Gypsy and Traveller Sites

– in Westminster Hall am 4:00 pm ar 15 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Annibynnol, Castell-nedd 4:00, 15 Mai 2024

I will call Mr Philip Hollobone to move the motion and will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Ceidwadwyr, Kettering

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered planning policy for Gypsy and Traveller sites.

It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me permission for this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I also thank him for visiting Kettering to discuss this issue on 8 February.

The purpose of the debate is to make it clear to the Minister that we need changes to the legislative framework for Gypsy and Traveller pitch provision, unauthorised development, and licensing and management of Gypsy and Traveller sites. It will be frustrating for residents in my constituency that I will not be able to go into detail in this debate about specific local sites, because various forms of planning enforcement and legal action are under way. I will highlight in passing Oakley Park and Peasdale Hill in Middleton in the neighbouring Corby constituency, and sites in my own constituency at Loddington, Broughton, Braybrooke, Stoke Albany and Desborough.

I will also highlight controversy locally over a proposed Traveller stopping site at Rothwell, which is to deal with the slightly separate issue of unauthorised encampments under Home Office provisions. I appreciate that is not the direct responsibility of the Local Government Minister in front of us today. To deal with that one first, under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, as amended by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, section 62A allows a senior police officer to direct those in an unauthorised encampment, consisting of at least one vehicle and caravan, to leave land upon which it does not have permission to be, if the local authority can provide a suitable pitch elsewhere in the area. My view is that a senior officer should be able to direct them to leave the local authority area, without the local authority having to provide alternative provision.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Over the past number of years as my constituency’s elected representative, I have had to deal with this issue on some occasions, as has the council. Does the hon. Member agree that it is essential that local community planning and provision goes hand in hand with the right for Travellers and Gypsies to have the freedom to live as they culturally and historically have done, and that perhaps sensitivity is the best way forward?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Ceidwadwyr, Kettering

The hon. Gentleman brings me to my next point. The Government’s planning policy for Traveller sites sets out national planning policies for Gypsies and Travellers. It states:

“The Government’s overarching aim is to ensure fair and equal treatment for travellers in a way that in a way that facilitates their traditional and nomadic way of life while respecting the interests of the settled community.”

My contention is that fair and equal treatment goes both ways. In my assessment, the current planning policy enables Gypsies and Travellers to develop sites in the countryside that members of the settled community would simply not be able to develop under the same planning regulations. Although the aim of the policy is fair and equal treatment, it actually amounts to preferential treatment for Gypsies and Travellers.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Ceidwadwyr, South Staffordshire

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Another unfairness in the planning system is that it penalises those local authority areas that have traditionally provided a large number of pitches. They are having to provide so many more because the duty to co-operate with other local authorities means that those with literally zero pitches do not have to take them on. That needs to be addressed, because the same local authorities are being asked to make all the provision and that is not sustainable.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Ceidwadwyr, Kettering

As always, my right hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. There is an unfairness in the system that penalises authorities that stick to the rules. They then find that they have to make even greater provision for more and more Gypsy and Traveller sites.

Photo of Sarah Dyke Sarah Dyke Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Somerton and Frome

First, I should declare an interest as a serving Somerset councillor. Somerset Council, like all local authorities, has the power to take enforcement action where appropriate. However, decisions that were made by the previous, Conservative administration in Somerset have left the county without any appropriate transit sites. Regardless of the intent of the council, the costs involved in developing those transit sites, like any other planning development and homebuilding, are now that much greater. Does the hon. Member agree that local authorities need more provision to take action when necessary?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Ceidwadwyr, Kettering

If the hon. Lady is talking about temporary Traveller stopping sites, I highlighted those in my opening remarks. Under the present law, local authorities are encouraged to provide temporary stopping sites so that Gypsies and Travellers who have temporary unauthorised encampments can be moved out of a local authority area only if such transit provision has been made. I would argue that that should be unnecessary, and that they should be required to move out of the area in any case, just like anyone in the settled community if they were parked up temporarily on somebody else’s land.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Llafur, Hammersmith

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a fair-minded person, so may I suggest to him that the balance actually goes the other way? He might be aware of the case of Smith v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, which was handed down yesterday and granted a declaration of incompatibility under the European convention on human rights. It said that there is a lack of lawful stopping places for Gypsies and Travellers, and unless the Government increase provision, the law as currently drafted will amount to unjustified race discrimination. For example, only eight out of 68 local authorities in the south-east of England have identified the land needed for Gypsies and Travellers in their area. It is the lack of sites that is at the root of the problem, not unfair treatment that benefits Gypsies and Travellers.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Ceidwadwyr, Kettering

