Localism, populism and the fight against sites
November 8, 2012 — Comment
Written by Ryan Erfani-Ghettani
Action groups and ‘residents’ associations have, in recent months, been using all kinds of legal technicalities to stop Gypsy and Traveller settlements, in some cases with the express backing of local authorities.
Using the Localism Act, local ‘residents’ groups are emerging to fight, usually successfully, against Traveller and Gypsy attempts to establish legal sites – and all this despite the fact that local authorities have failed to provide the necessary statutory pitches.
Around 80 per cent of the UK’s Gypsies and Travellers live on authorised sites. The remaining 20 per cent on unauthorised sites either live on land they own but without the correct planning permission, or on land they do not own. Of the additional 5,821 pitches estimated as required between 2006 and 2011/12, under a third were in fact built.
There is now a new impetus and residents groups are being formed to fight sites through local planning processes. Such fights are taking place against sites proposed by local authorities or by families, where there are, as yet, no Gypsies or Travellers on site. And fights are also against Gypsy or Traveller families who are applying for planning permission to change the use of land that they own to make it suitable for residence. There are also, of course, fights against families simply living on land that they do not own.
Why this surge in numbers of anti-Gypsy and Traveller site groups now? There has long been opposition to site provision, but the Localism Act has compounded the problem. Claiming to ‘return decisions on Traveller site provision to local authorities who are best placed to know the needs of their communities’, the Act removes all means for them to do so. Under Labour, regional strategies, based on intense consultation, determined the specific duty of each local authority to provide for Gypsies and Travellers, which at least gave some measure of the degree to which local authorities were committed to serving Gypsy and Traveller needs. By removing the regional strategy framework, the Traveller Solidarity Network has warned that the coalition is responsible for significantly reducing the number of bids for sites and funding. Academics Joanna Richardson and Andrew Ryder have raised concerns about a structure that suggests people should be empowered to help themselves, but then ‘take[s] away the planning and financial framework to help deliver this.’ This is predicted to grow worse. According to the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain, needs assessments, the new evidence base for site provision, are being haphazardly rushed through for a March 2013 deadline.
Under the previous government, where local authorities failed to meet Gypsy and Traveller housing needs, there was still the possibility of intervention from central government. Now, targets for provision have been scrapped, and the ultimate decision over contested planning cases has been delivered unchecked to local politicians, vulnerable to manipulation by popular lobby groups. The failure of local authorities to meet the needs of Gypsy and Traveller communities now receives no higher rebuke. In 2011, representatives of Gypsy and Traveller organisations expressed fears that this new decentralised system, which eliminated ‘bureaucratic’ accountability measures, would leave service provision ‘at the mercy of the vagaries of local politics’. The prevalence of local action groups, and the gains they have made, suggests that such fears are well founded.
One result of ‘localism’ is that, with no fear of reproach from central government, councillors and ‘residents’ have an unprecedented freedom of action. Sometimes this freedom sees council officers and councillors attempting to do right by their local Gypsy and Traveller populations, but placed under enormous strain by residents’ campaigns. But in other cases, councillors are now able to make quick political capital from anti-Gypsy and Traveller sentiment. A government that has failed to enforce a duty on its local authorities to look after its Gypsy and Traveller populations has allowed popular residents’ campaigns to become a more successful means of rejecting potential sites.
Anti-site action groups
The following are examples of recently formed anti-Gypsy/Traveller site action groups (often, but not always, working with the support of local authorities), with the express aim of securing the eviction of families or the rejection of site proposals, challenging them on planning and development grounds:
- Meriden, Solihull: Meriden Residents Against Inappropriate Development (RAID), whose spokesman David McGrath is an ex-Tory councillor, set up a 24-hour vigil camp protest. Its efforts have seen Gypsy families served with eviction notices from land that they owned. Meriden RAID has attempted to organise a national coalition of anti-Gypsy and Traveller site campaigns, and in January 2011 it laid on a national conference to establish connections between residents fighting Gypsy/Traveller sites throughout the UK. Its website states: ‘If you are defending your area against inappropriate development – including housing developments – email us and we will see if we can help. We have access to a range of experts.’
