HC Deb 22 March 1974 vol 870 cc1536-50

1.31 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to a matter which has occurred in my constituency just outside Beaconsfield. About two years ago the A40 trunk road running from London to Oxford was superseded as a trunk route between Beaconsfield and Denham by the newly completed stretch of the M40, and as part of the appurtenant works the alignment of the carriageway of the old A40 just east of Beaconsfield was slightly moved to accommodate the access roundabout.

This meant the construction of a new length of road and the abandonment of the old carriageway over a stretch of a few hundred yards. One of the residential roads of Beaconsfield, on its outer extremity, had emerged, both for vehicular and pedestrian purposes, on to that stretch of carriageway of the old A40. When that bit of carriageway ceased to be a trunk road and to connect with anything at either end, a new access had to be constructed for the people who live in Pyebush Lane, the road concerned.

So, for purposes of vehicular access, they were connected to the new stretch of road, which is a dual carriageway. But it was obviously both inconvenient and dangerous that the people of Pyebush Lane should go out on foot on to the dual carriageway, which has no pavement for pedestrians. Therefore, they were left with the old stretch of road—half of it—as a footpath to the shops and the centre of Beaconsfield.

When a thing like that happens the normal course, which is being followed in this case, is that a closure order is made discontinuing the public right of way over the stretch in question, and then the land is usually conveyed back to the adjacent owners from whom earlier in time it will have been taken.

But, like all administrative processes, that takes a long time, and, indeed, one finds that it often takes a long time even to get round to starting to do it. So it was foreseen that there might be a misuse of that stretch of road and its verges during the time that would intervene before it would go back to landowners who would make positive use of it, and the residents of Pyebush Lane and the people of Beaconsfield were apprehensive that the land might come to be used for a settlement of tinkers in caravans or gipsies in caravans, which happens all too easily in the green belt around London.

The residents approached the Department of the Environment about this, because trunk roads, as distinct from local roads, come directly under the Department and are usually owned by it. They were given an assurance that the sort of situation they feared would not be allowed to arise in the interval before the road was conveyed to the adjacent owners. Sure enough, the Department put up a fence where Pyebush Lane came on to the old stretch of the A40—a fence on both sides of the lane.

The fence had two gates in it, rather like the case of the man who had two holes cut in the bottom of his door, one for the larger dog and one for the smaller. The larger of the two gates in the fence, which I suppose would be kept locked, was for any vehicular access that might be needed; a smaller wicket gate was provided as the entrance to the footpath, which was the old trunk road itself. At the other end, where it actually reached the built-up area of Beaconsfield, a gap 6 ft. wide was left in the fence—6ft. being wide enough to accommodate even the most ample of my constituents. Unfortunately, it was wide enough also to admit quite a few vehicles, and once the tinkers had got busy with their saws and had sawn down two of the posts it was wide enough to admit their caravans.

Of course, the predictable thing happened. About a year ago, on the first occasion, we had an incursion of tinkers. The gate was indeed locked, but that presented no problems. They lifted it off the hinges, took in their vans and a general spoliation began. On that occasion, by various means of pressure they were got rid of. But the months went by and the procedure for detrunking and closing and conveying seems never to have got off the ground. Unfortunately, my attention was not drawn to all these problems until the beginning of this year, otherwise I do not think I would have left the Department of the Environment alone for so long.

The next thing that happened was that shortly before Christmas about 30 to 40 tinkers' vans descended upon this stretch of road. Again the tinkers either opened or removed the gate. Certainly it is removed now and is lying on adjacent land. They cut down the posts at either end, as I have described, and an encampment of about 30 caravans with, as far as one can estimate, about 30 appurtenant lorries and a very considerable number of piles of scrap metal and so on built up.

So the inhabitants of Pyebush Lane have, since just before Christmas—which is now over three months—had on their footpath this assembly of tinkers' caravans with all the appurtenances going with it. The result is that even in broad daylight it is a fairly bold person who goes along that so-called footpath. A man might do it; none of the womenfolk cares to do it. After dark, no one cares to do it.

There are two aspects of this matter which need to be looked at. The first is the footpath aspect. It is the only pedestrian access for all these people to Beaconsfield. They cannot go on the dual carriageway, with its fast-moving traffic. They have to use this footpath or else wait until someone comes home who can take them in a car. They have to run the gauntlet of this encampment. I am not suggesting that people have been attacked or assaulted, but I ask the Under-Secretary of State to consider what is involved. First, of course, there is the tribe of dogs—and dogs have fewer inhibitions than their human owners about being nuisances to people and, indeed, frightening them as they go through.

