HC Deb 29 June 1981 vol 7 cc675-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mather.]

10.41 pm
Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the plight of my constituents as a result of the gipsy site at the Lonesome depot in Streatham.

Under the provisions of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, Lambeth—in which the borough of Streatham resides—asked the previous Government in 1976 for exemption from having such a site in the borough on the ground that there was no suitable land available in an inner London borough such as Lambeth. That plea was refused by the previous Government. In consequence, the site was built at the Lonesome depot in Streatham Vale. Streatham Vale is a very pleasant part of my constituency, with tree-lined streets and pleasant houses. The gipsy site borders the neighbouring constituency of Mitcham and Morden. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) is also extremely concerned about this matter and has been in touch with me about it.

In short, the site is highly inappropriate, as I said it would be when it was first suggested. Indeed, all my worst fears and the worst fears of local residents have been proven. This gipsy site disgraces the borough. It is a burden and a disaster for the local community. If accounts are true, it is also the scene of bizarre and cruel happenings.

I shall divide my indictment into three parts. The first part must touch on the animals on the site and on those owned by the local community. There are allegations, stories, or rumours—call them what one will—that local cats are stolen and thrust into a room with a couple of terriers. It is said that the door is shut and that bets are taken to see how long the cats will survive. It is true that gipsy greyhounds course, catch and kill local cats. Only this evening, I attended a meeting in Streatham at which a lady assured me that she had a tally of 60 cats or more that had suffered this fate at the hands of gipsy dogs.

I have spoken to the local RSPCA inspector, who, incidentally, mentioned that he will visit the site only when accompanied by the police. He confirmed that he had heard of these bizarre rumours, although he also said that he had found no proof. However, he told me that he has been sufficiently worried by the condition of the ponies kept by the gipsies on the site—illegally, I add—as to warn the warden of the site officially about their condition.

There are persistent rumours of cock fighting and bare knuckle fighting and of wild birds, trapped by mist nets, being caged and sold. These are stories, but they are persistent and by their nature it is unlikely that one would have proof to hand.

My second indictment is that this site is a disaster to the local community. The RSPCA inspector to whom I spoke, who said I could quote him, said "People live in fear". A local shopkeeper said that he lets the gipsy children help themselves to sweets for fear of what may happen should he stop them. He does not wish his name to be mentioned.

Guns have been seen on the site by the attendants who work in a park alongside it. Shop windows are broken. The gardens are vandalised. The local park has been vandalised and shut. The local bowling club alongside the site has also been vandalised and shut.

I have received many letters, but I shall read merely a few lines from one or two. One states: In the name of sanity cannot something be done to remove this constant harassment and allow law-abiding residents of Streatham … to enjoy their own forms of recreation in peace". Another states: We have dreaded going through the park not knowing whether horses, motor bikes, hooligans … or go-carts would be met on the paths or grass. Even whilst bowling you were not safe from catapult attack. Park staff were reluctant to take action for fear of reprisals". Another says: Mothers are afraid to let their children go there to play because of stone throwing. A council employee was injured by a missile". Park attendants were regularly attacked and harassed. I spoke to the local NUPE official. He said that I could quote his words, which were "It became a matter of life or death on assaults". He was referring to park attendants. He withdrew labour, the park has been shut, and it is consequently turning into a wilderness. The labour is still withdrawn. Another letter mentioned that very fact. It stated: at least one of the staff, and a member of the public attempting to use the facilities have been seriously injured by metal bolts fired from hunting catapults …purpose-made weapons of steel and ¼ inch rubber capable of killing fairly large creatures". The NUPE official gave me this bolt, which I now show the House, which hit one of his attendants on the knee and caused his hospitalisation for about two weeks.

The bowling green pavilion was vandalised and the local horses were ridden on the bowling green. That is also shut. I am grateful to the Daily Express for drawing attention to this matter. It said today that a Mr. Abraham Lee, speaking for the gipsies, said that local children, not gipsy children, had vandalised the pavilion. I checked with the police. That is not so. It was gipsy children. Local children tried to set fire to a local children's hut alongside. and the residents accept that that was done by the local children. Mr. Lee also suggested that I should see for myself. I was down there on the Friday before last on my most recent visit.