- Hockley Heath, Solihull: In July/August 2011, Solihull Council announced plans for possible sites for Gypsies and Travellers in the area, one of the proposals being for a pitch on School Road, Hockley. Hockley Heath Community Residents Against Inappropriate Development (HHC-RAID) was set up in November 2011 and the group applied to the parish council for a grant of £6,500. In February, the Hockley Heath Residents’ Association newsletter showed that this grant had been awarded and that the money was to be used to pay David McGrath of Meriden RAID for a report. However, in July 2012, it was revealed in Private Eye that this offer of funds was later retracted after an equalities lawyer pointed out that such a grant would be in contravention of the Equalities Act 2010.
- Beaumont Leys, Leicester: The LE4 Action Group has campaigned against Leicester City Mayor Peter Soulsby’s plans to establish three sites in the northwest of the city. They have successfully gathered 2,700 signatures (although only 713 were from residents of the city), ensuring that the council must debate the locations of the sites, potentially taking the process back to the drawing board. A decision was due in October 2012.
- Crewe, Cheshire: After Cheshire East Council announced that it planned to build two plots, residents set up Crewe Campaign Against Traveller Sites (CATS) in October 2011. Within a week it had raised £2,000 with the intention of hiring a solicitor who had fought legal battles against similar proposals in south England. Members managed to raise a 5,400-strong petition, with an accompanying letter, which CATS chairman Glen Perris, along with Edward Timpson MP, Councillor Derek Bebbington and ex-Councillor John Jones presented to David Cameron. The letter took pains to state that CATS was not a racist group, but that it opposed the site because of its ‘improper use of tax-payers’ money, the existing housing deficit and the failure to follow a transparent, fair and proper process’. At a fundraiser in aid of legal action, at which Timpson was present, the group received ‘substantial pledges’. In the face of this pressure, Cheshire East councillors withdrew the application in April 2012. Lib Dem Councillor Derek Hough lamented that ‘it’s not difficult to work up a depth of feeling against this community … we are letting them down’.
- Pickmere, Cheshire: In May 2012, the Dolan family appealed to Cheshire East Council against the rejection of an earlier application to make their temporary Spinks Lane site a permanent one. In response, Pickmere Parish Council and Pickmere Area Residents Group (PARG) contacted residents in Wilmslow (see below) seeking support, and circulated a letter locally in which they ‘urgently appeal to you all (again) to express your comments regarding this inappropriate and unnecessary development’, stating that it ‘is most helpful when making any comments to restrict your feedback to the planning issues’. The letter directed residents on the most ‘highly relevant’ issues, which would ‘provide powerful evidence to the Planning Committee’. The Dolans’ appeal was rejected in August 2012.
- Attleborough, Norfolk: Breckland Council’s proposals to find fifteen new Gypsy and Traveller pitches prompted the formation of residents’ action group Question Local Attleborough Traveller Sites (QLATS). Hundreds attended QLAT’s first meeting, during which a letter of support and advice from Crewe CATS (see above) was discussed. The local mayor arranged a public meeting in October 2012 to discuss the plans.
- Newent, Gloucestershire: In 2009, Travellers moved onto land that they owned on Southend Lane, Newent. Although they were denied permission to use the land as a housing site, they were given temporary permission to stay until 31 January 2012, by which point the council should have provided an alternative site. This didn’t happen. As January approached, Newent Residents Against Inappropriate Development (RAID) began to apply pressure to have the Travellers evicted. Mayor of Newent and Tory Councillor Len Lawton drew comparisons between Southend Lane and Dale Farm, and he assured residents that he would remove the Travellers. As the deadline approached, the Southend Lane Travellers submitted a new planning application, infuriating spokesman for Newent RAID, Tory MP for Forest of Dean, Mark Harper, and Councillor Lawton, who saw the application as a ‘delaying tactic’. The district council assured residents that it would make use of changes to planning policies since 2010 to ensure the Travellers were removed. By mid-February, residents had sent almost forty objection letters to the council, and on 20 February 2012, council officers served the Travellers enforcement notices, giving them six months to leave. By April, the council indicated that it would use updates to the National Planning Policy Framework (to refuse to recognise retrospective planning applications) so as to make it more difficult for Travellers to appeal decisions.
