Housing Bill: Bishop of St Albans puts amendment to require assessment of needs of Gypsies and Travellers

On 17th March 2016 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill in committee. The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke to an amendment he had tabled, which was co-sponsored by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams of Oystermouth. The amendment, to clause 115 of the Bill, concerned the requirement on local authorities to assess the needs of Gypsies and Travellers. It was withdrawn after debate, as is usual at committee.The Bishops’ speech and the Minister’s response are below:

THE LORD BISHOP OF ST ALBANS
BARONESS BAKEWELL OF HARDINGTON MANDEVILLE
BARONESS WHITAKER
LORD WILLIAMS OF OYSTERMOUTH

82H Page 53, line 1, leave out subsection (2)

 

StAlbans171115The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 82H, which has broad support across this House. This is a simple probing amendment that would seek to retain Sections 225 and 226 of the Housing Act 2004 in legislation, requiring local authorities to undertake a direct assessment of Gypsy and Traveller needs. I shall also speak to Amendment 82GD, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, which may point towards an alternative way forward.

I start by welcoming the publication of the Government’s draft guidance on Clause 115, which makes clear the duty of local authorities to undertake a specific assessment of all those whose primary residence is in caravans or houseboats, including Gypsies, Travellers and showmen communities. The very presence of this draft guidance is reassuring, and I am glad that the Government are making progress. I recognise that in the rush to get this guidance out it may not have been possible for Ministers and officials to consult all stakeholders about the content but I am sure that the Minister will reassure the House that all the relevant parties—including representatives of the Gypsy and Traveller communities—will be consulted extensively before final guidance is published. I know that there are a number of concerns about the proposed guidance, not least the failure to define what is meant by a household —something which has led to a great deal of confusion and cross-authority discrepancies in the past, as authorities have defined it in different ways.

I understand that the Government’s stated intention behind Clause 115 is to remove a general perception that Gypsies and Travellers are given favourable treatment under planning law. I also recognise that under current legislation there is no requirement to perform a specific assessment of those residing in caravans and on waterways who are not part of the Gypsy and Traveller communities, and that this may result in such groups slipping through the net when local authorities assess housing needs. As such, I have no objection in principle to the expansion of the existing assessment requirements to cover all those residing in caravans and on waterways, as long as this is genuinely an expansion and does not threaten the current arrangements regarding assessment of specific Gypsy and Traveller needs.

With this in mind I will highlight two main concerns, which I hope the Government will address. The first is the total lack of mention of Gypsy and Traveller communities in Clause 115 and only the smallest mention of them in the draft guidance. It is important to bear in mind that some local authorities, often under pressure from the wider community to refrain from making land available for Gypsy and Traveller sites, are liable to seize on any excuse not to undertake a full and detailed assessment of Gypsy and Traveller needs. The Government’s own impact assessment seems to recognise that the failure to put reference to Gypsies and Travellers in primary legislation—relegating any mention to secondary guidance only—may give local authorities the impression that the importance of assessing those needs has been downgraded in the new legislation. Making it clear in primary legislation that any assessment requirements include a requirement to assess the needs of Gypsies, Travellers and showmen residing in or having recourse to a local authority is therefore essential to maintain the pressure on local authorities to carry out such an assessment.

The simplest way of ensuring that the Gypsy and Traveller communities are directly mentioned in primary legislation is to ensure that Sections 225 and 226 of the Housing Act 2004 remain in legislation, as my amendment proposes. I see no reason why the two pieces of legislation cannot stand side by side, with local authorities subsuming the Gypsy and Traveller assessment requirement within the broader assessment of caravans and waterways. There are, of course, alternative ways of maintaining reference to Gypsies and Travellers, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, being one of them. None of these amendments would in any way imperil the Government’s aim of expanding the assessment requirement and ensuring parity of treatment for all in the assessment process.

The second concern that I have centres on the categories of caravans and inland waterways that are proposed in Clause 115 and reflected in the draft guidance. The use of these simple categories fails to capture the nuanced differences in the needs of the groups for which this legislation is intended to provide assessment, and may result in an inadequate assessment process if these nuances are not made clear. The accommodation needs of those residing in static caravans, for example, may be very different from the needs of Gypsy communities that are constantly on the move, which will again be very different from the needs of travelling showmen, who often require extra space for vehicles and equipment. I hope the Minister can confirm that these distinctions will be made clear in the revised guidelines and that any assessment will be required to differentiate between them.

What these categories ignore altogether, however, is the requirement that local authorities include the needs of Gypsies and Travellers living in settled, bricks-and-mortar housing in their assessment, despite this being included in the guidance. Given that any guidance issued is guidance only, can the Minister explain to the House how the Government intend to ensure that local authorities assess vulnerable Gypsy and Traveller families who might be abiding in bricks-and-mortar housing, perhaps only temporarily, when under Clause 115 there will be no statutory duty on them to do so?

