Letter to Caroline Spelman MP

The following is a letter written by Lord Avebury to Caroline Spelman MP, in response to the Conservative Green Paper on Gypsies and Travellers.

 

March 25, 2010
Ms Caroline Spelman MP, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA

Dear Caroline,

I attach a response to the Conservative Green Paper on Gypsies and Travellers.

The Conservatives evidently failed to seek advice from established experts or members of the Gypsy and Traveller community, contrary to good practice in policy formation generally, and on ethnic minorities in particular.

There is no acknowledgement of the exclusion suffered by Gypsies and Travellers, which as the EHRC and others have demonstrated is primarily caused by a national shortage of sites – made worse by the last Conservative Government’s repeal of the duty to provide sites contained in the Caravan Sites Act 1968. The issue of Gypsy and Traveller site provision is a sensitive one which arouses the worst prejudices, but consensus has been laboriously established on a framework for site delivery. Your Green Paper would destroy this achievement at a stroke.

If this document is used by Conservatives in local or national election campaigns, it will provoke community tensions, as occurred at the last general election when negative Conservative policies, less extreme than the present Green Paper, aroused great concern among Gypsies and Travellers and an increase in racism in schools and the wider community. The attached note shows that your Green Paper is based on false assumptions and little if any research. I respectfully urge you to meet Gypsy and Traveller representatives and established experts in planning and race relations including the EHRC, and that in the meanwhile you put this flawed policy on ice.

cc David Cameron MP, John Denham MP, Dan Rogerson MP, Julie Morgan MP, Trevor Phillips EHRC

Conservative “Open Source Planning Green Paper” Policy Green Paper Number 14 – Travellers (Page 18)

[Link to the document]

A Response by Lord Avebury, Chris Johnson (Community Law Partnership), Marc Willers, barrister, David Joyce BL and Andrew Ryder

Extracts from the paper are in bold and our comments on them are in italics.

Planning rules should ensure fairness between the settled and the Traveller communities. Local authorities have a role to ensure the provision of suitable authorised sites to tackle genuine local need for their area in consultation with local communities. In addition, recent UK case law has clarified councils’ need to provide authorised sites locally if they are to be able to take effective action against unauthorised sites, even though enforcement still remains a major problem.

Since the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, central and local government have accepted that adequate site provision, both permanent and transit, is the answer to the problem of unauthorised encampments. Until the Caravan Sites Act 1968 was repealed in 1994, it ensured that 350 or so local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites were provided in England and Wales., But there is still a shortfall, caused by the failure of successive central governments and local authorities to ensure adequate provision. This has led to the endemic situation of unauthorised encampments and unauthorised developments, and it is essential that agreement is maintained on the existing framework, based on the policy of ensuring adequate site provision.

Where, therefore, councils have made appropriate provision for authorised sites in their area, which reflect local need and historic demand, we will provide them with stronger enforcement powers to tackle unauthorised development and illegal trespass. In addition we will introduce a new criminal offence of intentional trespass.

If there was adequate site provision, unauthorised encampments would be eliminated. However, local authorities may need to provide more or fewer that the apparent need as measured solely by the local situation, because some redistribution of the burden is necessary as illustrated by the example of Basildon.

There is simply no need for further enforcement powers. There are already sufficient enforcement powers in place. However there is a need for central government to enforce against those local authorities which are avoiding their duty to provide for adequate land under the planning system for the provision of sites.

At the same time, it is important that settled council taxpayers do not foot the bill for the construction of new authorised sites. We will also therefore reform the situation of Traveller site funding to Councils so that Councils are properly compensated for new sites and require Travellers to make a contribution to the appropriate cost of services on authorised sites.

If this paragraph means that 100% funding will continue to be provided for new sites then we are sure that that would be welcomed by local authorities. Gypsies and Travellers already pay rent for such sites and it is difficult to see what further contribution could be expected.

