§ 4.0 p.m.
§ Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)
The issue I wish to raise this afternoon is the lack of gipsy sites in inner London. From discussions in which I have taken part and from conversations with a great many people, I have come to the conclusion that it is a grave problem for many boroughs in the metropolis and surrounding area.
The obligation on boroughs is laid down in the Caravan Sites Act 1968. I am not unsympathetic to gipsies. I shall not go into the question whether gipsies today pursue the nomadic life they pursued in other days and whether in inner London they are gipsies or are better described as tinkers.
My arguments today rest on a different basis. In my view there has been a grave error of judgment by the Minister for Planning and Local Government in not having given exemption to many of the boroughs which have applied for it.
Under Section 6 of the Act the Minister is empowered to give exemption to boroughs which have reasons that he believes to be suitable for their having exemption. The reason why the exemption has not been given is that, in the Minister's view or in the view of his advisers, it appears to be impossible that an inner London borough has not at least an acre of ground on which it can establish a gipsy site.
This point is borne out in a letter written to me by the Minister dated 13th 887 January 1976. I quote the following passage:Given the fact that a site for 15 caravans requires only about one acre of land, no borough has so far been able to establish a claim that suitable land is not available.My contention is that the Minister and his advisers have confused "suitability" with "availability"—in other words, whether land is suitable for a gipsy site and whether land happens to be available for a gipsy site.
The borough of Lambeth has applied for exemption no fewer than three times—first in 1973, again in 1974 and, by deputation, as recently as November 1975. On each occasion exemption for the provision of a gipsy encampment was refused.
Of course Lambeth has an acre of land—and, indeed, more—vacant in the borough, but each time the borough of Lambeth has said clearly to the Minister "We do not have any suitable land available in the borough". The borough has also mentioned social stresses in the borough, but it has come back to the cardinal point that it does not have suitable land. Since in the 1968 Act "suitability" is not defined, it must clearly rest on the Minister's judgment whether there is or is not suitable land in existence.
Lambeth has provided lists of all the vacant sites in the borough and has placed alongside them the reasons why they are not considered suitable for gipsy encampments. I believe I am right in saying that at no time has the council received any rebuttal from the Ministry. At no time has there been any criticism of the reasons put forward or any alternative suggestions. Each time Lambeth has been met with the dogged insistence that "There must be suitable land. Go out and find it." Each time the council comes back and says "No, there is no suitable land. May we please have exemption?" Each time there is a refusal.
If the Minister is not prepared to accept the statement from Lambeth that there is no suitable land, he is empowered—indeed, enjoined—by Section 6(2)(a) of the Act to makesuch inquiries as appear to him to he appropriate.888 If he has not accepted the arguments put forward by Lambeth, I can only assume that the Minister has made inquiries independently in Lambeth about the availability of suitable land. Will the Minister tell us about these inquiries? Lambeth has not been told of them and I for one would be interested to know the results of them. Presumably they contradicted the statements made by Lambeth Council.
What is the result of this dogged rebuttal of the evidence put forward by Lambeth and, no doubt, other boroughs? Boroughs are being driven to prepare gipsy encampments on unsuitable land—unsuitable environmentally perhaps, but certainly in financial terms. Lambeth has been driven to look closely at a site in my constituency—Lonesome Depot—and now has this site under consideration. It is highly unsuitable for all sorts of reasons. On present estimates the cost of preparing the land amounts to £86,000. There have been estimates as high as £150,000 and they have not been rebutted by the council. There was even a figure of £250,000 put forward for the preparation of the site. Running costs of £20,000 a year have been included in the estimates for the servicing of the site.
This is a temporary site, with a life of 10 years, providing accommodation for 15 caravans. This produces a capital cost per caravan of between £6,000 to £16,000 a year. The Minister may say that Lambeth is perhaps making its gipsy encampment too lavish. I understand that Wandsworth has a sum of £100,000 in its estimates to comply with this absurd requirement which the Minister refuses to waive. If my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) is able to catch your eye. Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will tell you that his borough has a sum of £270,000 in its estimates to apply to a gipsy site. That is £18,000 per caravan.