As always, the hon. Gentleman and I totally differ on these issues. I would argue that we should withdraw from the European convention on human rights and amend the Human Rights Act 1998, because it is simply absurd that public authorities should be spending millions of pounds to develop stopping sites for Gypsies and Travellers. The pressure on the public purse is already enormous without adding to it.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Llafur, Liverpool, West Derby

I am also in complete opposition to the hon. Gentleman’s long-standing views. The reality is that there is disgracefully unjust discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers in planning processes. My hon. Friend Andy Slaughter just touched on yesterday’s High Court ruling about the ECHR. I ask the hon. Member to read the excellent research from Friends, Families and Travellers, which clearly evidences the reluctance and failure of local authorities to ensure that socially rented sites are created, and rightly calls on the Government to reintroduce a statutory duty to ensure that the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers are met.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Ceidwadwyr, Kettering

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised that I totally disagree.

I thank the House of Commons Library for the excellent briefing it published today, ahead of this debate. To put this into context, in July 2023, local authorities counted over 25,000 caravans on Gypsy and Traveller sites in England. That is a 21% increase in the last 10 years. Of those caravans, 26% were on public sites, 60% were on authorised private sites, and 14% were on unauthorised sites. Of the unauthorised sites, most—83%—were on land owned by Gypsies and Travellers, and 17% were unauthorised encampments on land belonging to private landowners or public authorities. The focus of this debate, with particular reference to Kettering and north Northamptonshire, is the 14% of unauthorised sites as well as the abuse of the conditions laid down in the grant of planning permission for authorised, private sites.

Locally in Kettering, North Northamptonshire Council is committed to meeting the needs of the Gypsy and Traveller community and addressing the challenges that it faces. A Gypsy and Traveller local plan is in preparation and quarterly meetings occur with interested local parish councils. I praise Councillor David Howes, who is the North Northamptonshire Council portfolio holder for Gypsies and Travellers, and George Candler, who is the deputy chief executive on North Northamptonshire Council, for facilitating those extremely useful meetings, which were positive and focused on providing suitable Gypsy and Traveller provision as well as addressing unauthorised encampments and the unlawful development of sites.

The suggestions I will outline in the next five to 10 minutes have emerged from the meeting that the Minister kindly attended in Kettering on 8 February, which was attended by council officers and representatives from local parish councils. Those suggestions are about how the current law encumbers local planning authorities in effectively enforcing the system.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Ceidwadwyr, York Outer

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has touched on a key point. Does he agree that one of the problems is that planning guidance differs so much from local authority to local authority and in how it is applied? For example, City of York Council, which covers my constituency’s planning guidance, has been all over the place recently on the issue. It has looked at expanding existing sites, and when that has not worked it has moved to look at forcing local developers to add one to two pitches for every new development that comes forward. That is opposed by the local Traveller community and local communities, so the policy is just not working. We must find a better way of taking it forward.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Ceidwadwyr, Kettering

I am grateful for that useful intervention, because it is clear that the planning system around Gypsy and Traveller provision has so many holes in it and simply is not working. It is certainly not working for my hon. Friend’s constituents, and it is not working for mine, either.

A commonly seen pattern of behaviour is for Travellers to buy a plot of land, move in over a bank holiday weekend, strip off the topsoil and have a queue of tipper lorries arrive at the site to drop off hardcore. By the end of the weekend, hardstanding is down and caravans occupy the site, with no immediate action to stop them. Legal wrangles then follow through the planning process for perhaps the next three to four years or even longer, with enforcement, planning applications, appeals and so on. Most of the unauthorised developments in my local area deal with Gypsies and Travellers who have purchased the land, so they are not trespassers, and it can be difficult for the local authority to evidence at what point development actually occurred that is sufficient to serve a stop notice. That is particularly problematic in the early stages, when no residential occupation of the land has actually started.

The Minister will be aware that local councils cannot serve a stop notice on the basis of something that may occur but need to be able to confirm a permanent breach of the planning regulations—in other words, when residential occupation has occurred. Of course, once residential occupation has occurred, it is then more difficult to address. As the council is then involved in removing occupants from their home, they claim that they have nowhere else to go. It is not suitable to camp them at the roadside with young children, and it becomes difficult for the local council to dispute. A local authority, quite rightly under the current law—although I think that needs to be amended—must take note of human rights issues, protected characteristics and so on, especially if Travellers are recognised as an ethnic group in law.

In addition, the submission by Travellers of information, planning applications and other procedures are often made only shortly before critical deadlines, thereby further extending the period it takes to progress through the stages of the planning process and creating an extended period for issues to escalate. As a result, progress to a position where an application or enforcement notice can be considered, or an appeal registered, can often take 18 to 24 months or more. It is also well publicised that there is a significant backlog of cases at the Planning Inspectorate. The procedure for taking action against unlawful development is made harder and extended by the current requirements of the law, which bring about sometimes really considerable delays, risks and costs for local authorities.

