Under changes proposed in the Housing and Planning Bill, which passed its second reading in the House of Commons last week, local authorities in England would no longer have to assess Gypsies' and travellers' housing needs in a separate category to other residents within their areas.
At the moment, councils are required carry out Gypsy and traveller accommodation needs assessments to forecast the number of new pitches needed, under clauses in the Housing Act 2004. But the bill says these clauses should be removed from the act. The bill’s explanatory note says that councils must "consider the needs of all people residing in or resorting to their district, without any references to Gypsies and travellers".
The change has divided opinion among planners. Catriona Riddell, strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society, says she believes it will – in theory - have little impact on local authorities’ day-to-day work.
She said: "From a planning perspective, I don’t think it changes things, because councils still have a responsibility to assess the need and plan for them under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the Planning Policy for Traveller Sites (PPTS)."
However, Riddell added that there is some real concern over councils misinterpreting the new rules. The change, she said, is "almost like handing local authorities, which are reluctant to plan for travellers, an excuse not to do it." One local authority Planning spoke to did not, however, seem to be inclined to use the new rules in this way. South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller said: "We’ll still have a duty to assess the needs of people who want to live in caravans along with all members of society – in a non-discriminatory way."
Alison Heine, from Heine Planning Consultancy, also welcomed the change, which, she said, will introduce consistency into methods currently used for assessing Gypsies and travellers’ housing needs that she says are "overly complicated, costly, ineffective" and sometimes "dodgy." Having that need in a separate category, she added, at the moment helps councils to "put it off, and get away with it."
While Marc Willers QC, of Garden Court Chambers, welcomed Heine’s positive outlook, he said: "I’m more pessimistic." If the bill goes through in its current form, Willers added, the government will most likely change the PPTS too.
He said that Gypsies and travellers "are harder to reach groups," whose housing needs have to be assessed "more sensitively" and added: "I have no doubt that site provision will reduce and that the shortage of accommodation for Gypsies and travellers will increase if the requirement to assess their needs is subsumed into a more general housing needs assessment and the guidance on assessing their needs is swept away."
Simon Ruston, a planning consultant working on behalf of Gypsies and travellers, shares Willers’s view and has argued in a briefing paper that the "compounded inequality of access to suitable accommodation for these ethnic minorities" caused by the change, is contrary to provisions made under the Human Rights Act 1998.
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said that the bill’s measures "will make sure Gypsies and travellers will be assessed with housing need for everyone else.
He said: "This means everyone is treated equally, so that local authorities know how much housing they should plan for to meet all local needs."