last year but has still to be published and the consultation period ended only last week. The second is the promised outcome of the Government's strategic review of policy on Gypsies. It was originally expected in the spring 2004 and then, in the evidence given by Keith Hill to the Select Committee on the ODPM, it was promised for the end of the summer. That, too, has yet to see the light of day.
We had already lost nine months between the publication of the Niner report in October 2002 and the start of the government review in the summer of 2003. Therefore, there is justification for the criticism in last Saturday's Guardian leader that if Labour had acted firmly and earlier, we would not now have the tabloids inciting racial hatred against Gypsies and Travellers. But, as my noble friend said, the real culprits are the Tories, whose infamous Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 is largely responsible for the present sites crisis.
Now at least we have the legislative framework in place for a comprehensive solution to the problem of accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers, which is the essential pre requisite for solving all the other problems, such as their education and health deprivation, and their economic and social exclusion.
The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act secures the allocation of land by local authorities for Gypsy sites in accordance with numbers derived from the authorities' own housing needs assessments. In December, the ODPM issued a consultation paper on how the process should be conducted. The paper states that where there is an assessment of unmet needs for sites, the local authority should prepare a "development plan document" identifying suitable land for the purpose.
Money is available through the regional housing boards for housing associations to build new sites. It would be useful if the Minister could say how much money the Government have allocated and what steps they are taking to enlist the RSLs to take part in the process. The Minister will remember that we have always said that this was a weak link in the chain and that although it may be true that most Gypsies would like to provide their own sites in theory, there will be a proportion—at a guess, 25 to 30 per cent—who will need to rely on social provision. As yet, there is no sign of interest from any social landlord other than Novas, whose unique work with the Gypsy and Traveller community is not sufficiently recognised and appreciated. Under the Housing Act, local authorities have to take into consideration the needs of Gypsies and Travellers and incorporate them in their mainstream housing needs assessments. They also have an obligation, which most of them disregard, to consider the needs of Gypsies on unauthorised sites under the provisions of the Homelessness Act 2002.
And further, they have a duty under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act to promote equality of opportunity for Gypsies and Irish Travellers; to set out policies for achieving this in their race equality scheme; and to promote good relations between Gypsies and other groups. It is most encouraging to note that the Commission for Racial Equality is now in the process of conducting a wide-ranging survey in which they have received written replies from some 150 local authorities and is conducting a detailed examination of nine on just how they are going about complying with those obligations.
The Tory leader, Michael Howard, claims that if you are a Traveller, you can build anywhere you like, thanks to the Human Rights Act. He says that he will amend or even repeal the Act if necessary, and presumably the same applies pari passu to all the other legislation which gets in the way of shoving Gypsies back on to the roadside, even though none of this legislation was opposed at the time by his party. But this is the Michael Howard who created most of the problems we now face when, as Home Secretary, he repealed the Caravan Sites Act 1968. At the same time, he issued the ineffective and futile circular 1/94, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Miller.
Up until 1994, councils had to provide sites for Gypsies residing in or resorting to their area and the arithmetic shows that if you project the number of pitches they were providing during the previous eight years leading up to the expiry of that obligation into the future, the councils would have provided an additional 1,500 pitches for permanent sites. The Tories sabotaged that programme without putting anything in its place, and now they are proposing to repeat the same fatal mistake.
Tory spokesman Eric Pickles, too, falsely claims that,
"Travellers are now free to disregard planning laws and occupy public land".
He, his leader Mr Howard and the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, are all wrong, and their statements are dangerous and irresponsible. I add the epithets which the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, ascribed to somebody in the Government: they are opportunistic and disgraceful as well. Maybe they got the idea from the Australian election Rottweiler, Mr Lynton Crosby, of whom the author of a book on the other Howard's 2001 campaign in Australia said:
"The kind of stuff he seems to be really interested in is the grubby low-level stuff of tapping into a community's prejudices and exploiting them".
I certainly hope that the Tories are not going to base their campaign on stirring up hatred against minorities, and that they will put Mr Crosby on a shorter leash. Let us have a debate based on the facts, and not on fanning prejudice against a particularly vulnerable minority.
Brentwood Council, in Essex, is objecting to a direction by the Secretary of State to produce a development plan document for Gypsies by January 2007, even though there is manifestly an unmet need in the area. There are unauthorised encampments in Brentwood, as well as in most of the authorities in Essex and the eastern region as a whole. The number has grown steeply over recent years.
It may be that the Travellers living in Brentwood had a stronger claim to be accommodated in, say, Braintree, Chelmsford or Basildon—even though, according to the official count of the ODPM, there were more caravans on unauthorised sites in those areas than in Brentwood. The local authorities in Essex should get together and negotiate on how many sites are to be provided in each district or borough. I understand from a seminar that I attended on Monday that this is already happening. The county council in Essex and their equivalents in Kent and Cambridgeshire are now bringing the district authorities together to see of they can agree.
I realise—and I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will remind us from the debates we had on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004—that county councils have no formal role in this matter. They can be important facilitators, however, in ensuring that there is an equitable sharing of the planning duty, so that the numbers are sufficient to eliminate unauthorised encampments in the whole county. As my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer has suggested, that has to be taken up to a regional level if the numbers are going to balance. If we do this, the buck-passing which has gone on over the last 40 years can be ended, and interventions by the Secretary of State under Section 21 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act can be minimised.
What does the law actually say about unauthorised encampments and the Human Rights Act? There has been a lot of misunderstanding on this matter, some of which we have heard this evening. The House of Lords decided in the case of Qazi that, where a public authority had an unqualified right to possession via the county court on the termination of a right to occupy property, Article 8(2)—right to respect for family life—does not come into play.
In the Connors case, on the other hand—decided in the European Court of Human Rights; where the council was evicting the family from a pitch they had occupied lawfully for the previous 18 years—the main issue was that the procedural guarantees were inferior to those enjoyed by non-Gypsy occupiers of mobile homes. The Government tried to defend their position by arguing that, although a licensee on a Traveller site could be more easily evicted than someone who lived on a site regulated under the Mobile Homes Act 1983, that distinction was justified by a "pressing social need" and was proportionate to the legitimate aim being pursued. After the case went against them, the Government made amendments in the Housing Act 2004, which made the eviction of Gypsies from council sites similar to the eviction of non-Gypsies from Mobile Homes Act sites, although under different legislation.
In the Court of Appeal last week, the situation was quite different. The Maloney family were trespassing on land belonging to Leeds City Council. If the right to family life did arise, it could have far-reaching implications, allowing not only Gypsies but anybody else who occupied a public open space to contest their removal on Article 8 grounds. As counsel said in this case, however, all that Connors had demonstrated was that the state of the law which dealt with a local authority's right to recover land forming part of a Gypsy site was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and that has now been rectified. Most other statutory regimes governing the recovery of possession, if complied with by the court, would probably achieve the balance required by Article 8(2). The Court of Appeal was perfectly entitled to look at the circumstances of the Maloney case from that point of view, rather than relying heavily, as they did, on the decision of the House of Lords in the case of Qazi.
