I called this debate to reflect some of the real concern in my constituency about the problem of Gypsy and Traveller sites that have been created as a result of current planning legislation. It is a real problem in South Staffordshire, and regulations introduced by the previous Labour Government caused great resentment among the settled community, as well as the Gypsy and Traveller communities. It is a problem not just in South Staffordshire but in many constituencies throughout the country.
My hon. Friend Damian Hinds had a debate on the issue back in September, between the summer and conference recesses. It was an excellent debate, and covered many of the issues and concerns that people throughout the country have. I hope that some of the issues that were highlighted then will be aired today. More important, I want to hear the Minister's proposals, and what progress is being made.
There is anger in the country about what is not a perceived but a real injustice. There is a view that there is one law for the settled community and another for Gypsies and Travellers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Gavin Williamson on securing this debate on a topic in which he has taken a keen interest since coming to the House. Does he agree that it is important that it is on the record that within the travelling community there is a difference between Gypsies and showmen, and that any approach by the Government should pay heed to that difference, and the different ways of life and lifestyles?
Indeed. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. There is a distinct difference between the Gypsy and Traveller communities and showpeople, and that was reflected in the previous Government's planning circulars 04/07 and 01/06. It is important that the differences are reflected not in a top-down national policy but in local policies that are adopted and brought together by local authorities to make provision in their areas. There are distinct differences between those two communities, and that should be reflected in local planning and provision.
There is real anger that the current legislation provides a deeply unfair planning system. In many ways, the previous Government tried to do something about that, and introduced planning circular 01/06 and 04/07 with, I am sure, good intentions. They tried to redress the issues faced by many in the Gypsy and Traveller community-low educational attainment, and health problems-but they created a division, not one settled Gypsy and Traveller community, and the two communities are often almost at war with each other as a result of injustices.
In my constituency there is already extensive planning provision for Gypsy and Traveller sites. Since 2007, permission has been granted for an additional 30 pitches for Gypsies and Travellers. That may not be many, but there are usually three caravans on every pitch, so the development is substantial. That planning permission was granted for green belt land on which you, Mr Howarth, or I or my constituents would not obtain planning permission for a shed, let alone what is effectively a village development. I hope that the Minister appreciates the anger that imbalance in the law causes, and the inequality between the settled community and the Gypsy and Traveller community.
Thirty pitches is a lot, but the problem does not stop there. There are proposals in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy for an additional 16 sites in Penkridge in my hon. Friend's constituency, and in Calf Heath and Wombourne in my constituency. Those 16 applications are with the planning inspectorate. Already, the 30 existing pitches that have permission and have been built have increased the amount of provision in South Staffordshire for the Gypsy and Traveller community by 50%. No one could doubt that the people of South Staffordshire are creating and providing sufficient provision for the Gypsy and Traveller community. Those 16 extra pitches will put an even greater burden on South Staffordshire and, in addition, planning approval will be sought for another 30 pitches. That is an awful lot of extra development, all of it on green belt land that is supposed to be protected for everyone in the country, and to preserve our countryside.
One of those applications, in Pool House lane, Wombourne, is with the planning inspectorate on appeal. It is for one pitch, but it exemplifies the deeply flawed nature of planning circular 01/06. It is for a pitch that is, oddly enough, also on green belt land. I am sure that if I owned the land and asked for permission to develop it, I would rightly be refused. At the planning appeal, Matthew Green, who was once a Member of this House, represented the applicants. The district council had rejected the application, but at the appeal Matthew Green was at pains to explain that there was a need for the site under planning circular 01/06 because the person who owned the land did not have anywhere to live, despite having a home and living in it just a few miles away, and despite the fact that just a few miles away, also in my constituency, Gypsy and Traveller sites in Brinsford and Featherstone have many vacancies. But the argument to the planning inspectorate was that pitches were needed, and that the people of Wombourne were bigoted because they did not want a Gypsy or Traveller site.
What the people of Wombourne do not want is one law for Gypsies and Travellers, and another for everyone else. They do not perceive that as being right, because they believe that green belt land is to protect the whole community, and that laws should be applied fairly and equitably.
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument and I am sure that the Minister would not wish to micro-manage individual planning applications in such cases. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are 4,000 families in the travelling community who are currently in need, and that in spite of the pitches that he claims have been granted in South Staffordshire, that need has not been met? In order to meet local housing need, exceptions are made for the housed community with a policy to allow affordable homes on land that would not normally be granted a development. That principle should apply equally to both the housed and travelling communities.
Although my hon. Friend's intervention was broad, it was also informative. He makes an interesting point and introduces another side to the argument. He spoke about provision, and planning circular 01/2006 was about need. In South Staffordshire-I speak with authority only about South Staffordshire; I could not talk about St Ives, for example, because I do not know about the provision there-we have a ridiculous situation. Last weekend, I took the time to visit all the sites in my constituency that had been granted permission since 2007, and many of them were vacant. Hon. Members may intervene and say that that is the nature of Gypsies and Traveller sites because people move on, but there were a high number of vacancies.
A number of months ago during a debate in this Chamber, I highlighted the ridiculous situation of planning permission granted in the village of Brinsford for a Gypsy and Traveller site on green belt land. That was granted on appeal and developed, but there are not enough Gypsies and Travellers to fill that site. The site was advertised in the local Express & Star for anyone to occupy. I have no doubt that the policy was introduced with good intentions, but I fear that it is being used as a loophole for a development that would not otherwise be allowed. In South Staffordshire there is ample provision because sites are sitting empty. The people who own those sites and plots are trying to sell them to people who are not from the Gypsy and Traveller communities, and I have had to involve my local authority to get proper enforcement action. Quite rightly, if those sites are provided for the Gypsy and Traveller communities, they should be used by those communities and not for personal gain or profit.
The hon. Gentleman does not deny that there is a shortage of 4,000 pitches in the country. According to Government figures, at the end of 2007, only 50% of the 217 applications for sites to be developed under planning circular 01/2006 were granted planning permission. Does he claim that many of those sites then went on to become housing developments?
