Councils should provide sites for gypsies, MPs warn

A cross-party group of MPs are calling for councils to be given
a statutory duty to provide sites for gypsies and travellers to
ease the public backlash against the group, writes
Shirley Kumar.

New Asset  

Recent reports of gypsies and travellers descending on villages
and setting up illegal camps and then winning high court cases to
remain there have angered communities, causing fear and a lack of
understanding of this group.

But around 3,500 individuals have no where to park their
caravans because of a lack of sites, the MPs highlighted in a
select committee report.

The group, which scrutinises the Office of Deputy Prime
Minister, said the government needed to “go one step
further” than its current proposals which oblige councils to
help travellers find sites for them to buy, although this is not
backed by law.

The government said it would introduce a housing needs
assessment for the group to prevent individual councils wriggling
out of their responsibilities. They would also have to adhere to
specific guidance to meet requirements to satisfy the regional
housing boards.

But if there is a backlash from the community against planning
applications, they could still be rejected.

“Unpopular with electors”

Leading industry sources said the government was putting
councils in very difficult positions to meet the requirements for
gypsies and travellers, knowing there would be a backlash.
“The government does not want to take on the responsibility
itself because it would be so unpopular with electors,” said
one source.

The statutory duty was removed from councils in the 1990s. But
liberal democrat peer Lord Avebury backs the call for it to be
reintroduced and said it was needed as a “safety net,”
only to be enforced if the Planning Compulsory Purchase Act

Even the Local Government Association (LGA) welcomed the move
providing sufficient funding was provided for council services,
including health, education and social services. Other supporters
of the move include the Commission for Racial Equality and the
National Farmers Union.

However, Avebury warned current government proposals do not take
into account the some 30 per cent of gypsies and travellers who
would not have the funds to buy land or the know how to access

“The government is proposing housing associations will
meet the need but where are they?” he said. “They
won’t tell us how many have shown an interest.”

The assistant director of gypsy and traveller services at Novas
housing association, John Wilson, has been called to meet Keith
Hill the minister of state at the Office of the Deputy Prime
Minister to discuss the matter.

Unsuitable sites

He will also raise concerns about old council sites currently used
for gypsy and travellers’ sites.

“Current government proposals do not take this group into
account and they are suffering from a lot of mental health problems
and asthma,” said Wilson.

He called for the swift introduction of a gypsy and traveller
taskforce that would include experts who could make relevant
decisions for the ethnic group on health and suitable sites.

The move was also proposed in the select committee report and is
believed to be under consideration by the ODPM in its policy review
of gypsies and travellers due to be presented to ministers later
this month.

An ODPM spokesperson said the finer details of how it would deal
with gypsies and travellers on unsuitable sites – such as those on
a council site under a London motorway – are all part of a
“shopping list” to be dealt with under the policy

The Social Exclusion Unit has also been researching the needs of
gypsies and travellers with a report to be launched shortly.

However the ODPM is adamant that the government is unlikely to
reinstate the statutory duty arguing only 38 per cent of councils
adhered to it in the first place.

“I told you so…”

But Avebury said in a letter to Keith Hill: “The ODPM
continues to falsify the history of the 1968 Caravan Sites Act
which was abolished in 1994.

“Looking at the 11 years from 1986 to 1997, the number of
unauthorised caravans fell from 3,804 to 2,591, a drop of 33 per
cent and the number of pitches on councils sites rose from 4,766 to
6,324, an increase of 33 per cent.

“If the Act had continued in force the powers of direction
could have been deployed against the 62 per cent of authorities
which had not provided adequate accommodation and the problem would
have been solved by now.”

“I will have no pleasure in telling the government we told
you so when a few years down the line illegal camps are still being
set up around the country,” he concluded.


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