ERIC Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has been found to have breached both English and Welsh law and the European Convention of Human Rights with his controversial policy of recovering Traveller site appeals.
In today's judgement involving the cases of Ms Moore and Ms Coates, two ethnic Romany Gypsy women who were seeking planning permission for single pitch sites for themselves and their families in the Green Belt, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Gilbart, found that Mr Pickles's policy had breached both the Equality Act 2010 and Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
According to experts in the field of Gypsy and Traveller law, the judgment means that "the vast majority" of Gypsies and Travellers who have had successful appeals recovered and overturned by Mr Pickles's office may now be able to challenge those decisions in court.
Mr Pickles had issued a ministerial statement in July 2013, stating that his office would "consider for recovery appeals involving traveller sites in the Green Belt". In practice this meant that where appeals involving Gypsy and Traveller sites had been allowed by Planning Inspectors, they then faced being overturned by Mr Pickles.
The specific targeting of planning cases involving Traveller sites was a move widely interpreted as discriminatory towards Gypsies and Travellers, as well as one that severely undermined the authority of government-appointed planning inspectors to rule on appeal cases under their jurisdiction.
Mr Pickles' determination was underlined by a further Ministerial Statement, issued on 17th January 2014, which stated that "The Secretary of State remains concerned about the extent to which planning appeal decisions are meeting the Government’s clear policy intentions, particularly as to whether sufficient weight is being given to the importance of green belt protection. Therefore, he intends to continue to consider for recovery appeals involving traveller sites in the green belt."
Mr Justice Gilbart also noted the seriousness of Mr Pickles's contravention of the law. "These are not to be dismissed as technical breaches," he said. "Both are part of the law of England and Wales ... Although the issue of unlawful discrimination was put before the Minister by his officials, no attempt was made by the Minister to follow the steps required of him by statute, nor was the regard required of him by Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 had to the matters set out there," he said.
"The Article 6 challenge has succeeded because substantial delays have occurred in dealing with the appeals of Mrs Moore and Ms Coates, and with many other cases. In the context of delay, Article 6 of the ECHR does no more than encapsulate the long standing principle of the common law that justice should not be unreasonably delayed, as it was and has been here. The Claimants were and are entitled to have their appeals determined within a reasonable time. The delays they have experienced have also affected those who oppose their appeals," he continued.
Lawyers working on behalf of Gypsies and Travellers affected by the policy were jubilant as news of the judgement came through. "The implications of this judgment are enormous," said Gypsy and Traveller law experts the Travellers Advice Team at Community Law Partnership.
"The vast majority of all Gypsy and Traveller planning appeals that were recovered since the first Written Ministerial Statement was published may now be challengeable due to the fact that the practice of the policy was unlawful and discriminates against Gypsies and Travellers, fails to have regard to the Public Sector Equality Duty and has caused unreasonable delays in terms of Article 6 of the ECHR," they said.
"We would urge all Gypsies and Travellers who have had their appeals recovered since this Statement was published to seek urgent legal advice. The Travellers Advice Team National Helpline is, of course, available if people want to take advice from us on this issue or if people know of Gypsies and Travellers who have been affected. Our National Helpline is 0121 685 8677, Monday to Friday 9.00 am to 5.00 pm."
Pickles was also reprimanded for obstructing a key principle of common law, that justice should not be unreasonably delayed. The Royal Courts of Justice heard that "the Article 6 challenge has succeeded because substantial delays have occurred in dealing with the appeals of Mrs Moore and Ms Coates, and with many other cases. In the context of delay, Article 6 of the ECHR does no more than encapsulate the long standing principle of the common law that justice should not be unreasonably delayed, as it was and has been here. The Claimants were and are entitled to have their appeals determined within a reasonable time. The delays they have experienced have also affected those who oppose their appeals," said Mr Justice Gilbert.
A spokesperson for the Traveller Movement, a London-based charity which combats the marginalisation of Travellers and Gypsies in Britain, said: “Justice has been done and the Secretary of State Eric Pickles’ policy of calling in Traveller site appeals for his own personal determination has now been found to have had no regard to fundamental principles of British law."
“Eric Pickles has often claimed that planning law needs to be seen to be fair to all and that his past and current policies around Traveller sites are an attempt to rectify the perceived imbalance towards Gypsies and Travellers. That claim now rings hollow as the High Court has found that the SoS’s calling in policy was an abuse of power that subjected two Romany Gypsy families to a process that breached the fundamental Human Right to a fair hearing and had which had no regard whatsoever to British Equalities laws,” they said.
“This now calls into question all Traveller site appeals determined and dismissed by the Secretary of State since 2013. This is in the region of one hundred appeals that will now need to be re-heard. This is a remarkable blunder by the Secretary of State and Mr Pickles can’t say he wasn’t warned. Gypsy and Traveller organisations and legal representatives have been repeatedly warning him that the policy was unlawful since it was introduced in 2013,” they said.
The Traveller Movement also wished to warn Mr Pickles that his current proposal to change the planning law definition of Gypsies and Travellers to artificially reduce the need for more sites and to apply harder tests for Traveller site green belt developments than any other developments is also potentially unlawful and will be challenged in court.
"Will the Secretary of State listen? Or will he simply charge ahead on what appears to be a personal and unlawful crusade to try to drive the UK’s Gypsies and Travellers into the sea by using any means possible to deny them a place to live?”, they said.
The Community Law Partnership added: "Congratulations to Parminder Sanghera of the Travellers Advice Team who ran both the cases, to the barristers involved for the two Gypsies concerned, namely Tim Jones of No 5 Chambers and Stephen Cottle of Garden Court Chambers, and to the Planning Consultant for both appeals, Dr Angus Murdoch. Well done also to the Equality and Human Rights Commission for intervening in the case and to their solicitor, Rosemary Lloyd, and their barrister, Chris Buttler, for their excellent work on the case."
Mr Justice Gilbart's full judgement on the case can be found on the Community Law Partnership's website.