Secondly, no one can walk along that footpath, certainly in wet weather, without getting covered in mud. It started life as the carriageway of a trunk road, but after use by all these caravans and as the venue for a junk business for three months, with lorries using the verges for parking at night, picking up mud and leaving it on the road in the daytime as well, the footpath is now a mud track. This is what the people of Pyebush Lane have to walk along if they want to get into Beaconsfield.

Then, of course—I say "of course" repeatedly, because one knows, unfortunately, what these encampments are like—the rubbish is indescribable. There is every kind of rubbish there. There is food lying about. There are tins, rags, dirt of every kind, on what was, until the tinkers arrived, an attractive stretch of roadside. There are piles of scrap metal. There are three entire wrecked chassis of motor cars.

In an attempt to deal with the situation, the local authority has put up three large metal skips, each of which is capable of holding 6 cubic yards of material, in the hope that these people would put their rubbish there so that it could be collected and taken away by the local authority. Need I tell the Under-Secretary that the skips have been used as receptacles for those parts of the scrap metal collected that the tinkers do not want? The local authority finds itself in the agreeable position of removing from the site for them the scrap metal which they have brought on to the site; and the rubbish just goes, as before, on the ground.

There are no sanitary facilities. There are a couple of little woden huts beside the footpath used by some, but the public health inspector tells me that the great majority simply use the hedges, the verges and the adjacent fields. This also has to be seen and, if they venture it, walked through by my constituents.

The tinkers have cut down whole trees and burnt them. There are stacks of brushwood. If I attempted to describe their dimensions I would make myself vulnerable to the charge of exaggeration. I hardly know why so much brushwood has been brought on. I am told that it serves, perhaps, two purposes. First, these people have done some hedging in the neighbourhood and brought some rubbish in and dumped it. The second is that they have used the brushwood to keep themselves warm in the cold weather. The fact remains that there is an enormous amount of brushwood on this site.

The public health inspector tells me that apart from the tribe of dogs there are horses—I have seen them myself. There have been chickens, ducks, and even, astonishingly enough, at least one sheep. I know enough about tinkers' encampments—so does the hon. Gentleman—to know that tinkers do not bred sheep. I gravely doubt whether they actually hatch ducks and chickens either. I strongly suspect that the sheep, chicken and ducks all belonged to somebody else originally.

The adjacent farmers are very unhappy about this situation. On the eastern side of Pyebush Lane, which is not a footpath, the adjacent landowner cannot get access to his land most of the time. I went there this morning. I could not have got access to his farm gate if I had wanted to, because the whole place was blocked with caravans, lorries and vans. This farmer has from £250,000 to £500,000 worth of machinery on his farm land. The hon. Gentleman will know that one man's machinery is another man's scrap metal and one man's fire is another man's fence.

I regret to say that throughout this time the Department of the Environment has done nothing. The complaints have flooded in. Originally they were made direct to the Department. They have been made through the council, which has complained to the Department. Finally, and rather late in the day, they have been made to me, and I have complained to the Department. I was told "An order will be made on 26th February closing the highway. The period allowed for the objection procedure means that the order will not be made finally until June." Even that is running late because the Beaconsfield council received its copy of the closure order only yesterday, I think. So I suppose that the time will not run out until July.

Here I must refer to the different concepts of time scale from the point of view of the residents and of the Department. The attitude of the residents, when this thing suddenly happened to them and they started to complain to their councillors and then ultimately to me, was "We have had this since last Thursday. Are we still going to have it tomorrow night and perhaps even the night after?" This was what they were thinking—"How many hours shall we have to put up with it?"

In the Department we found a detached and relaxed atmosphere. "We will get this sorted out in June or July. Then there will be the question of conveying the land." One knows the time a quite simple operation like conveying the land can take. After all, the Crown owns it in fee simple and has done so for unnumbered years, so in this case it need not take more than a day. My goodness me, it would, though. We should be lucky to get it in three months.