- Stanton Wick, Somerset: On 14 September 2012, the Stanton Wick Action Group (SWAG) successfully pushed Bath and North East Somerset Council to drop plans for Gypsy and Traveller sites in Stanton Wick, Radstock and Keynsham. SWAG was represented in a group of claimants, including members of other local action groups Bath Old Road Action Group (BORAG) and Keynsham Action Group (KAG), that threatened the council with a costly judicial review, challenging the way in which potential sites had been selected. Liberal Democrat Councillor Tim Ball of the Homes and Planning Department removed the proposed sites in the area from a long-list of potential sites. The claimants’ solicitor, Matthew Knight of Knights Solicitors, is described as a specialist in Gypsy and Traveller related issues. His website offers advice to anti-Gypsy and Traveller site campaigners: ‘Successful opposition to proposed sites or halting the development of an unlawful site is achievable but affected residents need to think strategically to influence the local planning authority. It is vital to fully understand the planning process, work closely with the planning authority and to campaign effectively and persuasively.’
- Stanley, Wakefield: Proposals for a ten-pitch site in Castle Gate, Stanley, were submitted to Wakefield Council in January 2012. In response, hundreds of objections were written to the council, and a new residents’ group, Stanley Action, was formed. Stanley Action reportedly sent out thousands of letters, outlining their objections and mobilising against the site. One of its founder members, Wendy Gibb, told the Wakefield Express that ‘the most important thing is to make everyone aware of this and how they can object’. By October 2012, after gaining support from the local Carlton Village Residents’ Association, the plans had attracted over 1,200 objections.
- Penderry, Swansea: In September 2012, over 400 residents attended a meeting called by ward councillors in order to oppose the creation of any new sites in the area, following Swansea Council’s decision to establish a second permanent site in Llansamlet. The site was one of five potential sites, along with one in Milford Way in Penlan, where residents set up the Leo’s Community Action Group (LCAG). After holding a rally in May 2012, LCAG later presented a petition to the Swansea Civic Centre with over 1,000 signatures in October 2012. The council is still searching for a second permanent site.
- Flackwell Heath, Buckinghamshire: Flackwell Heath Residents Against Inappropriate Development (RAID) are currently fighting planning applications by two Traveller families to Wycombe District Council (see below).
Pre-existing residents’ associations can provide objectors with a ready structure of local influence, resources and links to local government. Often they have taken the lead in campaigns against sites, and, in some cases, provided a loose-knit group of opposition with the structure, influence and direction that it formerly lacked. In others, they have teamed up with local action groups to re-invigorate their efforts.
- Flackwell Heath, Buckinghamshire: In July 2012, two Traveller families put in planning applications to Wycombe District Council. Flackwell Heath Residents Against Inappropriate Development (RAID) acted immediately. Successfully lobbying the district council to extend the closing date for neighbour comments, Flackwell Heath RAID leafletted most of the village with nearly 2,000 copies of a notice that detailed how and on what grounds residents should issue complaints, resulting in 474 local objections. (Flackwell Heath RAID was also monitoring the similar situation in Wilmslow, Cheshire.) After gaining coverage in the local newspaper, the Bucks Free Press, RAID began to receive statements of support from individual ward councillors. With the backing of local authority officials, the Flackwell Heath Residents’ Association (FHRA) allowed RAID to make use of its name and resources to distribute a poster objecting to the planning application. Wycombe District Council’s Natural Environment Officer ruled that while he ‘would generally consider the site suitable for this type of development in landscape terms I do not regard the proposal as acceptable’, and the parish council objected to the plans. By August, RAID had ‘employed the services of Mark Thackeray at Walsingham Planning to provide a full and objective report on the planning application’, which it then submitted to the district council, which subsequently recommended that the application be refused. On 31 August, officers and councillors at a planning meeting voted unanimously to reject the site. The Travellers appealed, and a new application to the district council is awaiting consideration.
