Exploiting the system or victims of it?

Rarely can a piece of government planning guidance have generated
such a tabloid frenzy. The Sun last week declared “War on gypsy
free-for-all” with the headline “Stamp on the camps”, while the
Daily Mail raged about “desperate homeowners” in towns “blighted by

The target of their fury, revised planning circular 1/94, obliges
councils to identify appropriate land for gypsies and travellers
and provide help with planning procedures for those who wish to
acquire their own land.

The circular was accompanied this week by a good practice guide,
Diversity and Equality in Planning, to ensure councils do not
discriminate against gypsies and travellers in their planning

Although councils were also given stronger powers to halt
development of unauthorised sites, the tabloids preferred not to
focus on the full package but on the government telling local
authorities to allow gypsies to breach planning laws.

Richard Bennett, chair of the Local Government Association’s gypsy
and traveller task group, says the tabloid coverage has been
“unhelpful, to put it mildly”. But he also believes there is a
problem with the current situation and the government’s

“We’ve a situation where gypsies and travellers have been buying
areas of land, sometimes in the green belt, and putting caravans on
them without planning permission,” he says.

Although permission is often refused, he says, it is sometimes
granted on appeal by a planning inspector on human rights grounds,
stirring resentment in local communities.

Bennett adds: “If you won’t give planning permission for a house to
be built, why should you get planning permission for a caravan? Is
that fair? Should not all planning applications be treated the
same? There are real issues that need to be addressed. All the
government has done is say councils should look on gypsies’ and
travellers’ applications more leniently.”

But the picture from gypsy and traveller groups is different. They
argue that, rather than exploiting the planning system, they are
the victims of it.

In Diversity and Equality in Planning, the government points out
that most planning applications by gypsies are refused, while
almost all other applications are approved.

Emma Nuttall, unit manager of Friends, Families and Travellers,
says the new guidance is merely firming up what is already a
requirement for local authorities – to assess travellers’ housing
needs and identify suitable sites for them.

She says the tabloids’ anger is misplaced because the guidance
should improve the situation. Authorities can either provide in an
ordered way or travellers can, as at present, end up wherever they
can find available land, she argues.

“Because local authorities aren’t identifying the right location,
travellers don’t know where to buy land because they haven’t been
told where the right place is,” Nuttall says.

For travellers’ groups, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act
1994, which removed councils’ statutory duty to provide sites for
gypsies and travellers, is the source of the problem. Since then,
Nuttall claims, travellers have only been doing what they were told
to in 1994 – buy their own private land.

John Wilson, assistant director for traveller and gypsy services at
Novas housing association, calls for a return to the pre-1994
situation. “If there was a statutory duty reintroduced local
councils and local politicians could work better with the gypsy
community,” he says.

Until that happens, he argues, gypsies and travellers will continue
to suffer prejudice and discrimination whipped up by the tabloid
press – whatever type of site they live on.

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