In dismissing the appeal, however, the court left the existing law dealing with unauthorised encampments and developments exactly as it was, and that is the point. The Human Rights Act does not give carte blanche to any person, whether a Gypsy or not, who plonks a caravan down in the green belt, an AONB or an SSSI. As the European Court said in the Chapman case:
"The Court will be slow to grant protection to those who, in conscious defiance of the prohibitions of the law, establish a home on an environmentally protected site".
On the other hand, where the environmental considerations are less material and the local authority fails to satisfy its obligation of meeting the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers, as in the Chichester case, the planning inspector may properly decide that a local authority has failed to justify its interference with the applicant's Article 8 rights.
These cases, where the human rights of the family are carefully balanced against planning policies determined by Parliament, are apparently all to be swept aside by Mr Howard, so that no unauthorised development can ever be justified on Article 8 grounds, whatever the circumstances. If I am wrong, and the Tories concede that the right to family life may in some circumstances outweigh planning considerations, then I am open to correction. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will do so when she comes to wind up. However, the Tories would have to say when they would allow the courts to decide, and when Article 8 is to be disallowed.
Thinking about the case of a Gypsy family on land belonging to a local authority, the council has the right to recover possession against any trespasser through the county court, or to give directions to the trespassing occupier to leave the land and take any vehicles or property with him. Failure to comply with these directions already attracts criminal penalties, under Mr Howard's own Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which he seems to have forgotten.
Further, in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, the police were given the power to remove trespassers on an unauthorised site to some other place, identified by the local authority as suitable within their area. We said at the time that these powers were not likely to be used much, because there would seldom be any official site with a suitable vacancy in the area to which those people could be moved. It would be interesting to know, however, whether the Minister has any figures on the exercise of those powers.
There are also temporary stop notice powers, which have not been mentioned this evening, allowing councils to halt unauthorised development of sites on penalty of criminal sanctions. Now Mr Howard wants to make trespass by Gypsies an absolute criminal offence, irrespective of whether they have anywhere else to go. This is said to be modelled on the Irish legislation. However, the criminal trespass provisions of their Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002 appear to be similar to those in the 1994 Act in this country. In the year 2002-03 there were 88 traveller evictions in Ireland under this legislation. That does not solve anything, however, because they already have a severe shortage of accommodation, amounting to 1,000 pitches. Evictions would only be a sensible policy, either in Ireland or England, if the people being targeted could move onto a lawful site.
The mechanisms of the Housing Act and the Planning Act are not an instant fix, but they do provide a medium-term solution, given continued leadership by Ministers and political parties, and collaboration between local authorities, registered social landlords and the Gypsy and Traveller communities. We should not allow them to be subverted by racist media coverage, inflammatory speeches on the hustings, and the unprincipled exploitation of prejudice against the most socially excluded and deprived of all the minorities in our country.
If we allow that to happen, both Gypsies and the settled population are heading for a disaster. The confrontations that result from unauthorised developments will escalate and the misery and degradation of the 4,000 families without a lawful place to live will be handed down to the next generation and we will have lost the first and best opportunity for 40 years.
My Lords, I intend to speak to the first part of the Motion, relating to the Government's planning policies for new housebuilding. It is stating the obvious to say that one reason for the huge rise in house prices, especially in the south-east of England, has been the shortage of supply. There has been an almost total block on new housing, other than in urban areas and on brownfield sites.
The metropolitan green belt around London was established in 1955. Before I go any further, I must declare an interest as a landowner in the green belt in Hertfordshire. The fundamental aim of green belt policy, as stated in planning policy guidance PPG2 is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. Few would disagree with that objective. The same is true of the five purposes of including land within green belt listed in paragraph 1.5 of PPG2. They are:
"To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built up areas . . . To prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another . . . To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment . . . To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and . . . To assist in urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land".
It is hard to quarrel with any of those objectives and over the years since 1955 they have been successfully achieved, but not without some negative consequences. In addition to the general shortage of supply that has been created, the most significant negative consequence has been the effect on villages and hamlets within the green belt, the natural evolution of which has effectively been frozen in time. That effect is well known and much discussed. The demand for rural housing has made it impossible for the children and grandchildren of families who have lived in the area for generations to live there any more. They are forced to move into town and the villages become commuter dormitories. The new arrivals add extensions to their properties, which is permitted under paragraph 3.6 of PPG2, thus adding to the value of the homes or cottages and further reducing supply of affordable housing.
Both PPG2 and PPG3, which deals with housing, allow for limited infilling and the provision of some affordable housing to meet local needs but, in practice, especially within the green belt, that very rarely happens. Instead, village schools and shops are forced to close and community village life becomes a fading memory. It is for those reasons that I believe that the green belt restrictions are too extreme.
Paragraph 1.7 of PPG2 states:
"the quality of the landscape is not relevant to the inclusion of land within a Green Belt".
That blanket declaration smothers the fact that landscapes and village settings within green belt areas vary enormously. There are clearly sites where development would be seriously detrimental to the green belt objectives, but there are many others, often small ones, where sympathetic, quality development would have no negative impact and should, indeed, make a political contribution to the natural evolution of the local community, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Indeed, under a Section 106 agreement, or its equivalent, some of the planning gain could be contractually directed towards other recognised needs or improvements within the community. Any development would of course need to be judged on quality of design and sympathy with local style and building materials.
To say that the quality of the landscape is not relevant to the inclusion of land within a green belt is simply too extreme. The quality of landscape should be relevant.
What can be done about that? One possible mechanism is to build into the green belt classification a grading system similar to that which exists for listed historic buildings—grade I, grade II star, and so on—with different rules applicable at each level. If that is too complicated, another idea would be to develop the concept of "white land". Paragraph 2.12 of PPG2 allows for what it calls "safeguarded land" or "white land". Local planning authorities are expected to identify land which,
"may be required to meet longer-term development needs", and should therefore be excluded from the green belt.
The concept of white land could be broadened to include land within an existing green belt to be reclassified to allow for the reasonable provision, over time, of affordable housing and/or other modest and well designed development in keeping with its surroundings that poses no threat to the basic objectives of the green belt. A register of white land could be established by inviting landowners to submit applications to local planning authorities for the redesignation of specific sites within the green belt as white land. If accepted in principle, such sites would be included in the local development plan and subsequent planning applications affecting them would be considered on their merits.
