By CHRIS JOHNSON, MARC WILLERS and SIMON RUSTON
Photo: © Damian Le Bas
EVERY local authority has to produce a local plan in order to set out policies for different types of development in their area. These documents are written by planning officers and normally include a policy for the provision of Gypsy, Traveller and Showpeople sites (although some councils will produce a specific ‘development plan document’ for the provision of such sites).
National Government policy sets out the various considerations that should be taken into account by local plan policies. For example, pitches should be provided on sites in locations which enable Gypsies and Travellers to have access to health and education.
Importantly, councils must ensure that that they include a target for the number of pitches needed. This figure will be taken from a Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessment. It is essential that councils make a robust and accurate assessment of the needs of Gypsies and Travellers because this informs them how many pitches will need to be provided / permitted.
However, many councils are failing to assess the needs of Gypsies and Travellers properly. Common problems include not taking into account the needs of Gypsies and Travellers in housing, the need for transit sites or simply not recording the need for additional pitches accurately. There are three practical steps that Gypsies and Travellers or Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and others representing the interests of Gypsies and Travellers can take in order to ensure that these figures are accurate:
The first is to contact the council’s planning policy department and ask when the next assessment of need is going to be undertaken. If it is not due to happen for a while, ask to be contacted when the work has begun. If the assessment has already been undertaken, ask why you or people you know were not included, and request that the accommodation needs you have identified are taken account of.
The second point concerns the needs assessment itself. When a council is conducting its survey, make sure that everyone you know in your area is included. Do you know of unauthorised encampments or developments in the area that may not have been included? Do you know of Gypsies and Travellers in housing who desperately need pitches? The council normally employs consultants to undertake the work, and they should keep any sensitive information that is given to them confidential. Make sure that you ask them if this is the case.
The third point concerns what happens next. A local plan goes through a series of consultations where the views of the public are sought. If you are not happy with the pitch target figures, make sure that you make an objection to the policy. You may also want to look at the policy to ensure that it is fair and in line with the Government guidance contained in Planning for traveller sites (2012). After the consultations have finished, a Government Inspector will conduct an examination in public of the local plan and decide if it is ‘sound’. At this examination, the Inspector will spend time considering the evidence with regard to Gypsy and Traveller sites. If you are concerned that the council has either produced an unsound policy or has got its pitch figures wrong then it is important to request that you be able to make representations at the examination.
Making representations at examinations in public is really important as it helps ensure that councils make sound policy based on robust evidence for Gypsies and Travellers. For example, in Leeds recently, a community group (LeedsGATE) was concerned that Leeds City Council were severely underestimating the level of need for Gypsy and Traveller pitches within the City, and had not followed government guidance on how to undertake accommodation assessment. The Inspector agreed, and, as a consequence, the Council has been forced to ensure that the needs of Gypsies and Travellers are properly considered. There are other examples of this process working in both Hull and Chorley.
We recognise that the dire lack of funding for Gypsy and Traveller support groups and NGOs makes it very difficult for them to get fully involved in these processes. However, it’s vital that we don’t allow local authorities to get away with failing to meet the needs of Gypsies and Travellers as they have been able to do so often in the past.
Chris Johnson (email@example.com), Travellers Advice Team (TAT) at Community Law Partnership (CLP)
TAT operates a national Helpline for Travellers on 0121 685 8677, Monday to Friday 9.00 am to 5.00 pm
CLP’s website is at http://www.communitylawpartnership.co.uk/
Marc Willers, Garden Court Chambers (firstname.lastname@example.org). Garden Court Chambers has a specialist Romani Gypsy and Traveller Team. Its website is at www.gardencourtchambers.co.uk
Simon Ruston, Ruston Planning Limited, Independent Planning Consultant specialising in Gypsy and Traveller work. Simon can be contacted at email@example.com or on 07967 308752/0117 325 0350