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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Developing Services for Gypsies and Travellers

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

At a conference about Gypsies and Travellers Meg gave the following speech.

 

Good morning. It’s good to be here and to have this opportunity to speak to you.

 

When talking about Gypsies and Travellers it’s useful to bear in mind some key facts:

?         the average life expectancy of Gypsies and Travellers is 10 years less than the settled population,

?         Gypsy and Traveller mothers are almost 20 times more likely to experience the death of one of their children, and

?         there are high levels of prejudice and ignorance about Gypsies and Travellers. A MORI poll from 2003 found that a third of those surveyed felt personally prejudiced against Gypsies and Travellers.

 

So, we have particular issues around health, and a prejudice that refuses to die. A prejudice that doesn’t hide in dark corners, but one that is still widely regarded as acceptable to give vent to. So some pervasive myths remain - ‘Gypsies are dirty’ or ‘Travellers aren’t real Travellers if they have a permanent site’.

 

Of course, Gypsies and Travellers are not surprised by such views - they have always encountered suspicion and fear from the settled community. Just as it is important to tackle the health issues that confront this group within society, it’s important to challenge these unacceptable ideas.

 

I am aware that the Commission for Racial Equality is currently following up their ‘Common Ground’ report, which I am sure that Janie Codona will speak about later. 

 

It’s particularly concerning to hear such statements being made by elected representatives such as MPs. People in positions of influence, who bear a great responsibility, have to show community leadership. Such remarks can only have a damaging effect on community cohesion and, I believe, are irresponsible and dangerous. 

 

I am discussing with the other main political parties what we, as national politicians, can do to support a more mature and constructive debate. I know that Councillor Richard Bennett has been working hard on these issues with elected members through the Local Government Association. But beyond this, there is a role for every one of us in challenging this kind of prejudice wherever we encounter it.

 

Amount of Disquiet

Sometimes the few ill-chosen few words can encourage situations never intended by the person speaking them. They often seem to occur when discussions of new housing and new pitches start. The amount of disquiet in local communities about these two different types of development can often be hugely disproportionate to the scale of the proposal.

 

Many local authorities fail to realise that when compared with the amount of conventional housing that needs to be supplied, the numbers of pitches needed are tiny. I am aware of one local authority in Bedfordshire that needs to supply 14,000 new houses - and just 20 Gypsy and Traveller pitches. But placards, petitions and newspaper headlines can give the impression that the numbers are the other way around.

 

Local authorities, and local Councillors, often have disputes - within the authority, between different authorities, and with central Government - about all sorts of issues. But they should be able to do so without inciting prejudices, without building fear amongst residents.

 

We know that providing sites is not only vital in promoting better life chances for Gypsies and Travellers, but also it leads to  better relations between the settled and the travelling community. In addition, the figures also show that providing sites is the best option in financial terms.

 

Bristol City Council, for example, saw their enforcement costs drop from £200,000 a year to just £5000 a year after they built a site. Also, the 2006 Kent County Council Select Committee report estimates that the annual cost of dealing with unauthorised encampments in Kent is at least £500,000. Making site provision is the efficient, and cost-effective, enforcement, ask Bristol City Council.

 

Promoting Good Practise

Guidance is already available - the Gypsy and Traveller Unit can provide both funding and advice. And the problem in terms of the number of pitches required is a small one. Just one square mile of land across the whole of England is needed!

 

We are publishing today more guidance that will assist local authorities.

 

We have the revised version of our booklet, Local authorities: a guide to responsibilities and powers. This booklet has been updated to include more examples of good practice, and to signpost new guidance. It is an even more useful tool that I believe will help local authorities to take steps in tackling this issue in a positive and long-lasting manner.

 

We are also launching two new pieces of good practice guidance, on ‘site design’ and ‘site management’ for wide consultation. Good design and management are vital to the success of any site. We know that poorly designed and managed housing estates can become deprived areas that are magnets for crime and anti-social behaviour. The principles of good design and management that are used on conventional housing estates can also be used on Gypsy and Traveller pitches.