That idea is probably fanciful, but the subject merits discussion. I strongly believe in the objectives of the green belt, but also believe that their application has been too extreme. I feel strongly that it is wrong to dictate that the quality of the landscape is not relevant in green belt designation. It is probably too much to hope for to expect the Government, in the run-up to an election, to reconsider PPG2 and to sponsor a review of green belt boundaries on the lines that I have suggested. Nevertheless, I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on the matter.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, for sponsoring this debate. Like him, I declare an interest as a member of a local authority, in my case, Pendle Borough Council. I regret to say that I did not agree with a great deal of what the noble Lord said in opening the debate, but that is the purpose of debate—that we have different points of view and discuss them.
I do not want talk about the problems of Traveller and Gypsy sites, except to say in passing how much of a privilege it is to take part in the debate with my noble friend Lord Avebury, who has a distinguished record of nearly 40 years of campaigning and promoting these matters within Parliament and outside. I can remember a long time ago, in 1968, when I was just about still a Young Liberal, campaigning in rural Cheshire on behalf the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which my noble friend piloted through the House of Commons. It will be a living tribute to him for a long time. Even if it has been repealed, the problems and the needs continue.
I want to talk about the issues implied in the first half of the Motion although, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, I do not want mainly to talk about the problems in the south-east and eastern region where, by and large, communities, local authorities and regional assemblies are resisting pressure to build a certain number of houses and trying to reduce the number. The position in the part of the world in which I live is very much the opposite. In many ways, it is really quite bizarre.
I speak in particular about east Lancashire and its local authorities, especially my local authority area of Pendle, although the position is similar in others, such as Burnley and Hyndburn, although perhaps not quite as acute. I am not expecting detailed answers from the Minister to all the points that I am about to raise in this debate, but I hope that members of the Government and their civil servants will at least take this opportunity to read what I have to say.
In my borough, we have a moratorium on granting new planning permission for housing of any sort other than one-for-one, where houses are demolished. Apart from that there is to be no planning permission, not just for new greenfield sites but for brownfield sites, for conversions of all kinds whether large or small, for small-scale proposals such as a bungalow in the back garden of a large house, granny flat extensions—whatever it is, there is a moratorium on giving any more planning permission for new housing. That is something which people find quite extraordinary. We do not want lots of new estates built on green fields but we do want to be able to use new housing applications as a sensible part of the regeneration of the old towns.
Not only is there a moratorium, but on the present policies, without any changes taking place in the mean time to government policies, regional policies, county policies or local policies, this moratorium will last for the next 11 years. So for the next 11 years, on the basis of present policies, there is no more planning permission for new housing in the borough of Pendle. It is not quite so acute in other districts but the same applies. Noble lords may think this is bizarre, they may think that it is nonsense when there is such pressure to build in other parts of the country, and where there is a willingness to build new units in appropriate places in east Lancashire, but it is nevertheless the situation which we have got into.
Why has this happened? Without going into too much detail, we have planning policies which are too rigid and which are out of date before they are adopted. We have a situation where there are changes in the market conditions, in which more people are prepared to invest in new housing in areas like ours for a number of reasons—partly because they see the attractiveness and the value of these areas and there is a sense of confidence which perhaps was not there a few years ago. It is also partly because of the very great restrictions on planning in neighbouring areas, such as the Ribble Valley, a lot of which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Going the other way, to the east, over the border into Yorkshire takes you into the Yorkshire Dales National Park where there are very strict planning controls.
People are therefore looking at other areas—areas like ours which are attractive and which have stunning Pennine countryside, and where there is a new appreciation of the way in which the old mill towns can be modernised and renovated and might play a part in the years ahead.
The Joint Lancashire County Structure Plan has just been adopted, several years late. The Pendle local plan—an old style local plan, not one of the new ones under the new Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004— has not yet been adopted and is going to inquiry this summer. Both are hopelessly out of date even before they are adopted. The whole planning system is simply not working. The structures and the statutory documents are out of date before they start. Yet, the ODPM—the same department that is responsible for the structure plan, the local plan and the rest—has declared that a large piece of north-east Lancashire is part of the new housing market renewal areas.
Pendle, Burnley, Blackburn, Hyndburn are all areas where the old terraced housing market is supposed to have collapsed—as it certainly has in some places but not in others—and where a huge government resource is being put in to renovate, restructure and refurbish. Huge resources are being put in to regenerate these old towns—many millions of pounds a year in each of these relatively small districts. As part of that we have to carry out what are called "area development framework studies" which are just another sort of local plan to add to the rest.
In towns like Colne, Nelson, Brierfield and Burnley these ADF studies are taking place. In my own town of Colne this ADF study took place last year and has come up with exciting proposals which involve the regeneration of an old industrial valley, the Waterside area of Colne, involving perhaps up to 700 new dwelling units. A lot of it is by mixed-use conversion of industrial properties. There is a huge old mill there which is almost certainly going to become empty fairly soon, which, it is proposed, should be the focus of a great regeneration of this old industrial valley.
All kinds of things are being put forward, such as apartments, craft workshops and perhaps a new cinema. It depends on being able to provide the new housing units, yet we have a moratorium for the next 11 years saying no more housing units and no more planning permission. We have the Government on the one hand with their planning policies. On the other hand they are saying, "Let us have a great refurbishment" and are possibly prepared to put millions of pounds into such a refurbishment. The system is not exactly tied up together. The government department does not seem to have its ducks in a row.
Now we have The Northern Way, one of the great exciting glossy things that Mr Prescott keeps publishing, telling us what a great thing it is going to be in the north of England. It appears that in east Lancashire we are part of a new city region called the Central Lancashire City Region. We were not asked if we wanted to be in central Lancashire but I suppose it is better than being left out of it. The whole concept of these new city regions is regeneration through growth.
The whole Northern Way proposal is the Government's staggering attempt—and I mean they are staggering towards making an attempt rather than something which is staggering in its brilliance—to somehow claw their way back to having a regional policy in this country. This is something that governments of both the Tory Party and the Labour Party have been setting their face against for a long time. We do not understand why the Labour Party in particular, with its base of support in places like the north of England, does not adopt a regional policy. But it is perhaps slowly moving towards it. Here we have The Northern Way telling us that we are going to be part of a growth corridor. Yet at the same time, how can we be part of a growth corridor when we cannot give planning permission for any more housing for the next 11 years? It is absolute nonsense.
Only two years ago the Government cut the allocation of new housing units in the north-west, under the old regional planning guidance, by 15 per cent. The central Government said that the north-west could have 15 per cent fewer houses than people in the north-west wanted to build. Two years later they come back telling us, "It's The Northern Way—it's all going to be wonderful and we're going to be the new area of growth and prosperity". It does not add up.