My third indictment concerns the site itself, which is a model of mismanagement. Under the Act it has provision for 15 caravans. In fact, on the site are 24 caravans and a permanent house. It has leaking sewage, blocked lavatories, bare electric wires and mountains of rubbish. It has rats. It is a fire risk. It is a health hazard. Mr. Deputy Speaker, you name it, the site has it.

I have a Lambeth report from the environmental health officer which makes disturbing reading on all these points. Clearly, it is a severe health and fire hazard, as he said in his report, and it has existed for a number of years, since the gipsy site was first established.

How has that come about? There are two reasons. First, Lambeth council, not only spendthrift but breathtakingly incompetent in its management of the site, has seen laws and regulations broken and has done nothing. It has seen health and fire hazards mount and has turned a blind eye. A NUPE official told me that it would not support its own staff as park attendants, which is why the strike continues. However, it has supported the non-ratepaying gipsies against the ratepayers.

The second reason is obvious. Clearly, this is not an appropriate site for a gipsy encampment. There is no appropriate site for a gipsy encampment in Lambeth.

I am asking for two things. First, I hope that Lambeth will apply for designation under the Local Government Act 1980 as a borough that has no land available suitable for a gipsy site. Secondly, should Lambeth so apply, I ask my hon. Friend to remember that two inner London boroughs have already been so designated. I may be wrong, but I understand that they are Lewisham and Camden. I ask my hon. Friend to take into account what I have said about the burden that has been placed on my constituents and the consequential difficulties that they face. I hope that he will look favourably on Lambeth's request, so that the site can be closed and Lambeth will still have the powers to move on gipsies should they camp improperly in the borough. Should that come to pass, the land will make excellent land for housing development, which will bring rates into the borough rather than place costs and difficulties on to it.

10.51 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Hector Monro)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) for raising this matter. As we all know, he is extremely assiduous in looking after the welfare of his constituents. What he has told us is a dreadful story, which causes much concern in his constituency.

My hon. Friend has pointed out the serious shortcomings of the Streatham Vale site, but the responsibility for the provision and maintenance of gipsy sites lies with the local authority. I shall explain the chain of responsibility later in my remarks.

It is important to be clear on this point. In Greater London—it is slightly different elsewhere—each borough council has a responsibility to provide an adequate number of sites for those gipsies who live in or resort to its area. It has a reponsibility to maintain the site or more than one site.

The Government make available to local authorities a 100 per cent grant to cover the cost of building and improving sites and councils can recoup most, if not all, the running costs from the gipsies themselves. I remind my hon. Friend yet again that it is important for councils to realise that a 100 per cent. grant is available. We look extremely closely at the cost to make certain that the cost per pitch is reasonable, but there is the great incentive to local authorites to provide sites to contain this problem.

It is in the interests of local authorities to provide adequate sites. By adequate sites I mean not only the pitches but the management of them, which is equally important and which is the burden of my hon. Friend's complaint.

This is the usual route to designation under the Caravan Sites Act 1968. Designation brings with it enhanced powers to move on gipsies parked illegally, but I emphasise that it does not provide an automatic cure for all gipsy problems.

We must bear in mind the local authority's responsibility when considering the distressing picture at the Streatham Vale site that my hon. Friend painted. It is for the London borough of Lambeth to ensure that the site is maintained adequately. My hon. Friend might find it strange that an authority so willing to soak its ratepayers in the name of social improvement seems unwilling to take action at no cost to itself.

The history of the site is worth considering. I am sorry to hear from my hon. Friend that this site, built for 15 pitches, now has apparently 29 caravans on it and is suffering from gross overcrowding. Lambeth borough council was late in providing an official site. Originally it sought to be exempted from providing a site and was refused—as indeed were all London boroughs.

In 1976 my Department suggested that part of the Lonesome depot refuse site at Streatham Vale should be used as Lambeth's gipsy caravan site. There was, as usual, considerable opposition to that, but, since it was essentially a local matter, my predecessor in the Labour Administration did not intervene. The council decided to press ahead and to provide a site with 15 pitches so that it might get designation. Admittedly, it did that in the period before the Government grant was available and paid for it out of its own resources—as did all the other 23 London boroughs that provided sites. I am sure that my hon. Friend will wish to join me in commending the London boroughs for that effort, but there is some way to go before there are sufficient sites in the Metropolis.

