§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]5.32 pm
§ Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con)
I am grateful for the opportunity to bring Travellers and planning law to the House's attention once again.
My concern arises over land that is owned by Travellers or occupied by them with the consent of a landowner and is developed before planning consent is granted. Setting up apparently permanent dwellings by Travellers before anyone knows whether local roads, schools and general practitioner surgeries can cope with such development is simply not sensible. It does not seem to be in the interests of either villagers or Travellers.
Many hon. Members from all parties have experienced the phenomenon. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) explained on 19 November how, in Startley and Minety, Travellers purchased and moved on to agricultural land. My hon. Friends the Members for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) raised similar cases earlier this year.
My constituents in Elmswell and Woolpit have been confronted by a Traveller problem. Travellers moved on to land and made changes to it without planning consent in August.
Very many of my constituents in those two villages are worried about development that has been carried out prematurely before the appropriate planning procedure has been undertaken. It seems to them like a fait accompli, and they want to know why the character of their villages may be changed without their having any real say in the matter at all.
A group of Travellers moved on to a site off Norton road between Elmswell and Woolpit on or about Thursday 29 July this year. They immediately started fencing off plots and laid down a hardcore surface to form an access road. By Tuesday 3 August, the field had been sectioned off into 18 plots, with six caravans already on the site. It was then made known that pipes and sewerage lines would be laid later.
§ Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this Adjournment debate. What he describes is mirrored in my constituency. Unfortunately, he still has a long way to go. Given all the due legal processes, it has taken three years to remove the Travellers from the site in my constituency. That is not the end of the story: they are still illegally camped in the area. Something must be done to stop what is not a breach of planning regulations but an invasion of land, on which they descend in very ugly order and do such things.
§ Mr. Ruffley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I hope that I do not have three years of letters to come from constituents. The example from his constituency demonstrates what I want to develop in my argument: we have a set of planning laws that do not seem to address residents' concerns.
1535 To return to the history of the problem in my constituency, my office contacted the leader of Mid Suffolk district council and was told that a council officer had already visited the site and been assured that it was only temporary and would be vacated in a day or two. That proved completely inaccurate. Subsequently, the Travellers told Mid Suffolk district council officers that they had purchased the site and were the legal owners. Throughout 2 and 3 August, my constituency office received calls from concerned villagers, many of whom preferred not to be identified. During the following week, the issue at Woolpit and Elmswell in my constituency attracted national media attention in The Times and the Daily Mail, as well as coverage in the East Anglian Daily Times and regional TV and radio.
In the light of concern in Woolpit and Elmswell, and the nearby villages of Tostock and Norton, I sent out a leaflet to householders to ask them for their views about the development. I congratulate Woolpit, Elmswell and Tostock parish councils on all discussing the issue very promptly and deciding to oppose a retrospective planning application that the Travellers had made on 10 August. Those parish councils, together with Norton parish council, have proactively and commendably formed a joint forum to keep one another and myself informed of developments.
Mid Suffolk district council set a deadline of 1 September by which affected residents could make representations about the retrospective planning application. Rather unfortunately, although I have received well over five dozen letters to my office and numerous phone calls objecting to the application by the Travellers, many of my constituents have said that they are afraid to make their concerns formal, as all letters of objection to the council are, of course, in the public domain.
I want to make it clear, however, that the Travellers have stated that they wish to have happy and harmonious relations with the villagers. To my knowledge, there has been no incident that would seem to cast doubt on the Travellers' expression of good will, and it is only right and proper to make that clear.
Mid Suffolk district council has advised the Travellers that the works that they have done on site are not authorised and that the council will not rule out possible future enforcement action.
We are all waiting for the council to set a date for a hearing on the retrospective planning application to be heard by the council's planning committee.
My constituents in those villages feel strongly that no group of people, whether Travellers or established building companies, should be able to go into the countryside, occupy land—whether purchased by them or not—and claim a fundamental human right to develop it without following the planning rules. Many constituents say that, whenever they want to build, say, an extension or a large shed in their garden, they sense the full force of the law will come down on them pretty swiftly if they do not stick to its letter.