 

The site design guidance will help ensure sustainable and successful sites. It has been developed through discussions with Gypsies and Travellers, those who represent them and work with them, and site developers and managers.

 

Good management is vital in ensuring that sites remain pleasant places both to live on and to live near to. Well managed and well run Gypsy and Traveller sites do not cause trouble to the local settled community. In fact there are sites which are so well kept that they are mistaken for holiday sites, and residents often have to turn away disappointed holidaymakers who think they have found a good place to spend the night!

 

I invite you to send in your comments and suggestions on this guidance.

 

Lack of Authorised Sites

Many of the problems that Gypsies and Travellers face can be traced back to a lack of authorised sites. Gypsies and Travellers have been part of our society for hundreds of years - so we can safely say that just because people don’t have authorised places to stop they are not going to go away! Without somewhere to call home, those appalling health problems I mentioned at the start of my contribution will be very difficult to tackle.

 

You will shortly be hearing from Sir Brian Briscoe about the work of the Task Group on Site Provision and Enforcement. The Task Group has been looking into the issues around site provision and enforcement since last summer, and has already produced some interesting and thought provoking work. I welcome the Group’s interim report and look forward to seeing their final report later this year.  

 

Providing sites will not seem like an easy option for many local authorities, there is often strong local opposition to them. Many people do not want sites built near to them; they have fears about sites, based on the myths and prejudices that are too often peddled. Only the ignorant now talk about the stealing of children and the placing of curses, but scratch the surface and other prejudices, equally groundless remain.

 

Data collected in Northamptonshire shows that an encampment does not result in a spike in crime levels. Gypsies and Travellers are required to - and do - pay council tax, whether or not their sites have planning permission. They are active in their local communities; are local councillors and young Gypsies and Travellers are represented on the National Youth Parliament.

 

Planning for the Future

Of course, until local authorities know how many sites are needed in their area, they cannot make proper plans for future needs. Where there is a history of under-provision and unauthorised camping, then it is clear that urgent action must be taken to address this, but there will still be a need for more in-depth information. Draft Practice Guidance for local authorities carrying out ‘Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments’ has been available since February 2006. We have now laid before Parliament a final version of this guidance. I believe that this guidance, used in conjunction with Pat Niner’s recently published research on preparing ‘Regional Spatial Strategies for Gypsies and Travellers’ will ensure that local authorities are able to carry out robust and reliable assessments.   

 

There are many ways for local authorities to provide sites once they know how many pitches are needed and have decided where these should be. If a local authority decides to build a site, 100% capital funding is available from the Government to do so. There are also other avenues that may be explored. One such option is through the use of Section 106 agreements. Gypsy and Traveller sites managed by local authorities or Registered Social Landlords are another form of affordable housing, meaning that Section 106 can be used to include Gypsy and Traveller sites in new housing developments. This is an avenue currently being explored by a Cambridgeshire local authority, and I support them in doing so.

 

Through good design and common sense procurement policies, local authorities can ensure that public sites are easy to maintain. This is done by Fenland District Council in Cambridgeshire, where contractors wishing to work on conventional council housing must agree to apply the same labour rates to work on public sites. The council can also take advantage of economies of scale, using the same fixtures and fittings on sites as they do in their conventional housing stock. The Government believes that the management of Gypsy and Traveller sites should be mainstreamed to sit alongside the management of other forms of housing.   

 

Finally, earlier in the week we published the latest caravan count. These figures show that there has been a small but steady rise in the number of authorised local authority sites, and a large rise in the number of authorised private sites.

 

In some places progress is being made. But there are still too many caravans on land that they should not be on. Progress is just too slow to overcome the problem within an acceptable timeframe. If we continue at this rate we will continue to have fear, conflict and anger. All of which fuel prejudice for many years to come.

 

We have to work together towards solving these problems of accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers permanently. We will all benefit by removing the source of unfounded conflict within local communities.


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