The Human Rights Act affects all the planning, eviction and enforcement decisions made by all public authorities, including Councils and the Police. It has made it more difficult and expensive to evict trespassers from private and public property, and has overridden planning law by allowing travellers to go ahead with unauthorised developments. We will replace Labour’s Human Rights Act with a new British Bill of Rights, which will help address these problems.

It is not clear how the Conservative Party proposes to repeal the Human Rights Act when the enforcement of the European Convention on Human Rights in domestic law is an obligation of the UK Government to the European Union. It is not correct to say that the Human Rights Act has “overridden planning law by allowing travellers to go ahead with unauthorised developments”. No Planning Inspectorate or Court decision supports this assertion. The Human Rights Act is a matter to be taken into account in eviction and enforcement actions but the assertions made here are incorrect.

The Labour Government has used the regional planning system and top-down targets to force local planning authorities to build new traveller camps often on Green Belt land and, if necessary, using their compulsory purchase powers to obtain land for these new Traveller sites. Conservatives disagree with top-down building targets, be it for traveller camps or new houses.

There is no evidence that compulsory purchase powers have been used albeit that they could be used. The sensible accommodation assessment process of identifying suitable locations for sites will be thwarted by this complete change of direction, which will have disastrous consequences for the systematic provision of adequate land for Gypsy sites.

As part of the abolition of regional planning and Regional Spatial Strategies, targets for the provision of traveller camps will be scrapped. In addition we will also scrap John Prescott’s controversial guidance on travellers.

Scrapping of targets and guidance will reverse the process of ensuring adequate site provision. This section of the Green Paper does recognise the need for adequate site provision, but is silent on how this can be achieved without targets or guidance. A great deal of work has been done not only in putting together the targets and guidance, but also in getting them generally accepted through consultation. In a recent briefing note for the Institute for Race Relations (Avebury, Acton , Ryder and Willers, IRR, 2010) it is argued that scrapping the Regional Spatial Strategy will cause huge confusion and derail the timetable to deliver new sites, leading to a continuation of unauthorised encampments and developments and increased community tensions.

The abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies will also wreck the mechanisms created whereby the site targets for some areas with large Gypsy and Traveller communities such as Basildon have been reduced by redistribution of pitch targets through the Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS). The end of such policies of redistribution are implied in the line already quoted in Conservative policy which states councils should make appropriate provision which ‘reflect local need and historic demand’. Redistribution via RSS has proven popular with a number of Conservative councils who have seen their pitch targets greatly reduced and neighbouring authorities compelled to develop sites, who it has been argued with some justification managed to avoid their obligations to Gypsies and Travellers in the past. This begs the question of how widely the Green Paper has been discussed within the Conservative Party itself.

In addition, our promise to limit the concept of retrospective planning permission will also ensure that another route by which the planning system has been abused by those seeking to use unauthorised sites will be curtailed.

The Government Task Force on Enforcement and Site Provision concluded that, especially since retrospective planning permission applied across the whole spectrum of planning cases, that this right should not be withdrawn. We fully support the Task Force conclusion and the reasons given by them for their conclusions. A large number of very eminent experts on planning were represented in the Task Force and it is most alarming that their conclusions should be dismissed in this way.

As a result we will have introduced a legal framework, similar to that which exists in the Irish Republic, to enable Councils to remove unauthorised dwellings. This will allow Councils to tackle the problem of unauthorised sites including both those built on land which is owned by travellers and land which is not.

The Irish Republic system relies, as we do, on the concept of adequate site provision. And as in Britain, only when adequate site provision is achieved, will the situation of unauthorised encampments and unauthorised developments be resolved. Unlike in England and Wales, Irish local authorities have a duty under the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 to adopt a Five Year Traveller Accommodation Programme which includes both housing and transit sites.

In Ireland, S 19 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 as amended by S 24 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002,  the ‘Trespass law’  allows for the removal of objects including a caravan placed on private or public land without the consent of the owner. It does not apply to temporary dwellings placed on land owned by a Traveller, roadside land, or land to which little or no public amenity is attached.