- Tonbridge, Kent: In July 2012, Hadlow Park Residents’ Association (HPRA) secretary Richard Prince spoke to the local newspaper, the Tonbridge Courier, to oppose an application to Tonbridge Borough Council by Terry Wilson. Wilson’s application was to site a caravan and mobile home on land that he owned on Cemetery Lane, Hadlow. One resident feared the site would lead to a ‘full-scale Gypsy encampment’ (for more details see below).
- Windsor, Berkshire: In January 2011, over 250 residents, including members of Old Windsor Residents’ Association (OWRA), attended a parish council meeting to complain about Gypsy and Traveller accommodation on Burfield Road. An application for five pitches by Fred Sines was met with fierce objection and, in a letter to the Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, the chairman of OWRA questioned Sines’ official Gypsy status and objected to the site being built on greenbelt land. By 20 March 2011, parish councillor and planning officer Malcolm Beer had resigned after receiving criticism for entering into discussions with Sines about the site. In April, council officers recommended refusing the site after receiving 152 letters of objection. Among those council officers who voted against the site was Councillor Lynne Jones, a member of OWRA. The application was subsequently withdrawn.
- Alderbury, Wiltshire: In July 2012, Alderbury and Clarendon Residents Group (ACRG), along with Wiltshire Council, celebrated after a government planning inspector rejected David Cooper’s plans to turn land that his family had owned for almost forty years into a four pitch site for eight caravans to house his family. The decision was made on the basis that development of the site would spoil the view of local listed buildings, and an inquiry questioned the Gypsy status of Cooper’s daughters. Cooper was reportedly also ordered to pay costs to ACRG and Wiltshire Council over delays to the inquiry.
In addition, there are instances in which it appears that councils have taken the lead in directing the efforts of loose-knit groups of angered residents towards more proactive methods of contesting sites. In some instances, the council has been involved in the running of meetings, during which the audience is told how best to make a complaint, sometimes through the use of template letters complaining about planning issues. Complainants are advised to rewrite such complaints in their own voice, and to avoid personal and emotive complaints.
- Langstone, Newport: Plans to create Gypsy and Traveller sites in Newport attracted such fierce opposition that a special meeting was convened to discuss them. Although the council issued a press release publicising the meeting, a council spokesperson told IRR News they did not know who organised it. According to a councillor, there was a worry that a new Labour administration had placed all proposed sites in Tory wards. Anti Gypsy and Traveller site action groups were reportedly set up as a result of the 600-strong meeting, where only one person present was in favour of the plans. According to a council representative, the chair of the meeting did not tolerate racist statements being made from the floor, but at one point a picture of a particularly bad looking Traveller site was projected, prompting the only person in favour of the sites in attendance to say that it was an extreme example. It was now, according to the councillor, an issue of site suitability – residents were concerned for the safety and wellbeing of the Travellers. The meeting heard directions on how best to launch an official objection to planned sites through the proper channels. After receiving 7,000 complaints, Newport City Council announced it had found five potential sites, although it steered clear of Langstone.