No. I am talking about certain areas where a flawed regional spatial strategy was previously in place. In my constituency, and in the wider west midlands, the University of Salford was commissioned to carry out a survey. It involved someone going with a clipboard to all existing Gypsy and Traveller sites and asking, "Do you think you might require extra accommodation?" Oddly enough, the result was, "Yes, we do." Local authorities were then set targets that they had to meet.
The flaw in such a policy is that it did not look at changes in the population. It meant that if a constituency, district or borough council already had an existing Gypsy and Traveller population, there was an expectation for provision to increase dramatically. If there was no Gypsy or Traveller population already in an area, there was rarely an expectation for any provision to be made. Therefore, local authorities that had already made provision and looked after a Gypsy and Traveller population were penalised for that. I hope that the Minister will provide reassurances that those who make provision that, as has been said, is needed in certain areas of the country, are rewarded for doing so. However, it should not be mandatory or expected that those who have already done a lot should do ever more and more. In South Staffordshire-I speak only for South Staffordshire-such provision is there, but it is not being used; the sites are empty.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, and I reassure him that what he said about South Staffordshire also applies to Cheshire. Since I have become involved in this issue, I have noticed a lot of smoke and mirrors and red herrings. Behind the developments in my constituency-which sound very similar to those in South Staffordshire-are individual businessmen. This is a business opportunity for certain individuals to buy green belt land for cash and start developing a Gypsy and Traveller site. The moment they make it a Gypsy and Traveller site, things come into play and the issue becomes emotive. There is a lack of will by the local authorities.
Order. I pointed out that interventions should be brief and to the point, not mini-speeches. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is about to draw his remarks to a conclusion.
I am sorry, Mr Howarth; I am new to this game, but I appreciate what you say. I conclude by asking whether my hon. Friend agrees that much of this matter is about an opportunity for businessmen, rather than for individual Gypsies and Travellers.
Very much so; that is precisely the case. Often, a distorting factor is created in the local agricultural market, and small pockets of land that could be purchased for about £4,000 to £6,000 per acre suddenly have an inflated value. One part of the population can increase the value of a development by turning it into a Gypsy and Traveller site. Unfortunately, in some areas that I have seen proposed for development, people seek to get planning permission to create a Gypsy and Traveller site and then, at a later stage, apply for a change of use or another potential form of development. That is a real concern. It will not happen over the next one or two years, but that is the route that people seem to be taking in the medium to long term.
What do I want to hear from the Minister? I could give him a long list of issues. There have been many positive words from the Department for Communities and Local Government about recognising localism. There have been warm words suggesting that the Department understands people's concerns, and positive responses to show that it understands the problem in the community. I have heard a lot, but I have seen little done.
I am sure that the Minister has, in his briefing papers, news of an awful lot that is about to be done. However, in late August, just before the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, it was announced that planning circulars 01/2006 and 04/2007 were to be changed and new policies put in place. Unfortunately, everything seems to have gone quiet since then, although the announcement has encouraged a large number of people to make applications before there is a change in the planning circulars. In my constituency alone, there have been 13 applications, including in the villages of Hatherton and Coven Heath. Those people recognise that the loophole may be closed, but although there has been an announcement from the Department, I have not yet seen any action, and people are rushing to take the opportunity to get applications through the loophole.
I apologise because I shall have to leave the Chamber to attend a Select Committee shortly. Does my hon. Friend agree that apart from the fact that many of the developments are on green belt, one of the problems that his constituents and mine have is that often there is development before any application for planning permission? That causes great upset. People want to see the rules being followed.
Absolutely. I know the problems that my hon. Friend has had to deal with in the village of Penkridge, where extensive development has occurred. That is truly horrifying for the people who live there, because they see the development happening and local authorities have so few real powers to stop it. A similar situation arose in the village of Coven Heath, in my constituency, just a few months ago. Thankfully, when the bulldozers and everything else went in on the Saturday morning, the planning officers were there and were able to get the legal measures in place to get that stopped. However, there is a real problem, and there is a perceived view that if people apply retrospectively, they are treated more leniently. I hope that the Minister will pick up on that point and possibly explain how that will be changed.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about ensuring that planning law is enforced and that there is not more leniency for those who have flouted the law, but of course Travellers do not simply evaporate away. If there are not sufficient pitches, the alternative for them is to live illegally. Does he agree with me that it would be far better to have local authority pitches, because the £18 million a year that is being spent on enforcement could be far better spent on ensuring that adequate pitches are available for travelling folk?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point. I would never argue against the idea of providing sufficient pitches for the Gypsy and Traveller community. What I am saying is that we need to get local authorities engaged in the idea of providing those pitches. This is about encouraging them to provide pitches, not having a law that discriminates against the settled community and favours the Gypsy and Traveller community. It is about achieving a balance.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that this is not necessarily a zero-sum game? The increase in unauthorised sites is in parallel with an increase in authorised sites, so it is not necessarily the case that authorising one site means one fewer unauthorised sites.
That is a very valid point. Let me give people an idea of what has been happening. In 1997, there were 887 unlawful encampments. There are now 2,395 unlawful encampments, and in that time the provision of private Gypsy and Traveller sites has increased. I do not have the figures for local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites, but my understanding is that both private and local authority provision has increased, and so have the unlawful encampments. That proves my hon. Friend's point.
I want the Minister to make it clear when the Department for Communities and Local Government will take action, start delivering on its promises to repeal planning circulars 01/2006 and 04/2007, and put something that is fairer, more just, and right in their place. I hope that the Minister will also do something about the planning applications that are currently going through the appeal process. I am thinking, for example, of the case of the site in Penkridge, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy, which is with the Planning Inspectorate at the moment, and the sites at Wombourne and Calf Heath in my constituency.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said in the main Chamber just the other week:
"We have certainly stated our intention to repeal circular 01/06 and we shall shortly start consultation on an alternative to it. In the meantime, given that the localism Bill will substantially change planning on these matters, I can say that our intention almost certainly is a material consideration."-[Hansard, 25 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 430.]