As to questions and complaints as to what the Department is going to do while all this goes on, the Department has delivered itself of the oracular utterance that it is not the policy of the Department of the Environment to harass gipsies—not that these people are gipsies, but let us pass that by—until they have somewhere else to go. What about the respectable, useful citizens who are living here, who work and do not steal, who do not create a shambles of the countryside in which they live, who pay rates and taxes, while these tinkers pay nothing? If they are found stealing something, no doubt the police will prosecute. But how does one find them doing so? One knows perfectly well that certain things that one sees on the site cannot have fallen from Heaven; neither can they have been made there, and they are not likely to have been bought. But nothing can be proved.

It is no defence to split this up into little compartments and say "If they are guilty of any offence, that will be a matter for the police; if they commit a nuisance, they offend some other branch of the law." Of course, the public health inspector says that there are manifest breaches of the Public Health Act 1936, the principal Act. He has tried to serve notices under Sections 92 and 93 of that Act. But the first thing one must do in order to serve a notice is to get the name and address—if that is not too absurd a concept—of the person on whom one wishes to serve the notice. One cannot serve general notices, any more than one can serve general warrants. So the public health inspector sends an official from his council to the site to get the names and addresses of the people occupying the caravans. He gets some names. The next day when he goes there, most of those people have gone and another lot are there. This operation was carried out a fortnight ago. Nine names were obtained. Nine people went and seven new ones were in their place.

Sections 92 and 93 of the Act provides also for the service of the summons on the owner of the land. The owner of the land is the Department. So the public health inspector—I hope the hon. Gentleman will note this—three weeks ago asked the Department of the Environment for particulars of the extent of the Department's ownership in order that summonses might be served on the Department for its breach of the law which it had committed in allowing these nuisances to persist and for failing to take any action to abate them. Need I say that no reply has been received in three weeks? But what is three weeks in the life of a Department?

Whereas if I were to cause a defacement like this of the countryside, to cause nuisances of these various kinds, something would happen fairly quickly, it seems to be assumed that a Department of State can suffer this to continue without taking any abatement action in flagrant breach of the law and can shrug its shoulders and say "It is not our policy to do anything about these people unless we have somewhere else to put them."

I will leave it there. I am sure the Under Secretary gets my point. A nuisance is a nuisance whether it be a sanitary nuisance, an injury to the visual amenity or any of the things defined in the law. It is a nuisance whether it is committed by a Department of State or by an individual, if the law is made to apply to the Crown as well as to the individual. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not for one moment seek to defend the inactivity of the Department in this matter.

I wish finally to look at this question of the Department's policy. It is so easy to say that under a fairly recent Act county councils were given wider power to set up a certain number of allegedly adequate sites for the settlement of gipsies. The Bucks County Council still has some distance to go, for a very good reason that this is part of the green belt which, as countryside, is densely inhabited. Frankly, nobody wants a gipsy encampment, still less a tinker encampment, anywhere near at hand, and full use is being made by residents of the objection procedures. One can understand that. It is not one of those bits of rather empty countryside which one finds further from London. It consists of swollen villages with very vulnerable and important bits of green in between them. Therefore, it is not an easy problem.

So-called gipsies can be various kinds of people. There is perhaps a mix here, but basically they are Irish tinkers. I am told that normally at this time of year such people would be in Ulster. But in the last few years, for fairly obvious reasons, they have preferred to be in Britain at this time of the year. It really would be absurd if the ratepayers of Buckinghamshire had to provide permanent accommodation and sites for Southern Irish tinkers who come over here and run this somewhat shadowy kind of business.

One must have a little bit of sense. We know that there are Romany gipsies who have been in the British Isles for many generations, and when one is dealing with them one appreciates that they have been here for perhaps a couple of hundred years and, therefore, one has to consider what to do with them and not just push them from one spot to another. But one must make a distinction between those people and those who are not gipsies in the traditional sense, but are itinerant tinkers from goodness knows where, usually from Ireland. One must limit very sharply the responsibility of any county council to find and set aside permanent sites for such people.

That is the situation in my constituency at the moment. It has persisted for over three months. I realise that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to say that he came to it only a week ago. I recognise that fact, but I am sure he will acknowledge that this is not a situation which can be allowed to continue. It really must be brought to an end, and it is not very difficult to do so. These people should be evicted from this site. There could not be a worse place than a footpath. From the end of Pyebush Lane to the shops in Old Beaconsfield must be about a quarter of a mile. If one is to have a gipsy or tinker encampment it must not be in such a situation. This is the only access for people. The other end is a cul-de-sac. This does not make sense. These tinkers are not just on the roadside. They have for all practical purposes destroyed the only pedestrian access for residents from their homes to the shops at Beaconsfield, and this makes the matter a special case. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that this cannot be smoothed over with general principles. It must be considered in the light of the facts, and it must be solved on the basis of those facts.

