In conversation: Timothy Jones, BarristerFROM GUARDIAN PROFESSIONAL
Why have successive governments failed to meet gypsy and traveller needs?
Right from the start of modern planning and the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, Gypsies and Travellers weren't really considered; they just didn't think about caravan sites in general.
In 1960, the government gave councils the power to close commons to Gypsies and to provide sites instead, but this didn't meet their need. Eventually, after several unsuccessful legislative attempts a new duty was imposed on councils to allocate land for Travellers in 2006. It appeared to be beginning to work but far more slowly than hoped especially after negative media campaigns, particularly from the Daily Mail.
And what about councils?
Clearly there were very different levels of provision in different councils. I think the tendency was to suggest one thing but, when the council came up against strong opposition, to stop doing it. There is a lack of realism, certainly on the part of councillors though I think officers understood what was happening. That has sometimes meant a disproportionate amount of money spent on what is a very small proportion of the population, and involves a very small proportion of councils' total land area.
Few councillors have asked the question of where Travellers are going to go. They would force Gypsies off one piece of land, and they would go to another, and we'd be back to square one. I think there was a lot of short-termism too. Councillors would gain popularity for opposing a site. If the Gypsies appealed and won, the councillors could simply blame the secretary of state. The cost of appeals to councils – when there was a high probability that they would lose – didn't be seem to be given great weight.
Why are gypsies and travellers at a disadvantage when it comes to planning?
Many Gypsies and Travellers lack even basic education to the age of 16, which the majority of the population has. Unlike developers, they often lack legal or planning skills, and pitted against them are councillors responding to residents groups who are doing their best to try and make sure there isn't a Gypsy or Traveller site in their particular patch.
Is green belt land ever developed?
If the only way your development plan can provide enough housing is to alter the green belt boundary, then you have to alter the green belt boundary. So housing need is met by land being taken out of the green belt. That has never happened for Gypsies and Travellers. In those authorities in which all the available land or almost all is on green belt, the situation for Gypsies and Travellers becomes intolerable. They're met with the argument 'we're treating them equally, we're not allowing any development on green belt' – made most recently by Tony Ball, leader of Basildon council about the Dale Farm evictions – but there are numerous examples where in order to provide enough land for housing, land is taken out of the green belt.
How will localism impact on Gypsies and Travellers?
The phrase localism needs to be treated with caution. Development plans won't be subject to regional guidance, but they will still be subject to independent scrutiny from an impartial inspector. So councils will assess need and the inspector will inspect it for soundness, and that's true of all development.
What localism certainly doesn't mean is that it's up to the council and nobody else. It's a misconception for all forms of development. Planning should be about finding the best site. The fact that something has previously been refused permission doesn't mean that at some date in the future it won't be the best of the options.
Can human rights arguments prevent evictions?
Human rights are always relevant and they tip the balance in a minority of cases – it's right they should. We've had 31 years of trying to make adequate provision for Gypsies and Travellers, that's getting on to two generations of Gypsy children who haven't actually grown up with a secure base and a secure home that they should have. That has severe social consequences and if you have that amount of deprivation, raises what are human rights issues in the fullest sense.
What do you make of the government's suggestion that councils use caravans to meet their duty to homelessness people and at the same time supporting the eviction at Dale Farm?
It is an ironic response. Clearly the government is looking to the fact that caravans and indeed boats on canals and waterways can provide accommodation, which is a quick answer to a problem that might otherwise take a long time to solve. What I also find ironic and very surprising is that at a time when people accept that cuts are necessary and people know that cuts are painful, so much money is being spent on Dale Farm. This is something that has been happening for decades across England. There is considerable scope for saving money just by finding land, which in many cases Gypsies are the equivalent of house purchasers; they are prepared to buy to develop.
Timothy Jones is a barrister at No5 Chambers
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