Even with today's building costs I would have thought that one could build a house for less than it is costing to install caravans on this site. Surely the cost of the provision of the site must be a criterion of suitability. I would profoundly disagree with any view which said that cost was irrelevant in reaching a decision about the suitability of a site, especially at a time of such financial stringency, 889 when Lambeth Council has already reduced its costs by £1 million. If that proposition were denied I would say that there would be a case of maladministration which should be looked at in other quarters.
What criteria of suitability does the Minister apply? On what grounds are Lambeth's submissions of lack of suitability rejected? What independent inquiries has the Under-Secretary made under the Act? Will he confirm that cost is irrelevant in his eyes when judging the question of suitability? If he does not, will he confirm that £270,000, or £86,000 for Lambeth, is a reasonable and true cost for providing a temporary site in Lambeth for 15 caravans?
In the letter dated 13th January, the Minister for Planning and Local Government said, in a helpful way:The Secretary of State may designate a borough if it appears to him that in all the circumsances it is not necessary or expedient to provide a gipsy site in the area".Presumably that power is in Section 22(2) of the Act. That could well be most helpful to Lambeth, and I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's confirmation that such a designation removes from a borough the obligation to provide a gipsy site.
The Minister also made certain suggestions about how the question of designation might be more favourably considered. I understand that they are being studied. Although they were made in a helpful spirit, I am told that they are not as practicable as one would wish. The suggestion about persuading a neighbouring borough to shoulder the burden is not entirely satisfactory as neighbouring boroughs are in difficulties equal to those of Lambeth. The London Boroughs Association would probably confirm that.
If Lambeth is induced by its dogged determination as much as by the Minister for Planning and Local Government to provide a site, and if it decides to establish a site in the area in my constituency which it has under consideration—the Lonesome Depot—I strongly urge the Minister to call in the application for a public inquiry because the site is grossly unsuitable. Not only does it involve the cost which I have mentioned, which alone, in today's economic climate, would, 890 I should have thought, make it nonsense, but the five acres encompassed by the site is zoned as open space in the Greater London Development Plan and is in an area classed as one of open space deficiency at local level.
The site is unsuitable in the view of the residents. Over 2,000 objections have been made to the site. It is unsuitable in the view of the neighbouring Merton Council, which, I understand, has written to the Minister asking him to call in the decision should Lambeth Council make it. The site is in a densely-populated area and would have an effect on rates and house values. Non-conforming industry would be introduced into the area, assuming, as is stipulated in the Act, that the gipsies would be entitled to carry on certain trades such as car-breaking. Finally, but not least important, the entrance to the site is on a very dangerous road which carries a certain amount of traffic.
If the site is the best site in Lambeth which the council can find—and it maintains that it is and that it is unsuitable—it proves my contention that there is no suitable land in Lambeth. Does the Under-Secretary consider the land to be suitable? His office contacted me and gave me the opportunity to advise him of some of the questions that I would be asking today. I am grateful for that. I am sure that I can look forward to a full and satisfactory reply.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)
The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) for putting so coherently the problems facing many boroughs in inner London concerning the implementation of the Act. I am grateful for two minutes of his time to put the problem of my own constituency, which is effectively part of inner London, being only five miles from Marble Arch. It is desperately short of open space and has severe housing problems, yet it is compelled to allocate for gipsies open space which is desperately needed for playing fields and houses.
I can confirm what my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham has said. The capital cost in the 1977–78 estimates is £275,000, with net annual running costs of £34,000. That means a capital cost of £16,600 and an annual deficit of £2,000 per pitch.
891 How can I persuade my constituents that there is a severe financial crisis which compels the London borough of Ealing to cut back on its house-building programme and prevents it from meeting the needs of the people on its waiting list when it is being compelled by the Government to spend money of this order for gipsies who have never lived in Acton and who are currently much nearer the fringe of outer London?
