Sharma tells councils ‘step up to the plate’ on providing traveller sites

Housing minister confirms government consultation on the effectiveness of enforcement against illegal encampments.

aloka sharma

With the number of traveller caravans on authorised sites rising, housing minister Alok Sharma has confirmed a government consultation on the effectiveness of enforcement against illegal encampments.

Sharma told the Commons councils had to “step up to the plate” on providing sites

“Local authorities that meet their requirements help to limit the prevalence of illegal encampments. We expect local authorities and the police to clamp down on such encampments, but unless there are sufficient sites, the police and local authorities will not be able to use their powers fully,” he said.

The number of caravans on authorised sites rose from 14,498 in July 2010 to 17,938 in July 2016.

But some areas had seen illegal incursions double.

In March 2015, the government wrote to council leaders, police and crime commissioners and police chief constables about their response to illegal encampments – concerned that local authorities and the police were not being seen to be doing enough to stop such incursions.

Then, government reiterated the robust powers available to remove unauthorised sites.

“But I am aware of growing concern that the available powers are not being used fully,” said Sharma.

“Local authorities, the police and other agencies can work effectively together. The police can act much faster when there are sites to direct travellers to – that is why we expect local authorities, as a minimum, to plan for a five-year supply of deliverable and developable sites for travellers,” he said.

The government stands by its ‘progress’ in ensuring that the needs of travellers are balanced with those of the settled community.

In 2012, the government published the planning policy for traveller sites, which requires planning authorities to make their own assessment of need – with its five-year plan for supply of deliverable traveller sites.

That policy was revised in 2015 and gave increased protection to the green belt.

Sharma acknowledged illegal encampments as perpetrated by a small percentage of the gypsy and traveller community but members referenced a ‘fundamental problem’ in travellers refusing moves to new pitches.

Tony Lloyd MP questioned Sharma over the delivery of the 2016 draft guidance review of housing needs for caravans and houseboats.

He said: “Under the affordable homes programme, £60m was available for travellers for traveller sites. The minister did not tell us how many new sites have been allocated. He did not tell us where the money is, or what it has been spent on.

“That matters, frankly, because I can tell the house that in the south-east, for example, only 10 of the 66 local authorities now have a five-year plan for the supply of traveller sites.

“In the east and west midlands only 15 of the 70 local authorities across the whole region have a five-year supply plan.”

James Heappey MP said the issue with requiring the provision of authorised sites is that a county cannot accept unlimited liability for those sites just because they happened to be popular for travellers.

“Most local authorities have provided a reasonable number of sites, but demand exceeds supply. It cannot be down to the taxpayer to meet that demand no matter what,” he said.

Lloyd countered that  many local authorities were not providing any sites.

“If there are no sites, we will simply move people from one illegal, antisocial encampment to another, however much we operate the revolving door. That achieves nothing, and is neither rational nor fair to the communities who bear the burden of those illegal visitations,” he said.

Wera Hobhouse MP drew comparisons with the boating community and issues around river mooring rights.

“Members of the boating community do not want to be moved around, but under the current provisions that is what is happening. It is important, when talking about the travelling community, that we also include the boating community, which is increasing,” she said.

Lloyd conceded an “interesting point” and awareness that the owners of berths are beginning to make moves against their existing tenants.

While such moves were “not acceptable”  the world of narrowboats and houseboats was, he said,  a very different one to that of travellers.

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