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Planning policy

The Government’s planning policies and requirements for Gypsy and Traveller sites are set out in the Planning Policy for Traveller sites, which must be taken into consideration in preparing local plans and taking planning decisions. It encourages local authorities to formulate their own evidence base for Gypsy and Traveller needs and to provide their own targets relating to pitches required. If planning authorities are unable to demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable Traveller sites, this in turn may make it more difficult for them to justify reasons for refusing planning applications for temporary pitches at appeal.

The Local Government Association has published a case study for local planning authorities on spaces and places for Gypsies and Travellers: how planning can help. The Royal Town Planning Institute has also published a briefing on delivering homes and sites: alternative approaches (although this is now several years old and so may not reflect more recent policy changes).

As the Commons Library briefing on Gypsies and Travellers explains at more length, the National Planning Policy Framework was revised and updated in July 2018, with some further minor amendment in February 2019. The update added Travellers who do not meet the definition within the Planning Policy for Traveller Sites to the list of those groups whose need for homes should be identified.

The Government has said that it will consider writing to those local authorities that do not have an up-to-date plan for Travellers in place, to expedite the requirements of national planning policy, and highlight examples of good practice.

Number of Traveller caravans

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) publishes official statistics on the number of Traveller caravans on both authorised and unauthorised sites in England. Local authorities carry out the count of caravans on Traveller sites twice a year, in January and July, providing a snapshot of the number of caravans on the day of the count. At the time of the January 2019 count, the total number of Traveller caravans in England was 22,662. This is a 27% increase compared with January 2009, but a 1% decrease on a year previously.

Authorised and unauthorised sites

In January 2019, 29% of Traveller caravans were on public sites; 59% were on privately funded sites; 9% were in unauthorised developments on land owned by Travellers; and 3% were in unauthorised encampments on land not owned by Travellers. Caravans on authorised private sites have formed a growing proportion of the total number of caravans.

Dealing with unauthorised encampments: are existing enforcement powers sufficient?

It has been argued that the problem of unauthorised encampments is caused by and reflects the shortage of authorised sites.

A summary of all available powers which can be used by police and local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments, along with references to all the legislation is set out in the Government guidance Dealing with illegal and unauthorised encampments: A summary of available powers (March 2015) and is not reproduced in this note.

Although the coalition government introduced measures to strengthen enforcement, concerns remain about the number of unauthorised encampments and it has also been argued that enforcement powers are still inadequate.

In March 2015 the Government wrote to Council Leaders, Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables in England to re-emphasise powers to deal with unauthorised encampments. In the letter, the Government directed that “Public bodies should not gold-plate human rights and equalities legislation”.

In the debate on Gypsies, Travellers and local communities on 9 October 2017, the then housing minister, Alok Sharma, said that the Government expected local authorities and the police to act, to deal with problems; they already had extensive powers.  He also announced a review of the effectiveness of enforcement against unauthorised encampments, but said this was not a reason for local authorities and the police not to use their existing powers. In the Westminster Hall debate on unauthorised encampments on 12 October 2017, the then junior housing minister, Marcus Jones, reiterated that the law must apply to everyone and agencies should work together to deal with wrongdoing.

The National Police Chiefs Council issued updated operational advice on unauthorised encampments in June 2018, advising officers to be sensitive to the shortage of authorised sites.

Increasingly, local authorities are seeking injunctions to prevent and prohibit unauthorised encampments. In October 2019, the specialist publication Planning examined the unmet demand for authorised sites and the impact of injunctions on that provision. Planning noted that injunctions had in some instances been refused, with the judge in one case referring to the shortage of sites. In the same article, Planning quoted the view of a trustee of the London Gypsies and Travellers advocacy group, who argued that the problem of unauthorised encampments would be solved if sufficient authorised pitches were provided.

Consultation in April 2018

In April 2018, the Government therefore launched its long-awaited consultation on powers to deal with unauthorised encampment.  The consultation proposals concerned laws and policies which apply in England, and “at times” (it said) to England and Wales.

The consultation document argued that, although local authorities had extensive planning enforcement powers, there was considerable variation in how such powers were used. It therefore invited views on what additional powers might be needed and on improving the efficiency of enforcement notice appeals. It also examined the use of injunctions to protect land. The consultation closed in June 2018.

The Government response to the consultation was published in February 2019. In it, the Government set out its intentions for further action on unauthorised development and encampments, including (it said) on planning:

  • Practical and financial support for local authorities including new good practice guidance and up to £1.5m of funding to support planning enforcement through the next round of the Planning Delivery Fund, helping them deal with unauthorised development more effectively.
  • Supporting Traveller site provision through planning policy and the Affordable Homes Programme.
  • Support for the travelling community to improve life chances through seeking to address barriers and continue to improve outcomes in terms of education and healthcare.

The consultation response and a Written Ministerial Statement made on the same day by the then Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, also drew attention to the wider Government support for the provision of Traveller sites.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma criticised the Government’s “disproportionate” focus on enforcement powers and the lack of robust policy measures to provide appropriate and sufficient accommodation for Gypsy and Traveller communities. Similarly, the advocacy group Friends Families and Travellers argued that the proposals failed to recognise that the main cause of unauthorised encampments was “the abject failure of government to identify land for sites and stopping places” and warned of worse outcomes for Gypsy and Traveller families.

Documents to download

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