Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Witness statement

Made on behalf of the Claimants
Lord Eric Avebury
Statement number: 1st
Exhibit referred to herein:

Ref. No. CO/


Claimants’ Ref. No. : CJ/EJW/8198/2


B E T W E E N :





Full Name of Witness: Lord Eric Avebury
Address: House of Lords, Westminster, London

1. I have been involved in Gypsy and Traveller issues continuously since March 1961, when I was elected to the Orpington Urban District Council for the rural ward if Downe. Then as MP for Orpington from 1962, my constituency was next to that of Norman Dodds MP, the Gypsies’ champion, who sat for Erith and Crayford until he died in 1965. Dick Crossman was Minister for the Department of the Environment and Arthur Skeffington was Parliamentary Secretary in the late 60s, and as they saw the need for permanent sites, it was a natural choice of subject when I drew a place in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills in 1968.

2. There can be no doubt that adequate site provision, both permanent and transit, is the answer to the problem of unauthorised encampments. The Caravan Sites Act 1968 required local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers residing in or resorting to their area. Unfortunately the duty was repealed in 1994 and, although by that time 350 or so local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites had been constructed in England and Wales, there still remained a significant shortfall in site provision. Many local authorities had ignored their statutory duty and the ministerial power of direction in Section 9 (2) of the Act had only been used recently and sparingly. The shortfall remains, caused by the failure of successive central governments and local authorities to ensure adequate provision. This has led to the endemic situation of unauthorised encampments and unauthorised developments, and it is essential that a policy of ensuring adequate site provision is promoted if any positive steps are to be made in tackling that problem.

3. Experience over nearly 50 years has led me to conclude that the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites or the allocation of land for sites in local authority plans is the key to reducing community tensions and enforcement costs as well as improving the life chances of a highly marginalised minority. Conversely, failure to provide sites or to allocate land for them, inevitably leads to proliferation of unauthorised sites, with disastrous effects on the life chances of Travellers and disputes between Travellers and settled communities. To achieve the goal of eliminating unauthorised encampments, financial support needs to be combined with obligations on local authorities to provide sites based on accurate and fair assessments of need with the prospect of Government intervention where councils have failed to act. I therefore deplore regret the Government’s decision to revoke Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) and in particular the site targets developed by the Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessment, and refined by public consultation and re-distribution of obligations between local authorities. I also deplore the proposed erasure of the guidance contained within Circular 01/2006. These measures were slowly beginning to have some positive impact on reducing the shortfall. The Government is wrong to dismiss this policy as failed and I urge it to reconsider its pledge to repeal these policies.

4. A key component of the Government’s new policy is enforcement against unauthorised developments and encampments but there appears to be no reference to enforcement action that may be taken against local authorities who fail to lift a finger to help Gypsies and Travellers address their site needs. Nearly 1 in 5 Gypsies and Travellers are on unauthorised sites which are to be the target of even stronger enforcement powers.

5. Under the banner of “localism” councils are to be allowed to determine the number of pitches they need to develop. This is not “putting fairness back into communities” as Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (CLG) recently claimed (CLG Press Release, 29th August 2010 – see attached). The right way is to ensure that local authorities grant planning permission for enough sites to accommodate Gypsies and Travellers who live on unauthorized encampments for the simple reason that they have nowhere else to go. Letting 368 Councils decide individually how many pitches they will allow is a recipe for inaction, and promising undefined financial incentives to councils to develop the sites themselves cannot have greater effect than the 100% new sites grant which Mr Pickles has abolished.

6. The abolition of RSSs will also wreck the work done to redistribute the need for pitch provision generated in some areas with large Gypsy and Traveller communities, such as Basildon. The end of such policies of re-distribution are implied in the Coalition proposal that council’s should make appropriate provision which “reflect local need and historic demand”. Redistribution via the RSS has proven popular with a number of Conservative councils who have seen their pitch targets reduced and neighbouring authorities compelled to develop sites, who it has been argued with some justification had managed to avoid their obligations to Gypsies and Travellers in the past. This begs the question of how widely the consequences of the repeal of RSSs have not been discussed with those responsible for local government, but clearly it means there will be no relation between provision and need, and no sanctions against authorities that refuse to pull their weight.