What damage is being done? Some of it is just silly. It means that untidy pieces of land, where the obvious way of bringing that piece of land back into use—it might be an area where perhaps workshops were knocked down a few years ago, or it might be old allotments which have fallen into disrepair over the years—and helping to refurbish and regenerate the area is by building a small number of houses on them. But we cannot do it.
There could be important buildings in the locality whose existing use has become redundant—perhaps old Co-op shops on the street corner, or perhaps small mills or whatever—and the obvious thing to do is to convert them to apartments and housing, but we cannot do it. That is apart from the obvious nonsense of telling people that they cannot have a granny-flat extension where they otherwise could. The approach harms sensible, small-scale local regeneration, which is necessary if those areas are to be part of genuine housing market restructuring. We are then told that we cannot go ahead with a major scheme to regenerate and "transform"—housing market renewal people like to use that word—a whole valley because planning policies decided some years ago in different circumstances still apply.
The Government must do two things. They must get their ducks in a row. Statutory planning documents that are no longer relevant must be pushed aside and superseded, even if they have not yet been formally adopted, in the interests of what the Government are trying to do in regeneration areas; otherwise, we will not be able to regenerate as they want. The statutory plans say that towns must be closed down and that there should be no growth and development. The Government's housing market renewal strategies say, "Invest to regenerate". The Northern Way talks about growth corridors and proposes regeneration in that way.
The Government have not got their act together in those areas. Nothing can be done at local level because we are constrained by the statutory planning framework. It is the basis on which inspectors will consider an application for planning permission. If a council tries to give planning permission and override those documents, the Government will refuse it. It is all nonsense. In many ways, the Government's intentions through their new initiatives are good, but the planning process is holding them back. I hope that people will at least read what I have said and understand some of the problems.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said that he thought that councils should be able to bid for housing allocations. We would love to be able to bid, but we are banned from doing so.
My Lords, the two very different halves of this debate have given us an interest range of issues to discuss. I declare an interest as a Suffolk county councillor. That is also a means of putting firmly on the table my credentials as a rural dweller. I am not, as the noble Lord, Lord Howard, suggested of others, part of any metropolitan elite.
I shall begin with housing policy generally. We certainly agree with the Government that the number of households has been rising much faster than the supply of new housing. But we part company at that point because we do not agree with the Government that simply building more houses in London and the south-east will deal with the problem. Put simply, it is not just that there are too few houses but rather that many are in the wrong place, at the wrong price and in the wrong condition. There is not one housing market in this country and neither should there be one set of planning policies.
As my noble friend Lord Greaves said, many years of poorly implemented and ill thought-out regional strategies have resulted in huge imbalances in this country. The economy of London and the south-east overheats while we see the near collapse of the housing market in parts of the north-west.
Over the past 10 years, house prices have risen on average from three and half times to six times an annual salary. That means that houses are becoming increasingly far beyond the reach of many people, particularly the young. I wonder whether the Government have any evidence that building large numbers of houses in London and the south-east will resolve the problem and dampen house prices to anything but a marginal extent. Will it be enough to create access for first-time buyers, who struggle to get on the market?
Since the late 1950s, the provision of new housing has been pretty steady—150,000 to 200,000 have been built each year. Last year, however, only 21,000 of those units were social housing; that is where the real problem lies in many areas. Since the right to buy was introduced, almost 2 million council and housing association properties have been acquired under that scheme and therefore been lost from the social housing sector. That shortfall has been brought to the Government's attention by all sorts of organisations, including the Rowntree Foundation and the Council for the Protection of Rural England. The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, outlined the problems in rural communities, where people are simply priced out of their local housing market.
The thread that brings together the very different comments of the noble Lords, Lord Cobbold and Lord Lucas, and my noble friend Lord Greaves is the inappropriateness of over-centralised planning in this country. Local councils, working individually and in regions, sub-regions or, heaven preserve us, even city regions, are better able to respond to the circumstances of their area.
The issue of Travellers has occupied most of the debate. It is a difficult and sensitive issue, with a complex mix of social and legal factors at play. The problem of resolving these difficulties is not helped by the sensationalist campaigning style adopted recently by the Conservative leadership. It is not wrong to raise the issue but how it is done, the tone of the debate, is crucial. At risk of causing him some embarrassment, I have to say that if all the Conservative contributions to the debate were carried out in the sort of measured and thoughtful tones expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, today, we would all be a lot better off.
As we have heard, Michael Howard's Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which removed the duty from councils to provide Traveller sites and, as importantly, removed the grant funding for providing the sites, has caused the problem. It is perfectly obvious, and it should have been obvious then, that cash-strapped local authorities will not spend scarce resources on areas of activity that are both discretionary and unpopular. This is one of the few occasions when noble Lords will hear Liberal Democrats saying that more central control is needed, because it helps to resolve this very difficult issue for local authorities.
As a result of the 1994 Act, we now have an estimated shortfall of 4,500 caravan pitches across the country. Having scoured the recent Conservative proposals to deal with the problem, I have found nothing to address the shortfall. The result of the proposals would simply be that occupants of those caravans would be repeatedly moved on, at potentially great expense to local councils and the police, and to the detriment of the Travellers.
What makes me very sad is that, until this election bandwagon got rolling, a great deal of cross-party work behind the scenes had been aimed at resolving those difficult issues. The Local Government Association, which is now Conservative led, had been working to develop a set of proposals to assist councils in tackling the problems of unlawful Travellers' sites. It has agreed that the main problem is the lack of unallocated sites. The Conservative chairman of the association said on
"the travelling community have a right to their lifestyle, and local councils are obliged to provide them with services as they would to members of the settled community".
Conservatives in another place led the introduction of a cross-party Traveller Reform Bill in July 2002. It contained sensible and measured approaches combining tougher enforcement with the provision of legal sites. But that consensus has now been tossed aside under intense media scrutiny and debate, which has shed much more heat than light. I hope that my noble friend Lord Avebury, among others, has helped to untangle some of those complicated issues.
We must look at retrospective planning permission. There are cases where Travellers have created sites on land that they have purchased and then applied for planning permission. But let us be clear that, while that practice might be undesirable, it is not an offence. On a smaller scale it happens all the time within the settled population. People make developments and then apply for planning permission afterwards. It is not just about development control. For the eight years in which I chaired the Suffolk county council rights of way committee, the bane of my life was dealing with extensions and outbuildings that had been knowingly built over public rights of way. Of course, it is perfectly possible for the local authority to take enforcement action by demolishing someone's garage extension or barn, but in reality that does not happen.
I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Howard, that when I talked to landowners who had built barns over public rights of way, at no point did a landowner say, "Well, I'll take my barn down. The rule of law must reign supreme". If retrospective planning permission cannot be granted the local authority has the power to remove the development. That decision applies regardless of whether the development was a kitchen extension or a Travellers' site.
