HC Deb 19 May 2004 vol 421 cc1070-6

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

7.2 pm

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab)

In recent times, there have been several attempts, through early-day motions and private Members' Bills, to address issues to do with Travellers and the law, and those have received helpful and encouraging responses from Ministers. However, we need legislative action now to break the Gordian knot of local conflict.

In the Minister for Housing and Planning's opening remarks on the Housing Bill last week, he reminded us of its overall aim and purpose, which is to help to build sustainable communities and to tackle the most pressing problems of homelessness and unfit conditions, but I submit that that will be unachievable unless the persistent conflict between residents and Travellers in our neighbourhoods is addressed. The Government have some responsibility, as do local authorities, to resolve the conflicts.

Supported by the Commission for Racial Equality, Shelter, the Local Government Association, the local chief police officer, the Children's Society and the Travellers law reform coalition, I tabled amendments to the Housing Bill. They attempted to reinforce that aim of sustainable communities in practice by changing the law so that we could tackle the conflict that has been raging unresolved for years in our neighbourhoods and communities between the settled population and the Travellers and Gypsies who are camped on inappropriate illegal sites.

The Government have a responsibility not to push the problem on to local councils, which then push the conflict into the surrounding neighbourhoods, while hoping that it is somehow magically resolved. We need to come up with a solution from which both Travellers and local residents benefit. We need to give Travellers accommodation, which means proper sites, with the same status as housing, so that it is assessed and delivered in the same way. That could be twin-tracked with a statutory duty to provide and facilitate more site provision. There should be a proper obligation on local authorities to provide and facilitate sites, and we should allow Housing Corporation money to be used for the purpose of constructing new sites, as my amendments suggested. In the words of the Traveller law reform coalition, we need to work for a win-win situation from which Travellers and non-Travellers will benefit.

We cannot toughen up the law to move Travellers on if there is nowhere for them to go. Recently, in the neighbourhood of Wortley in my constituency, 12 caravans were parked on the Oldfield Road football pitches, which were moved off. They moved to Farnley park over the Easter weekend, making local football and cricket impossible. They were evicted and moved down to Hunslet, where they were evicted again and moved to another public park, Western Flats, in Wortley. They have been driven off the Western Flats and are now at Wortley recreational ground. They have received a notice to move on Friday.

Those 12 caravans belong to one family, who have lived in Leeds for generations. The family group includes an elderly man with Alzheimer's, a young child with pneumonia, a two-month-old baby who has never received appropriate medical attention because of the constant movement of the family, and a mother who recently collapsed and was in hospital for two days. Some of the children go to local schools in my constituency and are taken there every day by the Travellers education support unit. Since January, the caravans have been moved 50 times, so the children do not know where they are going home to after school. That is quite apart from the fact that the caravans are on sites without water or toilets, and are thus insanitary and quite inappropriate for families.

The endless round of court notices and eviction enforcements mean that families are pushed from pillar to post. Everybody, from settled neighbours to Travellers and their families becomes totally exasperated, and council officials and the local police are caught in the middle of many angry conflicts. The cause of the problem is the shortage of sites or pitches on which the caravans can stop. In practice, 30 per cent. of Travellers in Britain are hounded from one unauthorised place to another, with all the associated problems of unofficial camping, clean-up costs and no chance of proper education for the children. Furthermore, poor living conditions have a detrimental impact on the health of Traveller families, who have the lowest life expectancy and the highest child mortality rates of any group in Britain.

