By Dr Phil Brown
Yesterday the Department for Communities and Local Government published new guidance on how local authorities can deal with unauthorised encampments by Travellershttp://www.communities.gov.uk/news/planningandbuilding/2205993
Thanks to the popularity of Channel Four’s Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and the very public expulsion of residents of DDale Farm in Essex, most people now think they know something about Gypsies and Travellers; certainly more than just a few years ago. To some extent this demystification is a good thing, although the means with which this has arisen is questionable. However, it should be remembered that in 2006 the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) concluded that Gypsies and Irish Travellers were the most excluded group in Britain at the time. In the intervening 6 years it appears very little has changed, and in some ways positive in-roads that were being made are now in reverse.
What is equally worrying is that this does not mean only Gypsies and Travellers continue to suffer the consequences of recent developments in policy, we all do.
Research for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has stated that the exclusion of Gypsies and Travellers is particularly acute in the areas of health, education and social care with a key driver of exclusion being the lack of culturally appropriate accommodation available. That is to say, a lack of sites upon which caravans can be lawfully sited.
As a result of legislation and planning guidance between 2006-2010 significant, albeit slow, progress on increasing the number of authorised pitches available was starting to be made. This progress was largely attributable to two reasons. Firstly the duty placed upon local authorities to compile an evidence base about accommodation need (local authorities are still required to do this). Secondly, the presence of the regional tier which helped tackle apparent unequal need and which provided a very useful political scapegoat for local authority officers and elected members when developing local plans. The regional role is now no longer in place since the removal of the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs).
With this, and other, changes to the planning process the provision of pitches appears to have slowed even further. Although local authorities are still required to produce an evidence base the sense of urgency about doing so relies on the objectives set by local authorities.
Funding is still available, although much reduced, through the Gypsy and Traveller Sites Grant, which continues to help fund the development of new socially rented pitches, and local authorities are incentivised to develop Gypsy and Traveller sites as they can apply the New Homes bonus to every pitch created. It remains to be seen how likely it is that local authorities will take this approach when they could develop nice, familiar and far less politically sensitive bricks and mortar housing.
The costs of moving people – who are arguably – homeless on wheels is becoming increasingly unsustainable in the current climate of resource scarcity; we are all losing here. Gypsies and Travellers lose as they continue to have a lack of available lawful accommodation and are continually vilified for living in overcrowded or unauthorised conditions. The rest of us lose as we continuously live in tension with Gypsies and Travellers who move on to and develop sites without planning permission, we lose the revenue generated by council tax and rent, and we help perpetuate poor outcomes in health and wellbeing for some of the most vulnerable members of our communities.
Tackling and resolving these issues are complex, it always has been. Issuing new guidance on tackling unauthorised encampments is, perhaps, inevitable – being tough on Travellers has been seen to be a vote winner in a past. However, much more would be achieved if as much gusto could go into a concerted effort in meeting the shortfall of accommodation, around 6-7,000 pitches, and creating a pro-active as opposed to reactive approach to working with Gypsy and Traveller communities. Only then will a pathway be provided towards a fairer society for Gypsies and Travellers and everyone else.
Bigger, Fatter, Fairer? Getting it right for Gypsies and Travellers.