The ruling in the court cases in 2002 in Winchester and Wiltshire made it absolutely clear that the Human Rights Act did not confer a general right to a home anywhere. It conferred the right for respect for an existing home. The judgments made it very clear that enforcement action to interfere with that home had to be balanced against the effects of the action. In other words, the eviction of a Traveller from a site, perhaps because of trespass or planning law, could be a breach of human rights legislation if no other provision existed. But it need not be a breach if a suitable alternative exists.
To suggest that the Human Rights Act needs to be revised or abolished is a misreading of the situation on a monumental scale. To suggest in a civilised country in the 21st century that there should be no legal force behind the right to a home or that there should be no Human Rights Act is shameful.
A proposed solution lies not within the HRA but within planning legislation. The Local Government Association has suggested that it needs tougher powers to act against development that takes place without planning permission. We would have to be clear that that would apply regardless of whether the developer is a Traveller, a house owner or indeed a farmer. The noble Lord, Lord Howard, consistently talked about illegal activity, but it is very important to understand that it is not illegal to develop something without planning permission, but you have to seek planning permission after it has been done.
All that leads us back to the issue of allocated sites. The solution lies in the ability of local authorities to use the planning system to allocate suitable sites. Without doubt the system should be part of the mainstream housing planning process, starting with an assessment of need, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Avebury, to planning suitable provision. As my noble friend Lady Miller pointed out, that needs to be done across local authority boundaries, otherwise the problems simply move to the authorities most aware of them, and pressure from electors would cause them to resile from them.
Sites that are identified in that way could be located in environmentally suitable places of such location and size to ensure that the social and welfare needs of the Travelling community are met and reconciled with the needs of the settled population.
I do not underestimate the difficulties of managing those allocations in a way that does not cause too much discomfort to the settled community, but it is surely a process that is better done in a managed way rather than the ad hoc confrontational system that is generated at present.
The sites could be provided and paid for in a number of ways. They do not have to be some sort of handout. Travellers could pay a licence fee or rent for sites that they occupy, and the sites could be owned and managed by the local authorities, housing associations or, indeed by the travellers themselves. They often purchase land on which to live. We need a system in which the land purchased by Travellers is land allocated by the local authorities, and in keeping with general planning policy.
When Travellers occupy land without permission, existing legislation enables them to be charged with trespass. I was horrified by the proposals of the Leader of the Conservatives that a special law of trespass, which he called the "Travellers' law" should be created. I can think of no other example of creating a criminal offence and then naming a group of people whom we expect to be guilty of it. That might not be racist but it is certainly discriminatory. It should be resisted at all costs.
Work recently carried out by Cardiff University estimates that some £18 million a year is spent on evicting Travellers from illegal encampments. It argues that the money would be far better spent on establishing lawful sites.
Travellers currently have infant mortality rates that are three times that of the rest of the population. Their life expectancy is 10 years less than that of the settled population. In allocated settled sites, rather than being constantly moved on, Travellers can better integrate with the local community and have the access to the education, welfare and heath care that they need.
As we heard from my noble friend Lady Miller, it has not been impossible in the past to find an approach to those issues that better balances the rights of Travellers to lead the life that they have chosen, and the rights of the settled population to see that they have not been disadvantaged by the choices made by others.
The pre-election activity of scapegoating particular sections of the community is not how to achieve a lasting solution. At worst, stoking up the fires of mistrust makes locally negotiated solutions far more difficult to come by, not just now but for many years in the future.
My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Howard for securing the debate, and for addressing the subject in such a measured and thoughtful way. Everyone has acknowledged that he has done that. Indeed, he and my noble friend Lord Lucas managed to keep the temperature at a pretty low level. It was not raised until the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, got to his feet. I am bound to say that I much resented quite a lot of what he said.
Before coming to the main purpose of my reply, I shall deal with the campaigning style of which my right honourable friend Michael Howard has been accused. It is right to say that the question of Travellers' illegal occupation arose only when it happened. It was as a result of that and the great concerns expressed by people who lived nearby, or who were affected that the matter has come more into the public eye. That has certainly had a greater effect than anything that Michael Howard has done.
The debate was not just about Travellers, as fortunately the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Cobbold, recognised. There should be no illusion about the importance of the subject of Travellers, but the whole issue is about the rights of home owners—those who live in rural areas and who observe the law. They want to live their lives in tranquillity and without fear, but the actions of others may cause serious detriment to their ability to do so.
Others in that regard include the Government or their agents, such as regional development agencies and housing and planning boards, which we have heard about today. I refer to the Government's Sustainable Communities plan, which has not been touched on, but which I cannot forbear to miss, with its expectation of hundreds of thousands of houses being imposed on swathes of our countryside—but not in Penrith and Cumbria by the sound of things. It threatens that village will be linked to village, and town to town. That has an impact of its own as open fields, beautiful views and ancient historical connections are perceived to be in jeopardy in the future. Home owners who have settled in small hamlets and villages now fear that the field in front of them today may be tomorrow's housing estate.
Having said that, I bear in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, said. I thought that there was something rather neat about his proposals for the white land. He suggested that there are developments in rural communities that will affect rural communities but which do not necessarily need to be part of an overall plan. It should be a local plan for local people, which has not been developed enough in our discussions in this House.
The people who in the future will be affected by developments may not have much notice taken of their concerns even if there is consultation, but they should know that what is done, is done within the rule of law. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that not everyone follows the law and that breaches of planning control are legendary and legion. Some laws are broken, but can be rectified by retrospective planning applications. But abuse of the planning system has a profound influence and effect on how people live their lives and on their peace of mind. We discussed many of these concerns during the passage of the Planning Act and I believe that we agreed, by and large, that the regulation of land use and development, and its effect on the environment, lies at the heart of good communities.
Local authorities are now locked in discussions with their residents on local development plans and the acceptable changes to the fabric of their areas, together with rebuilding, conservation and renewal, which will be the blueprint for the future. But outside these local plans are, for much of the country, the development corporations which are the vehicles for the delivery of the Deputy Prime Minister's great schemes, and the threat of regional spatial strategies. Regionalism is something on which we do not all see eye to eye in this House. Our view is that the regional spatial strategies mark another step too far. They are compiled by regional housing and planning boards that are remote from the recipients of their policies. Local people have been left out in the cold, with planning decisions being transferred to distant and unaccountable planning bodies despite the overwhelming rejection of that policy.
Under the Government's house-building target, an estimated 1.25 million buildings will be constructed on greenfield and brownfield land over the next 20 years. To put it into context, that is the equivalent of 26 towns the size of Slough to be created within 20 years. Yet as far as we can see—and we have had some discussions on this—these developments are being brought forward without any planned infrastructure. Where are the schools, hospitals or GP surgeries? Where are the roads, and what of the development and preservation of water supplies? Will landscapes be threatened, will our historic towns be threatened, and what of the threat of the destruction of wildlife? All these must be dealt with if these developments take place.