I hope that everyone across the House recognises the importance of ensuring that local authorities are equipped to provide properly for the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their communities. A failure to provide a proper, robust requirement on local authorities to assess the needs of Gypsies and Travellers will inevitably hinder the provision of accommodation sites and space, which is only likely to increase the number of illegal sites, stoke community tensions and endanger a cultural identity that has endured for hundreds of years.

If the Government are committed to expanding the assessment requirement, that expansion needs to be done very carefully, building on the good work that is already being done to foster stronger relationships between local authorities and vulnerable minority communities. Indeed, I hope the Government might use these legislative changes as an opportunity to work with the Gypsy and Traveller communities to improve the assessment process, not undermine it. I hope the Minister can provide assurance that this will be the case.


 

 

Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con): My Lords, in debating this clause, I am conscious of the absence of the late Lord Avebury, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. I was saddened, as were others, on hearing of his death. I know that he was a committed and forceful advocate for the rights of the Gypsy and Traveller community, and I hope that together we can do justice to his memory.

I thank all noble Lords for their amendments. I understand their reasoning, which seeks to ensure that local authorities have an explicit duty to assess the accommodation needs of Gypsies, Travellers and Travelling showpeople. I emphasise that this clause does not remove that duty.

I turn first to Amendment 82H, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. The Government’s intention is to ensure that the assessment of accommodation needs is seen to be fair to all. We know that some feel that a specific mention of Gypsies and Travellers in legislation relating to such assessments somehow accords them more favourable treatment. We want to combat that impression which, as my noble friend Lord Lansley mentioned, only adds to misunderstanding between the Traveller and settled communities, not to remove the duty to assess the needs of Gypsies and Travellers. Their needs will be assessed, but in a way that is seen to be fair to all.

The aim therefore is to simplify legislation to ensure that the housing and accommodation needs of all the residents and those who resort to an area are considered without specific reference to particular ethnic groups. The clause makes it clear that the needs of those persons who reside in or resort to an area with respect to the provision of caravan sites and moorings for houseboats are considered as part of the review of housing needs. This would include all those who are assessed at present and potentially those who simply choose to live in a caravan, irrespective of their cultural traditions or whether they have ever had a nomadic habit of life. We recognise that for many, but for Travelling showpeople in particular, this assessment needs to include consideration of not only residential accommodation but also space for the storage of equipment—I am speaking particularly about Amendments 82GD and 82GE. That is why we have published draft guidance that makes this explicit.

The definition in Planning Policy for Traveller Sites relates to the provision of sites and is relevant for those seeking planning permission for Traveller sites. The definition is based on proof of nomadism and ensures that planning provision relates to specific land use requirements. The duty in the Housing Act is about assessing the housing and accommodation needs of all in the community and those who resort to it, including those with or without an existing nomadic way of life and those who wish to resort to caravan and houseboat dwelling. We would not wish to align the housing definition with the planning definition as it would limit the scope of the assessment to those who proved an existing nomadic lifestyle. I hope that this reassures the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, who raised these points.

Noble Lords and others have rightly raised concerns about human rights, and we are ever mindful of our obligations under both domestic and international law regarding the treatment of protected groups. Therefore, before proposing this clause Ministers gave very careful consideration to their public sector equality duties and the need to ensure that local authorities understand their duty to assess the needs of those living in houseboats and caravans. This includes those with protected characteristics such as Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers, for whom it is recognised that caravan-dwelling is a cultural part of their identity. We have therefore published draft guidance explaining how the needs of such groups should be considered under this revised legislation. We want local authorities to assess the needs of everyone in their communities, and our clause emphasises that Gypsies, Travellers and Travelling showpeople are not separate members of our communities. I hope Lord Avebury would have agreed with me that they should be treated fairly.

The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, asked whether my honourable friend the Housing Minister in the other place had responded to a letter from the London Assembly Group. I can reassure him that the Minister responded and explained that the changes in the Bill would not impact on how local authorities assess their needs. Local plans need to be found sound before they are adopted. This means that they should be positively prepared, based on a strategy that seeks to meet objectively assessed development and infrastructure requirements.

