Sunday, 18 March 2018

Basildon Traveller Site Update

Two years ago I reported on the Traveller and Gypsy site allocations in the Draft Basildon Local Plan. At that time the plan preparation was under the political direction of the Conservative group who were running the council as a minority administration. The details of their plan were not clearly stated but by going through the documents carefully and counting up all the sites I was able to work out what they intended.

The conclusion was that they were planning for 98 to 109 new Traveller pitches in the borough. The total assessed need was for 240 pitches so this still left about 140 pitches worth of unmet need that they would have to ask neighbouring boroughs to help out with.

To accommodate the requirement there would be 15 pitches at a Gardiners Lane site that had been planned privately for some time. There would also be a new 15 pitch council site in Pitsea and a 10 pitch site in Wickford. The remaining 60 new pitches were to be added to the existing partially unauthorised sites at Oak Lane (Dale Farm), Hovefields and Cranfield Park. These sites are on green belt and are already well beyond the maximum 15 pitch size that is considered manageable according to government policy.

After writing the blogpost linked above, I asked a public question at full council. The government had published a revision of its traveller policy a few months earlier. It forbade traveller sites on green belt and instructed councils that they did not have to meet needs where there were large unauthorised sites. The new policy also modified the definitions so that travellers who settled at permanent sites and ceased to be nomadic no longer need to be counted in the assessment for pitches. I asked Conservative Councillor Richard Moore if the Local Plan was going to be revised to take account of these policy changes. He answered by telling me that a revised assessment was under way and would be published early that year. You can watch a recording of that here:

Time passed and the revised assessment remained unpublished. Basildon Council even helped kill the Castle Point Local Plan by saying that they had not cooperated over the unmet need for traveller pitches, despite the fact that this unmet need should never have existed if legal policies had been followed. 

Over a year later the opposition parties finally put aside their political differences and got together to take over control from the Conservatives. They began to run Basildon Council through a much more open committee system as a "rainbow alliance". Many good things have come out of this accord and one of them is a revision of the Draft Local Plan with a much more reasonable allocation of traveller pitches. The revised assessment for traveller needs has finally been published. It followed a prolonged Essex-wide survey that was probably unnecessary and was incomplete. The report split traveller needs according to those of the "nomadic travellers" and the "non-travelling travellers." Our council officers continued to argue that despite the explicit oxymoron "non-travelling travellers" should still be catered for because they have a "cultural need and right to culturally appropriate accommodation." This was justified by reference to the Equalities Act 2010, but the legislation only protects Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers against discrimination. It says nothing about accommodation. In fact the phrase "culturally appropriate accommodation" can be traced back to the United Nations and their ill-informed attempts to stop Basildon Council evicting the travellers at Dale Farm.

Fortunately the new administration was having none of that and directed that the needs of non-travelling travellers should simply be added to the overall housing need so that they would be treated equally along with the rest of us. Taking into account the rest of the revised government policy the borough was left with a need for 53 new pitches. It's a big improvement on the 240 figure given under the Conservative administration, but it is still a struggle to meet.

To find sites the council officers looked again at the options. Sites could not be on green belt and had to have at most 15 pitches, so expansion of existing sites was no longer considered a possibility. New sites would therefore have to be included inside new developments on land released from the green belt in the Local Plan. The former site at Gardiners Lane was ruled out because after years of planning it turned out that there was a covenant on most of the land preventing the parking of caravans (very convenient for the developers.) Five other developments were determined to be big enough and suitable. This included the sites at Pitsea and Wickford from the earlier draft plan plus one more in Wickford, one in Billericay and one in Nethermayne near Vange golf course. Only four sites were needed to make up the numbers so Councillors voted to discount the former site at Wickford. This leaves a balanced distribution around Basildon, Wickford and Billericay. It should also be noted that West Basildon faces a double site of 30 pitches close by in Dunton Hills courtesy of Brentwood Council. I was one of the few residents present at the meeting where this was decided and I also witnessed the Conservative Councillors voting unsuccessfully to remove the traveller site in Billericay while leaving those in Wickford and Basildon.

My understanding on the nature of the proposed sites is that they will be assigned for long-term occupation as a base for travellers and gypsies who have caravans that they continue to use for touring. They will not be transit sites for temporary occupation, nor permanent sites for non-travelling travellers.

