Sunday, February 08, 2015

My introduction to a seminar on Traveller sites on February 3 in Committee Room G

Welcome  to this seminar, which forms part of a series organised by the Traveller Movement to address racial justice issues faced by Gypsies, Travellers and Roma
 In May last year we discussed Gypsies and Travellers in the media, and a key finding of that seminar was the impact of accommodation and planning issues on media coverage of Gypsies and Travellers at the local and national level.

Four out of the five speakers referred to accommodation issues in the context of negative and damaging media coverage.

So today we’re addressing a root cause of media hostility, and hence of hostility by the public: the inequality and discrimination these communities experience in accessing suitable accommodation.

Where then do we stand at the end of a five year Parliament? What has been done as regards Traveller sites over that period, and what  we might like to see happen under a new Government after the election.
The total number of Traveller caravans has crept up in the five years to July 2014 by just under 4%, probably not enough to keep pace with growth in the population. The number of rented and Traveller-owned caravans both increased, but so did the number on unauthorised sites, the main cause of friction with the settled population. The number of caravans on socially rented sites actually declined by 4.6%, making it all the more essential that Travellers should be facilitated in providing accommodation for themselves.
They did make every effort to acquire land and develop sites, but came up against a brick wall of opposition locally, reinforced by Eric Pickles’  strategy of wholesale recovery of planning appeals and then sitting on them indefinitely, This has now been declared unlawful and discriminatory as a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by the High Court.  But the damage has been done; only 100 more pitches got permanent planning permission over the whole period of this Parliament.
So the current declared policy of requiring local authorities to grant planning permission for enough sites to accommodate their Traveller population for the next five years, measured  by assessment of local needs, has failed.
In the few cases where a local authority does get to the next stage of the policy, which is to identify areas of land on which the planning permissions would be granted, again it doesn’t work, because there is always a hurricane of opposition from local residents which panics the council into backing off and dropping the proposal.
We shall also discuss Pickles’ other unlawful policy of defining Travellers out of existence, which fortunately needs primary legislation and therefore cant’t happen in this Parliament. Travellers are an internationally recognised ethnic group and if Pickles’ successor does continue down that route after the election, the UK would be violating several conventions to which it is a party.
The Government dud establish a ministerial working group on tackling inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Traveller, and in the foreword to their ‘progress report’ in 2008 Andrew Stunell MP said that Ministers were ‘very concerned that  Gypsies and Travellers are being held back by some of the worst outcomes of any group across a wide range of social indicators’. Fundamental to the disadvantage  experienced by caravan-dwelling Travellers in education and in health outcomes is the insecurity of tenure that so many of them have to endure. The working group allocated money to provide 750 new and improved pitches, but the number of socially rented pitches has fallen over the lifetime of the Coalition. The Working Group quietly abandoned the job in April 2012, without mentioning they were going to make it easier for local authorities to harry Travellers across the landscape when there was no place they could lawfully settle.
The real problem with the Government strategy is that where a local authority ignores it, there is no means of enforcement, In the 1968 Act, the Government was given the power to direct a local authority to provide sites for such numbers of caravans as he should specify, and the Bill I introduced in 2012 gave the Secretary of State  an equivalent power to direct a local authority to grant planning permissions for a given number of caravans.  With the 1968 Act it wasn’t necessary to use the power, but its presence in the law was enough to galvanise backsliders into compliance.
Finally we need to consider how a different coalition after May could get round the obstacle. At a  Traveller Movement  meeting last November I drew attention to the   Government approval of plans for a 15,000 home new town at Ebbsfleet as the first of a new generation of ‘garden cities’ to solve the housing crisis, particularly in London and the Southeast. Now there are plans for 13,000 new homes at Bicester; Ashford and Oxford have expressed interest in the concept, and particularly interesting, the Homes and Communities Agency will develop and act as planning authority for 10,000 homes at Northstowe.  The HCA is aware of the needs of homeless Travellers and is sympathetic to them. But more generally, we could build into the statutes of the development corporations of these new towns an obligation to provide say 1% of the homes in the form of caravan sites for Travellers, producing 80 new pitches.
I broached this with the chairman designate of the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, Michael Cassidy and he said he would consider it. Ebbsfleet will have planning powers, and could incorporate Traveller sites into the social housing it will be providing in its business plan, helping to meet the unmet need in neighbouring authorities.
I also spoke to Paul Kitson, Project Manager for the new town of Northstowe in South Cambridgeshire at the Homes and Communities Agency, who was sympathetic about including Gypsy sites in their planning.
So lets ask the Government what contribution they expect the development of new towns to make towards meeting the needs of Travellers in their areas, and how they will ensure that each of them fit a proportionate number of pitches into their business plans.
David Rudlin the urban designer who won the £250,00 Wolfson Economics prize last September argues that we must
“take a confident bite out of the green belt”

 and build new garden city extensions to around 40 existing provincial cities and towns, including Oxford, Taunton, Ipswich and Carlisle. The Government have picked up the idea but have only listed five of the 40 candidates,  perhaps because of fear that the Council for Preservation of Rural England against them on the eve of the election. But this is the only new idea on the table for dealing with the acute housing crisis we face with cross-party support, and we must start a campaign to ensure that Travellers accommodation is an integral part of the national policy.

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