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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Planning for Gypsies & Travellers

Thursday, March 1, 2007

At a conference on Gypsies and Travellers organised by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Meg gave the following speech.

 

Gypsies and Travellers are among the most socially excluded minorities in the country. Their life expectancies can be up to 12 years less than the settled population, and one study found that almost one in five Gypsy and Traveller mothers had experienced the death of a child, compared to less than 1% of the settled community. So, providing sites is not just about having an authorised place to live - it enables Gypsies and Travellers to register with a local doctor and send their children to local schools.

 

The lack of authorised sites means that there are around 4000 caravans on land that they have no right to be on. Some Gypsies and Travellers have bought land and developed it without planning permission. Others try to camp wherever they can find space, leading to a vicious circle of continuous evictions and unauthorised camping.

 

This shortfall of authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers must be tackled if we are to improve social inclusion. Planners have an important role to play. It’s important to keep in mind that although the local impact of providing a site can be large, comparatively the scale of the problem is small. In fact, the Commission for Racial Equality estimates that less that one square mile of land across the whole country is needed to completely eliminate the shortfall in authorised sites. Removing this shortfall is an achievable goal.

 

Complex and Difficult Task

You will know that planning for Gypsies and Travellers can be a complex, difficult and often thankless task. Opposition to sites can be fierce, and planners can find themselves in the middle of heated debates between parties who seem incapable of compromise. At times it can feel like the problems linked to providing sites are impossible to overcome.

 

However, the investment that local authorities make in providing a site in time, effort and resources can be repaid in a surprisingly short period of time. I’ll give you an example: Bristol City Council used to spend £200,000 a year on enforcing against unauthorised encampments. Since spending £425,000 on providing a site, they have seen these costs drop to just £5000 a year, meaning that in less than three years this site paid for itself. 

 

Given these kinds of figures, it is clear that providing sites is the sensible option, though we recognise by no means the easy one. Examples like Bristol’s are contained in a revised version of our booklet, Local authorities: a guide to responsibilities and powers, that we will be publishing shortly.

 

Too often, the settled community’s view of Gypsy and Traveller sites is shaped by negative media images, or a local badly managed site. But there is no reason for them to be unpleasant or controversial places. There are sites that are well integrated into the wider community, well-run and good places to live.

 

One site in Essex is so well-kept that the main problem that the residents face is finding holidaymakers at their doors, believing they have found a nice place to stay.  The residents have integrated with the rest of the community while keeping their own culture, and are involved in local recycling and neighbourhood watch schemes. You might not often hear about places like this in the media but they exist.

 

Moving forward with site provision is not always an easy task, but I’m glad to be able to say that we are making progress. 80% of local authorities now have their Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments completed or underway, and the numbers of unauthorised campers are slowly but steadily falling.

 

Having a Clear Understanding

Planning authorities have to have a clear understanding of the make-up, interests and needs of the communities in their area. It may seem obvious that this should include Gypsies and Travellers, but these groups are frequently not seen as part of the community. Identifying and understanding the needs of groups who find it difficult to engage with the planning system is critical to achieving sustainable development.

 

Circular 1/06, which was published by the ODPM just over a year ago, advises Gypsies and Travellers to meet with local authorities before buying land for development, to try to avoid lengthy disputes over planning permission. Planners need to be prepared for these kinds of discussions. If land has been allocated in a Development Plan Document, then it may just be a matter of directing Gypsies and Travellers to this information. If there is not such an allocation, planners will need to help in other ways.

 

Of course, it’s impossible to say with 100% certainty whether or not planning permission will be granted before an application is made, but there are other things that you might do to help. For example, you may need to explain any criteria that might be used to determine whether land is suitable for this kind of use. Perhaps you might be able to suggest some points for Gypsies and Travellers to bear in mind when looking for land to buy. You may need to discuss issues like flood risk categories, or the type of use that would be likely to be allowed on a piece of land.

 

The majority of Gypsies and Travellers want to live within the law, and have the same chance for work, education and healthcare as everyone else does. They want authorised places to live. However, as in any community, there will always be a small minority that chooses to live outside of the law. Dealing with this minority requires both expertise and commitment from local authorities, and from the wider Gypsy and Traveller communities.

 

Providing more authorised sites is not only important for improving the lives of Gypsies and Travellers, but also to making effective use of enforcement powers. The Government’s Task Group on Enforcement and Site Provision has emphasised this link strongly. I am pleased that Cllr Richard Bennett is here to talk to you about his views on the challenge that local authorities face.  

 

My Department has today begun a consultation on extending the Temporary Stop Notice powers. The changes that we propose will be available to local authorities that have made site provision, and have the capacity to provide Gypsies and Travellers with a suitable alternative pitch to an unauthorised development. Under the new proposal, a local authority that has suitable and available pitches would be able to use a Temporary Stop Notice to require all caravans to be moved off the site of an unauthorised development immediately, as well as stopping additional caravans from being stationed on the site.  We believe that this power provides an appropriate balance between the rights of the individual to live in a caravan and the rights of a local planning authority to uphold the planning system.

 

It is crucial that local authorities carry out robust accommodation needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers. The results of these assessments will feed into Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks. They will also help inform investment decisions by Regional Assemblies on the provision of new sites. They may also help authorities plan service provision to Gypsies and Travellers.

 

We will shortly be publishing the final version of our statutory guidance on conducting accommodation needs assessments, which will draw on the lessons learnt by all of those that have already gone through the process. Officials from the Gypsy and Traveller Unit will be able to provide further details about this in their session this afternoon.

 

In order to ensure that Regional Spatial Strategies accurately reflect the regional picture, Regional Planning Bodies need to be sure that data from local authorities’ accommodation needs assessments are robust and consistent across their region. This is a new task for Regional Assemblies and to help with this, the Department has today published research to produce a methodology for Regional Planning Bodies to benchmark the robustness and consistency of Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments and translate them into pitch numbers. 

 

Although planners are often not directly involved in the process of carrying out Accommodation Needs Assessments, the results of these assessments will have a direct effect on your work. It is you that will have to plan for the extra site provision that we believe many assessments are likely to show the need for. It is important that you feel that you understand how the assessments are carried out.

 

Good Practice Notes

I am grateful for the good practice notes the RTPI has published today to inform planners about all the stages of the process in ensuring that Gypsies and Travellers have a decent place to live. This guidance will sit among the raft of documents produced by the Department, including the research published today and the Department’s own guidance. I would encourage anyone who has a role in planning for Gypsies and Traveller sites to consult these documents.

 

Planning for safe, tolerant and inclusive communities is not an easy task. Gypsies and Travellers are disadvantaged communities, and it is important that Government, planners, local authorities and Gypsies and Travellers themselves work together to overcome the barriers to improving their lives.  


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