HC Deb 19 April 1973 vol 855 cc721-32

2.40 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

My constituents have suffered intolerably in the last few years from the nuisance caused by unlawful gipsy camp sites. Their anger, disgust and frustration have been compounded by a guilt complex induced by the mass media at the thought of harassing a community which needs help rather than harassment. Well-meaning efforts to help by public authorities, the Government and legislative action have, unfortunately, succeeded only in making the problem worse for the people who have to carry the burden of it.

To quote from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government Circular No. 26 of 1966, in the 1965 census gipsies were referred to as … so-called gipsies and other travelling people who live in caravans, tents or huts and who make a living by trading and casual work. At that time the number of gipsies in England and Wales was calculated to be 15,000, or about 3,400 families. One has to put that figure against the total of 170,000 people living in 73,000 caravans on residential sites, that being the figure given by my hon. Friend the Undersecretary of State for the Environment in a Written Answer on 6th March this year. In other words we are dealing with well under 10 per cent. of all caravan dwellers. The 1966 circular describes them as widely scattered all over the country. Of the total of 15,000, 6,000 are children under 16 getting little if any schooling. Most are illiterate. Only 19 per cent. are on licensed sites and the rest are camping haphazardly on farmland, wasteland, commons and roadside verges. Only one-third have access to mains water. The majority have no sanitary or other facilities whatsoever.

It is not surprising that wherever they congregate they arouse the fierce resentment of many of their neighbours, members of the settled community. Their very presence is thought to be a health hazard. They often frighten children, and many individuals among them are hostile to adults. Their horses and dogs, which roam freely, are a menace to road users and, worst of all, in areas like mine their camps are often filthy eyesores. They leave huge piles of rubbish, when they move on eventually, which have to be cleaned up at the expense of their neighbours, because most of them in my area of London earn their living by stripping and breaking old cars and lorries. They therefore do a great deal of damage to the community, yet they pay no rent, no rates, no income tax, and they seem to spurn even the payment of fines on the infrequent occasions when they are taken to court.

There have been many attempts to solve this problem. The Government started with Circular No. 26 of 1966, which was an attempt by the Government of the day to persuade local authorities to provide throughout the country permanent sites equipped with a minimum of necessary sanitary facilities. Some authorities did so, including my own—the London borough of Bromley —but there has been no alleviation of the local problem. Instead, more gipsies have felt encouraged to come to the area. The remedy appears to have been seen as spreading permanent sites evenly over the whole country in areas to which these people normally go. That was the basis of Part II of the Caravan Sites Act, the main sponsor of which was Lord Avebury, the then hon. Member for Orpington.

Unfortunately, that Act has proved to be a snare and a delusion. Like many measures instigated by well-meaning, liberal but ignorant people, it attempts to provide a simple solution for a complicated problem and ends by making the problem worse. The race relations legislation is another example. The Caravan Sites Act in Section 6 lays upon local authorities the duty to provide adequate permanent sites: … for gipsies residing in or resorting to their areas. Not more than 15 pitches are to be provided at any one time, and there are provisions for local authorities to obtain exemption from that statutory duty.

The result has been, first, to increase the pressure on sympathetic local authorities which have already provided per- manent sites beyond their capacity to provide them. Other local authorities have become even more reluctant to do anything about the problem and seek exemption under the Act.

Secondly, and worse, the result has been that the official attitude of Government—including this Government—has been to soft-pedal the enforcement of law in respect of these unlawful camping sites. The Department of the Environment wrote to one of my constituents who lives in an area which is particularly troubled by this problem— Pratts Bottom—on 14th December 1972, as follows: We have asked local authorities generally not to needlessly move on gipsy families at a time when there is still a shortage of authorised gipsy caravan sites in the country. That is an example of the official attitude of complacency and comparative disregard of the problem as it affects people at ground level.

At Question Time on 28th November 1967 the then hon. Member for Chisle-hurst and Sidcup—Mr. Macdonald— asked: Is the Minister aware that great bitterness is felt among local authorities, and the ratepayers of these authorities, who have actually done something about this? Does he realise that it seems simply to have had the result of attracting travellers into their areas and that they are thus solving other people's problems? "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November 1967; Vol. 755, c. 226.] To use an American phrase, "You can say that again." One can indeed say that again, because the position nearly six years and one Act of Parliament later is exactly the same.