I ask the Minister to help the communities that I represent, which feel that a gross injustice is being perpetrated against them. Will he write to the Planning Inspectorate, highlighting the Secretary of State's comments in the main Chamber and adding his voice to those comments, and will he ask it to ensure that the Secretary of State's views, and the fact that local authorities such as mine have a policy for dealing with Gypsy and Traveller sites, are properly taken into account, so that perhaps the Planning Inspectorate will consider those factors when making decisions on current appeals?
I accept that the Minister's very able and capable civil servants will often say that there are many reasons why he cannot move swiftly, but I urge him, on behalf of all those in South Staffordshire-and, I am sure, many people throughout the country-to have steel in his spine, make the changes happen, and deliver on the promises; we know that he wants to, and we know that that is required. I am quite sure that he will deliver and make many people in South Staffordshire much happier than they were under the previous, Labour Government.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Gavin Williamson on securing the debate and on his very strong words on this subject. The debate is a great opportunity for me, because I have not been able to participate in previous debates on the subject, and during the past few months, it has transpired that there have been more and more developments of unauthorised sites across my constituency. I ask for the Minister's indulgence during my speech, because I will refer to a number of sites in my constituency. The debate presents an opportunity to discuss the important issues surrounding unauthorised developments and, significantly, the impact that they have on local communities.
As the Minister may be aware, and as ministerial colleagues in the Department know, in the Witham constituency, there are serious concerns about the robustness of planning processes and the proliferation of unauthorised sites and development by the travelling community. My constituency is a new one, and the issue is complicated by the fact that I have three local authorities, which act in quite different ways in their interpretation of policies for dealing with unauthorised developments.
For the purposes of today's debate, I shall refer to two sites. One is in Pattiswick. I have entered into quite a bit of correspondence on the issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Robert Neill. Pattiswick comes under Braintree district council. The other site is in the very rural location of Turkey Cock lane, which is in the borough of Colchester. Compared with Braintree, Colchester has a quite different approach to dealing with unauthorised development. However, both sites are causing particular concern and much distress to the local settled community.
As a result of today's debate, my constituents will look to the Minister for reassurance that the problems they face will be considered as the Government develop a new and fairer approach to Gypsy and Traveller planning. Indeed, my constituents would welcome the Government going further and demonstrating that Ministers will be on the side of the law-abiding majority, rather than on the side of those who choose to flout planning laws and restrictions. That comes back to comments made in the debate about this two-tier system-a parallel track, with one side for those who play by the rules and another for those who seek to flout them.
Communities feel absolutely powerless over the site in Colchester borough- Turkey Cock lane-and feel as if there is now nowhere to turn, because the local authority refuses to act against the presence of three additional vehicles, and the site is getting bigger and bigger. Vehicles have arrived on the site, with Travellers living in them, but despite the many concerns raised by the local community and me, the council has chosen to turn a blind eye. It has tried to justify what I would describe as its inertia by claiming that the new vehicles and people are coming on to the site to look after family members who are ill. That, however, has exacerbated the concerns of the local community.
To put in a local context, if a member of the settled local community were to build some form of temporary accommodation on their own land, you can bet your bottom dollar that the council would be there immediately to take enforcement action. Rightly, residents and my constituents are asking why the council has not acted in this case and why, importantly, why it has not engaged in dialogue with the local community and residents, who have genuine concerns and fears. Following endless inquiries on behalf of my constituents over the past few weeks, it is fair to say that I feel that we are now just part of an excuse culture from the local authority. It has made it clear that it is not prepared to take action until the new year. I have been informed that the council does not believe that it needs to act in the same manner as it would if a member of the settled community built an unauthorised extension on their land, which I find alarming.
The situation that my hon. Friend outlines creates a great deal of animosity. It is not about creating one community, because the barriers immediately go up, and the perceived difference causes many problems for integration and for the communities coming together.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it comes back to the whole issue of one system for the law-abiding majority and another for people undertaking unauthorised developments.
The local situation has been exacerbated even more, because two weeks ago, I was informed that the council would not be acting due to human rights considerations. As I am sure hon. Members will appreciate, my constituents feel that that is just yet another excuse. The Minister and Members familiar with human rights, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention will appreciate the comments that I am about to make: nowhere does the Act say that it can be used as a cover for local authorities to take no action whatsoever. My constituents believe that, without a doubt, there are two parallel systems-one for Travellers and one for those who play by the rules. There is deep alarm that the local authority-Colchester borough council-is not acting, and my constituents feel that they have no powers to compel it to act.
I, too, have problems with Travellers in my constituency. There are two issues: one is enforcement-we simply have to enforce existing legislation where appropriate. The other issue, about which my hon. Friend is making a strong point, is the need for clarity over what action is available for local authorities and other authorities that act in this respect. I urge the Minister to set out the stall over what can be done and how it should be enforced.
I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks, because in my constituency there are three local authorities-I will touch on the other two-and everything seems quite subjective. Laws are being applied differently, so we seek clarity.
That brings us to the forthcoming localism Bill, which will hand more powers to local communities. I hope that the Minister will consider empowering residents to force local councils and authorities, such as Colchester borough council, to act to ensure consistent enforcement of rules and regulations, because we need consistency across the country. While some local authorities have not taken sufficient action, for whatever reason, in my constituency we have the example of a local authority trying to act on behalf of residents but being hugely frustrated by protracted planning and legal considerations -something which my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire touched upon.
In Pattiswick in the district of Braintree, Travellers have been illegally developing a site since September in a location regarded as a special landscape area. Residents are deeply concerned about that development, and are being frustrated in their efforts to have illegal developments removed. A planning application has not been submitted thus far and, despite action by Braintree district council through the courts, the Travellers have used every tactic available under the law to play for time while they act in contravention of the enforcement action taken by the council. On
Despite the clear breaches and the fact that the council has taken legal action, the Travellers have until
I ask the Minister, how can this be right? It is not just a concern for the present but is an ongoing concern. I urge him to ensure that the right legislation is in place to guarantee that local communities and local councils can act quickly, efficiently and decisively to remove illegal encampments and block unauthorised developments, such as those in my constituency. I have been in correspondence about those two sites, and, although I would not say that the issue was spiralling out of control, it demonstrates the inconsistency in how local authorities deal with such matters, as we have heard.
