New gypsy status’ definition begins to bite as councils use it to ‘deny Gypsies and Travellers homes’

25 January 2016

A leading planning expert has said that Buckinghamshire, Kent and Essex County Councils are already testing their Gypsy and Traveller populations against the new ‘gypsy status’ definition in order to reduce the need for future sites and deny their children the chance of a home on a Traveller site.

Alison Heine, a leading Gypsy and Traveller site planning consultant, spoke out after obtaining the new updated Gypsy Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessment form produced by a commercial research company on behalf of Buckinghamshire and Essex County Council. The Travellers’ Times has been shown a copy of this document.

Needs assessment forms are normally used by councils to simply count the number of Gypsies and Travellers in their area so that plans can be made for more pitches and future Traveller sites, yet the new forms contain detailed questions about ‘travelling’.

These extra questions, Alison Heine claims, only make sense if the councils are planning to apply the new ‘gypsy status’ planning definition – passed into law in August last year – in a bid to reduce the number of Traveller sites that they will have to plan for.

The timing of the assessments is sinister claims Alison Heine.

It has not taken some local authorities long to realise that this change to the definition could reduce the need for more sites if it is discovered fewer families comply with the new definition.”

“Most Councils have failed to identify enough land to meet the need for more site. Few want to. Most are looking for any excuse to avoid the need to do so. One authority in Kent has lost no time going through their need assessments. They noted that most families said they did not travel and now they are telling their Local Plan Inspector that they will not need as many pitches as was first thought because few families in their area comply with the planning definition.”

Alison Heine also said that councils in Buckinghamshire and most of Essex have instructed a firm called Opinion Research  Services (ORS) to update their need assessments and that this was “surprising” because they only did one two years ago and the next one isn’t due till 2018.

She said that section ‘F’ on the form – which will be given to all Gypsies and Travellers in Essex and Bucks to fill in – is particularly worrying.

“Check out Section F of the ORS form,” says Alison Heine.

“It has questions about what travelling you do.  Who goes travelling?  How many trips do you make in a caravan? Why do you go travelling? When and for how long do you go travelling? If you do not travel, when did you last travel and why have you stopped? Do you have plans to go travelling again in the future?”

“Look back at the changed definition of ‘gypsy status’ and its emphasis in the new Government planning policy for Traveller sites, and you will understand why they are asking these questions. This is for one purpose only: they want to establish if you are still a Gypsy-Traveller for planning purposes.”

The Travellers’ Times approached Aylesbury Vale District Council – one of the Buckinghamshire's local planning authorities – for comment.

They did not deny Alison Heine’s claims.

Instead, a spokesperson for Aylesbury Vale District Council said: “Opinion Research Services are undertaking an update to the Buckinghamshire Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessment on behalf of Buckinghamshire authorities, to comply with the recent updates to government guidance.”

“This involves speaking to the Gypsy and Traveller community to collect information required to make an accurate assessment about their future accommodation needs.”

“This information is very important to the assessment, which will inform the allocations which the local plan makes for Gypsy and Traveller pitches and future planning applications.”

Alison Heine has an important message to tell Gypsies and Travellers in Essex and Bucks being asked to fill in forms containing questions about ‘travelling’.

“You do not have to answer these questions. You do not have to assist local authorities with their need assessments.  If your Council want to check if you still meet the definition of a Gypsy –Traveller they should not do so on the back of a need assessment.”

“If you are asked questions about what travelling you do and are unclear and confused-do not answer them and get advice.  Ask the interviewers to make an appointment and return when there is someone there who can help explain the questions to you.

“Think carefully and honestly about your answers. Most importantly of all, never feel pressured into giving answers to questions you are not sure about because there could be serious consequences if the Council decides your occupation of a pitch on a Gypsy-Traveller site is in breach of an occupancy condition which states that only persons who meet the planning definition in Government guidance can live there.”

Filling in the forms without advice could also be damaging to their children’s prospects, she added. 

“Think about your children. Many only know a settled existence. Many have never lived on the road like their parents or Grand-parents did. Most will not have led a nomadic way of life. If they do not go travelling for work with their family they will not have Gypsy-Traveller status for planning purposes when they want to set up on their own.”

“We have to remain vigilant.”

The Travellers’ Times Online will be publishing a comment article by Alison Heine this Wednesday, 27th January.