Changes recently came into effect under the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, but I am afraid they will not have a dramatic impact on planning enforcement against unauthorised Traveller sites. The Act does not, for example, address the difficulties in establishing the ownership of a site following a land transfer, the identities of the responsible persons on site, or whether the threshold has been met for a planning breach in law. My requests to the Minister include that there be a more simplified approach to discourage and manage the unauthorised development of land for the creation of Gypsy and Traveller pitches.

The process of issuing stop notices and taking enforcement action should be accelerated, as well as the process for requiring information to validate and consider planning applications. There needs to be provision for serving temporary stop notices immediately, before residential occupation has started.

The identification of landowners could be made easier where individuals operate outside the normal exchange of deeds and land registration. For example, why not have a legal requirement to publicly post information about the purchaser of the land at the site until the Land Registry is updated? That would facilitate faster identification of the landowner, and there would be sanctions for failing to display details of ownership.

For those who fail to take seriously compliance with temporary stop notices—this applies to almost all the Gypsy and Traveller sites in my local area—why not make it a criminal offence to fail to comply with a temporary stop notice? The potential for arrest and detention would make the punishment far more of a deterrent and would encourage greater compliance.

Why not make it a criminal offence to create residential accommodation or change the use of property to residential without planning permission? That would encourage the correct use of the planning system in seeking approval before development takes place.

I am afraid that fines are no real deterrent to get Travellers to desist from pursuing unauthorised developments. There needs to be a better process to allow local councils to remove development and consider the seizure of assets where a conviction has been secured and an order of the court obtained.

Why not change the planning regulations to amend permitted development regulations, which currently make the removal of topsoil acceptable? That creates significant local concern and has the potential to destroy the ecological qualities of land, and it undermines the principle of biodiversity net gain, as the biodiversity is removed ahead of an application going in.

Then we have the lack of alignment between the planning system and the caravan licensing regime. A caravan site licence can be issued only if there is planning permission in place. A person does not need to be the landowner to obtain planning permission, but to obtain a caravan licence they need to demonstrate that they own the land. That makes it difficult for licences to be issued to the correct responsible person. We need changes to the law whereby planning permission cannot be granted for a caravan site unless submitted by the owner of the land, or the caravan licence can be issued only to owners who have the required planning consent.

In addition, specific protection should be afforded to landowners, such as farmers, who do not wish for their land to be occupied, and do not wish to sell it but do so due to fear of reprisals. Such landowners may also find themselves subject to licensing enforcement for a site they do not actually manage.

Can we have changes to the fit and proper person test under the Mobile Homes Act 2013 so that site owners, directors and managers must meet the test? Can we have more detailed guidance about how local authorities can enforce those measures?

I thank the Minister for his attention and his officials for liaising with officials at North Northants Council about how such constructive changes to the law could be made. I welcome the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing) 4:19, 15 Mai 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.

I thank my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone for securing the debate and for giving us the opportunity, even for just a few short minutes, to talk about these important issues. Most importantly, I thank him and his colleagues for the kindness they showed me when I visited Northamptonshire a couple of months ago to talk about this issue at his invitation. He works closely with my hon. Friend Tom Pursglove and I was grateful for the attention, support and explanation given by many of the parish councils in my hon. Friends’ area. They came to the meeting, giving us the opportunity to go through this in the detail it deserves. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering for the debate and for that opportunity a couple of months ago to talk about the issue in detail.

As with all issues of planning, I have to put a caveat on the front of my remarks: I am not able to talk about specific local plans, specific local planning applications or, indeed, enforcement action against those planning applications. As right hon. and hon. Members are aware, planning Ministers have a quasi-judicial role in the planning system, and must therefore reserve comments on any individual application, in case that needs to be exercised. I know that my hon. Friend is not asking me for information, or for my thoughts, on individual applications, but seeking to articulate his concerns about the policy in general, which I will focus on.

This area of policy is obviously sensitive. It has been debated reasonably today, in the short time that we have had, but we can see the contours of a broader debate where people take, legitimately, different views. I will try to choose my words carefully, and it may be that I am not able to go as far as I might otherwise wish to in certain areas, but I hope that it demonstrates that I am engaging in the issue. I will say more when I am able to in future. I should put on the record that I have historical experience in my constituency of challenges in this part of planning policy, so I am aware of it from the perspective of North East Derbyshire.

