Joseph Cottrell-Boyce is a policy officer for the Travellers Project at the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain
The ‘radically streamlined planning policy’ – which slashed the previous 54 page document to just 8 pages – will apparently:
“…ensure fair treatment of Travellers in the planning system while respecting the interests of the settled community… [putting] the provision of sites back into the hands of local councils, in consultation with local communities.”
The new policy removes government targets for Traveller sites which it claims “caused tensions with the local settled community” and created a perception of “special treatment for some travellers”.
That Travellers ever got special treatment in the planning system is an extraordinary claim. The reality is that 90% of planning applications submitted by Gypsies and Travellers are rejected, compared to only 20% of applications from the general population.
And while the previous policy of including targets for sites in Regional Spatial Strategies did indeed fail, this failure was characterised not by a rash of new sites causing local tensions, but by local opposition to directives preventing most of the allocated sites being built at all.
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The reluctance of local authorities to comply with the 2004 Housing Act and identify adequate new Traveller sites has meant that in the eight years since its introduction, the number of caravans on unauthorised sites stayed constant at around 20% of the total, which in real terms was an increase from 1,977 to 2,395.
Put simply, the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites is not a vote winner and many local authorities treat Gypsies and Travellers as problems to be got rid of.
A 2006 report by the Commission for Racial Equality concluded:
“Local councillors do not usually see Gypsies and Irish Travellers as members of the community.”
In this context, relaxing the obligation on local authorities to build sites is likely to lead to even the current trickle of provision drying up.
The situation of Britain’s Gypsy and Irish Traveller population is a national embarrassment. Life expectancy is 12 years below the national average, illiteracy rates are off the scale and 25% of Gypsy and Traveller children are not enrolled in education.
Many of the disadvantages faced by Gypsy and Traveller communities stem from a national shortage of legal sites where their families can settle. Twenty per cent of Britain’s caravan dwelling Gypsies and Travellers are officially categorised as homeless, due to living on unauthorised encampments with no legal alternatives.
Illegal sites usually have extremely basic facilities and residents are unable to access GP services or enrol their children in schools.
Adequate site provision is an essential first step towards tackling the gaping disparity in opportunities between Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community. It is also the only sustainable solution to illegal site development.
The scale of the solution is both modest and achievable even within the current economic context. Four thousand additional pitches are required, less than one square mile across the whole country. But to achieve this, proactive policy and strong leadership would be needed in the face of lowest common denominator anti-Gypsy NIMBYism.
What the government has delivered instead is a great leap backward. A policy prescription that will worsen an already dire situation, and make numerous Dale Farm style stand-offs inevitable in the future.