The Minister will no doubt point out that numerous long-standing powers are available to local authorities in the form of enforcement notices, stop notices and injunctions. But they are time-consuming and costly procedures for councils, especially those councils, such as Mid Suffolk district council, with small budgets that 1536 understandably have to be extremely careful about taking action that inevitably racks up large legal and administrative costs.
I have to say that—this has been the experience of other Members as described in the debates that they have called in the past year—Travellers seem to be particularly well resourced when it comes to obtaining pretty expensive expert legal advice on planning. That seems to be a growing trend. I venture no explanation as to why that might be. In the case in my constituency at Woolpit and Elmswell, an enforcement notice has not so far been sought by the council. It prefers first to take a decision on the pending retrospective planning application.
The growing perception that Travellers seem to enjoy better rights than those of non-travelling established residents is shown by the extraordinary national reaction in the press to the recent judgment by Judge Weeks QC at Bristol High Court on 2 August this year in the case of North Wiltshire district council v. Toseland and others. In that case, the judge agreed with the council that,The establishment of such a large site and the rapid installation of the infrastructure was a flagrant and deliberate breach of planning control and obviously a pre-planned operation. There was no attempt to comply with paragraph 20 of circular 1/94 which encourages gypsies to consult planning authorities before buying land. The planning application on 8 August"—of 2003—was little more than a token gesture.Notwithstanding his finding in that regard, the judge found in favour of the Gypsies and against the council's application for an injunction. He did so on the ground that the granting of an injunction would have caused immediate hardship and suffering sufficient to outweigh the public interest in having planning law upheld to the letter.
Although he was insistent that that should not be construed as an invitation to flout the law, I and many other people doubt that his judgment will be read in that light. The picketing of the judge's house by affected Wiltshire residents who lost the case—that was widely covered in the national press—suggests that they had similar doubts to mine.
Existing planning enforcement is best able to deal with traditional permanent dwellings and buildings rather than mobile homes or caravans. Powers are available ultimately for the demolition of a dwelling or building developed in contravention of planning law, but that deterrent is likely to be less effective in the case of mobile structures, such as mobile homes or caravans, that can be easily installed and removed at comparatively little cost to the average Traveller if the Travellers wish to stay in an encampment.
I am extremely careful to point out that I do not wish to prejudge the case of the Travellers at Woolpit and Elmswell but, as I contemplate a potentially controversial few months—I hope not years—for my constituents in the affected villages, I invite the Minister to explain one or two things about the planning regime and how the Government view it.
Why have the Government not taken up suggestions for strengthening our planning laws more practically in the following respects? When my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay introduced his Greenbelt 1537 Protection Bill, it proposed that there should be a requirement on local authorities to provide authorised sites. He suggested that that should be carried out with central Government, regional bodies and county councils. As he pointed out, the allocation for each authority could be met using publicly or privately owned sites. The mandatory requirement in the Bill, which did not proceed, was for local authorities to have an obligation to provide sites, although it seemed rather onerous.
Will the Minister tell us what steps the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is taking to provide more authorised sites for Travellers? How many such authorised sites with full planning permission and the blessing of local authorities have been created in East Anglia over the past two years? Such authorised sites would have gone through a rigorous planning procedure that would have taken account of residents' feelings and whether the local infrastructure, such as roads, schools and doctors' surgeries, could cope with the extra demand caused by Travellers. Above all, those sites could provide decent facilities for travelling people and their families and protect the freedom of Travellers to follow their traditional way of life, which all of us would say should be respected in the modern, moderate, civilised and compassionate society in which we all want to live in this day and age.
When the Minister answers my question about more authorised sites, which would represent a positive way forward, will he tell us whether he agrees with the Country Land and Business Association, which said in its submission to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee's inquiry on Gypsy and Traveller sites that a predict and provide approach on sites is rather problematic? It makes the point that the demand for authorised sites from Travellers is difficult to quantify. It is hard to predict when groups of Travellers are likely to move to an area and where they will go.