- Otford, Kent: In January 2010, Ann Wenham, a Romany Gypsy, applied for temporary planning permission for two caravans on land that she owned on Hopgarden Farm, just off Telston Lane in Otford. Over 200 residents objected to Sevenoaks District Council’s planning committee. One resident told the Sevenoaks Chronicle that ‘we knew straight away what they were and we contacted the council’. Throughout early 2010, email correspondence reveals that there were concerns from the parish council that if Councillor John Edwards-Winser spoke on behalf of the objecting members of Upper Telston Lane Residents’ Association (UTLRA), he could be reported to the standards board for having a prejudicial interest (Edwards-Winser is both a councillor and a member of UTLRA). In July 2010, the application was turned down. Wenham appealed, leading twelve households to buy six acres of land surrounding the site, for fear that it would spread. In February 2011, government planning inspector Stuart Reid hosted a planning meeting which saw thirty local protestors object. Planning officers recommended that the application be turned down. Wenham appealed again after complying with the officers’ recommendations. The residents of Telston Lane responded by posting leaflets to 500 homes around the village. (There are just forty-two houses on Telston Lane.)
- Smithy Fen, Cambridgeshire: Travellers living on land they own were served with an injunction taken out by South Cambridgeshire District Council. Six of the families living on the Smithy Fen site appealed the decision, prompting opposition from local residents. Some of these residents used to be part of the now-inactive Cottenham Residents’ Association (also known as Middle England in Revolt) which was established to oppose the arrival of the first Travellers into Smithy Fen in 2003. South Cambridgeshire District Council arranged a meeting for these residents and informed them as to how to launch complaints. Subsequently, the Travellers’ appeal was rejected. Tory Councillor Mervyn Loynes, a former member of the council’s planning committee, which was in part responsible for the outcome of the case, was recently found to have breached equality laws when he said he would like to put a minefield around the site. (For more information, see the Traveller Solidarity Network.)
Planning officers overruled
It is common for planning officers to recommend that planning permission applications be given the go-ahead. But in some cases councillors at planning committee meetings choose to ignore such recommendations and reject applications instead. Emboldened by the strength of local hostility to Gypsy and Traveller site proposals, the decision is ultimately not resolved according to best planning procedures, although objections to sites usually refer to those grounds.
- Bardwell and Stanton, Suffolk: On 7 July 2012, Stanton Parish Council held an extraordinary meeting to cater for 154 members of the public. After a vote initiated by an audience member, it was revealed that only one person in attendance was in favour of the proposals for a one-pitch site on Glassfield Road. Parish councillors decided that they would write a letter of objection to St Edmundsbury Borough Council. Despite a recommendation that the site be approved from officers of the borough council’s development control committee, in August 2012 councillors rejected the application.
- Mole Valley, Surrey: In January 2011, residents of River Lane complained to a meeting of Mole Valley District Council’s executive committee about a temporary Gypsy site where occupants were seeking permanent planning permission after the council had failed to find alternative housing for them. In July 2011, Mole Valley’s MP Sir Paul Beresford raised the site as a subject for parliamentary debate, saying he was worried that ‘the local authority may use a sympathy consideration’. A 700-strong petition added pressure on the council to find an alternative site rather than allow the occupants to remain on River Lane. Despite Mole Valley District Council planning officers’ recommendations that the site receive permanent planning permission, councillors voted to reject it. Susan King, who lives on the site, vowed to stay, saying ‘those councillors have wrecked our Christmas and our futures and our children’s futures’. King launched an appeal in February 2012 which Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, decided to assess himself. A planning inquiry, which will report to Pickles, is yet to determine the outcome. According to the district council, Pickles’ decision has been delayed.
- Salters Lane, Darlington: On 19 April 2012, over 100 people at a meeting to oppose six potential pitches formed a residents’ action group. In July, at a meeting of the council’s planning committee, councillors threw out bids for two sites accommodating four families in the village of Salters, rejecting the recommendation of planning officers to approve them, and in spite of the fact that no formal complaints had been submitted. The principal planning officer drew attention to the county’s shortfall of official sites, but councillors implied that more sites would put off business. A spokesman for the families said ‘we are talking about three families here who just want to have somewhere to live without being moved on by the police’.