I urge the Minister to have another look at the implementation of the Act as far as inner London is concerned with a view to letting off the hook areas like Lambeth and Ealing.
§ 4.17 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gordon Oakes)
I am grateful to both hon Members who have taken part in the debate, though particularly to the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton), who introduced it in such a restrained and parliamentary, though nevertheless forceful, way. He and his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) know this is a subject which, outside the House, often generates more heat than light. We had light rather than heat from both hon. Members.
I know that this is a real problem both in London and in other urban areas. Gipsies, by whom I mean persons of nomadic habit of life, whatever their race or origin—to use the definition of the hon. Member for Streatham—are with us, are likely to remain with us, and may even increase in number. Increasingly, they are coming to urban areas. The jargon of the planners says that they are becoming urbanised, but I would dispute that. If one is urbanised, one lives, as do most people in this country, an urban way of life. I prefer to say that gipsies are increasingly coming to towns to live.
Governments of both parties have relied on the 1968 Act, which came into force in 1970, for dealing with this very difficult problem. The basic philosophy behind this Act is that if sites are provided by boroughs or counties outside London, the problem will diminish because instead of gipsies interminably being moved on—which is no solution—there will be sites to which they can go and there will not be the illegal and squalid situation which often occurs when 892 gipsies live in urban areas entirely unsuitable for caravan dwellers of any kind.
Both Governments have tried to utilise this Act, which was introduced by Lord Avebury. It is not a perfect instrument. In the six years of its existence, it has not been a tremendous success story. Two-thirds of the gipsy population of the country are not covered by site provision and, of course, when a borough complies with the provisions of the Act, it finds itself in a difficult position because of all the counties and districts that have failed to operate the provisions. A council that tries to do a useful job in accordance with the law often faces trouble from its electorate as increasing numbers of gipsies come to the area because other authorities are not carrying out the provisions of the Act.
I well appreciate the pressure that both hon. Members will be under from their electorates and their borough councils. Perhaps I may set out the difficulties facing the Department, as well as answering many of the points which have been raised. The hon. Member for Streatham very kindly gave me advance notice of some of the things that he intended to say.
The number of gipsy families in the Greater London area may now be as great as 600. A census taken in 1965 showed it to be only about 100, but we think that was very much an undercount. There has been a significant influx in the last 10 years or so, and gipsies have begun to appear in parts of London which they have not frequented before in living memory.
The 1968 Act recognised in two separate ways the conflict that might arise between the duty of site provision and the heavy pressure on land in urban areas. First, it limited the duty of site provision in London boroughs and in the former county boroughs to the accommodation of 15 caravans at a time. Secondly, it provided for exemption from the duty of site provision, the pre-condition for exemption being, in the case of a London borough, that the Secretary of State must be satisfied that suitable land in the borough was not available.
Not surprisingly, most inner London boroughs have applied for exemption. It has proved very difficult in practice for 893 any borough to establish that it has no suitable land available. After all, a site for 15 caravans will probably not require more than one acre of land, and the statutory duty might in any case be met by the provision of two or three smaller sites. So no borough has in fact so far been exempted under the Act.
The hon. Member raised in this connection the question of the Department's interpretation of the words "suitable land". In general, we have taken this to mean land suitable for the purpose for which Parliament has provided a duty in the Act—namely, the provision of adequate accommodation for gipsies. It was from this point of view that the Department carefully scrutinised the information supplied by Lambeth Council. One of the Department's planning officers visited 10 sites considered and rejected by Lambeth, and concluded that some of these might well be suitable for development as a gipsy site.
That was not an independent inquiry, of course. I should emphasise that exemption is irrevocable, but the refusal of exemption is not. The Department has made it clear to Lambeth that it is open to it to seek reconsideration of its case for exemption if it can offer new evidence. So far it has not done so.