The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked whether any change led to more unauthorised encampments. I can reassure them that the change in legislation is about local housing authorities assessing accommodation needs. It for local planning authorities to ensure that their local plans address the needs of all types of housing and the needs of different groups in the community.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans raised concerns about local authorities ignoring needs. If a public authority does not comply with the general duty under Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010—the public sector equality duty—its actions or failure to act can be challenged by judicial review. He also asked what consultation was undertaken on the draft guidance. Officials in the department and my noble friend the Minister, who is in her place on the Front Bench, have engaged with the Gypsy and Traveller communities through liaison groups, which meet every few months. The guidance is published in draft, so we are continuing to engage with representatives from the Travelling communities. I hope that reassures noble Lords on that point.

The right reverend Prelate also raised the question of how a “household” is defined. It is for a local authority to ensure that it considers the combination of needs of its community. The guidance is clear that this covers the needs of households from all sectors of the community, whatever that household might look like. Local housing authorities will be able to consider how best to assess that need in summary. With these explanations and assurances, I hope that the noble Baroness will agree to withdraw this amendment.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab): Will the Minister say a bit more about whether he sees this as a watering-down of the provisions? Clause 115(2) seeks to remove Sections 225 and 226 of the Housing Act, which state that a “housing authority must”—it is a very clear duty. This clause would replace that with a “duty to consider”. My noble friend Lady Whitaker said that this would allow authorities to shirk their responsibilities and, as my noble friend Lady Young said, take the line of least resistance. How are we to avoid that?

Before I conclude, many noble Lords have mentioned Lord Avebury. He was a very good man and we all miss him very much. I know which side of the debate he would be on if he were in his place today. It is worth noting that just a couple of days ago, on 15 March, it was the anniversary of his famous by-election win in Orpington.

Viscount Younger of Leckie: I understand the thinking behind the noble Lord’s question, but I might put it another way. He used the word “watering-down”, but it could also be said that it might lead to local authorities underestimating the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers. Again, as I hope I have made clear, that is absolutely not the case: the proposed changes to primary legislation make it clear that the needs of all those, including Gypsies and Travellers, who reside in or resort to a district are considered in the same way as before in respect of the provision of caravans, sites and moorings.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark: If so, why is the change needed? Will the Minister tell us why things are not being left as they are?

Viscount Younger of Leckie: My Lords, I made it clear at the beginning that this is to do with simplifying the legislation.

Lord Beecham: My Lords, by the standards of Committee stage on the Bill, this has been a relatively short debate, and I will not prolong it too much. But I find myself slightly puzzled at the position that we end up in.

First, I thank those who participated. Most have supported the amendments. One of the most telling phrases was that of the right reverend Prelate, who said that the provisions in the Bill failed to capture the nuances of the needs of Gypsies and Travellers. I think that that is right. I particularly welcomed the participation of my noble friend Lady Whitaker, who is a tireless campaigner for the groups that are the subject of this amendment.

I was, however, slightly puzzled by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. I very much welcomed the rare degree of agreement between us, which we did occasionally experience in his ministerial past, but the notion that somehow it was the system that created the problem in his constituency where, as he put it, a particular group took possession of land and developed it, strikes me as a little odd. This is not the Wild West. Presumably they did not just walk onto somebody else’s land and erect fencing around it. They must have acquired the land and they must, presumably, have got planning permission for building on it. The implication was that they had developed it and sold it and moved on. The noble Lord is shaking his head. Perhaps I have misunderstood him.

Lord Lansley: To be clear, yes, they acquired it, but at agricultural values. Then the utilities were provided because the utility companies were required to do so. Then, of course, they subsequently made retrospective planning applications. Often in particular circumstances, when they were refused planning permission, they based the essence of their argument to the inspectors that they had a housing need as Travellers in the area, that the local authority was not providing collectively for all the housing needs of Travellers, and that therefore their particular application should be granted.

Lord Beecham: Then that is a failure of the planning system, not of the particular requirements of this group. However, let us go back a little. Section 8 of the 1985 Housing Act required every local housing authority to,

“consider housing conditions in their district and the needs of the district with respect to the provision of further housing accommodation”.

That clause was effectively amended by the 2004 Act. It was amended because insufficient provision was being made for this group and because very often it was not made because of pressure from people who feared or, at any rate, opposed provision for the categories of would-be residents that we were talking about.

If the 2004 Act was in response to the failure by then of authorities to make provision—and that clearly is the case—what sort of message does it send to remove that duty under the 2004 Act and then say, “Well, it’s all right because they have a duty to consider everything”? They had that duty under the 1985 Act and it was clearly not being fulfilled.

There is a special case here and I hope that the Minister will, with his colleagues, think again about a clause which in my view is specifically designed to buy off support for those who do not want to see provision being made for this vulnerable group. At this stage, I will not test the opinion of the House, but it is a matter to which we may well return on Report, unless the Government reconsider. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 82GD withdrawn.

Amendments 82GE and 82H not moved.


 

(via Parliament.uk)