The third local authority in my constituency is Maldon district council. Along with my constituents in Tolleshunt Knights, it opposed a planning application for a development for travelling show people, which Ministers will know about. The case went to the Planning Inspectorate, which took time to confirm that it would consider the revocation of the regional special strategies that cause a huge amount of alarm within local communities, and, I think, caused alarm in the Department when I raised the issue with Ministers. Frankly, there is far too much uncertainty. People were already concerned that planning circular 04/2007, which we have discussed, would remain in force and would compromise local opposition.
We know the intention of planning circulars 04/2007 and 01/2006, but I come back to the fact that they cause great uncertainty. I urge the Minister to reconfirm that they will be scrapped, and I hope that a timetable will be put in place sooner rather than later to allow that to happen; otherwise, there be many other such cases, not only in the constituencies of colleagues here today, but across the country.
With the localism Bill just around the corner, the fundamental message is that we absolutely must empower our local communities and councils to take effective action promptly. We must also remove any bias or discrimination in the system that works against local settled communities. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, I urge the Minister to be incredibly robust. We have lost a lot of time, and action must be taken. There is great unease in my constituency, given the cases that I have highlighted. I would welcome significant assurances from the Minister that the law will be on the side of my constituents and that our local councils will be empowered to do the right thing.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Gavin Williamson on securing this important debate. It is very timely, given that we are in the run-up to the introduction of the localism Bill, to which we all very much look forward. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members present fully acknowledge the importance of having a measured and reasoned debate on a subject on which feelings, locally and elsewhere, can run high, and that is exactly what we have had.
The debate's title is "Gypsy and Traveller Sites", but in many ways we are not talking about Gypsies and Travellers. The issues of trespass, unauthorised development and so on are often conflated with the issue of Gypsies and Travellers. It is absolutely fair to say that my constituents and hon. Members present are talking not really about the fact of Gypsies and Travellers, but about actions and activities that get in the way of others.
We all acknowledge the challenges that members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities face, and I say "communities" in the plural, because Gypsies are different from Travellers, and both are different again from travelling show people, as hon. Members have mentioned. These groups face particular challenges in terms of educational attainment, health outcomes and so on, and much good work is done in local authorities and elsewhere to try to improve those outcomes. In all these debates, we must also remember that children are involved, and no child chooses the lifestyle into which they are born. It must be fundamental to our activities that we secure the best educational and health outcomes for such children.
I am a libertarian, as I suppose most of those present are to a greater or lesser degree, and it is not for us to dictate the lifestyle that anybody should adopt. However, it is also the fundamental principle of libertarianism that we should let people do, and encourage them to do, absolutely what they want as long as it does not harm others. It is the second part of that principle that we are more concerned about today. We have built up a massive system of laws to enshrine the basic principle of allowing people to do what they want as long as it does not harm others. It is absolutely fundamental that all people and groups abide by the same set of laws, because that is good for community cohesion. One of the great things that unites us is our system of laws, which underpins our society.
Notwithstanding my intervention on my hon. Friend, we must ensure that there is adequate provision of good, authorised sites. I therefore welcome the Government's proposed incentives under the new homes bonus to encourage the provision of such sites. However, more needs to be done, and we look to the Minister to ensure that the localism Bill includes the measures that people want to create a level playing field.
In particular, there is the issue of retrospective planning applications, which, although not the only issue in my constituency, have been a fundamental issue. We all recognise that there must, for all sorts of reasons, be a place for retrospective planning applications. However, it cannot be beyond the wit of man, let alone politicians and civil servants, to come up with a set of principles and rules that allow genuine mistakes to be rectified while not preventing wilful abuse of the system. I look to the Minister to ensure that such provisions are included in the Bill. To conclude, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire once again on securing the debate and on the measured way in which it has been conducted.
The two Front-Bench speakers will take up 15 minutes apiece, so there is scope for other speeches to be made. However, those who wish to speak should signify in some way that they want to do so.
Thank you, Mr Howarth. I am new to this, so I am not quite clear about the procedure in this debating Chamber.
I want to make a brief contribution about my constituency in mid-Cheshire, which faces a lot of the issues that my hon. Friend Gavin Williamson outlined so well. The fundamental issue for our constituents is fairness. Is it fair that most ordinary citizens have to go through the planning process, while others do not? I recently had to apply for a change of use of premises for a new constituency office, and it was really quite amusing to see what hoops I had to jump through just to get a change of use from a taxi office to an ordinary office.
In the six months that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have learned how people can buy a strip of green belt land and transform it. If I wanted to become a landlord, it would be quite simple. I would buy a strip of green belt land and say that I wanted to build stables, for example. I would start to build a stable block, but with no intention of putting horses in it; in fact, I would put in toilets and showers. That would be done without planning permission. I would then install utilities, including water, waste water utilities, and a septic tank. Again, I would do that without planning permission. I would then leave it a few months before inviting people to pitch up and put their caravans on my land. Again, there would be no planning permission.
That is all done in the face of the local community. When the community notifies the local authorities, the authorities seem unwilling, although I believe they are able, to take those responsible to task. In my earlier, lengthy intervention, the point I was getting at was that we are talking about business men who see an opportunity to become landlords. They can have several pitches and they can charge rent for them. These are not Gypsy and Traveller sites in the sense that members of the travelling community come, spend some at the site and move on; these are semi-permanent pitches. A coach and horses can be driven through green belt legislation by turning a stable block into a toilet block and putting utilities on the land. That can be done over a weekend.
When I was campaigning before the general election, a lot of residents contacted me on the Thursday evening before the Easter bank holiday to say that people were planning to move on to a site with concrete mixers and tarmac to put in hard-standing alongside the utilities-the utilities were already there, but the site was going to be turned into a permanent fixture. We notified the local authorities on the Thursday that that was going to happen. The people went on to the site on the bank holiday Friday, but no local government officers were there, despite the notification. Over the Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, those involved were able to secure the pitches and make them semi-permanent.