St. Edmundsbury borough council, which is also in my constituency, told me this week that it reviews the need for sites for Travellers from time to time. Its last review was conducted 18 months ago when it was determined that there was no need at all for the provision of authorised sites in the council area, which covers the town of Bury St. Edmunds, Haverhill and the areas in between. It told me:Travellers tend to pass through St. Edmundsbury stopping for only relatively short periods.That is the council's recent experience, but no one knows whether that is likely to change with more travelling families coming to the area and setting up permanent or semi-permanent sites.
The matter is topical because I note that the Commission for Racial Equality has this week inspired amendments about authorised sites to the Housing Bill, which is going through the other place. The amendments would put a statutory duty on local authorities to facilitate the provision of sites for Travellers. There will clearly be a public resource implication for increasing the number of authorised sites that are managed in a proper and controlled way, but when the case for such sites is considered, any such costs must be netted off against the current cost to councils of wrestling with the current system, which many believe to be inadequate.
1538 According to the House of Commons Library, the Cardiff university Traveller law research unit has estimated that the cost to councils and constabularies across the UK has amounted to as much as £18 million. Those costs are associated with moving Gypsies and Travellers on from illegal encampments. I gather that when a group of Travellers were moved on from a site in Chelmsford earlier this year, the total cost to the local authority was reported to be more than £300,000—a staggering sum which excluded the cost of officer time.
What about other practical solutions? Perhaps the Minister could turn his mind to the following proffered idea. As planning policy guidance note 18 on enforcing planning control explains, it is not an offence to carry out development without first obtaining any planning permission required for that development. However, if there is a wilful, premeditated and deliberate breach of planning laws, with development being undertaken in the full knowledge that planning permission should have been sought in advance, does the Minister think that there is a case for criminalising that activity? Has he considered that? If the Government and his Department have discounted it, will he share his thinking with us?
As for other practical solutions, will the Minister reconsider the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who during the course of discussions on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill last year sought to introduce an amendment to restrict—not abolish—the use of retrospective planning applications? He wanted to place a duty on local planning authorities and those ruling on appeals to consider any retrospective application as though no development had taken place. That would remedy the situation in which planning applications are viewed with consideration of what has already taken place on a site.
Clear messages must be sent out to those who wilfully flout planning control. The Town and Country Planning (Enforcement Notices and Stop Notices) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, was specifically designed to address the problem of residential caravans or mobile homes being stationed on land with the consent of the owner but in breach of planning control. His Bill did not proceed, but it would have allowed caravans to be removed much more expeditiously from a site if they were on land in breach of an enforcement or stop notice. Does the Minister think on reflection that the Bill's proposals should be reconsidered?
In a timely question in Prime Minister's questions yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay highlightedthe growing problem caused locally by Travellers buying land and then immediately developing it.The Prime Minister gave the honest response:I will go back and have a look at the issue again, but it is worth pointing out that we have strengthened the law and the advice we are receiving—although I will check it carefully—is that the law is sufficiently strong … to deal with the problem … I will look into it carefully myself."—[Official Report, 15 September 2004; Vol. 424, c. 1265.]I hope that the Prime Minister does that. I suggest he starts by expediting the Government's much vaunted policy review on the position of Gypsies and Travellers. That was set up in 2002, yet we do not appear to have a firm date for the publication of its no doubt important 1539 conclusions. There has been far too much delay in making those conclusions known. I hope that the Minister can give a specific date when publication will occur and undertake to create parliamentary time in this place for a full debate on the review's conclusions because the issue is exercising many hon. Members on both sides of the House and many thousands of our constituents.
In conclusion, residents and Travellers alike feel that not enough is being done by the Government and by the political process to address their respective needs. I hope that the Minister will respond with a set of constructive solutions to meet those needs.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) and to the Minister for allowing me to participate in this debate. Fortunately, we have some extra time, so it is possible for me to speak. I say Minister, but I think that the hon. Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark) remains, in fact, a Whip—although Whips are Ministers, of course. Perhaps this debate is the result of a conspiracy between the three of us to give ourselves the opportunity to make a contribution to the House—something that Whips are sometimes not able to do easily.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he expressed his concerns. I think that he struck precisely the right note, and I was encouraged to see the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) nodding frequently in response. The topic commands strong consensus among those who have experienced the problems that my hon. Friend outlined so clearly.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer) and I had a most constructive and productive meeting with the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who is currently on maternity leave—I understand that she is now a mother again, which I am delighted to hear. We were most encouraged by her attitude and the Government's attitude as it was reflected during that meeting. The Government are to be congratulated on the way in which their thinking is developing.