In essence, we are debating three questions today: first, planning for suitable provision of sites for those in the travelling community; secondly, ensuring that the application process for agreeing those sites is done in a fair, transparent and open manner; and, thirdly, if that is not the case—as is the principle across every policy, intervention, change or action that is done by anyone out there, irrespective of the planning system—and enforcement is to be taken, what is proportionate and reasonable to do.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Llafur, Hammersmith

On that issue of site availability, I recommend the Friends, Families and Travellers report to the Minister and to Mr Hollobone, “Kicking the can down the road: The planning and provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites in England 1960-2023”. It explains the lack of site provision, which is at the root of the judgment in Smith yesterday that led to the declaration of incompatibility. The Minister has now had 24 hours to consider the judgment and I wonder about the Government response. They will have to deal with the issue—and the law at the moment—which stems from the fact of discrimination, with certain parts of the criminal law being impacted where there is not sufficient site provision in a particular area at the moment.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House, and he tempts me to comment on a very recent legal case but, with the leave of the House, I will reserve comment on that judgment while my colleagues review it. I will not comment specifically on the outcome of the case, as I am sure he understands.

I will quickly set out the position and then give a few comments on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. The Government set the legislative and policy framework—we have talked about it today —within which this area of policy operates, including the NPPF, or national planning policy framework, and the PPTS, or planning policy for Traveller sites. Despite the variance between the two policies, as articulated by colleagues, local planning authorities are responsible for plan preparation and have a duty to make planning decisions in accordance with the development plans that they have adopted. The planning policy for Traveller sites should be read in conjunction with the NPPF, and there is the requirement to provide a “robust evidence base” for the actions that are taken by individual planning authorities when they are preparing for them.

We all recognise, because we spend a lot of time in debates like this, that whether it is about this area of planning policy or any others, no area of planning policy is perfect. The question is how we balance the many different competing interests in the most appropriate way. There are always challenges, even in areas that are not contested, and this is obviously a relatively contested area. The question is how we ensure fairness in that discussion.

To the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering about fairness, it is about trying to work out how we balance that. I accept and agree that that is an open question, and it is perfectly legitimate and appropriate for us to come back and look at those issues on a very regular basis, which is something that we try to do across planning. I will continue to do that within this area of planning, which is why I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for having hosted me and officials a few months ago to articulate the challenges experienced in Northamptonshire.

I absolutely welcome the views and thoughts of Members across the House about both the planning policy elements, such as the local plans and whether they work, and whether the planning application process for Travellers works. My hon. Friend has put on record many of his comments today, which is very helpful, but I would welcome any further comments from other Members present.

It is the case, and I think it is important to reiterate, that the number of pitches provided in this country has substantially increased over my lifetime. In 1979, it was fewer than 10,000, and it is now 25,000 according to the latest count. There is a substantial increase in provision and it is important that discussions like this do not miss that point out. The question is, building on that increase in provision, where the logical extent is of where we need to go and what provision we need to require local authorities to provide for. That is why I would welcome comments from colleagues across the House, whether they are positive or negative, on the impact in their areas. When we are thinking about that, as when we are thinking about all elements of planning policy, we can consider that in the round when we bring ideas and proposals forward.

I recognise that I have just under three minutes left, but my hon. Friend talked about enforcement, and that is a hugely important area of policy, as he has highlighted. I do not lead on that part of the discussion, but I will certainly pass back the comments that he has made to my colleagues in the Home Office. As my hon. Friend indicated, some movement and some progress has been made—although I know he had comments about that—in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act, which became law last year. That removed the four-year time limit for taking action against some of the breaches in planning control, and it doubled the time when stop notices are effective from 28 to 56 days. We will return to the point that, when there is intentional unauthorised development generally along the lines of what my hon. Friend has articulated, that should be a material consideration when considering where the position has ended. We are committed to consulting on that and on how we implement it in the future within the broader policy framework.

I have less than two minutes left, but this is a very big area of policy. It is highly contested and it is one, from a Government perspective, where I think it is absolutely right that we tread carefully with our words and consider this in round. I absolutely acknowledge that there are strong views across the House on all these areas, and I also acknowledge that there are experiences in parts of the country that are really challenging at the moment. That is one of the reasons why I am keen to hear views from all colleagues over the course of the months ahead. It is why I am really keen to understand the suggestions of any colleagues about how we make progress, building on that significant increase of pitches that has occurred over my lifetime and recognising that we need to look at the issue in the round.

I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend’s comments on enforcement to the Home Office, and I look forward to continuing discussions with colleagues from across the House on this in future. We need to look at how we get this policy right, how we understand it and how we respond to some of the rightful challenges that have been set, while recognising that there is a balance that always needs to be struck here. It is about learning from experiences and working out how policy can be iterated and amended over the long term to ensure that it makes progress.

Question put and agreed to.