I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, that where we do need houses they should be built for defined populations. They should be built where possible on brownfield sites or whitefield sites if that is possible, and on a scale which is environmentally sustainable. What is required is to ensure that the construction of new homes sustains communities through a process of urban and suburban regeneration rather than through the loss of our precious countryside.
That leads me, quietly and gently, to the subject of Travellers. As my noble friends Lord Howard and Lord Lucas pointed out so carefully—and I want to repeat—we are not talking about all Travellers or by any means the majority of them. We recognise that Travellers have a right to their lifestyle. If that is the way they wish to live, it is their right to do so. But there is a minority which is causing significant disruption and distress to communities throughout Britain—and this has not been caused or stirred up by any political party; it has been generated by the actions themselves.
A survey conducted by the National Farmers Union found that illegal Travellers are costing Britain's farmers over £100 million a year. What is more, half of the respondents reported that the number of cases of illegal Travellers had increased over the past five years.
As we have heard, some Travellers have been buying greenfield land to set up permanent encampments. Buying such fields is not illegal, but they have been setting up encampments in breach of planning law, and then applying retrospectively for planning permission. I acknowledge that the area of retrospective planning applications is one of the most difficult in planning law. As has been said, it is not illegal to do something and then apply for planning permission, but it is extraordinarily difficult to put in place the enforcement that ultimately enables planning laws to be applied correctly.
There is public concern that some are playing the system. They are using the legal process to sidestep planning rules and leaving local people powerless. In some cases, the threat of such encampments is being used to persuade local people to pay very large sums of money for vulnerable land in order to protect their communities. In other cases the Travellers themselves are buying land and then, as I have said, seeking retrospective planning permission. When it is refused, they appeal, thus ensuring that the encampment can continue in a semi-legal vacuum while the processes run their course. These processes can take many years.
My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that if local authorities conduct their housing needs assessment and then allocate sufficient land for Gypsies and Travellers in the whole of, say, the eastern region to accommodate all those in the area, no one need camp on illegal sites or obtain unauthorised development? Sufficient land would be allocated by local authorities.
My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me, I shall address the situation on land in a moment. The new collective guidance recently issued by the Government effectively bans evictions on publicly owned land and gives a green light to Travellers to set up illegal camps in parks, on open spaces and in fields owned by councils and other public bodies, thus creating something of a trespassers' charter. The regulations explain how trespassers and evictions should be handled, stating that forced evictions of illegal Traveller camps are banned if the land is publicly owned; that councils and the police cannot infringe any aspect of the Human Rights Act—we have heard quite a lot about that from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury; that welfare checks for Travellers must take priority when dealing with illegal encampments; that the police and councils are to be sensitive to the different cultural perspectives of Travellers, with which I wholly agree; and that evictions cannot take place if Travellers have a reasonable excuse, such as illness.
The Government also claim that they have given new powers to councils to issue temporary stop notices to tackle breaches of planning controls. We had quite a number of exchanges about the value of temporary stop notices when we debated the Planning Bill. Stop notices cannot be used to remove a caravan if it is occupied by someone as their main residence. Stop notices do not prohibit the use of a building as a dwelling or the dumping of refuse and waste materials, and they apply for a maximum of only 28 days. After that the normal, ineffective planning laws recommence. The local planning authority may not issue a further temporary stop notice on the expiry of the original temporary notice.
What must happen is that illegal Traveller encampments are stopped from being set up by giving power back to local communities and by ensuring that planning controls are fairly enforced. I liked the thoughts of my noble friend Lord Lucas on this, and I remind the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that even when there was a requirement for all local authorities to provide land, it was far from the ideal solution. I recall that during the early 1990s, Travellers were parked all over the sides of the roads around Windsor and up towards London airport. The requirement did not prevent illegal encampments. Indeed, it was absurd because the requirement extended even to areas such as central London.
We all recognise that there are Travellers who will want to move around and that sites must be provided. There is nothing in any law or anyone's policies to say that those sites cannot, by agreement, be provided. That brings us to the point that my noble friend Lord Lucas raised: this can be carried out at a local level with local agreement. That is the way to do it, because that is how to prevent resentment when these things happen.
This has been by and large a good-tempered debate. I am glad about that because this subject does not require people to raise the temperature. It requires a considered view of what is happening and what needs to be done. The link between housing and the housing needs of not only the whole community but also Travellers is extremely important. One cannot overcome the other by trying to go around the law in the way that we believe is happening at the moment. I again thank my noble friend Lord Howard for his considerable contribution to the debate.
My Lords, I too want to join in the traditional congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, on orchestrating the debate. I would usually like to go further than congratulating speakers, but I found his contribution somewhat puzzling. The debate has two parts: to call attention to government planning policies on new house building; and to look at the control of Traveller sites.
The noble Lord spent about 10 seconds on the housing issue and 12 minutes on issues relating to Travellers. He is entitled to do so; it is his debate. His contribution was in the mindset of much of the coverage undertaken by some of the tabloid press—a good deal of it inspired by the leader of the Conservative Party, Mr Howard.
My Lords, we have all tried extremely hard not to make personal judgments and statements about people. I could have been quite tough on the Government had I wanted to. I have chosen not to and so have my noble friends behind me. We would disagree strongly about whether the chicken came before the egg was laid or after the egg was hatched. Perhaps the noble Lord would bear that in mind when discussing my right honourable friend in the other place, Mr Howard.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to remind us that debates in your Lordships' House are temperate and good-natured: and so they should be. They should be so on this issue too. I was going to pay tribute to all Members of your Lordships' House—including the noble Lord, Lord Howard, who made at least one or two points with which I had little difficulty in agreeing—who have contributed to the debate because by and large it has been good-tempered.
I should hope that we would have a more measured approach, and one outside a potential general election campaign, to the issue of Travellers and the control of Travellers' sites because the subject is important enough to merit and deserve that. Because the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is in his place, I am reminded that we have had such debates in the past when looking at housing and planning issues. We have made considerable constructive progress.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, paid tribute to the LGA Conservative leadership and other Conservative Party members for their contribution. My wish is that that positive approach was more broadly spread. I will endeavour in the time allotted to me to answer as many questions as I can, but I want to set out some important policy elements from the Government on the two issues.
As many noble Lords have observed, housing is now much higher up the national political agenda than for many years. It falls to all of us to work well together to ensure that everyone in society has a decent home. We must improve the choice and quality of available housing. We should work together to address the country's housing needs in a way that protects greenfield sites and promotes sustainable development and sustainable communities.