In my remarks, I shall refer to specific sites in my constituency. As the Minister did not know that I would speak in the debate, I do not expect him to respond to those site-specific points. In addition, some of the cases in question are being considered by the Minister for Housing and Planning in his quasi-judicial role, so it would be improper of the Government to comment. I fully understand and accept the limitations on what can be said today.
Travellers have rights—rights that must be respected. We in Worcestershire owe a great debt to the travelling community. Down the years, without the Travellers, the growers of the vale of Evesham would have found their lives extremely difficult. Travellers have served this country well and we have a duty to repay them for some of the things that they have done for us in the past. It is important to understand that context.
However, something might be changing within the travelling community. Part-time seasonal jobs are no longer available in the vale of Evesham as once they 1540 were. The jobs are becoming all-year-round jobs and those who service them now are typically members of ethnic minorities, asylum seekers and other immigrants who work—some short term, some long term—not only in the fields when produce is growing, but in the packhouses during the winter when produce is imported from other countries to provide a continuous flow of product to the supermarkets, which sadly no longer respect seasonality. I think that it is a great loss to British society that we no longer celebrate the seasons and that, instead, foods are available all year round.
Many of the jobs are now permanent. As a result, Travellers might be finding that there are fewer seasonal jobs to do and that their need to travel is decreasing. It is important to make a distinction between sites provided for Travellers, and sites provided for Travellers who wish to settle. I believe that neither planning law nor human rights legislation as it is interpreted by the courts takes sufficient account of the phenomenon that I have described. A change is taking place that planning law must address.
I am delighted by the spirit of co-operation that characterises debate on the future of planning law and Travellers. Next week in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, in the Pershore headquarters of Wychavon district council, which serves my constituency, there is to be a meeting between all the parish councils of Wychavon and the residents of Cottenham. The latter have, in many senses, been leading the debate on the future of planning law and the problems associated with unauthorised encampments. The meeting will explore, through an honest and friendly dialogue, how improvements can be made.
We need a better balance. In my constituency, the permanent settled residents—and sometimes the permanent settled Travellers—voice concern to me that, because of the way in which the planning system is operating, the new people are getting effective rights that they themselves would be denied. That is the problem that must be addressed by planning law.
I shall explain some of the issues confronting us. At the village of Cleeve Prior in my constituency there has been a heavy concentration of Travellers' sites down the years, and on most of them permanent settled accommodation has been erected.
§ Mr. Luff
Across the border in Warwickshire sites have been closed, and Travellers have moved to Cleeve Prior. The failure to establish a national strategy on site provision is part of the problem. Historically, Worcester city and Wychavon district councils, two of the few councils to be given designated status under the Caravan Sites Act 1968, have established a large number of sites for the travelling community, unlike many surrounding districts in Worcestershire and neighbouring counties. That generosity has made those sites a honeypot, attracting people to an area that has already done a great deal to meet its obligation to the travelling community. Some time ago, there was a dramatic development at Wyre Piddle analogous to the 1541 phenomena described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds—the tarmackers came and the caravans were on site before people knew what had happened. A small village has grown up beside the Wyre Piddle bypass, which is a sensitive issue currently under consideration by the Minister. The sheer visibility of the settlement has caused considerable concern, and it is unthinkable that anyone would ever have received permission to build a dwelling there. The courts, however, have taken an extraordinarily lenient view of that development, where there was a careful conspiracy to build, for reasons to do with the misunderstanding of the nature of Travellers, which I discussed earlier. I hope that the Minister makes the right decision.