The object of that Act was to provide permanent sites for all gipsies. The latest figures given to me by my right hon. Friend on 1st March 1973 showed that 63 sites had been provided, with 907 pitches. One has to put those figures against the 1965 estimate of a total of about 3,400 gipsy families. In a Written Answer on 16th May 1969, the then responsible Minister said that the estimate given in the 1966 circular of total numbers of gipsy families had been increased by 400 since 1965, so that in 1969, there were estimated to be a total of 3,800 gipsy families in England and Wales.

If the gipsy population, in which I include those who follow the gipsy way of life, whether they be Romanies or Irish tinkers or other itinerant people, has been increasing at the same rate since 1969, then there have been 100 extra families every year and the present total number of gipsy families is now about 4,200, for whom there are only 907 pitches.

The figures for the annual rate of increase in the provision of pitches present a disturbing picture. There were 907 in 1973. According to a Written Answer by the then Minister responsible for local government on 1st March 1969, there were then 402 pitches. In other words, there has been an increase of 505 in four years, or 126 per annum. With the gipsy population rising at the rate of 100 families a year, we are barely keeping pace with the natural increase. There have been 126 extra pitches per year provided over the last eight years, compared with a rise of about 100 extra families in each of those years.

It is true that my right hon. Friend knows of a further 102 proposed sites with a total of 1,577 pitches. But, unlike housing starts, proposed gipsy camp sites remain only an aspiration. Even if all the proposed sites were to become realities, that is a total of only 2,484 pitches, or a little over half the total number of gipsy families.

These figures alone do not show the size of the problem, because these families are by nature itinerant, they are moving about all the time, they go to one area for perhaps only one season in the year. We need perhaps half as many sites again as the overall number of families in order to provide adequate facilities for all of them and to solve the problem in this way—that is to say, if we solve it in the way implicit in the Caravan Sites Act of 1968. But is this the best way of solving the problem? I suggest that it is not.

We must take a new view of the whole problem. By all means let us press on with the requirement on local authorities to provide permanent sites to the extent to which they are and have been so required up to date. By all means let us increase the pressure on local authorities who have not complied with the Act, and by all means let us not allow exemption in cases where it is not justified.

But I suggest that we revise our thinking about the whole problem as well. It is time that we told the gipsy community that they will get help only if they help themselves to solve this problem. There is no reason why a democratically-elected organisation should not emerge from this community which should be prepared to raise the money to buy property openly, to seek planning permission and to build suitable sites and run them efficiently on a co-operative basis. There need be no charge on the rates. They can provide the facilities for their own community and its members to live openly and proudly as self-respecting members of the community at peace with their neighbours, which I am sure is what they all wish to be.

Second, let local authorities register and annually licence all gipsy caravans entitled to a pitch on a site in their areas. Let us get away from the nonsense of an open-ended commitment towards any gipsy who cares to come into an area, as is the position at the moment. Let every local authority know how many gipsies it is responsible for and to whom it has a responsibility. Let every gipsy family have a right to a pitch in local authority areas, whether provided by local government or by private enterprise of the sort that I have advocated, and let them pay their share of the cost of its provision and proper maintenance.

If we can discard the paternalist spirit of Part II of the Caravan Sites Act and adopt instead the robust attitude of independence characteristic of this little community, we shall have made a real contribution to social harmony in all the areas concerned.

2.58 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) has spoken of this problem as it affects his constituency. It is known that his constituency has had a particular problem of this kind for a considerable number of years. With respect to him, I would say that my constituency's problem is of a different nature. He represents a London suburb of some reasonable prosperity. I represent a part of Manchester which includes some deprived areas, which are largely clearance areas and which attract caravans.

In my constituency, the itinerants are not gipsies but tinkers and they come in large numbers of caravans, sometimes in dozens of caravans, bringing with them not only their families but livestock, hens, dogs and even ponies. On one site which I inspected recently, they had a pony on whom they offered rides at 1p a go to children living in the area.

They move into these clearance sites in their caravans, which are often well-equipped and expensive, and they cause a deterioration of circumstances which are pretty intolerable in any case. As each slum clearance area in my constituency has gone down and a vacant site has appeared, the tinkers have moved in with their caravans on to the vacant site, causing a terrible sanitary problem.

They do not have water or any sanitary facilities and they cause great trouble to the remaining people living in the area by knocking at their doors and demanding water and other facilities. Old people are often terrorised by this and in the summer, old people, who have enough to put up with in these deprived areas anyway, are even afraid to sit out in front of their houses to enjoy what summer sun there is in those areas.