Most ordinary people are not legal beagles, and they do not know the complexity of the legal system, but lay people like me know when something that is about to happen is wrong. Local authorities and their legal departments seem unwilling to enforce the existing law. Daresbury is a classic example from my constituency of what happens with Gypsy and Traveller sites. The people concerned see an opportunity to have a brand new Traveller site, although I use the term loosely, because the sites are semi-permanent, with all the utilities. An extensive legal process is now under way; it is taking months, which will soon turn to years. The business men in question seem able to recruit and pay the best legal advisers and barristers, who in court run rings round the local authority legal departments. I am aghast at the lack of will or ability on the part of local authority planning departments.
Does my hon. Friend think that part of the reason for that is that there is such financial gain to be had from securing those planning permissions that an awful lot of money can be ploughed into securing them in the first place? That is why the applicants can afford such expensive legal teams.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I agree. We are talking about business men capitalising on a business opportunity; the matter has very little to do with the travelling community. Although those business men may be connected to the travelling community, they live in fixed abodes. Andrew George, who is no longer in his place, alluded to the travelling community, but I do not believe that this matter is totally about that community. It is about a business opportunity that is very well executed. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, it is so profitable that it is worth employing the best barristers to run rings round the local authority representatives.
In my constituency there are two such sites. Towers lane is an area of outstanding beauty. Ancient hedgerows were dug up on a bank holiday and the whole area has been tarmacked. There are utilities, so the people there are paying for gas and electricity, and water rates. Those sites are therefore now semi-permanent, and are legal in the sense that the bills are being paid. I presume rent is being paid to the landlord. Yet there is no planning permission, in green belt, in some of Cheshire's most outstanding areas of beauty. It is a fantastic business model for those who can get away with it-and the people in question are getting away with it. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments, because the scam must come to an end. It is not about human rights; it is about fairness and ensuring that the constituents of many hon. Members have their voices heard.
It is a pleasure, indeed, to follow my hon. Friend Graham Evans, who describes very succinctly a problem that many hon. Members present for the debate have experienced in our constituencies. It is particularly associated with bank holiday Mondays, lengthy legal disputes, and people who describe themselves as Travellers becoming, to all intents and purposes, members of the settled community.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Gavin Williamson on securing this important debate. I think it is the third or fourth on this subject in which I have taken part in this Chamber. I hope that what the Minister will tell us, and what will happen in the next few months, will mean that we shall not have to have constant repeats of this debate here, because the Government will take urgent steps to put right what we have been discussing. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire for missing the early part of his remarks. I shall read them with care tomorrow in the Official Report.
It seems to me that we are seeking three or four things from the Government. First, when the original local authority Traveller legislation was passed-in 1966, if my memory serves me right-there were something of the order of 2,000 Gypsy caravans illegally parked in England, because there were no local authority sites. In 1997, at the time of the repeal, there were still 4,500 illegally parked Gypsy caravans in England, despite the fact that local authorities had in the meantime built 7,000 pitches. Today there are-I think, from memory-17,500 Gypsy caravans altogether around England. That is an exponential growth in so-called Gypsy caravans. It appears that no matter how many sites one provides for them, more Gypsy caravans appear to fill them. It is a sort of Parkinson's law. The more sites are built, the more Gypsy caravans there are.
The Government should start by defining precisely who the people in question are, and what duty society has to provide for them. My understanding is that under the law the words "Gypsy" and "Traveller" include everything, starting with bona fide Romanies, of whom we have many in Wiltshire, whom we welcome very much and who can be seen beside the road carving trinkets-good luck to them. They are great people, proper travellers, decent people-and law-abiding, by and large. The words in question also include the Irish. Some of the Irish travellers in my constituency are pretty rough, to say the least, although many are not. I take issue with the inclusion of travelling showmen. Travelling showmen are an entirely different group-mainly settled. They are mainly very decent people. There are some very nice ones in my constituency. They tend to be in a place for a very short time and then go back to their base, taking their show kit with them. Of course, hippies, junkies and all sorts of layabouts come into the category of Travellers and Gypsies, and they have the same rights, apparently, to set up their caravans in the middle of our countryside wherever they wish, under an antiquated law.
Secondly, we hope that the localism Bill, whose presentation in the House we all look forward to, will deal with local people. If someone comes into my constituency surgery saying that they come from Inverness and they want a council house, I will say to them, perfectly legitimately, "I'm extremely sorry; you must get back to Inverness. The people of Wiltshire have no responsibility to provide a council house for you. You must prove a local connection"; whereas, if a Gypsy comes to my constituency surgery and says, "I'm a Gypsy and I want to set my caravan down in your constituency", under the current Act and under planning circulars 01/06 and 04/07, I have some legal responsibility to allow that. That seems to me to be quite wrong.
Even worse is the situation of a lady who came to my constituency surgery and said, "I have a caravan in the middle of my organic farm; it's about 20 acres. The local authority has decided that the organic farm is no longer making money and therefore requires me to leave." Quite why the profitability of the organic farm and her ability to live in the caravan are linked, I do not know; but apparently they are. My constituent was thrown out of her caravan. It did not have to be moved. It was in the middle of nowhere. She was allowed to put chickens in the caravan, but she was not allowed to live there. I said to her, "What I think you should try is to get in touch with the local authority and say that you are extremely sorry, but you made a mistake, because you did not declare yourself to be a Romany Gypsy. If you declare yourself a Romany Gypsy, presumably planning circular 01/06 or 04/07 will apply to you. Take it to court. Try to work out whether you could be a Gypsy. I bet you anything that the courts will not be able to sort that one out for you."