One of the tools that campaigners against sites use is organising of letters of objection to be sent to the local authority. These letters are often written with guidance provided in council-backed meetings or, in the case of better-resourced and organised groups, under the direction of hired planning professionals. They frequently take the form of a standard letter or template that is altered slightly by each complainant. In some cases, it appears that the number of letters being sent vastly outnumbers the number of people realistically likely to be affected by a development.
- Tonbridge, Kent: On 28 June 2012, Philip Hurling, a chartered town planner, sent a letter to Richard Prince, the secretary of Hadlow Park Residents’ Association (HPRA) outlining eleven ways in which a site application by Terry Wilson on Cemetery Lane could be fought on planning grounds. Prince replied to Hurling, stating that when directing others to complain about the site ‘the only thing we need to do is recommend that they adapt ideas here and there in their own words as far as possible to avoid giving the impression of a “standard letter”’. Prince then forwarded this information to Hadlow Parish Council.  The next day, on 29 June 2012, news of the campaign had reached the Tonbridge Courier. Throughout early July, a number of neighbour complaints were made to Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council about the site (all variations on reasons laid out by town planner Hurling). The Planning and Environment Committee reassured HPRA that ‘the Council is wholly against the extension of the use of this site’. The council’s planning officers gave the application the green light, however the Planning and Environment Committee refused it stating that Hadlow Parish Council ‘does not believe that the justifications of the planning officers are valid’.
- Wilmslow, Cheshire: After Cheshire East Council released plans to create permanent sites, the local Wilmslow Express announced ‘Gypsy home is coming to land near you’. Over 100 residents then attended a town council planning meeting to complain – channelling their energy into fighting an application by John Allan for one pitch on Moor Lane. Throughout April 2012, residents embarked on a door-knocking campaign to encourage opposition, writing to George Osborne for support, and as a result Wilmslow, Chorley and Mobberley parish councils voted against the plan. As news of the proposed site reached the Daily Mail, which highlighted the 700 objections made by ‘residents in Premier League Stars’ exclusive home town’, Cheshire East Council’s Northern Planning Committee rejected the bid on 4 July 2012.
- Horam, Sussex: In October 2011, a family of Travellers lost an application to stay on land at Meadows Farm, after Wealdon District Council responded to fifty-two complaints from local residents and Horam and Chiddingly parish councils. Ms Moxon, who lived on the site, said that ‘the main troublemaker used to chat to me over the fence but the minute the word gypsy was mentioned that was it’.
- Farringdon, Devon: In January 2012, an application for more pitches on a site at Princes’ Paddock by the Doran family received over 170 objection letters from locals, and objections from Farringdon Parish Council, worried that the granting of one more pitch on the site would create an ‘unbalanced mix’ of communities. Parish council chairman Alan Pearce and residents’ association chairman Tony Sayers both oppose the plans.
This list is by no means exhaustive.
While there is nothing new in local objections to Gypsy and Traveller sites, it appears that campaigns are becoming more organised and coordinated. In January 2011, Meriden RAID’s national conference for people fighting against sites around the UK attracted some seventy-five delegates. Groups have been writing to each other to offer campaigning strategies, sharing tactics and forging coalitions. A legal infrastructure appears to have developed, and action groups are claiming to have access to a shared network of planning and legal experts. Often such a collaboration finds common purpose with local government and acts to the same end. And if and when this tactic fails, local authorities are now using the Localism Act (which under the guise of eliminating overly-bureaucratic central government gives local authorities the final say on local development decisions) to veto applications. This is especially clear when the issue is planning suitability –when the opinion of those qualified to evaluate site suitability is refuted and refused by local politicians.
A picture is emerging of isolated Gypsy and Traveller families, with little support and limited funds, up against the best legal and expert advice available, working in tandem with the machinations of local politics. Localism has put the power back into communities in one sense – the power to buy expertise and bully the powerless.
Read an IRR News story: ‘Dale Farm: children’s welfare’
Read an IRR News story: ‘Middle England’s last stand’
Read an IRR News story: ‘Notes on the new Conservative Traveller policy’
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.