Four leading campaigners on Gypsies and Travellers respond to the recently published Tory policy on Traveller accommodation.
On 12 February 2010 the Conservatives launched their new policies on Gypsy and Traveller accommodation: ‘Conservatives pledge to tackle trespass’. It seeks to:
1. Create a new criminal offence of intentional trespass, as already in place in the Republic Of Ireland
Response – A law on these lines has caused extreme hardship to homeless Traveller families in Ireland, leading to overcrowding as Travellers ‘double up’ on authorised sites, and has accentuated poor access to services. At present the courts in the UK can weigh the welfare needs of Travellers and the needs of landowners and the safety of a site’s location and decide where appropriate on temporary periods of toleration. This is also in a context where central and local government over the years have failed to ensure adequate site provision despite the Government and NGOs accepting that the problem of unauthorised encampments stems from the lack of sites. It is this failure which explains the continuation of unauthorised encampments. Moreover local authorities have the means to identify temporary alternative locations for encampments.
2. Curtail the ability to apply for retrospective planning permission
Response – This pledge is vague but the government was advised by the Task Force led by Sir Brian Briscoe that it would be difficult to criminalise unauthorised developments, as so many members of the settled community build extensions and additions without immediate planning permission. If councils implement the new reforms introduced by the Government in ODPM Circular 01/2006 then, once they identify land for site development, it will become harder for unauthorised developments to succeed in the planning process as Gypsies and Travellers will not be able to argue there is a shortage of sites in a particular area.
3. Scrap John Prescott’s unfair Whitehall planning rules, which are compelling councils to build traveller camps in the Green Belt and compulsory purchase people’s land to find sites
Response – This is misleading. There is no requirement that Councils build Gypsy and Traveller camps in the Green Belt or elsewhere. Rather they are required to identify land which would be suitable for such sites, just as they are required to identify land suitable to meet other needs like, conventional housing, industry etc. Councils do have the option to use compulsory purchase of land for housing development as well as for Gypsy and Traveller sites, but the Government has no power to make them do so in either case. There is no evidence of compulsory purchase of private land being used for these purposes. But in some local authority areas most of the undeveloped land is Green Belt, so it can be difficult to identify any alternative land.
Where Gypsies or Travellers are granted permanent or temporary permission in the Green Belt it is because of extreme health and educational needs for family members and because of lack of site provision elsewhere.
4. Give tougher ‘stop notice’ enforcement powers to councils with authorised sites, and support central funding for councils to build authorised sites – rather than it falling to local taxpayer
Response – Temporary stop notices already exist. On 31 March 2005, the Joint Committee of the House of Commons and the House of Lords on Human Rights published a report on the UN Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Amongst other things, it criticised the temporary stop notices power in the 2004 Act and was concerned about human rights implications.
A central government grant already exists for site construction which minimises costs to local taxpayers but increased resources for this grant would be welcome.
5. Replace the Human Rights Act (HRA) with a British Bill of Rights to prevent ‘human rights’ lawyers sidestepping the planning system and demanding special treatment.
Response – There is absolutely no evidence that the HRA has led to the ‘sidestepping’ of the planning system. Human rights are just one aspect of the considerations of a local planning authority or a planning inspector and are rarely if ever going to be determinative. Membership of the European Union means that the UK must subscribe to the European Convention on Human Rights, so we would have to leave the EU for this to happen.
6. The Conservatives have not consulted Gypsies and Travellers or established experts about their new proposals – this goes against the established principles of consultation regarding ethnic minorities – so much for the Conservatives claim ‘fair play for all’.
7. The Conservative statement declares: ‘Where, therefore, councils have made appropriate provision for authorised sites in their area, which reflect local need and historic demand, we will provide them with stronger enforcement powers to tackle unauthorised development and illegal trespass. In addition, we will introduce a new criminal offence of intentional trespass‘.
Existing Government policies are aimed at adequate site provision and indicate that there can be strong enforcement once adequate provision is in place. It is difficult to see how the Conservatives will assess when adequate provision has been attained or what adequate provision is if they scrap the regional and local targets.
Present policies already reward local authorities that identify areas suitable for site development in their development plans by making it harder for unauthorised planning applications to succeed on the grounds that there is a local shortage of sites
The Conservatives say site provision must be based on local need and historic demand. In London the Mayor Boris Johnson is seeking to reduce London’s identified pitch requirements by claiming that there is not enough land and by dismissing the needs of housed Gypsies and Travellers who have been forced into housing by the shortage of sites and who have a legitimate need to live on sites. The London Mayor’s position is not acceptable in London or elsewhere and it is hoped that it will not creep into Conservative policy.
If the Conservatives intend to scrap the edifice built over many years by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act and the Housing Act, they will have to spell out the amending legislation in detail, and at that point they would have to consult Travellers, local authorities, the EHRC etc. This process, and the introduction of the resulting legislation, would take many years, and in the meanwhile local authorities are bound to drag their feet even more than they do already in identifying sites under the present legislation, making the shortage of sites and the prevalence of unauthorised encampments even worse than it is already.
The Conservatives need to:
- state how they would complete the amendment of the Mobile Homes Act (MHA) on local authority security of tenure, to comply with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Connors v UK (May 2004);
- acknowledge that a shortage of sites is not only inconveniencing the settled community but causing acute hardship for Gypsies and Travellers;
- apologise for the abolition in 1994 of the duty to provide sites under the 1968 Act, causing the present acute shortage of sites and over 15 years of extreme hardship for many families;
- resist the Party’s electioneering antics at the last election, egged on by its tabloid allies, playing the race card by stirring up anti-Gypsy and Traveller prejudice;
- go back to square one and rethink their approach, starting by talking to the people it concerns – Gypsies and Travellers.