We need localism. It is reasonable that the people of Wiltshire should welcome Wiltshire Gypsies and make proper provision for them. We should make sure that there are quite enough sites in Wiltshire. I think that there are; the county is very well provided with sites. However, what of Gypsies from elsewhere in England, or indeed elsewhere on the continent? As Romania becomes part of the European Union, we may well see more Roma Gypsies moving to this country, as happened in France. We must say to the Irish, "You must stay in Ireland." We must say to Gypsies and Travellers from across the continent, "Wherever you came from, stay there." We in Wiltshire-it will be the same for other hon. Members' areas-have a moral duty to make proper provision only for our local Gypsies, and not for anyone else.
The third thing that I hope the Government will attend to is the question of the regional spatial strategy. It was an absurd document. It included the carrying out, somehow or other-we do not know how it was done-of a ridiculous survey of the number of Gypsies and Travellers in England. They were divided up between the number of areas-eight or nine, I think, covering the whole of England-and the bizarre conclusion was reached that the south-west of England should have x thousand Gypsy sites. That was divided by the number of counties, to give x hundred for Wiltshire, and that was divided by the number of district councils. That came, in my case, to about 50 or 60 Gypsy sites needed in North Wiltshire. There is no logic in that at all, particularly given that the people in question are Travellers.
The RSS has gone, but it is not clear whether the courts will pay any attention to it. I know that there was recently a very awkward court case in which it was discovered that the abolition of the RSS did not have any effect on house building. We very much hope that the Minister will make it plain this morning that the abolition of the RSS and the Secretary of State's determination in relation to it are a material consideration in planning appeals about Gypsy sites. Alternatively, if that is not so, the Government should take urgent action to repeal the RSS, bring in the localism Bill, and repeal circulars 01/06 and 04/07. Without that, there will be, as some of my hon. Friends have said this morning, a mad rush of Gypsy encampments to get through the gap before this action is taken by the Government. Some urgent action is required by the Government; it is not just a question of being sympathetic. We need to hear from the Minister that the Government intend to take urgent action to stop what is, without question, a loophole in planning law, to require local authorities to make provision for their local Gypsies, but to allow local authorities and local people to say to Gypsies from elsewhere around England or Europe, "You may now return to wherever it was you came from."
Gavin Williamson has instigated an important debate on the problems and issues that need to be addressed by Government policy in relation to Gypsy and Traveller sites and behaviour, and how all that fits with the planning process. It has been a thoughtful debate and hon. Members have avoided getting emotive on a subject that often tends to move in that direction.
I can remember as a child that my father, who was then a senior councillor on Havering council, sought to resolve the deep unhappiness that unregulated and illegal Traveller sites caused in that area. He took the view that it was important to find sites that could be properly managed and where the Gypsy and Traveller families were better able to access education for their children, health care and advice on what were and were not acceptable actions when living in the locality. That was an enlightened view at the time, but we are now some 40 years down the line, and successive Governments have failed to provide a solution that works for the settled communities, who face unacceptable levels of illegal and unauthorised sites. It also fails to deal with the needs of travelling communities and Gypsies.
We are still seeing the enormous cost that can be caused to local authorities and other organisations, and we are also still seeing the abuse that some Gypsy and Traveller families face, when they may well in fact simply be trying to remain within the law, because-let us be absolutely clear-the appalling behaviour that we have heard described today is not that of the vast majority of the travelling community.
This debate, though, is about Government policy and how it would deal with the elements that have been highlighted in the debate. How will the Department determine the level of provision needed? Mr Gray spoke with some experience on this subject, but he, too, was unclear about the level of need. It is understood that the Department for Communities and Local Government would look at the Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments, and consider how local authorities would decide to review the level of provision that those assessments indicated was necessary. What is the time scale for that, and what action will the Government take if local authorities, having identified need, do not make adequate, or indeed any, provision to meet the need for suitable accommodation?
The point I was making is that it is not possible to assess the need because of the European Union. There are Gypsies and Travellers from across the continent who could theoretically land up in any of our constituencies. It is not possible to assess that need and, therefore, what we should be saying is not, "Let us assess the need". Let us say, "Only local Travellers, only Travellers who have demonstrable Wiltshire connections may stay in my constituency. The rest must push off somewhere else."
That is a very interesting view. It is a nimby view and, given that the nature of travelling populations is that they move around the country as part of their culture, it would be quite difficult to enforce.
How will localism deal with a complex problem, which, as has just been clearly flagged up, is mobile, does not just affect one community and can be very transitory? Hon. Members asked for clarity and coherence of policy across local authorities. Quite how that works alongside localism is an interesting subject, and one we will no doubt debate further when the Bill comes forward.
How will the Government identify those travellers who are described in the DCLG announcement made on
Given that the statement on the RSS is still subject to court proceedings, what is the exact status of the planning policy specific to Travellers? In particular, given the concerns that he raised, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire should be aware that the courts have found against the Secretary of State on the issue of material consideration. That is somewhat in limbo at the moment.
I was interested to read that the Government intend to apply the new homes bonus scheme to authorised Traveller sites. That is interesting because, as it stands on the information that we have, the scheme already favours the building of homes on greenfield sites, because that is where there is the quickest return.
I accept the point about greenfield sites, but there is a vast difference between greenfield and green belt. The issue that often exercises most people is that the site is on green belt land, on which no one else would get permission to develop.
I will come back to the green belt issue later. In parts of the country-certainly in and around Plymouth-we are looking at greenfield development. There are concerns within settled communities that the speed with which developments may be able to take place and the incentive brought back in on greenfield sites could encourage local authorities to develop sites more quickly, perhaps in areas that others might think unsuitable.
Will any site that is taken out of use be considered in the same way as demolitions in the housing stock will be netted off against the bonus paid, as part of the new homes bonus? If the pitches are unoccupied for large parts of the year-let us understand that Traveller and Gypsy families do move around and will winter in one place and summer somewhere else-I am not entirely clear how the homes will be viewed. Will they be vacant or occupied? Will the empty homes proposal kick in for any reason, if the pitch is not used for six months? How will that work? Will there be exemptions?
The hon. Lady touched on a point when she said that she felt that the planning regulations were working, and she talks about empty, vacant pitches. Does she not agree that it is a disgrace that such pitches are getting planning permission and then people attempt to sell them on the general market? Is that not an abuse of the planning regulations?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say in response, as it is clearly a problem the hon. Gentleman has experienced in his area; it is not one I have come across. If there is an abuse there, along with the other abuses in the system, Governments of whatever colour need to look at how we block them off.
