Localism: who’s really got the power?

“I don’t know what to do with my life. My life is upside down because all my things are squashed, me (sic) home has gone. I had a big place and they squashed it to the ground.”

Mary Jones*, 51, was forcibly evicted from a Gypsy and Traveller site in Essex last summer. She had lived at Hovefield for nine years but, like other gypsies and travellers, she was there without planning permission.

A shortage of authorised developments  – where planning permission has been granted – means Gypsies and Travellers often have nowhere else to go once evicted. Children’s education is often disrupted and registering with a GP becomes more difficult for people on the move.

Now there are fears that a new law could make it harder for Gypsies and Travellers to find somewhere permanent to live.

The Coalition Government’s proposed Localism Bill aims to give more power and responsibility to local councils and communities for planning decisions. This includes tougher action against people who abuse planning laws.

Regional spatial strategies, the previous government’s system for determining where new developments should be in each part of the country, will also be scrapped. A ‘top-down’ approach only makes people “feel put upon and less likely to welcome new development,” says the Coalition.

Carrot or stick?

But according to planning consultant and New Traveller Simon Ruston, councils need some sort of “stick” to compel them to provide Gypsy and Traveller sites. Scrapping regional spatial strategies places less onus on councils to act, especially if it means keeping votes, he says.

“Local government notoriously doesn’t have the political leadership. You get a few councils where you get some brave people who actually stand up and say ‘Right, sort this out’, but no local councillor in their right mind is going to want to stick up for travellers.”

Matthew Brindley, policy and research officer for the Irish Travellers Movement in Britain, also believes “it is a no-go area for a lot of politicians and ministers to touch on Gypsy and Traveller issues.”

“We’re not adverse to localism but the core issue here is that the majority of objections against gypsy and traveller sites occur at the local level (and) it makes it very hard for local planning authorities to fulfill their statutory duties to provide accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers,” he adds.

Brindley cites Dale Farm in Crays Hill, Essex, allegedly the largest Gypsy and Traveller site in Europe, where alternative sites are being sought for more than 80 families facing eviction by Basildon District Council from an unauthorised development.  According to Brindley, there were 1200 objections from the local community for a planning application on alternative land, which highlights the issue councils face.

Entrance to Dale Farm, Essex

“How do you work with councillors who might have the best intentions in the world but come up against these staunch objections? They face this terrible decision of getting re-elected or losing the support of their constituents by upholding equality and human rights legislation.”

Councils not off the hook

But Tony Cooke, housing standards manager for South Norfolk Council, argues that the Localism Bill and the scrapping of ‘top-down’ targets does not mean councils will be let off the hook when it comes to Gypsy and Traveller site provision.

“The government is still making it quite clear that local authorities have to assess what the need is and have to meet that need in the same way they have to with affordable housing, and providing affordable housing gives rise to a lot of local opposition and yet for local authorities it’s part of their duties to see that it’s delivered,” he says.

At the last government count of Gypsy and Traveller caravans in July 2010, there were 3,636 on unauthorised sites, about 20 per cent of the gypsy and traveller caravan-dwelling population. Gypsy and Traveller communities are often the focus of social tension, particularly on unauthorised land, and the cost of clearing illegal developments can run into millions. The solution seems obvious.

“The only way you’re going to overcome this is by getting more authorised sites – ones that might be provided by local authorities or housing associations to rent, but also (by) helping families who’ve got the money and resources to develop sites to find suitable land,” says Cooke.

But no matter how authorised land is provided, it could take years to meet the site shortage and it remains to be seen how localism will influence future planning decisions.

Localism in practice

Terry Heselton is planning policy manager at Selby District Council where a major public consultation is underway about planning strategy, including Gypsy and Traveller sites, for the next 15 years. He thinks the spirit of localism is going to be hard to deliver in practice.

“The difficulty is going to be how you can balance local opinion – which nine times out of ten is going to be anti-development whether that’s for market housing, affordable housing or special housing for Gyspsies and Travellers – with the need to actually build more houses. The two don’t fit very comfortably together.”

Heselton suggests that residents’ expectations about empowerment promised by the new Bill may be thwarted by pressure on councils to meet housing and site shortages.

“There’s an aspiration that local communities can decide whether they have more housing or not (but) that’s unlikely to be the case as long as there’s still a need for housing.

“It’s a racing certainty that if we did a survey of all the parishes in our area, there would be very few of them saying they’re quite happy to take more developments, so on that basis where do you put those developments?

“Someone has to decide and that someone is normally the local council through the planning system, so there will still be clashes and the Gypsy and Traveller issue is no different.”

“A very emotive subject”

Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury, a campaigner for Gypsy and Traveller rights, believes objections to sites is not a simple matter of planning law.

Photo of Lord Avebury

Lord Avebury

“When people say they’re breaking planning regulations, that isn’t the true reason for the hostility towards gypsies and travellers – that’s a cloak. They are the only ethnic minority about whom anyone feels they can be completely racist.”

Heselton admits Gypsy and Traveller sites is “a very emotive subject” amongst communities and can trigger “a fairly hysterical reaction when there’s just the merest hint of a proposal.”

Although Selby District Council has yet to put forward proposals for specific Gypsy and Traveller sites, hundreds of residents have still raised concerns around traffic noise, extra pressures on amenities, increased crime and declining property values, which they fear such sites would cause.

One local resident, who did not want to be named, says that several Gypsy and Traveller sites in the Hillam and Monk Fryston areas of Selby have been set up by stealth without planning permission.

“As soon as they move into an area, the crime goes up (and) there’s litter, rubbish and burned out cars. People just can’t be allowed to flout the law just because they come from small and ethnic or disadvantaged group. It’s not desperation, it’s carefully-calculated exploitation,” he adds.

But Heselton can see two sides to the argument. “Quite often some of the more organised ones will deliberately move onto a site on a bank holiday when there are no councils open and the police are probably engaged, policing a whole range of events – it’s no coincidence that they do that.  Of course, that then upsets people because they feel they’ve been deliberately targeted and they’re abusing the law.

“The other side of the coin is that (Gypsies and Travellers) will argue that if (they) don’t do that and go through the normal planning procedure, then (they are) always going to get the thumbs down.”

While battle lines continue to be drawn over planning decisions, Mary Jones is looking for somewhere else to settle down.

“I’m embarrassed because at this time in my life I don’t have a home and that’s all we wanted – just to have our own place, to have our children come and visit us and have a bit of comfort.”

*Name changed to protect identity

(This feature was first published by Marta Clayton in June 2010 as part of an MA project at Bournemouth University. The Dale Farm eviction took place in October 2011.  Read more at Gypsies & Travellers: Forced to Roam?).

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