7. As noted, the Coalition Government says that site provision must be based on local need and historic demands. In London the Mayor Boris Johnson is seeking to drastically 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 site. The stance taken by the London Mayor is not acceptable in London or elsewhere and it is hoped that it will not creep into new guidance on who is to be included and excluded in Gypsy and Traveller accommodation policies.

8. It should be noted that a considerable number of Gypsies and Travellers are facing eviction on unauthorised developments like Dale Farm in Basildon. These Gypsies and Travellers have been left in some uncertainty since the General Election and indications of major policy change. For example, talks between Essex authorities including Basildon and the Local Government Association, Homes and Communities Agency and the Government Office East to find alternative sites within Essex for Dale Farm residents have been stalled by the announcement by Eric Pickles abolishing the targets for site provision set through the RSS and Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments; the announcement has encouraged all local authorities, not just those in Essex, to conclude that they have no obligation to identify suitable land for site development, or to identify sites which could be offered to homeless Gypsies and Travellers, such as those from Dale Farm. If constructive dialogue is to continue in Essex and elsewhere, then the Government ought to encourage a moratorium on eviction action to give local authorities the opportunity to adopt and comply with its new policy; to and reassess the need for accommodation within their areas, and to explore the new financial incentives that the Government has indicated may be available for site provision.

9. It should also be noted that, in its fourth periodic report of March 2010 on the UK (see attached), the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance expressed concern about the eviction of Gypsies and Travellers. The Commission found (at paragraph 153) that:-

“An excessive emphasis on enforcement (i.e. eviction) involving often protracted and expensive litigation, instead of seeking forward-looking solutions in consultation with all members of the local community, has also been shown to damage race relations”.

10. The Commission recommended (at paragraph 156) that:-

“….the UK authorities encourage local authorities to treat enforcement measures – legitimate though they are – as a last resort, and to privilege wherever possible an approach aimed at bridging gaps between communities and at finding mutually acceptable solutions rather than approaches that will inevitably place groups in opposition to each other”.

The UN Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing has addressed a ‘letter of allegation to the Government expressing concern about the planned Dale Farm evictions, and a draft response was laid before the CLG Minister Andrew Stunell MP for approval. I submitted comments on the draft, and understood from the Minister’s Private Secretary that he had looked at the comments, but had made no changes. I therefore sent the comments to the UN Rapporteur and received an acknowledgement from her. The letter of allegation, draft response, and my comments, are attached.

11. Thus, in the interests of averting costly and dangerous evictions and having regard to principles of proportionality laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights I would argue that the Government should discourage forced evictions so that Gypsies and Travellers can acquaint themselves with the proposed new policy regime and work within it to seek constructive alternatives to eviction.

12. Given the reluctance of local authorities to allocate land for Gypsies and Travellers and the consensual support for the previous Government’s policies, I believe that Mr Pickles decision to scrap the existing site targets and the prospect of Government intervention where Council’s fail to act is wholly irrational. The policy which Mr Pickles now wishes to abolish would have ensured that sites would be provided, and thus unauthorised encampments eliminated. I attach:
my letters to Grant Shapps MP, the Housing Minister of 19th May and 7th June 2010; the response from Mr Stunell MP of 4th June 2010; my further letter to Mr Stunell MP of 26th June 2010 and my letter to the editor of the Guardian dated 6th September 2010.

13. In the circumstances I would respectfully ask the Court to quash the decision to revoke Regional Spatial Strategies or at least that part of the process of Regional Spatial Strategies which relates to the provision of accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers.

I believe that the facts stated in this witness statement are true.

Signed ……………………………………………

Print name ………………………………………

Date ……………………………………………..

CJ/EJW/8198/2 & 4134/8

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