As the fifth and final episode of the Channel 4 series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings aired on Tuesday night, the impact of the programme on the community, and on the perception of the community in popular discourse, cannot be underestimated. One of the issues which was touched on all too briefly in episode two of the series is the shortage of available accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers. Government data suggests that ther are 18,148 caravans in England of which 6,852 are on social rented sites, 7,627 on authorised private sites, 2,199 on unauthorised developments and 1,470 on unauthorised encampments. This disjuncture between the number of sites and the estimated population numbers demonstrates the continued lack of resources and sites for Gypsies and Travellers in Britain. Indeed, a variety of reports have suggested that 4000 more pitches are required (and some Gypsy and Traveller representatives say that this is an underestimation of need, indicating instead that there are at least 4,500 families with no official site to live on).
One of the principle causes of the sites shortage and unauthorised encampments has been a failure of policy implementation in the past. Recent legislation and policy has sought to address the shortfall in accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers, but this has not yet manifested in sufficient number of sites being built. The 2004 Housing Act created a statutory duty on local authorities to assess Gypsies and Travellers’ accommodation needs which were used to set pitch targets through Regional Strategies, which in turn should have led to local authorities identifying land for site development. The previous Government also provided capital grant funding for new site development. However, the new Conservative-led Coalition Government in England swept away the existing regulatory framework in the summer of 2010 by revoking regional strategies and announcing the abolition of Planning Circular 1/2006 governing planning decisions on site development, to be replaced with ‘light-touch guidance’.
There have been fights against this removal of regulatory and fiscal support for new site provision; for example the Cala Homes case which was brought to test the legality of the Secretary of State’s advice to councils to take into material consideration during planning decisions, the announced abolition of regional strategies. The first judgement found in favour of Cala Homes (the direction from the Secretary of State was unlawful) but the second judgement found there was no case for Judicial Review. A further example is the case brought by service users of the Roma Support Group against the cuts proposed by London Councils in their grants to charity groups. The High Court upheld the case based on the claim that the councils had failed to consider their equalities duty; and the Judge ordered them to re-run their process of consultation to include full equality impact assessments.
In an attempt to examine the impact of Government policy, the Travellers Aid Trust undertook research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust which was led by a Panel Review of evidence on the impact of the Localism Bill on Gypsies and Travellers. Expert witnesses from Gypsy and Traveller communities, local government, planning and legal professions, representative voluntary organisations and the police all gave evidence on a range of questions examining the Localism Bill. For some, the notion of Localism per se (e.g. empowering communities to make decisions) was a ‘good thing’ but the ‘jury was out’ on whether Localism as presented in the Bill could actually work in practice.
The Panel (including Lord Avebury, Lord Boswell and Rory Stewart MP) attempted to establish the key areas of impact on the travelling communities. The Review has yet to report, but as a member of the Panel, I understood that, whilst there are myriad effects of the Bill on a number of vulnerable groups, the key issue for Gypsies and Travellers right now is accommodation shortage. A home can unlock access to health, education and employment, so it is a priority. Part 5 of the Localism Bill deals with the abolition of Regional Strategies – and this is a double whammy when linked to the withdrawal of Circular 1/2006. Fundamentally, there is a concern that although the regional framework didn’t produce as many new sites as hoped – it did give some imperative to defining accommodation need in numbers of pitches required, and it provided a framework which examined the need on a more abstract level and required head rather than heart decision making. Councils were obliged to show how they would meet need by including sites in development plan documents – this is all swept away in the Bill.
Decisions now will be made on a very local level which in the abstract may be a ‘good thing’ to empower citizens. However, local politicians’ notions of citizens do not always include Gypsies and Travellers. One could pick almost any district and find representation from a local councillor or MP campaigning against a new site on the basis that they are just ‘representing the view of their constituents’ – clearly discounting Travellers from their constituency. Of course there are notable exceptions, including councillors who are themselves Travellers – but these are the minority. Unless Gypsies and Travellers are seen as ‘citizens’ and ‘constituents’, how can they be empowered by the Localism Bill?
One aspect that particularly concerns Gypsies and Travellers is the idea of referenda in local decision making – there are suspicions that what will take place is ‘vocalism’ not localism. Local communities will now have a new framework for objecting to sites through a referendum. The Communities and Local Government department has undertaken impact assessments on the different aspects of the Localism Bill – including referenda. There are a number of assumptions including one that there is no impact on equalities duty or on human rights. There doesn’t seem to have been any investigation of the non monetised costs to society (e.g. a society that includes Gypsies and Travellers) of having these referenda. Yes, there will be a duty for local authorities to examine whether requests for referenda are ‘vexatious’, but Government don’t seem to have anticipated particular minority groups that could suffer under this proposed new way of ‘doing democracy’ – most notably, but not exclusively, Gypsies and Travellers.
The Localism Bill will impact on Gypsy and Traveller communities, unless steps are taken now, before measures are enacted, to mitigate the risks. Without the framework of Regional Strategies and Planning Circular 1/06 how will communities develop the number of sites needed? Will we see referenda as the basis for ‘vocalism’ against seemingly unpopular and marginalised groups, rather than as part of a true ‘localism’ which includes everyone? The Review Panel will make recommendations based on the evidence heard from expert witnesses, to mitigate the potential for negative impact – but will the Government take heed?
Written by Jo Richardson