There are too many instances of lead being stolen from roofs. I am sorry to say it, but these tinkers who come in their caravans are deeply resented by the people in my constituency adjacent to whom they settle. In the past, when I have communicated with Manchester Corporation about this matter, upon receipt of continuous petitions from my constituents on this subject, the corporation has taken action. Under that action, what has happened is that the itinerants are moved from one slum clearance site to another. When action has been taken— very unpleasant action, too, to those involved—to remove them from the other clearance site, they have moved back to the original site.

I have had petitions from those who, for a period, have been relieved of the burden imposed upon them by these tinkers. When they finally move away, they move into neighbouring constituencies. Having moved from my constituency, for a period they move into the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks).

Manchester Corporation has done what is required of it under Part II of the Caravan Sites Act. It has provided a caravan site at a cost of £31,500. It is a satisfactory site, though it cannot provide sufficient space for all who wish to go there. But we are placed under the burden and disadvantage that too many neighbouring authorities are not fulfilling their responsibilities. Therefore, the city of Manchester—and my constituency very much more than most, at present—is having to put up with this situation because, due to slum clearance, there are vacant sites on to which these intinerants move.

I am the very last person to wish to hound a minority community of any kind. At the same time, I am very conscious of the fact that literally hundreds of my constituents at a time have their lives made burdensome and have their children run the risk of insanitary conditions because of the failure of neighbouring authorities to fulfil their responsibilities under the Caravan Sites Act, as outlined by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook).

It will be a continuing process for my constituency. We are over the hump in slum clearance, but clearance areas are being designated and there will be more before the process is completed.

Speaking firmly on behalf of those of my constituents who have not yet had to put up with this problem but are liable to have to put up with it, I say that it will not do. Too many of my constituents live in conditions which human beings in the twentieth century ought not to be asked to endure. I am damned if I will ask them to put up with this further inconvenience in areas where the general deterioration which occurs when a compulsory purchase order is announced involves the deterioration of property, dereliction and mess in the streets, and the things which are taking place in the Chorlton-upon-Medlock area and part of the Rusholme area in my constituency.

This is not a matter on which I speak merely academically. I have inspected these conditions in my constituency. When I saw what had happened at the beautiful new estate of Benedict Court because of the slum clearance areas I was horrified that the people from the clearance areas who had moved on to this new estate had to put up with this problem all over again.

I realise the problems involved. I ask the Minister to place great pressure upon those authorities which, unlike Man- chester City Council, have not fulfilled their responsibilities under the Caravan Sites Act, so that this community should not be driven from pillar to post but, at the same time, so that my constituents can live decent, comfortable lives in surroundings which anyone living in a city has a right to expect.

3.5 p.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I well understand the anxiety of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and of the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) about the progress in implementing that part of the Caravan Sites Act, 1968 which deals with gipsy encampments.

Let me refute at once my hon. Friend's allegation that there is any feeling of complacency within my Department. My hon. Friend has interpreted an official letter as being one which was soft-pedalling on the law. I assure him that this matter is of very deep concern in my Department. We are determined to make this Act work so far as it is capable of working. But the problem is like a balloon. If one pinches it in one place, it bulges in another. So we cannot use the Act in small areas without seeing the effect in areas surrounding them.

My hon. Friend has in his constituency the encampment at Pratts Bottom on the A21. It always puzzles me why gipsy encampments seem always to land on something "bottom" somewhere. But that site had about 20 caravans at one time. It may be that the GLC proposal to fence off some of that area will improve it, but that is only a temporary expedient.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick is rather more fortunate than my hon. Friend, because we have designated the Manchester County Borough. The Manchester County Borough provided its site and, therefore, we gave it the extra power to expel unauthorised encampments. I am told that the official site is full and that there is a waiting list. But we have heard good reports in that until shortly before designation took effect there could be anything between 30 and 70 caravans on unauthorised pitches in the Manchester County Borough, but that the number has now dropped to about nine. Thus it has had some good effect.

I appreciate what the hon. Member said about his neighbouring authorities. He will know that the Salford County Borough applied for exemption on the ground that there was not sufficient land in its area for a site and that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State refused that exemption. Salford County Borough has come back again to ask us to reconsider the matter. Therefore, I had better not say anything more about that now.

It is true, however, that a substantial number of authorities have asked for exemption from time to time. Of 29 applications which have recently been decided, 17 have been refused.

The problem of accommodating gipsies has been with us for many years. But with greater pressures on the use of land for houses, roads, schools and all the necessary and desirable developments we want, the difficulties in establishing caravan sites have greatly increased over the last year or two. My hon. Friend called the Caravan Sites Act a snare and a delusion. We have had the Act since 1968. This part of the Act was brought into operation in April 1970. It can be seen as a means of ensuring that adequate provision is made for the accommodation of gipsies.