§ Mr. Olner
It took three years to clear a site in Nuneaton and complete the process that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. We had to go through the planning laws and other legislation, an appeal and an inquiry before achieving enforcement and eviction. That lengthy process is frustrating for good constituents in many areas and is expensive for local authorities. Court costs alone were more than £150,000 for my local authority, which also had to bear the cost of clearing the site and so on. There is a failure in the planning system, as we are not talking about Joe Bloggs wanting to build an extension but a deliberate invasion of land. Most of our builders would not be allowed to buy a field in the green belt and build 40 bungalows on it—that is the difficulty that we face.
§ Mr. Luff
The hon. Gentleman made two points. First, the cost to district councils is a serious concern, as they operate on tight budgets, and the threat of a Government cap hangs over them if they exceed council tax increases. Their residents expect them to take strong legal action against abuses of the planning system, but the costs can be huge, so it may be extremely difficult to do so. Secondly, there is a dramatic illustration of the imbalance of the planning system at Wyre Piddle, because next door to the site a local man wants to put up a huge mobile advertisement for turf. Quite rightly, the district council has been brutal, and insisted that he move it. In the field next door, however, there is an authorised but permanent encampment, which is the subject of a planning inquiry instigated by the Minister. Two different planning standards were therefore applied to those adjoining fields. The district council was right to fight both cases. The courts, however, are against one, but not the other.
A site at Upton Warren is part of the same problem as Wyre Piddle, but when local people explained to the Gypsies and Travellers that what they were doing, while not illegal, was unacceptable, they backed off and are applying for planning permission in the proper way, which I am pleased about. At the village of Aldington, which I visited last week, there have been extraordinary uncontrolled developments, which are subject to enforcement notices from the district council. It will be interesting, however, to see whether those notices can, in fact, be enforced.
There was a striking demonstration of changing attitudes in Eckington in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire. The local 1542 paper, the Evesham Journal, had a big spread on the front page in which travellers said that they wanted to settle and send their children to local schools.
It invited our sympathy for those people. Well, I am delighted that they should settle. If they now need to settle, I wish us to do all we can to accommodate their doing so, but it must be done in a legal and proper way that does not cause resentment in the other settled community, which would not be allowed to settle in the same place.
The technique that people used in this case was to apply to all the service providers in good time, so water and electricity supplies were in place. Service providers cannot refuse to provide services. A customer could say, for example, that he was keeping a pony and needed an electric light and a bit of water for its trough. In such circumstances, the water and electricity will be laid on, and the tarmackers will move in late on a Friday, ideally just before a bank holiday weekend. The settlers will whack in a planning application at five o'clock on a Friday, as the district council offices are closing. They know that that means that they can say to the courts that they have applied for planning permission, and they will have the whole bank holiday weekend to construct the development.
In the case of Eckington, the district council was magnificent. Officers went out over the bank holiday weekend, sacrificing their holiday, to monitor what was going on and explain the limitations. The temporary stop notices might have helped, if they had been able to issue them so close to the bank holiday weekend. The technique is very clever, and it is used in an organised and consistent way that should alarm all of us. It is that abuse of the planning process and the cunning way in which people are getting around it that cause such resentment.
I commend the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on his early-day motions on this subject. In particular, early-day motion 1538, which is headed "Cottenham Residents Gypsy and Traveller Declaration", demonstrates the extraordinary range of interests that one would think were inimical to a solution, but which can be brought together if the language and approach are right. The motion points out that there has been aground-breaking dialogue … commended by the Commission for Racial Equality, Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, Michael Evans, Bishop of East Anglia and the Right Reverend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxfordon a "bridge-building initiative". That is what can be done if the matter is approached in the right way.
Ministers should not be afraid of being firm with those who are seeking to abuse the system. I am attracted to the idea of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds about allowing no retrospective permission where there is a wilful attempt to breach planning regulations, as there clearly was at Eckington, and, I would say, at Wyre Piddle.
