HL Deb 01 November 2004 vol 666 cc10-2

2.59 p.m.

Baroness Hanham asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether provisions in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2003 and the Housing Bill, currently before the House, could prevent the situation which has arisen in North Curry, Somerset, and elsewhere where, after sale, land has been occupied by Traveller or Gypsy encampments; and, if not, what steps they will take in this respect.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, planning authorities have enforcement powers to deal with unauthorised development. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 adds temporary stop notices enabling authorities to stop further development. Planning circular l/94 contains Gypsy planning policy, and a revised circular is in preparation and will be issued shortly. The Housing Bill currently before the House, as the Question says, will require authorities to identify Gypsy accommodation needs and develop strategies to meet them. Local authorities will be able to use those powers to provide for, and control, Gypsy and Traveller encampments. Notwithstanding all that, existing powers allow for stop notices, which, I regret, it took a week to issue in the case that the noble Baroness mentions.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In the light of what he said, does he believe that the current legislation and any pending legislation are strong enough to deal with a situation such as has arisen in North Curry and Homer Green over the weekend? Is he aware that in at least one village, residents have already decided that their only protection is to club together to buy surplus land, as they feel so threatened by what has happened? Does he also know whether the human rights of the people who live in those villages has been breached?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, discussing individual cases is difficult, particularly the one to which the Question relates. Local authorities have the power to act in advance, if they believe that something is likely to take place. They can do that now. I do not know whether the authority in question could have done that; it seems to have shut down at half-past five on Friday, and I have seen press reports that its 24-hour helpline was not in operation until Monday. There will be difficulties in such a situation.

The broad answer to the noble Baroness's question about whether the combination of powers could be used to prevent such situations is that yes, they could be. Whether they will be used depends on individual circumstances. If some local authorities have not embraced the original circular 1/94, which is not working that well, and have not provided alternative sites, it is likely that the courts would take a different view, depending on the circumstances. Many local authorities cope quite adequately with issues of Traveller encampments, and it is up to others to follow the best practice.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, it is disappointing that the people of North Curry were not satisfied with the explanation of the current legislation which I gave them in a series of e-mails.

Would the Minister agree that, at the last count, there were 425 caravans on unauthorised sites in the south-west region, of which 197 were on unauthorised developments? Would he explain how the situation would be dealt with when the new regime begins when the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 comes into force? Will the land that is made available under that Act be given in preference to people who are on unauthorised developments? How will they be persuaded to move off them, when they have spent money purchasing the land and developing their sites?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, taking the last point first, simply buying a piece of land does not give people the right to do what they want with it. They must apply for planning permission and follow the process. The implication of the noble Lord's question is one that I completely reject—that just because someone has bought land he can do what he likes with it, irrespective of the planning rules.

I cannot answer the first part of the noble Lord's question, simply because the legislation is not in full force at present. Only time will tell how the local authorities take it up. As he knows, there are new procedures in the Housing Bill regarding Gypsy encampments. I hope that a revised circular 1/94—the existing circular is not working well—will go a considerable way to solving the problem. But planning permission is needed in the cases of these developments.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that, despite the government amendments to the Housing Bill, which go far to provide the kind of authorised sites which would obviate the problems to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, refers, there is still a residual need for the Secretary of State to be able to direct a local authority to provide an authorised site when there are unauthorised encampments and/or evictions?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I would be in trouble if I gave a detailed answer to that question, mainly because it would be taken completely out of context, not by my noble friend but by others. The old system did not work under the Caravan Sites Act 1968, when local authorities were forced to provide a site. Circular 1/94 succeeded that provision and has not worked out completely satisfactorily.

At present there are some 3,500 caravans on unauthorised developments. The problem is not evenly spread around the country, as many local authorities have provided sites for encampments, and the system works extremely well. In that case, it is much more difficult for people to do what has been done in the case that we are discussing—to jump the queue by arguing that there are not enough sites and that therefore such action must be taken, in the hope that the courts will support them. That is not a satisfactorily way in which to proceed; frankly, it is a way in which to create anarchy and discord between communities, and we do not want that to happen.

There are plenty of examples in the country of the system working extremely well. We want to ensure that best practice is followed by all. I hope that the combination of the new legislation and the new circular will bring that about.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, would the Minister say what distinguishes this particular group of people from the rest of the population, who are expected to obtain accommodation for themselves and their families in a normal way?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, these people have got accommodation—it travels around with them. It is not illegal to have a nomadic life, but there are sets of rules and norms that must be followed as to making encampments and settlements and bringing about developments. What has been done wrong in the past is to treat those matters separately. With the changes in the legislation brought about by the planning and housing Bills, and the new circular, we are mainstreaming provision. In that way, when local authorities consider the totality of housing needs for their area, they will take everybody into account, including those with problems of access due to disability and other reasons, those who may need temporary or key worker accommodation, and sites for Travellers and Gypsies. If they mainstream the provision, we are less likely to have the problems that we have been discussing.

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