If it were to demonstrate that the only site or sites in the borough suitable in other respects for a gipsy site would be inordinately expensive to develop, that would certainly be taken into account as relevant evidence in reconsidering the case of exemption. However, Lambeth has not advanced that argument. I, of all Ministers, would never from this Dispatch Box or outside Parliament ever suggest to a local authority that in any subject expense is no object. That is a factor to be taken into account for exemption.
The Act does, however, provide a means, other than exemption, by which the Secretary of State may signify his acceptance of the case against providing a site in a given borough. Under Section 12 he may make an order designating the area of any authority having the duty of site provision. Such an order gives the authority greater powers to deal with unauthorised encampments in its area. The main prerequisite for the mak- 894 ing of a designation order is that adequate provision should have been made in the area for the accommodation of the gipsies residing in or resorting to the area. But the Act provides the alternative possibility that a designation order may be made if it appears to the Secretary of State that in all the circumstances it is not necessary or expedient that a site should be provided in the area.
Two London boroughs have been granted designation orders, one being the City of Westminster. It was designated because the area was not thought generally to be suitable for a gipsy caravan site and because it was not frequented by gipsies. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was designated because, although there were gipsies in the area, the borough was not thought suitable. That is important because the borough had agreed to meet half the cost of a site for 20 caravans being provided just over the border in the neighbouring borough of Hammersmith.
During the past few weeks my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government has received three deputations from London boroughs which had been refused exemption because they had been unable to convince us that they had no suitable land available for a gipsy site. My right hon. Friend explained to those deputations that he had to look at the gipsy problem in London as a whole and that it was not confined to their particular borough. Fewer than 400 of the 600 or so gipsy families in London could find places on official sites. The Department had to ensure that the best possible arrangements were made within the framework of the 1968 Act which it is our duty as a Department to administer.
My right hon. Friend told the deputations that although he had great sympathy with the argument which they all put forward, it was unreasonable to expect authorities faced with a multiplicity of other social problems and great pressures on land to cope with gipsies as well. I endorse every word of that. Such considerations, however, were not strictly relevant within the terms of the Act to a case for exemption. But they could certainly be taken into account in the context of an application for designation, on the ground that it was not expedient to provide a site in the borough.
895 My right hon. Friend added, however, that it would help him to look favourably on such an application if the borough in question were to demonstrate willingness to make some contribution towards the solution of the general London problem. He suggested to the deputations several ways, short of the provision of a permanent site, in which such a contribution might be made, including even the possibility—this happens in some London boroughs—of offering housing accommodation for some of the gypsy families.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, one of the deputations that my right hon. Friend saw was from the borough of Lambeth. It was said that Lambeth might decide to go ahead with the provision of a permanent site. The Lonesome Depot site was mentioned. That scheme has met with considerable criticism from people in the area. No firm decision has been made to go ahead with the site and we have not been notified by Lambeth that it intends to go ahead with it. I would hesitate long to call in, although the hon. Gentleman asked for it, because essentially the working of the planning system is that those on the spot—in this case the Lambeth Council—make a decision themselves. They decide the best place in the area, and unless it is a matter of regional or national importance, I do not like any call in to take place. If the council were to go ahead with the site, I doubt whether we could call it in. We would leave it to the council to determine the matter in the light of its own electorate and planning considerations.
896 I have considerable sympathy with the arguments that the hon. Gentleman has advanced. I might add that experience suggests that local antipathy towards gipsies can die down, or at least be lessened, when a specific site is provided. However, from the definition contained in the Act, people of a nomadic way of life will be living in someone else's community when they go to an area and place their caravan in it. Just as in ordinary common courtesy one has to be much more careful in someone else's house than in one's own, I urge gipsies and those who advise the Gipsy Council that the best and most suitable way in which the gipsy families can help themselves is by demonstrating their best behaviour when they are in any area, even though no site has been provided within it.
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) raised a similar debate on a similar problem about 12 months ago. I have suggested that it may be that designation can take place, although I would doubt whether within the strict terms of the Act my right hon. Friend will be able to give the exemption which no borough or local authority has at present. I give the assurance that cost can never be an irrelevance, and especially at present—
§ The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.