Gypsies and Tories
Last week, the Conservatives played the race card.
But it’s alright. It was only gypsies.
That, at least, is the clear message from the statement put out on Conservative Home, which begins:
The Conservatives have today announced new plans to tackle widespread public concern about the exploitation of the planning system. A new policy blueprint will pledge to address the small minority of travellers who occupy illegal or unauthorised sites.
The first sentence in this statement is a statement of general intent. The second targets a specific minority group for action. With any other minority, there would be outrage.
But this is just gypsies.
This is not, though, a post about the specific inaccuracies, the biases and the race hate set out in the Conservatives’ plans. This has all been very ably covered by the Institute of Race Relations.
Pointing out the Tories’ national level attitude to gypsies and travelers simply sets the tone for an examination of the way in which one particular set of Tories – the ones who run my borough council in West Lancashire – are even now dealing with the ‘problem’ of gypsies and travellers in a way which shows not only complete disregard for the lives of this section of society but also for the integrity of the planning system that their national bosses now suggest is a problem. This is a story of hypocrisy writ large.
Perversely, this hypocrisy involves the Tories on the council refusing to enforce planning decisions – the very decisions that the Tories nationally say should be better enforced, and around which they seek now to introduce criminal legislation aimed fair and square at one minority.
So if you’re listening carefully…….
It is now over two years (17 January 2008) since the borough council’s Planning Committee made the decision that the enforcement notice for clearance an traveller caravan site bang next to the M58 motorway in Skelmersdale, but in greenbelt land, should not be extended. The site is in the ownership of the residents, and had been developed (hardstandings etc.) and occupied. without planning permission. for some years previous.
Specifically, the planning committee stated in its decision:
That no time extension be granted for compliance with enforcement notice E/2004/0050.’
That was back in early 2008. On two separate occasions since then this decision by democratically elected local councillors has been totally ignored by the council administration.
First, in October 2008, a confidential report was brought to the planning committee setting out why the decision could not be enforced, and seeking a further extension on the enforcement period to 31 December 2009. I will not comment on what that report contained, other than to say they related to specific personal circumstances.
Then, just a few days ago (11 February 2010), and nearly two months after the revised notice should have been enforced, a further confidential report was brought to planning committee seeking yet another 12 month deferral until December 2010, bringing it to three years since the original decision to clear the site.
This was voted through by the Tory majority on planning. The only reason the report was confidential was because it contained a review of the previous confidential information – information which was in fact utterly superfluous to the current rationale for further deferral, and only inserted because it allowed the matter not to be heard in public.
Now, it might seem odd that a council under Tory control should go to such lengths not to enforce a planning committee decision relating to a traveler site. But this is where the plot thickens.
Because, while using old but irrelevant confidentiality issues to keep the reasons for further deferral might be scandalous, the reasons given in the February 2010 planning committee meeting for seeking the new deferral are even more scandalous.
The reason given is that, as a permanent site for travellers and gypsies needs to be established somewhere in West Lancashire anyway under the government’s (2006) planning policy guidance on the establishment of permanent, managed sites for gypsies and travellers, then it is now not worth removing this site because it is likely to be adopted (with planning permission) as the new permanent site under this policy anyway.
Thus, a consistent refusal by the current users of the site to seek planning permission on greenbelt land, and a consistent refusal to comply with enforcement notices is now being handsomely rewarded by the Tory administration by awarding it permanent status through the cynical use of the 2006 planning guidance.
As communities secretary John Denham said in response the Tory plans, when leaked in Inside Housing magazine:
‘There are already tough measures in place for local authorities to use where development takes place without planning permission. Most complaints come from areas where councils have failed to use them.’
More importantly though, such a cynical move also makes a total mockery of the due democratic process of identifying where a suitable permanent site should be placed, through the development of the next West Lancashire Local Development Plan and in the context of the North West Regional Spatial Strategy Partial Review. (No need to get bogged down in that detail!)
It is clear (not least from the wrongly confidential report to the planning committee) that the administration is keen that it should be at the M58 site, because it is a politically expedient move. Put simply, it means that it can ‘tick the boxes’ for provision of a permanent site without having to go anywhere near the proper process of actually identifying the most suitable location for a site.
Naturally, it is very far from clear whether a site bang next to a motorway, cut off by it from the town, and in private ownership by one particular section of the traveler community, is in fact the most appropriate site in a large borough.
Simply in terms of travellers’ own needs, it is a long way from services e.g. schools, and there are also legitimate questions to be asked, given the current ownership, of whether the wider traveling community will ever have any access to the site – this being a key rationale for the whole site identification process.
None of these issues has been examined, because the Tory administration is not interested in the findings.
The Tories’ utterly illegitimate decision is likely to mean, in time, more illegal use of sites by travellers, not less, as travellers coming to the area find no legal site for them to stay at. Thus, the whole idea that local tensions might be lessened through the difficult but necessary process of identifying permanent sites is subverted, with tensions likely to rise instead.
Instead of seeking a sensible preventative way forward through the provision of legal sites, the Tories’ (national) solution is simply to criminalize travellers unable to find a legal site.
Yes, that will really help defuse local tensions!
For the Conservatives now nationally to play the race card over traveller sites, while their local administrations are happy to exploit the planning system for their own ends in this way, is shameful, and the height of hypocrisy.
Here in West Lancashire, the Tories have not only failed to undertake their responsibilities. They have failed to do so for reasons which actively breach the rights of travellers, but also subvert the local democratic planning process they profess to hold so dear.