S 10 of the 1992 Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act as amended by S 32 of the Housing Traveller Accommodation Act 1998, the most commonly used method of evicting Travellers, allows a local authority to get the owner of a caravan on an unauthorised encampment on public land within a five mile radius of a site managed or controlled by a local authority to move that caravan to a vacant place on that council site, or on any other council site within the council’s functional area. The local authority also has power to serve a notice on a Traveller whose caravan is stationed without authorisation on public land, requiring the owner to move it to a vacant pitch on any council-owned site that is within one mile. Such provisions would hardly ever work in England and Wales, because there would not be a vacant place to which the Traveller could be directed

Suppose it is conceded, however, that proportionately more evictions do occur in Ireland than in England and Wales. The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), an international non-governmental organisation mandated to protect and promote housing rights throughout the world, having special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, reported in 1995 that in Ireland

“The number of evictions recorded – whether official or unofficial – is extremely high considering that the Department of Environment estimates that 700 Traveller families currently live by the roadside, while another 350 are sharing accommodation with relatives to avoid eviction from the roadside. Evictions are severely disruptive to children’s education and have a severe impact on the mental and physical welfare of the Traveller families. Sustainable access to services such as health and social welfare is made exceedingly difficult’.

Five years later, it was reported that in the year 2000, about 500 families were served with eviction notices without being offered alternative accommodation. The effect of making it easier to evict Travellers was not to reduce unauthorised encampments, but to disrupt the lives of Traveller families still further and make it even more impossible for them to play a useful role in society. This would be the experience in Britain too, if Irish policy on evictions is imported.

AGM 2009: Keynote Speech

By Lord Avebury

Introduction

Delighted to be with you once again and to have this opportunity of discussing with you some of the human rights issues that affect the Gypsy Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities; what developments there have been over the last 12 months, and what are the prospects for change, either for better or for worse, over the coming year.

Progress Report on Gypsy and Traveller Policy

Ever since I first became involved in the needs of Travellers more than 40 years ago, the shortage of sites where Travellers could stop lawfully has been at the same time their main preoccupation, and the principal reason why they experience greater disadvantage than any other ethnic minority in accessing all other public services and health and education in particular. For the time being, the effects of the legislation of five years ago have yet to be visible on the ground. The assessments of need have been completed, draft strategies have been published, and some of them have been consulted upon, leading finally to detailed lists of the number of additional pitches that are to be provided in each District by 2011, for which the local authorities are supposed to allocate the land in a development plan document. The two regions that have got this far already are the East and the South West – and in retrospect it was unfortunate that in the legislation there was no schedule of dates by which the various stages had to be completed, with the result that some regions are far ahead of others. But even in the regions where they have got as far as the allocation of pitches to Districts, being realistic there isn’t a chance of getting the numbers that are wanted by 2011. The Government’s first annual Progress Report on Gypsy and Traveller Policy in July found that the proportion of caravans on unauthorised pitches decreased from 22% in January 2007 to 20% in January 2009, so at that rate of progress it would still be 18% in 2011.

There’s another caveat even with the small reduction of caravans on unauthorised sites in the bare figures. The Progress Report shows that half the planning appeals that were granted in the year to end March 2009 were granted only for a temporary period, storing up the demand for permanent accommodation rather than satisfying it.

In the East Region, where more Travellers live than any other by a long chalk, the minimum additional requirement for the period 2006-11 was 1,200 and the maximum 3,000, but the experience at grassroots level shows there is no hope of getting even to the lower figure. The year 2007/08 yielded 97 permanent residential pitches and 8 transit pitches, so at this rate it would take at least ten years to get to the minimum for 2011. The report comments that ‘without a significant uplift in provision the region will not meet Plan targets. and if other Regions had got this far in their monitoring it would be the same story throughout England. It was really unfortunate that the East Region only took up £1.3 million of the £9 million grant that was available to them from central Government for site refurbishment, that could have funded quite a few extra pitches. The grants actually awarded between 2006 and 2008 were spent mainly on refurbishment of existing sites, but they paid for 165 new pitches, and brought another 23 pitches back into use.