2.0 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

I can well understand the concern of the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell), and I fully sympathise with his anxiety and that of his constituents at the situation, which he described rather vividly, on the disused length of the A40 at Beaconsfield. I am afraid that I shall offer the hon. and learned Gentleman little consolation when I say that this is but one example, as he knows, of a widespread problem. It affects many parts of the country and there is no easy straightforward solution to it. I shall return in a few minutes to the points which the hon. and learned Gentleman made regarding the footpath in question.

I must begin by putting this matter into its wider context, and, if the hon. and learned Gentleman will permit me, I shall say a few words about the gipsy problem generally. I use the term "gipsy", as I must, speaking for the Government, in the broad sense employed in the Caravan Sites Act 1968, as including all people of a nomadic habit of life, irrespective of their origin. The tinkers to whom the hon. and learned Gentleman refers certainly appear to be gipsies, in this sense, whatever other term the hon. and learned Gentleman would prefer to use. I understand the bit of social history which he gave us, but there is no question that under the terms of that Act the people here referred to are gipsies.

There are, I understand, only about 5,000 gipsy families in the whole of England and Wales, yet, I admit, they present a most difficult problem, out of all proportion to the numbers involved. Essentially, the difficulty arises from the fact that the gipsy's traditional way of life is increasingly threatened by the ever-growing complexity of our society and the pressures on our limited supply of land, especially around the large conurbations, such as London. It has become more difficult every year for them, and for our own community, to reconcile their way of life with that of normal house dwellers.

I must say, however—I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman in his better moments agrees—that it is inconceivable that a country such as ours should be unable to accept, cater for and absorb such a small minority group, however non-conforming they may be. That is why successive Governments of all shades of opinion have sought for many years to persuade local authorities to deal with the problem by providing sites for the gipsies in their area. They had the necessary powers—in particular, under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960—and it was felt that the problem was essentially one for the local authorities since they alone were in a position to know the extent of the problem and the best way of dealing with it in their own areas.

I am afraid that these efforts at persuasion by the Government met with very little success, and a more determined attempt to tackle the problem was made in 1968 when, with the support of all parties in the House, the Caravan Sites Act 1968 was passed.

Part II of that Act placed a duty squarely on local authorities, principally county councils, to provide sites for gipsies residing in or resorting to their areas. I underline the words "or resorting to", since the nomadic gipsy does not fit easily into traditional local authority thinking. We sometimes hear local authorities denying responsibility for some group of gipsies as not really belonging to their county. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman is too sophisticated to think that gipsies draw a line and say that they "belong" to Buckinghamshire or North Hertfordshire—whatever it may be—and make divisions of that kind. It is important, therefore, to include the words "or resorting to".

I have no doubt that the general approach adopted in the 1968 Act was right. Properly equipped and managed sites in suitably chosen locations provide the gipsies with the facilities they need, and they enable those who wish to do so to settle and secure a better education for their children. Also, such sites get rid of the squalid and insanitary conditions so often associated with casual encampments, so vividly described by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Unfortunately, the rate of site provision has remained disappointingly slow. Since Part II of the 1968 Act came into force in April 1970, only about 70 new sites have been established, accommodating fewer than 1,000 caravans. In all, only about 1,400 gipsy families can be accommodated at present on local authority sites. The majority must perforce camp where they can.

Although a handful of gipsy families are able to camp on private sites or on land which they themselves own—there are a number of such cases—the vast majority have nowhere they can go. While this situation persists there seems to be no escape from the conclusions that we shall have unauthorised encampments on odd bits of land, such as that at Beaconsfield.

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the non-harassment policy of successive Governments. In the situation as it is, when there are insufficient permanent sites, successive Governments, again irrespective of party, have consistently advised local authorities over many years that gipsy families encamped on unauthorised sites should not needlessly be moved on where there is no official site for them. It is no solution to the problem simply to transfer them to some other part of the county—or, preferably, in the view of many counties—to some other part of the country.

It would be inconsistent with this advice, therefore, for the Department to seek or agree to the eviction of gipsies from land which it happens to own or control and for which there are no immediate development proposals, unless there were special grounds for doing so and that a more suitable site existed somewhere close at hand for the gipsies.