As the House knows, under the Act a duty was placed on county, county borough and London borough councils to provide adequate accommodation for gipsies residing in or resorting to their areas. For county boroughs and London borough councils, that duty is limited to the provision of accommodation on a site for not more than 15 pitches. Once that site has been established, the authority can ask my right hon. and learned Friend, the Secretary of State, to designate it, giving the authority the greater powers to remove unauthorised camping.

In considering the progress since 1970 when this Part of the Act came into force, I ask the House to bear in mind that the placing of this duty on local authorities to provide sites did not dispense with certain other procedures which are apt to delay the provision of those sites. It did not dispense with the need for planning permission for the use of any particular land for that purpose or, where necessary, compulsory purchase orders.

The 1968 Act introduced a further procedure by giving district councils a right to come to the Secretary of State if they were in dispute with their couny council, and the Secretary of State is called upon to resolve that dispute between the authorities. Where an objection is so referred, the Secretary of State must consider the views of each authority. He then has to decide whether to direct that the proposal should be abandoned or whether it should proceed, subject perhaps to some planning procedural consideration, or indeed whether he should call it in for his own decision.

I must make two points rather forcefully. Legislation requiring the provision of sites—that is, the 1968 Act—by no means removes the opposition by local residents to the establishment of sites. We must recognise that in so far as the problem comes to the Secretary of State. As my hon. Friend said, there is fierce resentment by local residents to any site. That is due to the image residents have of gipsy encampments arising from the unauthorised and ill-equipped encampments.

However, the authorised site with 15 pitches, properly managed, is something entirely different from the type of site we see on the roadside and which is such a revolting sight to the public—what my hon. Friend called the filthy eyesore.

Secondly, it is possible, apart from the 1968 Act, for authorities to deal with the kind of thing which is so revolting to the public. There are powers other than the 1968 Act. There are the powers under the Public Health Act to deal with the nuisances which are concerned with some of the eyesores on the verges of the road or on bomb sites. There is the offence of obstruction of the highway which can be dealt with under the Highways Acts. There is the unauthorised dumping of cars, parts of cars and other things on the highway or other land which can be dealt with under the Civic Amenities Act 1967.

My hon. Friend said that those who commit these nuisances are infrequently taken to court. I am sorry to say that he is right. In some areas it is thought that, because there is no designation under the 1968 Act, nothing can be done. Nothing is further from the truth. Action can be taken under the three statutes I have mentioned.

For whatever reasons the objections are made by local residents, clearly they have to be considered. As my hon. Friend knows, gipsy site proposals can give rise to intense local feeling. The task of the local authorities, therefore, in discharging the duty which is placed on them and at the same time giving consideration to the views of their ratepayers, is certainly not an easy one. A local authority may well decide not to press on with a proposal because of local opposition.

We in the Department have tried to encourage local authorities as much as possible. The figures which my hon. Friend gave show that we still have a long way to go before sufficient sites will have been provided. Although we recognise their needs, there is a need for greater effort to be made by local authorities in solving this problem.

Because the figures which we received from local authorities last autumn about site provision showed that insufficient progress was being made, we decided to arrange meetings in the regions with the local authorities. We were concerned to ensure that the proposals which local authorities then had of providing another 50 sites during 1973 were implemented. We were also concerned to encourage them to accelerate progress in subsequent years.

With these objects in mind, the Department, through its regional offices, has held meetings within the last month or so with local authorities throughout the country. At these meetings there has been a general recognition of the need to provide sites. However, the real benefit which we hope will result from the meetings will emerge only at a later stage when we know what subsequent action the local authorities are taking. We shall certainly continue to press them to proceed with the provision of these sites.

My hon. Friend put forward some constructive proposals. He expressed to the House his view that the 1968 Act was insufficient and suggested that we should tell the gipsy community to provide sites for itself, thus helping itself. This has been broached with the gipsy community. The Gipsy Council has recently set up a new department—the Romany Site Owners Guild. The stated aims are to improve the overall standards of site provision and to make sure that no chance of private site provision is lost.

The provision by gipsies of properly equipped and managed sites would be a very useful addition to the sites provided by local authorities. I regret that it would not solve the problem of the opposition of residents, but it would certainly be a great supplement to local authority provision.

I assure my hon. Friend that we shall look into his constructive proposals very carefully to see how far they have progressed with the Gipsy Council and with the Romany Site Owners Guild. We hope that with provision by local authorities and by the gipsies themselves in future we shall make progress in solving this very anxious problem.