In a Parliamentary debate on the planned expansion of traveller sites, Peter Lilley, MP for Hitchin and Harpenden argued his constituents wanted a “fair, transparent and balanced” policy – the exact opposite of what is happening.
After the debate Peter said, “Everyone recognises that travellers need a place to live.”
“But the way this has been handled is unfair. The Government has arbitrarily decided all areas will have a 40% increase over current site provision. This means areas like St. Albans will see the greatest increase in numbers – because they have the greatest number of travellers‘ sites to begin with.”
“It is untransparent because Government figures project the traveller population to grow at a faster rate than the population of Africa – without explaining why this is.”
“It is unbalanced because the settled population who are unable to afford their own choice of housing feel travellers are being given preferential treatment. Additionally, we are being told to accept an increase in site numbers without a commitment to close current illegal encampments.”
PRESS RELEASE ENDS
NOTES TO EDITORS
1) The text of Peter Lilley’s speech in the debate is reproduced below:
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main),who is a fellow Member for the St. Albans district, on securing the debate and on introducing it in such a thorough but sensitive way.
There is great concern throughout the St. Albans district, not least in the part that I represent, about the current proposals, which, strangely, only became public on any scale after the local elections. People in Redbourn are concerned because there is already an authorised site, as well as unauthorised sites. People in Kinsbourne Green and Harpenden Rural are concerned because they are quite near Redbourn, and several new sites are proposed near them. Likewise, people in Wheathampstead are concerned because potential sites have been identified right next to residential areas. There is concern throughout the rural part of my constituency about what such developments could mean.
I have met several delegations and visited potential sites, and although my constituents are concerned, they are extremely reasonable: they accept that travellers must live somewhere and want good relationships between the travelling and the settled communities. However, they also want a fair, transparent and balanced approach to be taken when deciding how many sites should be allocated and where they should be, but they do not see the current proposals as fair in substance or procedure.
St. Albans district council already has a quarter of all the authorised sites and more than half the unauthorised sites in Hertfordshire, but it is now being told that it must accept 30 per cent. of the additional sites. However, St. Albans district council is only one of the 10 councils, covers only 10 per cent. of the area of Hertfordshire and has only 13 per cent. of the population, so why are things being done in this way? The answer is that the formula that is being used says that the number of new pitches required in any area will be equal to 40 per cent. of the number of authorised pitches plus the number of unauthorised pitches that the area already has. My area already has a large number of authorised and unauthorised pitches, so it is expected to have a lot more pitches in future. The more pitches an area has agreed to have in the past, therefore, the more it is expected to have in the future; the more it has had to put up in the past-even though they may have been illegal and unauthorised-the more it will have to put up with in the future. People do not think that that is fair.
Anne Main: My right hon. Friend makes a really powerful point, and I draw his attention again to why the public are so annoyed by what has happened. The EERA consultation says:
“This public consultation is a real chance for everyone in the settled and travelling communities…to learn more about the options on the table and to have their say on the number and distribution of these additional pitches”,
but that has not been the case at all.
Mr. Lilley: My hon. Friend is right. People are concerned because they are expected to have new authorised sites, where the number of pitches will reflect the present number of unauthorised pitches, but
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there is no guarantee that the unauthorised ones will be removed; indeed, given human rights considerations, it is quite possible that there will be no possibility of removing them, and that is a concern. As my hon. Friend spelled out, we have been given a choice between two options, both of which are identical, and that, it may astonish the Minister to know, does not seem fair to people.
The process is not transparent either. The consultation documents give no explanation of how the assessment of the additional numbers was reached, and one really has to dig deep to find out; one has to read an extremely opaque report from the Department for Communities and Local Government called “Preparing Regional Spatial Strategy reviews on Gypsies and Travellers by regional planning bodies”. Indeed, the report consists largely of serial acronyms-it was not until I read a lot about the subject, for example, that I realised that G and T stood for Gypsies and Travellers-but there is no glossary to tell us what those acronyms mean.