Ironically, the only permanent site for Travellers in Leeds is in the very Wortley ward where that family is being moved around. It is located at Cottingley Springs and has 41 plots. The Caravan Sites Act 1968, backed up after 1980 by 100 per cent. Government grants, was designed to provide sites. The unauthorised encampment figure went down from 80 per cent. to 30 per cent., but the measure was repealed by the Conservative Government in 1994 and the duty on local authorities to provide sites ended. The Conservative Government suggested that the onus in future should be on Travellers and Gypsies to provide their own private sites. In practice, as everyone knows, when Travellers buy private land they can hardly ever get planning permission to have a site on it. Following the repeal of the duty on local authorities to provide sites, the number of sites has declined, and some have been shut down altogether. Bradford, for example, has a site of 30 plots; Wakefield, 40 plots; and Leeds, 41 plots, all at Cottingley Springs, which was built in 1969. In Leeds in January 2004, however, there were 51 unauthorised encampments, an increase from 34 the previous January. In Leeds, if my figures are right, there are some 1,500 Travellers, including 500 children of school age. About 50 to 70 Traveller families now live in ordinary housing. The real problem, for which Leeds city council should take some responsibility, is that there are no transit sites. There is a permanent site, but no transit sites.

A briefing paper from Leeds city council race equality advisory forum that was sent to the council's scrutiny board states: The primary concern of Leeds Travellers is inadequate site provision." It acknowledges the existence of Cottingley Springs, but goes on to say: There are no official transit sites in Leeds. The Travellers' view is, "You want to evict us, but where can we go?" There is nowhere that can be suggested. Every week an average of 10 Traveller families—80 to 90 people in 30 caravans—are living on unauthorised sites with no sanitation, no utilities and no refuse collection. There are an average of three evictions a week that cost about £2,500 a time, excluding police costs, staff costs and possible legal costs.

There are no vacancies at the Cottingley Springs site. Families are doubling up and there is a large waiting list—60 families, I understand. In Yorkshire, there are no local authority sites at all in Castleford, Pontefract, Huddersfield, Dewsbury or Halifax. There are no sites in the Kirklees area none in Calderdale and none in the whole of north Yorkshire. There is only one site in Wakefield, one in Leeds and one in Bradford.

The Conservative Calderdale council, for example, which takes a hard line, evicts Travellers from unauthorised sites and escorts them to the Sheffield roundabout, directing them to head for Leeds or Bradford. That is unacceptable. It does not resolve the problem, but merely passes the buck and is a recipe for continued local conflict.

In a debate such as this we need a sense of perspective and a sense of proportion. The problem is not infinite. The Traveller community in the whole of England and Wales is made up of 90,000 to 120,000 nomadic or mobile Travellers, with an estimated further 200,000 of Traveller ancestry living in settled housing. In the last national count of Travellers' caravans published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in January, there were 14,309 caravans, 3,571 or 25 per cent. of which were on unauthorised encampments. There were 5,848 caravans on authorised council sites and another 4,890 on authorised private sites.

There are some 320 council-owned sites in England, providing some 5,000 pitches. I know that research carried out by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2002 showed that by 2005 a further 3,000 to 4,500 additional permanent and transit pitches would be needed to resolve a future crisis. The Gypsy Council believes that that is in underestimate of the real need. I believe we need 1,000 to 2,000 additional residential pitches and between 2,000 and 2,500 transit pitches in England and Wales. Surely we can go some way to making that provision and resolving the problem.

We need to broaden our definitions of accommodation and include the accommodation needs of Travellers and Gypsies under the definition of housing need. That 'would enable them to be considered as in housing need, rather than telling them that by law they must move on to some undefined place. That would alleviate pressure on site provision. It would enable local authorities and the Government to access housing association resources to provide new sites with decent provisions on a scale that we have not managed to achieve since the efforts of 1969. It would allow social landlords to register as site providers. That in itself could open up flexibility in provision.

I do not believe that there are no practical measures that could be taken to resolve the problem. Including Travellers in the provision of accommodation should be part of social cohesion and sustainability strategies, not forcing them to live in permanent housing, but to allow sufficient capacity of permanent and temporary sites to enable them to move around and retain their traditional way of life. A little joined-up working between local authorities is needed to stop Travellers being passed backwards and forwards across local authority boundaries to councils that have sites from councils that do not have sites. The Traveller law reform coalition has introduced proposals to underpin the mainstream approach to site provision. It works with local authorities, the Children's Society, Shelter and the Commission for Racial Equality to press for an effective accommodation policy.