I come back to the point about whether there will be exceptions. Given the general unpopularity of such developments, if the new neighbourhood planning arrangements are introduced and the Government and local authorities expect such sites to go ahead even with the incentive, there could be considerable local unhappiness. Therefore, I am not clear how, ultimately, need will be met. We have heard from the hon. Gentleman that there seems to be over-provision in his area. We know that in other parts of the country there is a real shortage, and then we end up with illegal sites. Are we simply going to be chasing illegal site users around the country, with all the cost and damage that sometimes follow them?
I also worry about the site identification process, because I suspect most MPs will have evidence of sites being put forward as suitable for Gypsy and Traveller families, which are far from that. Indeed, when the issue was debated in July 2009, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, Steve Webb, described a site where the sewage drained straight into a ditch, and said that a condition for planning on that site was that it should not be occupied by any group other than Gypsy and Traveller households. Why is it acceptable for those families to live in such conditions but no one else? It hardly helps to build mutual respect in a community and encourage behavioural change if people are treated with such a lack of respect.
Gypsy and Traveller families already face shorter life expectancy and higher infant mortality and have fewer children in education than any other group. That was a point touched on by Damian Hinds in his intervention.
We have to find ways to reduce the £18 million bill linked to Gypsy and Traveller communities that local authorities face annually, a subject that was highlighted by Andrew George, who is no longer in his place. We also have to find ways in which those groups can be seen as part of the local community; they should be active participants and not seen as being wholly negative. A good starting point would be to use some of that local authority funding, which is linked largely to tackling the negative side of the issue, to set up better managed sites. There are positive things in some of the Government's measures, and I would welcome improved tenancy rights for those who remain on authorised sites, if they are brought forward.
We have heard about the tensions that exist between the settled and travelling communities. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire expressed concern about the use of green belt land. I wonder whether his local authority has given any thought to the possibility of having sites closer to the centres of towns in his patch, as they may be more suitable. We tend to think of Gypsies and Travellers living in fields in the outskirts. London, however, has a number of inner city sites; they are well managed by the local authorities and they work quite well. It is all too easy to put these people at the back of beyond, and we ought to give sites nearer the centre a little more consideration.
The hon. Lady mentions the back of beyond. That may be her view, but in my constituency in the county of Cheshire the back of beyond is beautiful and outstanding countryside. I am as concerned as she is about individual Traveller communities, but I was alluding to those that make business opportunities out of the local authorities' lack of will.
I stand corrected, and apologise for my slightly sloppy use of language. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I meant the outskirts of towns, not the centre. I was not casting aspersions on the beauty of the countryside around his constituency-nor, indeed, around mine, as Dartmoor is on the northern edge. If I may, I shall return to the question of businessmen shortly.
Priti Patel, who is no longer in her place, highlighted the need to support the law-abiding. I assume that she means in both the settled and the travelling communities, and I entirely agree with that sentiment. The hon. Member for East Hampshire made a strong case for the freedom to live one's life as one chooses, but he made it clear that with that freedom must come responsibility. Again, I doubt if anyone here would disagree. Mr. Evans said how important it was for policies to be seen to be fair across communities. He spoke of businessmen who, almost by stealth, can change green belt sites into sites for Travellers, which was an extremely pertinent comment. We certainly need to consider that outrageous scam, as some people are making a lot of money from it. The hon. Gentleman was quite right to bring that to the attention of the House.
Where unauthorised sites exist, we should come down on them like a ton of bricks. Being able to move quickly is often the key. Sadly, however, we have heard that many local authorities are slow to respond when local residents draw their attention to the fact that Travellers might have moved in. They need to act as early as possible, and have the power to move them on to authorised sites or to sites out of the area, while ensuring that there are no specific welfare issues. The powers exist, but as the hon. Member for Witham flagged up, her constituency contains a number of local authority areas, and some of them use the powers well and some do not. In this localist world, it behoves local authorities to act, but they should understand that they have a responsibility to a much wider community.
Having a spread of authorities would clearly help, but I am not wholly convinced that the Government's proposals address the question when taken in the round. The Government should avoid contradictory aims, and I am therefore most interested to hear what the Minister has to tell us.
It is a pleasure, Mr Howarth, to serve under your chairmanship, and to take part in what is turning into a quarterly debate on Gypsies. Mr Gray was one of several Members who alluded to the previous debate in September, to which I responded.
I wish to make it clear from the outset that the Government are committed to sustainable development in every community. It is important that local authorities should plan for the future of their communities, both in economic and environmental sustainability, as well as social sustainability-something that was at the forefront of today's debate. The tension, anger and frustration about the relationship between unauthorised developments and encampments and the communities afflicted by them came through strongly in this debate.
The Government have made it clear from the outset, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that they want to see fair play, with everyone being treated equally and even-handedly. We are encouraging local authorities to provide appropriate sites for Travellers. That should be done in consultation with local communities to meet local need and historic demand. As several Members pointed out, we will provide incentives for them to do so. We believe that it is important to take action against unauthorised Traveller encampments and developments, and to take note of the effect that they have on local communities.
I return to a point that many speakers readily acknowledged in this thoughtful debate: the huge majority of members of the Traveller community live peaceably on authorised sites, and have good relations with the settled community about them. It is at the fringe-the minority-where we experience the difficulties that were brought to our attention. The minority give a bad name to the Traveller community, and it has a negative effect on community cohesion. We also need to tackle discrimination to Travellers, and the poor social outcomes that they face.
Much has been said about the two-tier planning system, and it is right that such a system should be broken down. I shall say more on what the Department and the Government are doing, and will do, to deal with that. However, we must recognise the other side of the coin-a two-tier delivery of services, on one hand to the settled community, and on the other, to the Gypsy and Traveller community. We have to tackle that problem as well. Indeed, one might reflect that unless we do so, in the longer term it will ultimately prove impossible to deal satisfactorily with the side of the coin that we have been discussing this morning.