When people walk out of their houses they also want to feel part of the wider community: a community that is cleaner, safer and greener; a community in which they can identify with those around them; and that gives them a sense of place, purpose and pride. The debate we need to have is how to help to provide the homes people need within sustainable communities, whether they are Traveller communities or settled communities.
The Government are keen to make home ownership more widely available and to ensure that sufficient affordable housing is also available. We want to ensure that the planning system delivers the right housing in the right place and at the right time—an important issue on which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, touched. The Government are considering how we will respond in that context to the important recommendations of Kate Barker on the need to increase housing supply. In the mean time it is necessary to ensure that all current commitments to housing supply are honoured.
To achieve sustainable communities we launched the sustainable communities plan in February 2003. More recently the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has published two new five-year plans. Sustainable Communities—Homes for All sets out the Government's programme to promote opportunity, choice, quality and fairness in housing across the country. Sustainable Communities—People, Places and Prosperity sets out plans to revitalise communities and strengthen the voice of neighbourhoods and local people in how services are delivered.
The government guidance is clear about how authorities should plan for new homes. The guidance on planning for housing—PPG3—establishes that the first aim is for authorities to focus new development, wherever possible, on brownfield sites. The noble Lord, Lord Howard, in his one reference to building, tried to tell your Lordships' House that the Government were attempting to concrete over greenfield land. That is simply not the case.
The Government are committed to protecting greenfield land by maintaining our target of at least 60 per cent of new housing development on brownfield sites. Development on brownfield land has risen from 56 per cent in 1997 to 67 per cent in 2003. In London some 90 per cent of all new development is on brownfield sites.
The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, raised some interesting questions around the issue of greenfield, brownfield and—as he constructed it—whitefield development. I want to make it clear that PPG3 says that sustainable greenfield development—the issue on which the noble Lord interestingly touched—is allowable and may be needed to meet agreed housing numbers particularly where brownfield opportunities are inappropriately located.
PPG3 is clear that authorities should be developing policies in their plans to ensure that the most effective use is made of existing brownfield sites. Where it is appropriate there will of course have to be some greenfield development. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, about the nature of housing developments in rural communities was extremely important in that context.
However, opportunities for new development should not be wasted with low-density schemes, as can happen. Not only will those not work towards building sustainable communities, but they will also exacerbate the need to release greenfield sites, something that none of us wants to see to excess. We are also doing well here: housing densities in England have risen from 25 to 33 dwellings per hectare since 1997 and in London average densities are around 53 dwellings per hectare.
Good design can help to ensure that higher densities even improve and enhance an area and its environment. The Government have collected many good practice examples that show what can be done without compromising or damaging the character of an area. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, raised an interesting argument against regional spatial strategies and district plans. In making those points he missed the importance of having a regional structure within which local district plans can be made. He was focusing on strengthening the arm of the community: of course that is important, but it has to be seen in a wider context and against the background of wider need—something that the noble Lord has recognised in the past.
For that reason we say that local authorities should work with their communities to develop a vision for their communities. They should explain the choices that they have in delivering the housing needs in their community. The new planning Act enhances the ability of local authorities to work with local communities to plan positively to ensure that the housing needs of the community and the other aspirations and needs they have for infrastructure improvement are met.
It seems to me that the same people who often want to stop any greenfield development also do not want housing built at higher densities. But they cannot have it both ways unless they want us to stop all house building. This appears to be a politically motivated justification of nimbyism for the rural and sometimes suburban voter.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has particular fears about green belt policy, but I reject the assertion that we threaten green belts. The Government remain fully supportive of the green belt. Indeed, the policy remains unchanged from that of the previous Conservative administration pre-1997. There are no proposals to relax it. There remains a general presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt, and that presumption is as strong as ever.
Indeed, our target is for each English region to maintain or increase the current area designated as green belt in local plans, including regions containing growth areas. In fact, between 1997 and 2003 the size of the green belt nationally increased by more than 19,000 hectares, with a further 12,000 hectares proposed in emerging plans.
We now propose to strengthen the protection of the green belt. We will shortly be consulting on a new green belt direction which will ensure that certain proposals for development in the green belt will be referred to the Secretary of State. It will be the strongest ever green belt policy put forward by a government.
I turn now to the other side of the discussions we have had during the debate—that is, the issue of Gypsies and Travellers. I am sure that most Members of your Lordships' House will agree that Gypsies and Travellers should enjoy the same rights as everyone else to establish a decent place to live as long as they do so within the law. We believe in an inclusive society where members of this community have the right to pursue a traditional nomadic lifestyle.
The noble Lord, Lord Howard, paid tribute to those law-abiding members of the travelling community and referred to the law breakers as a minority. We should hang on to those two very important comments. We want to make sure that Gypsies and Travellers have the same rights as others—not rights over and above others—particularly in regard to essential services, where they should have rights of access without fear or discrimination.
There is growing evidence to suggest that Gypsies and Travellers are among the most vulnerable and marginalised ethnic and minority groups in the United Kingdom—a point picked up by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. This is one of the reasons why the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is currently undertaking a Gypsy and Traveller policy review, and officials will be reporting to Ministers shortly.
The review focuses on equality issues for the Gypsy and Traveller community and the mainstreaming of Gypsy and Traveller issues within wider local and national policy. It is looking at how to encourage more publicly provided and privately owned sites and how to overcome some of the unnecessary barriers that exist to site provision. We want the planning system to reflect the mainstreaming of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation within the wider social housing context and support changes that will lead to the improvement of the health of Gypsies and Travellers, who have the poorest health status of any black or minority ethnic group in England.
As part of this wider policy review, we have also recently consulted on a new planning circular providing guidance on Gypsy and Traveller sites. While the Government recognise that some Gypsies and Travellers wish to embrace a nomadic lifestyle, we know that others prefer to live a more settled existence on local authority or private sites.
It would be helpful to draw a distinction between unauthorised development and unauthorised encampment, an issue which was referred to on many occasions during the debate. An unauthorised encampment is one where the land is not owned by those setting up the encampment, and I will talk about that later. An unauthorised development is where a person or persons—be they Gypsies and Travellers or members of the settled community—purchase land and carry out development for which planning permission is required but where no such permission has been granted. This is considered a breach of planning control and amounts to unauthorised development. Local planning authorities have a huge range of enforcement powers to deal with unauthorised developments.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Howard, will understand that I am unable to comment on specific planning cases. However, it would be useful to say some words about the Government's policy on Gypsy and Traveller sites and planning.
Planning policies concerning the provision of suitable locations for Gypsy and Traveller sites, whether local authority provided or private, are currently set out in the Department of the Environment Circular 1/94—a circular which has had certain notoriety in the debate. The Government believe that the 1994 circular is not working effectively in many cases and in many areas to identify enough appropriate sites. Recent caravan counts have shown that there are around 3,500 caravans on unauthorised developments and encampments in England, with around one-third of these in the eastern region. There is a clear mismatch between need and planned permission.
