Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Date of Proceeding: 20.06.2007
    Reference: 461 c482-4WH
    Member: Lilley, Peter
    Title: Gypsies and Travellers (Hertfordshire)
    Description: 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 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.

    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 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.