Warning over plan to change definition of 'traveller' in planning policy

Proposals to redefine 'traveller' in planning policy to exclude those who no longer travel permanently are based on a 'narrow understanding' of the ethnic and cultural values and way of life associated with travellers and would be difficult to apply in practice, according to the Planning Officers Society.

Dale Farm: riot police block off the entrance to Dale Farm in 2011 (picture by Susan Craig-Greene)
Dale Farm: riot police block off the entrance to Dale Farm in 2011 (picture by Susan Craig-Greene)

In September, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) published for consultation proposals to amend planning policies for Gypsies and travellers, including revising current policy to strengthen green belt protection.

The consultation proposed amending the planning definition of travellers to limit it to those who have a nomadic way of life. 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.

In its response to the consultation, the Planning Officers Society said that it does not support the proposed change in definition.

"We are concerned that the proposed change is based on a very narrow understanding and appreciation of the ethnic and cultural values and way of life associated with travellers, as it implies that travellers are only defined by how much they travel away from their homes," the consultation response said.

The response added that the Planning Officers Society's main concern is how the proposed new definition would be applied in practice and warned that it could have unintended consequences.

"Some guidance is needed as to how local authorities are expected to determine whether travellers are no longer living a 'nomadic habit of life' for both housing and planning purposes," the response said.

It added: "How often do they need to travel to be considered nomadic? How are local authorities expected to prove whether travelling has ceased 'temporarily' or 'permanently'? When does 'temporary' become 'permanent'?"

The response continued: "This proposal is going to be very challenging to implement and assess at application or appeal stage. A lot of local authority and inspectors' time is going to be taken up debating whether a family are still travelling and are therefore entitled to a pitch."

According the Planning Officers Society, it is likely that Gypsy and traveller families will travel more if the proposed definition is adopted "to ensure that they are eligible for a site and perhaps as a reaction to the suggestion that they are no longer a traveller if they do not move frequently".

But planning minister Brandon Lewis said: "The public want to see fair play in the planning system, with people being treated equally.

"We are suggesting in our consultation that travellers who have settled and permanently stopped traveling should be treated in the same way as all other members of the settled community, whilst those with genuinely nomadic lifestyles should continue to be treated as travellers in planning law. This is just common sense."

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