Perhaps what we most need, however, is to redefine what we mean by the phrase "travelling community". We have obligations towards travelling Travellers who wish to continue their travelling lifestyle. There are some who wish to do so in a legal way, but another band of people, including those who regularly invade the Hampton Lovett trading estate in my constituency, do 1543 not behave legally and do not deserve the same sympathy and assistance. Their abuse of private property is shameful. We need to define those who are genuine Travellers, and those who wish to settle. If the courts were encouraged to look differently at the rights of travelling and settling Travellers, local residents, who are subject to all the strictures of the planning system, might accept that the right balance is being struck.
The integrity of the planning system is at stake, as is respect for it. This matter strikes at the heart and essentials of our democratic society. I hope that we will now hear some encouraging words.
§ 6.8 pm
§ Paul Clark (Gillingham) (Lab)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) on securing this debate and raising some very important issues relating to Gypsies and unauthorised developments.
I am sure that all hon. Members who have contributed will agree that Gypsies and Travellers should enjoy the same right as everyone else to establish a decent place to live, as long as they do so within the law. We believe in an inclusive society in which people have the right to pursue that traditional nomadic lifestyle, but, as I say, within the law. Raising the profile of Gypsies and Travellers in today's society is important, and we want to ensure that they have the same rights as others to access essential services without fear of discrimination. There is growing evidence—hon. Members have alluded to it—that Gypsies and Travellers are becoming some of the most vulnerable and marginalised ethnic minorities in Britain. It is against that background that we need to look at the policy that governs their operation and existence.
A review is going on, and in commenting on the policy and enforcement reviews, I will try to give the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds as clear an idea of dates as possible, for which he asked. The Prime Minister gave a commitment at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday, reinforcing the importance that the Government attach to completing those reviews and taking them forward, and to recognising the issues raised by Members today and previously.
The review that we are undertaking focuses on equality issues for the Gypsy and Traveller community, and the mainstreaming of Gypsy and Traveller issues within wider local and national policy. It examines how we encourage more publicly provided and privately owned sites, and how we overcome some of the unnecessary barriers, which undoubtedly exist, to site provision. We want the planning system to reflect the mainstreaming of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation within the wider social housing context. We support changes that will lead to improvements in the health of Gypsies and Travellers, who have some of the poorest health records among black and ethnic minority groups in Britain.
As part of that wider policy review, we have started a thorough review of the Gypsy sites planning circular, and we will publish a new draft circular later in the autumn. While the Government recognise that some Gypsies and Travellers wish to embrace a nomadic lifestyle, exactly as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) was saying, others wish to 1544 have a more settled existence, on local authority or private sites. The review is set against the recognition of some of those fundamental positions.
Sometimes, among the wider community, there is a lack of understanding of the terms "unauthorised development" and "unauthorised encampment". I shall try to provide clarification. An unauthorised encampment is one in which the land is not owned by those setting it up. An unauthorised development, however, which has been the subject of the main thrust of Members' comments today, is one in which a person or persons, be they Gypsies, Travellers or members of a settled community, purchase land and carry out development for which planning permission is required, but for which, of course, no such permission has been granted. That is considered a breach of planning control and amounts to unauthorised development. Local planning authorities currently have a range of enforcement powers to deal with that.
§ Mr. Olner
Yes, those powers are available, but given what is happening at the moment, with planned invasion of sites and deliberate breaching of the planning regime by setting up such sites, is my hon. Friend sure that the speed at which such action can be taken is adequate? That is the difficulty.
§ Paul Clark
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I am about to come on to the enforcement review, and the review in relation to how we move forward, as every Member who has spoken has questioned whether enough sites are available, and if not, how further sites will be made available. We have heard about the initiatives of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), for example, to which the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds referred. I will come to that shortly, as it raises fundamental issues.
Planning policies concerning the provision of suitable locations for Gypsy sites, whether local authority or private, are set out in the Department of the Environment circular 1/94, which was published some 10 years ago. The current circular in operation recognises the desire of many Travellers and Gypsies to buy their own sites to develop and manage. Gypsy and Traveller sites constitute development, and therefore require planning permission.
