When is a traveller not a traveller?
It was almost exactly a year ago that planning policy changed to redefine who qualified as gypsies or travellers. In response to a number of higher profile unauthorised encampments the Government felt the need to review the policy. This appeared to respond to a perception many had from the media that the planning system was unduly biased towards the gypsy and traveller community.
Excluding those who no longer travel permanently the policy threatened to have an enormous impact on the traveller community.
Essentially the definition now only allows for those who have a nomadic way of life. If the persons concerned have given up travelling permanently they should be treated no differently to the ‘settled’ population. This would exclude any former travellers who had settled for reasons of health, education or old age. Not surprisingly, there were many who considered this was an unreasonable change in policy.
In addition, the policy document went on to seek curbs on the development of new sites by saying:
“Local planning authorities should very strictly limit new traveller site development in open countryside.”
At the time many commentators questioned whether this change in policy could lead to more unauthorised encampments. The Independent questioned whether the Government’s aim to reduce community tensions would be achieved by forcing travellers back onto roadsides. It was also considered to be discriminatory and unlawful. In fact, many gypsies reported that it was the lack of authorised sites that forced them to settle.
The Government’s own figures on traveller caravans and sites provide interesting reading. These have been recorded since 1979. At that time there were 8,358 recorded traveller caravans in England. The number in January 2016 was 21,306. That latest figure was an increase from 2015 of 1,183.
There has obviously been a considerable increase in caravans. However, if we were to believe the news articles we might expect the majority to be on unauthorised sites.
In fact 87% of traveller and gypsy caravans sit on authorised sites. In that last recorded year, the number on authorised sites actually increased 6%.
When released in January 2017 it will be interesting to see what has changed. However, the evidence to date suggests the perceived problem is not quite what we would expect. Council planners are often criticised by residents for the ‘relaxed’ approach they appear to take to the creation of gypsy and traveller sites. However, it seems that despite the occasional high profile news story, that approach is working. It has been reported that since the change in definition last year most Councils are now forced to rethink need assessments and policy.
As predicted, this may threaten Council’s ability to deal with new applications effectively and force the travelling community back onto the road.
Abbie Kirkby, advice and policy manager at Friends, Families and Travellers, said: “Without planning proper provision for Gypsies and travellers, there will be more unauthorised encampments. The human cost of this is huge, as it means travellers are unable to access healthcare or education services.”
It may be that more needs to be done to refine policy on gypsy and traveller sites. A coordinated, considered and well consulted policy is essential. We do not appear to have that at the moment. It seems that Government policy regarding gypsies continues to be led by the media.