The new draft circular stresses the importance of local authorities undertaking a proper quantitative assessment of need and, through the new regional planning process, for that need to be met via proper spatial planning by identifying specific sites in local plans or setting achievable criteria that offer some certainty that planning permission will be granted.
Unfortunately, as we know, Gypsies and Travellers often proceed to establish sites without first obtaining the necessary planning consent. In many cases the locations they choose are completely inappropriate in terms of land use. Enforcement action by local authorities against such unauthorised development is therefore common.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked for figures on such unauthorised developments and enforcement. We do not collect those centrally.
We need to recognise that the effect of circular 1/94 was that local authorities did not allocate land in plans and adopted criteria which were often unrealistic, making it very difficult for Gypsies and Travellers to identify appropriate sites.
The Government expect the same standard of behaviour of Gypsies and Travellers as of the settled community, and we take the view that any anti-social behaviour should be dealt with in the same way. As to enforcement, anti-social behaviour orders can be used against Gypsies and Travellers with no fixed address. The forms for application, summons and so on can use the address where they are residing at the time or simply "no fixed address".
Travellers and Gypsies, whatever type of site or encampment they are on, should take responsibility for their plots or the land next to them and keep them clean and not tip waste. They should dispose of waste properly and not cause nuisance to neighbours. Most do exactly that.
Local authorities have a key role to play in identifying suitable locations for sites and working with Gypsies and Travellers to assist them to find land that they can purchase and develop. A few planning authorities have now adopted that best practice.
As a leader of a local authority for some 13 years, I found this one of the most difficult and vexed issues to deal with. Quite frankly, while my authority adopted best practice, made some provision and managed to work in close partnership with one or two other local authorities that did the same, the majority of local authorities did not want to work closely together. Many were happy to play the game of pushing Gypsies and Travellers from pillar to post and to wash their hands of any need or responsibility to tackle and deal with some of the difficult issues which arose as a result of the travelling communities.
It is for that reason that I believe that close co-operation between local authorities and Gypsies and Travellers is very much the best way forward. It can help to reduce instances where Gypsies and Travellers establish sites unlawfully, causing friction between Gypsies and Travellers and settled communities.
In that context, it will be helpful perhaps to say something about the enforcement of planning control in general. The Government share the view that local planning authorities should take enforcement action if they consider that an unacceptable breach of planning control has occurred. I mentioned earlier that they have a range of tools at their disposal and I should like to outline exactly what these are.
Under powers in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, local planning authorities have wide-ranging enforcement powers to deal with breaches of planning control.
First, they have the power to serve a planning contravention notice. This can be used where it appears that there may have been a breach of planning control and the local planning authority requires information about the activities on the land or to find out more about the nature of the recipient's interest in the land.
Secondly, they have the power to issue an enforcement notice, requiring steps to be taken to remedy the breach within a given period. There is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State against enforcement notices. If the notice is upheld, failure to comply is an offence with a maximum penalty on conviction of £20,000.
Thirdly, they have the power to serve a stop notice. This has the effect of immediately stopping any activity which contravenes planning control guidelines and where there are special reasons which justify doing this. If contravened, the resulting offence can be prosecuted in the magistrates' court with a maximum penalty on conviction of £20,000.
Fourthly, they have the power to serve a breach of condition notice where there is a failure to comply with any condition or limitation imposed on a grant of planning permission. Fifthly, they have the ability to seek an injunction in the High Court or county court to restrain any actual or expected breach of planning control.
Finally, there are improved powers of entry on to land for authorised officers of the local planning authority for them to obtain information required for enforcement purposes.
In addition, in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 we introduced the temporary stop notice. That enables local planning authorities to take prompt action to stop unauthorised development immediately. It can be in force for up to 28 days. This will allow local planning authorities time to serve an enforcement notice to remedy the breach of planning control. Such notices can be used to prevent any new caravans coming to the site, even if those new caravans are the main dwellings of a Traveller or Gypsy. Where caravans are already on the site, temporary stop notices can require them to leave if their caravans are causing serious harm to the public interest—for example, if they are on a site of special scientific interest or on polluted land.
Injunctive powers in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 enable a local planning authority to enter and remove unauthorised development undertaken in breach of an enforcement notice.
There are many measures open to planning authorities and many powers which the police can use in dealing with unauthorised encampments and unauthorised developments. I reject fundamentally the allegation that we have weakened the enforcement processes. In support of our case, the Association of Chief Police Officers and local authorities say that they are content with the powers necessary to deal with unauthorised encampment. So the Government have not been weak in ensuring that there is a proper regulatory and enforcement regime—far from it. We have taken steps to improve and strengthen it.
The important thing to remember is the need for close working relationships and co-operation, particularly with regard to Gypsies and Travellers. In that direction lie solutions to some of the problems to which noble Lords have drawn attention during this debate. The sensible adoption of spatial plans and the recognition in local development plans of the importance of site provision and facilities are ways in which we can improve the conditions for Gypsies and Travellers and reduce the tensions which exist in some communities on the urban fringe and in rural areas.
No one is saying that there is not a problem. We have understood the nature of the problem and want to see a practical and sensible recognition of it, with practical and sensible steps taken, rather than a hysterical debate. It is not enough to consign Gypsies and Travellers to a state of limbo. It is all very well for Michael Howard to have a seven-point plan, but he needs an eighth point. All seven points are about enforcement and raising the debate about the Human Rights Act. There is no eighth point to his plan. What is the solution to dealing with the issues and problems that his own action in government led to and created in the past? We want a practical and sensible resolution to some of those difficulties. By co-operation, working together and understanding the nature of the difficulty, I think we can do that. I hope that that co-operation will lead to the ending of some of the difficulties which some noble Lords have raised in today's important debate.
My Lords, I thank those of your Lordships who have contributed to this debate and have made it of such a high standard. It would appear that some of your Lordships believe that I was arguing against the travelling community. I was not. I was speaking in defence of the rule of law.
Persuasive and erudite though your Lordships' arguments have been, they have not convinced me that one section of the community should be exempt from the law, most especially when such distress is caused to others. If you permit exemption from the law and you follow that line of argument, you end up with a breakdown of law and order, as different groups decide on different actions which will suit them, irrespective of whether they harm or inconvenience others. I believe that strong and prompt action should be taken against illegal Traveller sites.
Comment was made on the lack of accommodation for Travellers. I would not dispute the suggestions by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, to increase Traveller accommodation, although I think that most of what she suggested is already possible. I do not think that anyone could argue strongly against providing more accommodation, provided that it was done within the law.
I thank the Minister for his kind remarks. He mentioned the tabloids. I confess that I am avid reader of the Sun, as I always get advance notice of every government decision. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.