In formulating their development plans, local authorities are encouraged to discuss Gypsies' accommodation needs with Gypsies themselves, with a view to identifying suitable locations for Gypsy sites in plans where possible. We recognise, though, that for many local authorities, particularly in rural areas, the identification of specific sites is not easy. Where authorities have found it impossible to identify suitable locations, they are required to define clear and realistic criteria as a basis for site provision. It is their responsibility to judge how they frame their policies, which are open to public scrutiny through the normal system and at inquiries.
The Government believe, however, that the 1994 circular is not working effectively. Those who have spoken today have made it clear that that is their view too, on the basis of their own experience and that of others who have gone before. It is not working, for example, to identify enough appropriate sites. Recent 1545 caravan counts have shown that there are about 3,500 caravans on unauthorised developments and encampments in England, about a third of them in the eastern region. I do not have figures relating specifically to the last two years, but a weakness about which I shall say more is the lack of up-to-date information provided in a systematic way.
The new circular is likely to stress the importance of local authorities' undertaking a proper quantitative assessment of need and for that need to be met, through the new regional planning process, via proper spatial planning and the identification of specific sites or achievable criteria offering some certainty that planning permission will be granted. That is one of the main issues that we can face anywhere in the country. We need to know what we have, and what need we are trying to meet. We should also take account of the changing patterns referred to by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire.
§ Mr. Luff
Measuring need is an important issue. Wychavon, for instance, has historically provided a high level of accommodation for the travelling community. More and more people are attracted to such places, and they become honeypot district council areas. Apparently for that reason Wychavon's need is greater than that of other district councils surrounding it. Certainly a recent planning inspector's report suggested that that is the planning inspectorate's view. Any revision of the circular should take account of that.
§ Paul Clark
As I have said, the importance of a proper quantitative assessment of need is likely to be stressed. Obviously the matter will be open to consultation, discussion and review. I am sure that Members, including those who are present today, will take the opportunity to comment and raise matters that may be of concern.
Unfortunately, Gypsies often proceed to establish sites without first obtaining the necessary planning consent. In many cases the locations they choose are inappropriate, for example when they are in the green belt or open countryside. Enforcement action by local authorities against such unauthorised development is therefore common. However, we expect the standard of behaviour among Gypsies and Travellers to be the same as that expected in the settled community, and any antisocial behaviour should be dealt with accordingly.
The availability of alternative sites can be a consideration when appeals against enforcement notices are determined, but only when they are considered as an alternative to a proposed location that is not suitable in planning terms. Local authorities have a key role to play in identifying suitable locations for sites, and working with Gypsies to help them find land that they can purchase and develop. A few planning authorities have now adopted that as best practice.
We genuinely believe that if there can be greater understanding and closer co-operation between local authorities and Gypsies, that is the best answer. It can help to reduce the number of instances in which Gypsies establish sites unlawfully, in some cases causing friction between them and the settled community.
1546 As I have indicated, and as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds said that I would indicate, there is a range of controls. They are laid down in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which was amended by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. First, there is the planning contravention notice. Secondly, there is the enforcement notice. Thirdly, there is the power to serve a stop notice. That has the immediate effect of stopping any activity that contravenes planning control guidelines where there are special reasons that justify doing that. If that is contravened, there is the possibility of being prosecuted in the magistrates court with a maximum penalty on conviction of £20,000.
Fourthly, there is the power to serve a breach of condition notice where there is a failure to comply with any condition or limitation imposed on a grant of planning permission. Fifthly, there is the ability to seek an injunction in the High Court or county court for breach of planning control. Finally, there are improved powers of entry on to land for authorised officers of the local planning authority to obtain information required for enforcement purposes. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire referred to the temporary stop notice that we introduced in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. I noted that he said that, in the case he referred to, it may have had a beneficial effect if it had not been for the bank holiday.
The temporary stop notice will enable local planning authorities to take prompt action immediately to stop unauthorised development. It can be in force for up to 28 days. That allows planning authorities time to serve an enforcement notice to remedy the breach of planning control. We shall be consulting on regulations setting out under what conditions and in what circumstances the temporary stop notices can be used.