If one works one’s way through the report, however, one will be astonished to find that there are no figures for the gypsy population and that there are figures only for the number of caravans and sites. There are also no figures for occupancy rates at existing sites, which one might think would provide some measure of demand or need. One wonders why things are so opaque and obscure and why such a strange solution has been reached, and one finds that the Department does not really have the information on which to make the relevant decisions. Page 18 says:
“our understanding about Gypsies and Travellers-about their requirements and the factors influencing these-is not yet sufficiently developed or adequate to inform the development of site provision which we can be certain will meet the extent of need in a way which is appropriate to the requirements and preferences of all sections of this population.
However, action must be taken.”
The Department does not, therefore, have the information on which to take any reasonable action, but it proposes to go ahead anyway, which is why it goes ahead with unreasonable action.
The Department has decided to develop what it calls a “tool”-it keeps using that word-based on GTAAs, or Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments. Local authorities are obliged to carry out regular assessments, which are then examined. Although they form the basis of all subsequent work, the report observes:
“Assessments-which are usually based on interviews with Gypsies and Travellers in the study area-find it hard to estimate the need to be in the study area of those currently living outside it, perhaps because of lack of accommodation. There is also a tendency to conflate need, demand and aspiration.”
The Department’s basic tool therefore measures three different things and conflates them all. That is done on the basis of interviews that provide no real measure of the demand, need or aspirations for sites in an area.
The report concludes, somewhat arbitrarily, that some of the assessments are robust, while others are not. On average, the robust ones show that demand, need or aspiration is 40 per cent greater than the current supply, so the Department has decided arbitrarily to use that 40 per cent factor everywhere as part of a one-size-fits-all approach, with no recognition of local differences.
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Nor is there any clarity in the document as to why the Gypsy and Traveller population seems to be expanding so fast. It says that the number of caravans rose by 90
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per cent. between 1979 and 2006 over the country as a whole and that the population is growing by 3 per cent. per annum in the UK and 4 per cent per annum in Ireland, but it does not tell us how much of the UK population growth is due to people coming from Ireland or elsewhere. However, 3 to 4 per cent. annual population growth is very rapid-it is more rapid than the population growth in Africa, which is the fastest growing continent in the world. Yet the assessments will be made only for five years ahead. At the relevant rate of growth, that is about 18 per cent., so one might think the call for 40 per cent more accommodation does not naturally follow. As I have said, in addition to that 40 per cent., extra sites are proposed to match the number of unauthorised sites, but with no guarantee-or, at least, the document is so non-transparent that we cannot see whether there is any guarantee-that unauthorised sites will be replaced by authorised ones, if those are forthcoming.
Finally, my constituents do not think that the approach seems very balanced. Because of the enormous housing pressures that we face, which we have discussed previously, the settled population of this country is being pressed to live in flats rather than houses, in terraced houses rather than detached houses, north rather than south, on brownfield sites rather than in the green belt. Yet no similar pressures seem to be exerted, or nothing analogous seems to be expected, of the G and Ts. The settled population find that housing is rationed by price. In my constituency young people now stay at home five or 10 years longer than they used to when I was first elected, because they cannot afford a home. Alternatively, they must move north. Everything is rationed by price, and I reiterate that no analogous pressures are exerted on the better-off Gypsies and Travellers.
Constituents have told me that they feel particularly aggrieved that when they look up this subject on the web, as everyone does when the subject suddenly comes on to their radar screen, they find hundreds of sites detailing Gypsies’ and Travellers’ concerns-which they acknowledge are perfectly legitimate-about the pressures and discrimination that they potentially face, and their grievances. There is nothing equivalent to enable my constituents to express or register their concerns or their experience of some parts of the Gypsy and Traveller population. They feel that they need to register those concerns if the Government’s objective of achieving social cohesion and a sensible relationship between the Gypsy and Traveller and settled communities is to be reached.
My constituents hope that the Government will listen to them, but they are pretty sure that they will not. They would like fairness, but they cannot see any. They want some transparency and they are presented with something absolutely opaque. They want balance and they feel that things are loaded heavily against them. They know that the Government are to blame, and they want the Government to answer.