I emphasise that this is not a blanket policy. Obviously, every case will need to be looked at on its merits. We cannot follow the policy blindly, without regard to the particular circumstances. There may be occasions when the conditions, and especially the risks to public health, are so bad that urgent action is imperative.

Moreover, the policy is not to be interpreted as a licence for any sort of behaviour by gipsies. Some of the matters referred to by the hon. and learned Gentleman—I do not wish to spell them out—would come within the category that we should not regard as open to gipsies to do, as it were, under licence.

There may therefore be exceptional circumstances in which action must be taken to disperse an unauthorised encampment. However, as I say, it is not sufficient simply to disperse an encampment. That merely transfers the problem to some other area. I repeat that until there are enough permanent sites local authorities must give thought to where the gipsies are to go, and should consider temporary arrangements in the way of basic sanitary and waste disposal facilities.

At this point, I take up what the hon. and learned Gentleman said about the rubbish skips on the site in Beaconsfield. I understand—I am open to correction—that these skips were put there by the Gipsy Council and not by the local authority. Many organisations are conscious of and concerned about the problem that is created. I should put on record the fact that according to my understanding it was the Gipsy Council which put the skips there precisely for the sort of things—scrap metal which is of no use to the gipsies, and so on— which would otherwise be dumped on the roadside.

Mr. Bell

That may be true. The skips are, of course, emptied by the local authority. But I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have noticed a diminution of numbers since the Gipsy Council began to take an interest. If there is one thing the gipsies do not like, it is the Gipsy Council.

Mr. Carmichael

Local authorities may empty the skips, but I have no personal knowledge of such an arrangement. I shall look into the matter to ascertain the position between the local authority and the council.

The hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that the council may not be popular with the gipsies, but I suggest that in the long run such a body can only be beneficial. The society tries to bridge the gap between non-conformity and over-conformity, and can do nothing but good. The facilities which local authorities could provide could be either on existing encampments or on other more suitable sites in the vicinity.

The hon. Gentleman said that site provision in Buckinghamshire did not represent a glorious record. I understand that in Buckinghamshire there is at present only one official gipsy caravan site, providing 25 pitches, at Iver. It was set up nine or 10 years ago by Eton Rural District Council.

Local authorities and local people use all possible means to try to prevent having gipsies in their areas. There is often similar local opposition over road schemes—a matter close to my heart—in which people acknowledge the need for new roads but prefer to have them over the hill, rather than close to where they live. Likewise, people oppose the siting of borstals, prisons and mental hospitals. They accept the need for such institutions, yet use every means possible to delay the construction of them in their areas.

It seems that the county council in Buckinghamshire has provided no sites at all during the four years since Part II of the 1968 Act came into force, although I gather that the county council has plans for two sites. I do not know where these sites are, and perhaps there have been difficulties over this matter.

In September 1970 the council acknowledged the need to accommodate at least 70 gipsy families in the county, but I am bound to regard the lack of progress as a principal cause of the continued existence in the county of unauthorised encampments, such as that at Beaconsfield, which is on a section of an old trunk road made redundant by realignment. The land is not owned by the Government. When the necessary highway closure procedures have been completed the land will revert to the adjoining owners, with the exception of a narrow strip which will remain as a footpath for local residents.

The question of the closure order being delayed was due purely to the holding of the General Election. All matters which may be regarded as controversial were immediately stopped in the Department until the General Election took place.

Mr. Bell

I appreciate that that was bound to happen during the period of the election campaign. I accept that the delay was not the hon. Gentleman's personal responsibility, but at least a year expired between the road ceasing to be used and the time of the General Election.

Mr. Carmichael

I take that point, and I shall look into it. I understand that the closure order was, in fact, made today, although it was originally intended to be made in early February.

I fully recognise that one of the main obstacles to establishing more sites more quickly is local opposition, which almost always arises whenever a site is proposed. This is understandable, especially when people have known only the appalling conditions in some of the unauthorised sites. I have passed some of those sites—for instance, the one near the A41—and I am aware of the situation.

Experience has demonstrated, through a number of examples in various parts of the country, that, given a well-thought-out site and co ordinated action by the education, health and welfare departments of local authorities, fears and suspicions can be dispelled and many of the problems can disappear.

However, the fact remains that responsibility for dealing with the problem created by unauthorised camping by gipsies has been firmly placed upon the local authorities and the basic solution—properly equipped sites—lies with them.