I referred to enforcement when my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) raised the point about the time and so on. I am conscious of that and of a number of issues relating to the enforcement procedure. That is why we have undertaken a review of the planning enforcement system and we expect to make an announcement about the review later this year.
Equally, unauthorised encampments cause major concerns and problems for communities. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to those yesterday, speaking from his knowledge of his constituency of Sedgefield. Revised guidance on unauthorised encampments was published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in February, and has been widely welcomed. With the Home Office, we have consulted on guidance on the new powers against trespassing that were introduced in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, and that will be incorporated in the guidance.
When one or more caravans are parked on land without the consent of the occupier, the occupier has the common law right to remove them using reasonable force, or, which is advised, to seek a court order for their removal.
§ Mr. Olner
That happens but, immediately after the local authority seeks to go down that legal route when travellers illegally encamp on land that is in its ownership, they start to query whether the authority has a right to do that because it is infringing their human 1547 rights. The travellers seem to have a load of legal casework that supersedes the points that the Minister has just made.
§ Paul Clark
There is a perception that human rights apply only to the few and not to the many. They apply to all of us. The Human Rights Act 1998 was about a number of issues, one of which was to make it possible for anyone in this Chamber or in the country to pursue their human rights through British courts, rather than face the expensive cost of going to Strasbourg. Human rights are relevant in planning matters. There is a need to enforce planning controls. Those rights must be balanced with the qualified rights of people not to have their family life or privacy disrupted.
Public bodies have to take proportionate decisions. There is a perception that Gypsies, Travellers and other groups have special rights—that they have rights greater than people living in settled communities—but that is not the case. As I said, human rights legislation exists to protect everyone's human rights. Of course, the interests of neighbours must rightly be taken into account, but the planning enforcement decision being considered is against Gypsies and Travellers, so a decision has to be taken that is proportionate. So no such difference exists, but we recognise that the perception exists that a different balance is involved.
§ Mr. Luff
For the record, most people think that this is a bit more than a question of perception. The bungalows built on the sites that I know of on which Gypsies were allowed to remain would otherwise have been pulled down and the sites would have returned to fields. In practice, therefore, there is a difference.
§ Paul Clark
The hon. Gentleman is doubtless aware that the enforcement powers available to local authorities in respect of unauthorised development are the same and are there to be used, regardless of who is involved. As I said, we are reviewing those powers.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the idea of creating a criminal offence, which was in fact considered by Parliament in debates that culminated in the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. The majority view then was that criminalisation would be too severe a punishment for breaches of planning control, given that some people might be genuinely unaware of the need to obtain planning permission for 1548 developments. Of course, others have suggested that it should be criminalised only for the development of Gypsy sites, but Members will recognise that it is neither right nor legal to criminalise only one section of the community.
§ Mr. Ruffley
My suggestion was not that all breaches be criminalised, but wilful breaches where such wilfulness can be demonstrated. So an inadvertent breach would not be caught by my proposal.
§ Paul Clark
I suspect that trying to ascertain whether someone acted knowingly or unwittingly would prove a legal minefield and lead to the further delays that my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton, among others, is concerned about.
For the first time, housing needs assessments will incorporate Gypsies and Travellers, and local authorities will include such groups in their assessments. Next year, we will issue revised guidance on how that is to be done. A regional consideration of all these needs will then be fed into regional spatial strategies and local development frameworks. The number of sites that should be provided in each local authority area will then be indicated.
If we can know the level of demand—inevitably there are fluctuations, which will doubtless be dealt with in the consultation—we can see where the shortages are and avoid the conflicts that all of us have probably experienced in our constituencies from time to time. This is a complex issue, but I hope that Members appreciate that we take seriously not only accommodating Gypsies, but the needs of clearly settled communities. The right way forward is to encourage Gypsies to consult local authorities on planning matters before buying land on which they intend to live, or for which planning permission will be required for any subsequent development; and for local authorities to make a quantitative assessment of the amount of accommodation required. Spatial planning policies should recognise the need for accommodation consistent with Gypsies' and Travellers' lifestyles.
I thank the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds for raising this important issue, and I trust that we see a way forward together.