The Government have promised a review, and that point was reinforced by a helpful reply from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning on Third Reading of the Housing Bill on 11 May, in which he said that the Government were looking to bring the review forward and to take some action.

In 2002, the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) attempted to introduce the Traveller Law Reform Bill, based on work by the Traveller law research unit of Cardiff university and the Joseph Rowntree housing trust, so the attempts to resolve the problem are underpinned by hard-headed research. Sites are not provided on the basis of guidance to local authorities alone—we have seen that that does not work—so sites must be treated like other forms of accommodation.

Sites should be assessed alongside housing needs, which are fed into the regional housing strategy, the regional spatial strategy and plans at the local level. That will enable us to ensure that sufficient provision exists to resolve the problem sensibly and practically. We need new measures to increase the level of Traveller site provision to break out of the vicious circle of unauthorised stops, complaints, evictions, moves on, unauthorised stops, complaints, aggravation and moves on. Residents and Travellers should not be forced into that cycle for ever.

The new Housing Bill provides a good opportunity for the Government to break through that vicious circle. We must move the agenda forward and resolve the challenge as a matter of urgency. The Housing Bill now moves to the other place, so I plead with the Minister not to miss this parliamentary opportunity to do something positive about a long-standing conflict that affects many constituencies, urban as well as rural. Positive action will benefit both local residents and Traveller and Gypsy families alike. The challenge can be met and the problems can be resolved, but it will take determined action by the Government and local authorities to play their full part.

7.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) on securing the debate and on raising an important issue.

My hon. Friend addressed the issue in a balanced, thoughtful way by describing his constituency experience and the impact of the shortage of sites both on Gypsy and Traveller groups and on the settled community. He is right that the issues can cause extreme stress and distress for both the settled community and people who are struggling to find somewhere to stay put.

My hon. Friend rightly identifies that the heart of the problem is that not enough sites are currently available to meet demand. That can lead to unauthorised encampments, which can cause great distress to the local community, especially where damage is done to local areas. That can also lead to unauthorised development, where Gypsies and Travellers buy up sites for which planning permission is not given, which causes all sorts of frictions both within the planning system and, again, with local communities. Unauthorised development has increased significantly over the past few years.

My hon. Friend set out that Gypsy and Traveller communities often have below-average health and educational outcomes and life expectancy, above-average infant mortality, and that their children achieve poor results in school. Social exclusion is also a serious consequence, which may be exacerbated when families move from place to place over a short period of time. There can also be serious consequences in terms of social tensions between different groups and communities. Given our strong desire to promote social cohesion and sustainable communities, we need to take those issues seriously. We should recognise that in many areas, sites have been responsibly managed and Gypsy and Traveller groups can live amicably alongside local settled communities. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that all sorts of tensions can arise where matters are badly handled and there are problems with site provision.

There are wide variations in the approach taken by local authorities in terms of their attitude to planning applications, the efficiency of their planning enforcement systems and the number of sites that they provide. My hon. Friend described the position in parts of Yorkshire. Other parts of the country, too, show very wide variations. It is disappointing that some local authorities with significant problems with unauthorised encampments and developments do very little to provide appropriate sites. We are concerned about that.

We have launched a major Government review of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation. I believe that it is unprecedented for any Government to look in such detail at the accommodation requirements of Gypsy and Traveller groups and communities. In conducting that review, we are working closely with local authorities, Gypsy and Traveller groups, the all-party group on Traveller law reform, the Commission for Racial Equality and other groups. I have taken part in seminars to discuss the issues and possible options with a range of stakeholders. I have also met several MPs from all over the country to try to ensure that as wide a range of views as possible feeds into the review and that concerns from across the country are taken seriously.

