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
    travellers”.

    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
    policies.

    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
    response.

    “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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