On the strength of the provision of this site, Lambeth, together with Lewisham, was designated in April 1979 by the previous Administration. With the exception of Camden and Islington, whose designation orders have recently come into effect, Lambeth is one of the last boroughs to get designation.

When the site at Lonesome depot was built, it was not expected to be permanent. Similarly, because it was constructed without the benefit of Government grant, some of the facilities were not built to as high a standard as we would now expect for a residential site funded by grant. That may well have led to management and maintenance problems, as my hon. Friend has suggested.

I am prepared to consider grant-aiding improvements to the site to bring it up to modern standards and reduce the maintenance and management costs, but the initiative must come from the council and the work should be done at reasonable cost. This might help to overcome some of the objections raised by my hon. Friend and reduce the costs to the ratepayers of the area by reducing the running costs of the site.

It is also for the Lambeth borough council to manage the site efficiently and properly. In view of the details that my hon. Friend has outlined tonight, I find it difficult to believe that Lambeth is managing the site properly. It is this sort of unwillingness on the part of a few local authorities to discharge their duty that can so easily produce the sort of situation of which we have heard tonight and which creates further prejudice against all gipsy sites—even the well run.

In the case of those actions which my hon. Friend has described which are illegal, it is for the police to take action. If they are not aware of the situation, this debate will, I hope, make them so. But it is only fair to ask whether the debate would have been necessary had Lambeth borough council discharged its duty. I think not, but I am worried, as all hon. Members will be who read or hear about the debate, by the stories of theft, affrays, vandalism and other disgraceful behaviour. In some ways even worse is the cruelty to animals—dogs and cats in particular. These matters should be taken extremely seriously by those in authority in Lambeth. I shall be extremely disappointed if I do not hear of some improvement in the coming months. My hon. Friend has described something that no local authority or the Government would want to happen.

My hon. Friend suggested that I might be able to assist by exempting Lambeth from the duty to provide a gipsy caravan site and thus allow the site to be closed. I should be unhappy to contemplate any running down of site provision within the Greater London area or any other area. For that reason I am sorry that I must disappoint him on this account. Indeed, even if I wished to exempt Lambeth borough council from its duty to provide a site—and I do not—I could not, as the law stands, take such action.

The 1968 Caravan Sites Act empowered the Secretary of State to exempt an authority from the duty to provide a gipsy caravan site. No London borough was in fact exempted. However, the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 by section 173 has removed the Secretary of State's power to exempt metropolitan county councils and London borough councils from the duty of site provision under section 6 of the 1968 Act, and also cancels all existing exemptions. Therefore, even if I would, I could not grant my hon. Friend's request.

Of course, I cannot prevent the local authority, if it so wished, from closing this site. But I might then be obliged to review the status of Lambeth as an area which is entitled to use the special powers of "designation" enshrined in the 1968 Act, as amended by the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, to which I have already referred.

I repeat that I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that I shall gladly consider any application from Lambeth borough council for grant to improve facilities on the Lonesome Road depot site. I can only hope that this debate will encourage the local authority to take whatever action is necessary.

I have tried to emphasise that once a site has been provided by a local authority—there is a 100 per cent. grant available from the Government, provided that the costs are acceptable to the Department—it is essential for the council to manage the site properly. Everything that my hon. Friend has said tonight shows that the site is not really being managed at all. There seems to be no control over what is going on. My hon. Friend has spoken of a general shambles, and there have been suggestions of a whole host of illegal actions—cruelty to animals, vandalism and many other matters that are unacceptable to those who have to live nearby.

My hon. Friend has done the House and his constituents in Streatham and Lambeth a great service in bringing home to all concerned the fact that there is a major blot on the local authority's responsibilities over the site. I hope that the authority will take early action to clear up a major sore in its community provision, one about which it must feel grave anxiety. Indeed, it must believe that it has failed those who live in the area, because management of a gipsy site is crucial to community life.

I hope that what I have said will bring home to the council that both the residents and I expect to see action in the very near future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.