I am not sure that I entirely agree with the Minister. My experience in Wiltshire is that the services provided to the travelling community are outstanding, as they are to the settled community. The schools, the health service and the other services provided by the state are provided as brilliantly to them as to everyone else. It is up to them to decide whether to make use of the schools and how long they should keep the children there, or whether to make use of the national health service. I am not certain that we should blame ourselves for making inadequate provision; rather, it is a question of whether or not they make use of it.
The hon. Gentleman's experience in Wiltshire sounds admirable. It is a pity that it is not reflected across the country. The life expectancy of Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers is 10 years shorter than the national average; Gypsy and Traveller mothers are 20 times more likely to experience the death of a child than the rest of the population; and the school attendance and educational attainment of Gypsy and Traveller pupils is much lower than their peers at every key stage. As a responsible society, we cannot simply wash our hands of that problem and say that it is no concern of ours. More relevant to this debate, however, is the clear disconnection between Gypsy and Traveller communities and the settled communities through which they pass and in which they reside. It is not made any better by the outcomes that result from such a disjunction.
Turning to what the Government have done so far on the matters raised in this debate, the Secretary of State has made it clear that we will abolish regional strategies, and the text for that will appear in the localism Bill, which will be published before Christmas and make its way through the Houses of Parliament over the next few months. Under the Bill, decision-making on housing and on Traveller sites will be returned to local communities, thereby giving them a new role in building up local plans, and the opportunities for retrospective planning applications will be limited. Local authorities will get stronger enforcement powers to tackle unauthorised sites.
I hope that hon. Members who have contributed to this debate will study the provisions in the Bill to satisfy themselves that what I have said is correct. I am sure that they will let me know if there are any gaps that still need to be plugged once the legislation is in place. As I previewed in September, a cross-Government, ministerial level working group has been set up to address the discrimination and poor social outcomes experienced by Traveller communities. The Secretary of State has written to local authorities to remind them to be alert and ready to take action against sites that set up over bank holiday periods, which Graham Evans mentioned. We have not only announced our intention to revoke the circulars but set about doing so. Such action can only be taken after consultation, otherwise it would not be a lawful revocation, and that process will start early in the new year.
I welcome my hon. Friend's announcement. Although I appreciate that he must go through a process to make the changes, I urge him to do so with speed. He must ensure that his Department does the job thoroughly, but he must bear it in mind that time is a consideration and that these changes must be made very quickly.
I entirely agree that we need to do the job thoroughly and quickly. To do it thoroughly, we are required, by statute, to have a 12-week consultation period, so that is as fast as we can go. None the less, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State and the ministerial team are thoroughly apprised of the problem and are working hard to ensure that we reach a solution.
We must be careful about the terminology we use, because each one has different legal implications and outcomes. Unauthorised developments, to which the hon. Member for Weaver Vale referred, are sites on land owned by the Gypsy and Traveller community, and unauthorised encampments are trespasses on other people's land. When we talk about how we tackle each of those, we must be clear that we need a different prescription and legal process to deal with them. Existing police powers can deal with unauthorised encampments if an alternative site is available in the local authority area. It is that conditionality that means that action against unlawful encampments is often not as prompt as hon. Members and communities would like. To deal with the problem, we must have a larger number of authorised sites so that when trespass takes place it is feasible for rapid action to be taken under the existing law.
This is an issue that has been through the courts on a number of occasions. One must recognise that everyone in society has rights, and they include the right to life. Although I take stock of what my hon. Friend says, I do not think that that is the way to proceed. We must ensure that there are lawful and appropriate places in which all the residents of the United Kingdom can live. If we have that and they choose then to trespass elsewhere, they should be dealt with quickly and promptly.
The Minister, I think, is not correct. Surely if someone is trespassing, they should be removed from that site whether or not there is proper provision elsewhere in the local authority area. He is mixing up two things. He refers, I think, to circular 01/06, which specifies that someone may be removed from an unauthorised site that they own unless there is proper provision elsewhere; and that of course is what should be repealed. I suspect that the Minister has muddled the two areas.
I certainly welcome further advice from the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a real interest in the development of policy in this area. The Government recognise the need to provide appropriate places in which all residents of the United Kingdom can live, and that certainly includes the Gypsy and Traveller community.
Let me move on to the new homes bonus, because that is the incentive for local communities to contribute to solving the problem. The bonus is being consulted on at the moment, with a closure date of
Alison Seabeck, who speaks on behalf of the Opposition, posed a number of questions. I suggest that she take stock of the questions and the outline of the scheme in the consultation document and then let us know how she wishes to proceed. The new homes bonus will be helpful. In the coming financial year, we will resume grants to local authorities for the appropriate development of Gypsy sites.
I appreciate that time is very short, and that the Minister is probably coming to my last request, but may I urge I him to write to the Planning Inspectorate, highlighting the words that were said in the Chamber by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? Will he state that they should be taken into account when considering the planning applications that are under appeal?
The Secretary of State has made it clear to the Planning Inspectorate, planning officers and the House that the decisions that the Government have announced they intend to take are material considerations that should be taken into account. We have done that in relation to the regional spatial strategies as a whole, and I will talk to my ministerial colleagues about whether it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to write in the terms that my hon. Friend has set out.
We are in a situation that has defied policy solutions for year after year, and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View was good enough to acknowledge that. Whether we have strong central policy or a locally based policy, the answer has to be the same; we need to have more suitable legal accommodation for the Gypsy and Traveller communities. [Hon. Members: "No"] I hear hon. Members disagreeing with that, but if we are talking about Wiltshire homes for Wiltshire people-whether they are Gypsies and Travellers or members of the settled community-that is a planning policy that has some very confining outcomes for Wiltshire. It is the case that we live in a fluid and mobile society, generation to generation, and we must recognise that in our planning system and in our policies for Gypsies and Travellers and for developing social cohesion. The anger and concern of today is real and must be addressed, but it must be done in a measured and responsible way, which is exactly what this Government plan to do.