New Government

Looking ahead, in just over half a year from now, there will almost certainly be a Tory Government, and there are already noises indicating an even harsher environment for Travellers. Jacqui Lait MP, speaking from the front bench in a debate on Gypsy encampments in Wiltshire initiated by another Tory James Gray MP last June, repeated that they would review the Human Rights Act to ensure that it couldn’t be invoked by Travellers in planning cases, though it is impossible to see how any Government could modify the interpretation of the Convention, on which the Act is based. She questioned the very process by which the local authority targets had been reached although it was endlessly debated when the Bill was going through Parliament, and the drafts were subject to painstaking consultation in the regions. She reaffirmed that trespass would be made a criminal offence, and she indicated that with the abolition of regional spatial strategies, local authorities would have absolute discretion over sites within their boundaries. These policies certainly appeal to the Tories who speak on Travellers such as Eric Pickles and John Baron, though I am not sure about Caroline Spelman, now Tory lead on CLG. She has kept her cards pretty close to her chest, but has said she intends to produce a ‘green paper’ before Christmas. That implies consultation by the Party leadership with their rank and file, which might produce some unpalatable results. And of course, even if it takes a Tory Government a little while to change direction, when local authorities realise that there are likely to be no penalties for doing nothing to achieve the regional targets, the attempt to find suitable land is going to slow down or stop altogether.

I see now that the Tories have also begun to think about their first education Bill, and what a Tory source described to The Guardian as an ‘appallingly long list of things to drop in the bin’ as regards schools. In the search for cuts, it would be a total disaster if they had the Traveller Education Service in their sights. The Equality and Human Rights Commission review of inequalities experienced by the communities says again that Gypsy and Traveller children’s achievement remains sharply below that of all other groups and this inequality is increasing. They give detailed examples illustrating the severity of the disadvantage suffered by Irish Traveller and Gypsy/Roma children, which may be compounded by the propensity to go for EHE. The arrangements for EHE are poorly monitored and supported, but to put this right will require more, not less resources. More effort is also needed evidently on tackling the reasons given by parents for choosing EHE: fear of cultural erosion, lack of relevance of the secondary curriculum, and fear of racial bullying. Some secondary schools have been relatively successful in countering these factors, and some of the 17 recommendations for tackling educational inequality would clearly encourage Traveller to keep their children past the transition from primary that is all too often the end of school. The development of positive home-school partnerships, and the appointment of a race equality champion, for instance are likely to have positive effects anyway, but would reduce the distrust of secondary education by GRT parents. But as you would expect, nearly all of the recommendation are likely to demand extra resources. At a time when every Party is talking about cuts, its going to be a hard struggle to persuade any Government to stump up the money that it would cost to make a real impact on GRT educational inequality.

DCSF Traveller Forum

A hopeful sign, as I’m sure you know, is the decision by the DCSF Minister Vernon Coaker, following the meeting I had with officials at the DCSF in July, and with the Minister on August 26, to establish a DCSF Traveller Forum. The first members have already been invited, and the initial meeting is at the end of October. This Forum can I hope review the EHRC’s education recommendations and say what priority they would attach to them – and I would also hope that ACERT decide to make comments on that chapter and indeed on the review as a whole.

This review was the second major piece of work the EHRC have published this year. In the previous one, from March, they set themselves as well as others some objectives. They are integrating their Gypsy and Traveller work into their local government programme; engaging political parties in a dialogue about good relations with the GRT communities; working with the media to improve their reporting of GRT stories, and documenting and reporting local authority good practice. Maybe ACERT can get into conversation with them so they get to know what members are doing in the schools, and if you have examples of best practice you can share with them, it would be great.