I know that many residents will still be upset about the allocation of pitches left in the plan. This is understandable given the history of illegal encampments in Basildon. However, the plan would be deemed unsound at public examination if less than 53 pitches were included. Submitting the Local Plan would then be just a waste of time and money. The main problem is with illegal and unauthorised sites both temporary and permanent. The government has been promising to review legislation but little has been done. Under the new administration this year the council has acted to tackle these problems as far as they are able to do so within the law. This has included the introduction of a legal injunction to prevent illegal encampments in the industrial area. If the courts allow, this could be extended to other areas as circumstances require. Action has also been ongoing against new unauthorised sites near Hovefield, but the legal process that must be followed is lengthy and restrictive. We all need to let the government know what we think about this.

In my opinion a significant part of the problem is legislation against hate speech which leaves organisation reluctant to speak out or prosecute. I do not believe that any minority is predisposed to illegal activity, but if a specific section of the community is allowed to break the law repeatedly with little fear of prosecution then there are always some who will take advantage. Travellers themselves are thus harmed by legislation that was intended to protect them. They are not the only minority to which this applies. Racist comments and incitement should rightfully be illegal, but genuine criticism and reporting of crime should not be caught in the same net. Until free speech is restored in this country the situation can only get worse.

In the last week we have seen a strong base of opposition to the traveller site at the location in Nethermayne. A meeting was organised by a Councillor and the developer of a proposed hotel near Vange golf course. Sadly some tough language was used at the subsequent meeting that several hundred people attended. I can understand the strong feelings but this kind of response generates more heat than light. Vange residents were told that the site had been moved from Wickford to Vange. This is simply not true. I was one of three residents at the meeting where this was decided and the proceedings were as described above. I also live-streamed the meeting to the "Basildon Political Discussion" facebook group where a recording can still be viewed or the minutes can be checked on the council website. It is perhaps worth also pointing out that given the location of the development the traveller site will be between 500 and 800 metres from the Hotel and it will not be on or next to the golf course.

Conservative Councillors have now been trying to whip up as many people as possible to attend the next IGD committee meeting where the final decisions on the local plan will be taken. It's good to have participation but any delay to the final preparation of the Local Plan will trigger the government to step in as they have threatened to do. This will probably result in many more houses being added to the Local Plan. The council has been forced to shell out a large sum of money to book the Basildon Sporting Village, disrupting the activities of our young sportspeople. The Towngate Theatre would have been a much more comfortable venue with better acoustics at lower cost and less disruption, but the Conservatives insisted that the Sporting Village will be the only place big enough. I think it will be hard to conduct the meeting there and it may end up being adjourned again. I urge residents not to let that happen. Trust me that it would not be a good result for the borough.

I don't want to discourage anyone from attending the meeting but as one of the few who has regularly been to earlier meetings of the committee I think there is a need to manage expectations. The meeting is not a public lecture. It is a council meeting held in public where a number of important decisions have to be taken. Council officers will brief the Councillors and answer their questions but there is a huge pile of documents providing background that the Councillors are familiar with from earlier briefings. The officers and Councillors will not have time to explain these background documents to the public as the meeting could continue for several hours even without doing so. I suggest that unless people want to speak themselves they will be better off at home watching the webcast than sitting on cold hard seats for several hours with limited opportunity to get up.  

It has been indicated that the public will be given an opportunity to speak for three minutes each. If you intend to do so I recommend that you prepare your words in advance and ensure that they can be delivered in that time. There will be a clock and you may be cut-off when the buzzer goes. If you are representing one of the many campaign groups that will want to have their say please coordinate with others in the group so that time is not wasted on repetition. This will help to ensure that everyone has time to contribute. Finally, these will not be question and answer sessions. Council Officers may address some of the points raised but the main point is to allow Councillors to listen to residents and decide in combination with the legal and professional advice they have on how they should vote.

Note that I am just a campaigner who has been closely following the preparation of the Local Plan. I am not any kind of council representative and the opinions expressed here are my own. No offence of any kind is intended towards travellers or anyone else. 

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant and clearly stated Philip Gibbs - as always.