The review is still under way, but I want to take this opportunity to highlight a few aspects on which we are already making progress. My hon. Friend referred particularly to publicly provided sites, but the issue of privately provided sites is increasingly significant. Interestingly, the level of unauthorised encampments over the past few years has stayed broadly stable, but the level of unauthorised developments has increased significantly. That can cause great conflict in the planning system. There are two problems with the planning system as it stands: first, planning guidance can make it difficult for Gypsies and Travellers to identify appropriate sites to buy or to get planning permission to move on to; and secondly, the local authority's enforcement process in respect of inappropriate sites can be ineffective or cumbersome. We need to deal with both sides of that problem at the same time.

That is why we are reviewing the planning guidance that is given to local planning authorities in relation to Gypsy and Traveller accommodation. We expect local authorities to provide more help and support for Gypsies and Travellers in identifying appropriate sites, because too many do not do so. We are considering how planning guidance should be revised to ensure that that happens. At the same time, we have introduced into the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill a new temporary stop notice that will allow local authorities to take swift action to prevent long-term damage to sites where development is inappropriate. Again, we intend to consult in more detail on how that should work and be implemented before it is introduced because it is important to maintain a balanced approach and ensure that we are fair, in a way that the current system is not, to Gypsy and Traveller groups and the settled community.

My hon. Friend is right that public site provision varies throughout the country. We are keen for Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs to be tackled alongside those of everybody else. It should be part of mainstream consideration of accommodation and housing need in every local area. For the first time, therefore, we expect local authorities to consider and tackle the need for accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers in their assessment of local accommodation needs. We shall issue revised guidance next year on how to do that. Housing and site need assessments will feed into the regional spatial strategies and the regional planning system. We are considering in more detail exactly how that should work and whether other measures are required to overcome some of the unnecessary barriers to site provision.

The Gypsy site refurbishment grant is available and has been expanded and extended to improve the conditions on sites throughout the country and to provide new transit sites and stopping places. My hon. Friend mentioned the need for transit sites in his area. Local authorities can apply for the refurbishment grant to provide more transit sites. So far, 205 separate site improvement projects have been funded. They have already made substantial improvements to the quality of many residents' lives.

My hon. Friend also mentioned permissible purposes for Housing Corporation money. We plan to extend the permissible purposes of that money to allow local registered social landlords to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites.

We are still considering a series of other issues, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning said. We have not yet made any decisions about legislation and believe that many of the changes will be possible without it. However, we have not concluded the process of considering different legislative options, as my right hon. Friend explained when he replied to the debate on the Housing Bill.

We recognise the importance of the issue and of a level playing field for local authorities so that they acknowledge and accept their responsibilities. Local authorities face different problems in different areas, and the need for sites and accommodation will be very different in different parts of the country; we would not expect to take a uniform approach. It is right that the authorities should recognise their responsibilities in this regard, as my hon. Friend said.

It is important for us to conduct the review in a thorough way, and to involve all those who have a stake in the process, so as to ensure that we get the right response. My hon Friend's points have been very helpful in that regard. We also need to recognise that this is not simply an issue of site provision, important though that is. There are other issues involved, including those of antisocial behaviour and unauthorised encampments, which need to be addressed. That is why we are consulting, in conjunction with the Home Office, on guidance on the new powers against trespassing that were introduced in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. In the longer term we are keen to work with other Departments on other issues, particularly the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills, in regard to the health needs of Gypsy and Traveller groups and their educational attainment, given the lower levels of attainment for Gypsy and Roma groups in many of our schools.

As I have said, a wide range of social exclusion issues is raised by the circumstances that Gypsies and Travellers face. It is important that we take a fair approach across the country, taking into consideration the different circumstances of Gypsy and Traveller groups and the needs of the settled community in different areas. I will certainly keep in touch with my hon. Friend about these issues as they progress, and about the work that we are doing as part of the review. There are not as many easy or swift answers as we would like, but I can assure him that we are taking this issue very seriously and examining it thoroughly, so as to find long-term improvements to the problems that trouble many areas of the country and which should not be doing so. It ought to be possible to resolve those issues in the long term, but we will need local communities, Gypsy and Traveller groups and local authorities to work together to ensure that we find sustainable solutions that meet everyone's needs.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eight o'clock.