Gypsy policy proposals prompt anger

Government plans to amend planning policies for Gypsies and travellers could make it much more difficult for these groups to gain consent for sites, according to consultants and lawyers.

Dale Farm: planning minister hopes that proposals will avoid repeat of incidents such as those at the encampment in Essex (Credit: Susan Craig-Greene)
Dale Farm: planning minister hopes that proposals will avoid repeat of incidents such as those at the encampment in Essex (Credit: Susan Craig-Greene)

The proposals, including amending current policy to strengthen green belt protection, were published by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) this week.

Other proposals in Consultation: planning and travellers include restricting circumstances in which temporary permission for Gypsy sites may be given in the green belt and ensuring that councils should "very strictly limit" new traveller sites in open countryside, strengthening current policies (see panel below).

The consultation also proposes redefining "Gypsy" and "traveller" in planning policy to exclude those who no longer travel permanently. Current policy requires that those who have ceased travelling for reasons of health, education or old age should be treated like those who continue to travel.

Where a member of the travelling community ceases to travel and applies for a permanent site, the document says this "should be treated no differently to an application from the settled population".

The proposals have prompted anger from campaign groups, lawyers and planning consultants who represent Gypsies and travellers. They said it could make it even harder for these groups to gain consent for sites.

Planning silk Marc Willers QC and consultant Dr Simon Ruston both said revisions to definitions could violate the European Convention on Human Rights. Willers, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, said the document was "dog-whistle politics" ahead of the 2015 general election.

"The key issue that could generate legal challenges would be that of definition," he said. Willers added that he thought it could prompt action under Article 8 of the convention, the right to private and family life. He said elderly or disabled travellers who have stopped travelling would be prevented from applying for planning permission for a site.

Ruston called the proposals an "attack" by the government that "could potentially represent checkmate" for Gypsies and travellers. "The most insidious of all is the government’s plan to alter the definition to the effect that it would be limited to those who have a nomadic habit of life," he said.

Ruston said the proposals are contrary to Article 5 of the convention which relates to the protection of national minorities. He added: "If these proposals are adopted, it will become almost entirely impossible to develop Gypsy and traveller sites."

On the greater limiting of sites in open countryside, both Ruston and Willers said this is where these groups traditionally live and urban land values preclude sites being purchased and developed there. "The proposals will have the effect of banning gypsies and travellers from most of rural England," said Ruston.

Alison Heine, a principal at Heine Planning Consultancy, challenged the planning minister’s assertion that travellers are still setting up large-scale unauthorised sites. She said the blame for unauthorised encampments lies with councils who have failed to allocate enough land for sites in local plans.

Charity the Traveller Movement said the proposals "will inevitably increase the numbers of travellers forced to live by the side of the road in unauthorised encampments".

Chief executive Yvonne MacNamara said the group is "aggrieved" by the proposals, pointing out that most travellers on permanent sites no longer follow a nomadic lifestyle. She said: "The proposed changes to the definition will set many families back by forcing them on to the roads."

Paul Miner, senior planning campaigner at lobby group the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: "We welcome the government restating its commitment to the green belt and also the need to keep control over any inappropriate development, which includes all types of housing."

A DCLG spokesman said: "Non-nomadic travellers would have their housing need assessed in the same way as the rest of the settled community. Councils would still seek to provide sites for those who travel."

Six key policy changes proposed in the consultation

1. Redefining "Gypsy" and "traveller" to exclude those who no longer travel. When such individuals seek consent for a caravan site it "should be treated no differently to an application from the settled population", the document says. It adds: "The government believes that a traveller should be someone who travels."

2. Downgrading the weight of a lack of an up-to-date five-year supply of deliverable traveller sites. Currently, a failure to show this is a "significant material consideration" when considering applications for temporary permission. The consultation proposes that this would be merely a "material consideration", with its weight a matter for the decision-taker, for applications on certain protected land, including green belt; Sites of Special Scientific Interest; Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty; and national parks.

3. Strengthening green belt protection by amending the current policy so "unmet need and personal circumstances are unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt and any other harm".

4. Strengthening the current onus on authorities to "strictly limit new traveller site development in open countryside" to "very strictly" limit such developments.

5. "Intentional unauthorised occupation" by anyone "should be regarded by decision takers as a material consideration that weighs against the grant of permission".

6. Where "a large-scale unauthorised site has significantly increased" a council’s need, and the area is "subject to strict and special planning constraints", it would not need to "plan to meet traveller site needs in full".

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