Education and Health

There is an obvious connection between education and health disadvantage in Gypsy/Traveller communities. Their lack of education can make them distrustful of all professionals, and therefore reluctant to access health services, even if they can overcome barriers such as the lack of a permanent address which is often demanded for registration. The EHRC review points to studies that indicate the effectiveness of peer educators in facilitating access and they single out the Sussex Traveller Women’s Health Project as a particularly impressive example. The inadequate evidence we have is that Traveller women’s health in particular is a great deal worse than for the population generally, with poor take-up of preventive services and high rates of maternal death in pregnancy and after childbirth. It would be really useful if the EHRC is going to document the experience of successful local authorities like Sussex and Derbyshire to promote similar initiatives elsewhere.

The few health studies that have something to say about the comparative health of settled Travellers and those moving from one unauthorised site to another indicate, as you would expect, that the latter are more likely to incur serious illness and early death. If we really wanted to reduce the inequality and disadvantage suffered by the Traveller community, the best way forward would be to halt evictions from land owned by the Travellers themselves, as long as the local authority is unable to offer the residents an alternative. It must be far more difficult to assert the rights owing to all citizens, if you don’t know where you’re going to be tomorrow. The Children’s Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green has intervened in the case of one extended family of 60 Travellers including ten children and one mentally disabled young person of 20 who were going to be evicted from their own land at the end of August following a court order confirmed by the court of appeal, but it seems likely the bailiffs will go in and kick them all onto the street next week. Surely this makes no sense, when apart from the immediate expense of the bailiffs, there are long term effects on the ability of the whole family to make any useful contribution to society.

The Future

We recognise that people have the right to live in caravans if that is part of their culture, but we have made it impossible for one in five Travellers to do that, by failing to provide the necessary amount of land for them under our planning system in the past. Having now made changes in the law intended to remedy the shortage, requiring less than one square mile in bits spread across the whole of England, we should stop making Travellers homeless as long as local authorities drag their feet.

I look forward to the day when there are more than enough members of the GRT communities to argue their own case with local authorities and central Government. I’m proud that the DCSF Forum is going to be doing that very soon, and I salute the contribution ACERT members are making to the improvement of Travellers’ capacity to look after themselves in dealing with authority. In our complex society, those who get no further than primary education are seriously handicapped not only in their choice of occupation, but in their ability to make themselves heard and assert their own human rights. The Gypsy/Traveller communities have produced some powerful advocates, but nothing like enough yet to make a real difference. You are helping to put that right.

Annual General Meeting 2009

This year’s AGM took place in late September, again in The Community Rooms in Millman Street, London. A well attended meeting heard Lord Avebury give the keynote speech. David Sheard of Cumbria County Council speaking about this year’s Appleby on the Hoof and a viewing of the DVD “Road to Success” were other highlights.

Keynote Speech

Eric Avebury delivered his speech at the AGM. You can read his thoughts in full by following the link below. He gave a view on the shortage of sites in the UK and reported on the Government’s first annual progress report on Gypsy and Traveller policy. With a possible change of Government in 2010 Eric gave a view on the possible impact on GRT communities and Traveller Education Services. Finally, he looks forward to the decision to establish a DCSF Traveller Forum.

Read Lord Avebury’s speech here

Education on the Hoof DVD

The DVD “Education on the Hoof” made at this year’s Appleby Fair was shown at the AGM. We have been granted permission to show the clip on our site. This film was made by Simon Evans.

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Education on the Hoof

The PowerPoint Presentation of Education on the Hoof can be downloaded and viewed offline below.

Education on the Hoof 2009 [1.2mb]

Reminiscence

Cambridgeshire Race Equality and Diversity Service

Kate D’Arcy gave everyone present at the AGM copies of the new publication “Reminiscence” produced by CREDs.

Arthur Ivatts writes in the book’s introduction: “This wonderful book of photographs provides a telling story of the many and varied events that took place up and down the country during the month of June in 2008. I am sure the editor, Rose Wilson and her colleagues had an extremely difficult task in the sorting and selection process. We must all be indebted to all of them for this memorable historic archive which will be treasured by so many for so long.”

Further copies of Reminiscence are available for just £1.50.

Contact Kate D’Arcy: kate.d’arcy@cambridgeshire.gov.uk

Cambridgeshire Race Equality and Diversity Service (Resources)

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