Oliver Heald – 2019 Speech on Intentional Unauthorised Developments

Below is the text of the speech made by Sir Oliver Heald, the Conservative MP for North East Hertfordshire, in the House of Commons on 9 July 2019.

In my constituency of North East Hertfordshire, there have recently been intentional unauthorised developments of caravan sites on land bought by Travellers. This is becoming more common nationally and has been increasing locally.

It is important that the rule of law is upheld. To local residents who abide by the law, it just seems wrong that planning law can be flouted and treated with disdain. If planning permission is needed, it should be applied for in advance. My constituents are concerned that there should be a level playing field for the planning system. Unauthorised sites are frequently a source of tension between the travelling and settled communities. Although councils have some powers to deal with unauthorised sites, deliberate unauthorised development remains a significant issue.

In July 2018, there were 3,093 caravans on unauthorised sites nationally, of which 2,149 were on land bought by Travellers. The number of caravans on unauthorised sites increased by 17% between July 2017 and July 2018. So, what is going on? In a typical case, it seems that a Traveller will buy land where there would be little or no prospect of someone obtaining planning permission for a home. In my constituency, examples have included land in the green belt and land in a conservation area—I believe that all the sites were ones where planning permission to build a house or to develop a business had previously been refused.

On some occasions, on the Friday evening of a bank holiday a fleet of lorries, caravans and building equipment has arrived on a site, and people have started to lay internal roads and hard standing on the site without planning permission. In some instances, children are brought on to sites. This could be coincidental, or it could be designed to be used in later legal proceedings to demonstrate a family life for Human Rights Act purposes. Where notices are served by the council for enforcement or an injunction, they are ignored. As council enforcement proceeds, with a good deal of development already on site, applications are made for retrospective planning permission.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I have a deep interest in planning matters and am perturbed to hear what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said. Does he agree that the purpose of the planning system is to ensure that there is protection for the environment and neighbourhoods, and that planners need to work with developers or potential developers to find a way forward? If no such way is found, swift and firm action must be taken by local councils and, ultimately, by the judiciary.

Sir Oliver Heald

I accept that point. It seems to me that we are trying to have an orderly planning system on which people can rely as a level playing field, equal for all. If the planning system is not enforced, we end up with a system that can be railroaded, which is in effect what is happening.​

As I was saying, as council enforcement proceeds, with a good deal of development already on site, retrospective planning permission is applied for. The process is delayed, with the inevitable inertia of court or planning inquiry proceedings, and the scope for applications for adjournments, so months can pass into years. Perhaps a personal permission is eventually obtained on appeal. Then, I am told, more unauthorised development might take place for a family member here or a living room there. Over a period of years, the initial failure to apply for planning permission has been rewarded with a full caravan site. That might help to explain why the number of caravans on unauthorised sites has increased by 17% in the past year.

If a site is intentionally developed without permission, should it not be put back into the state that it was in before, and then a planning application could be made? Should not the enforcement notices all be followed, and then, from the position of anybody else applying in advance, we should have that proper process.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con)

As the Minister is aware, I have had considerable difficulty in my constituency. Some of the sites have been fought over for 14 to 18 years. I have a very aggressive one at the moment. Perhaps the Minister might consider enabling the local authority to put a stop order on any development at all, emphasised and backed by the courts.

Sir Oliver Heald

That is a very constructive proposal and I would be interested to hear how the Minister responds to it. At the moment, if a site is intentionally developed without permission, there does not seem to be much of a disincentive to ignore planning law in the first place. The Government’s planning policies and requirements for Gypsy and Traveller sites are set out in “Planning policy for traveller sites”, which must be taken into consideration in preparing local plans and taking planning decisions. In theory, that encourages local authorities to formulate their own evidence base for Gypsy and Traveller needs and to provide their own targets relating to pitches required, which is a good thing. Where planning authorities are unable to demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable sites, that in turn might make it more difficult for them to justify refusing planning applications for temporary pitches. However, where a council does what is suggested, that does not provide the certainty for the council or the local residents that is intended.

In preparing its local plan, East Hertfordshire District Council undertook a thorough process to establish Traveller needs. That was scrutinised by the planning inspector as part of the public examination of the draft plan and, after due consideration, the plan was approved by the Secretary of State and adopted in November 2018. Yet within weeks, it was being argued successfully on a retrospective planning appeal before another planning inspector that this did not adequately reflect Traveller need in the district because it did not include the appellant, who was not actually living in the district at the time of the council survey a few months earlier. Surely the local plan should have more force than that. There should be a period from adoption of the plan within which it is not possible to reopen issues such as that of need.

The plan should be determinative—at least for a reasonable period.​
In a welcome January 2014 written ministerial statement, the Government sought to re-emphasise existing policy that

“unmet need, whether for traveller sites or for conventional housing, is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt and other harm to constitute the ‘very special circumstances’ justifying inappropriate development in the green belt.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 35WS.]

I asked the Minister whether that still applied.

In September 2014, the coalition Government published, “Consultation: planning and travellers”. This made intentional occupation of land without planning permission a material consideration in any retrospective planning application for that site. Will the Minister confirm that that remains the case?

The guidance “Dealing with illegal and unauthorised encampments: a summary of available powers” was published in March 2015. Since then, there have been a number of debates in which hon Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), have highlighted these issues. On 9 October 2017, the then Housing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), said that the Government expected local authorities and the police to act and announced a review of the effectiveness of enforcement against unauthorised encampments, and made the point that this was not a reason for local authorities and the police not to use their existing powers.

On 12 October that year, the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), reiterated that the law must apply to everyone and agencies should work together to deal with wrongdoing. In April 2018, the Government launched a consultation and published their response in February this year. In it, the Government set out their intentions for further action on unauthorised developments and encampments, including:

“Practical and financial support for local authorities including new good practice guidance and funding for planning enforcement to support local authorities to deal with unauthorised encampments more effectively…Supporting traveller site provision through planning policy and the Affordable Homes Programme…Support for the travelling community to improve life chances”.

Many Gypsies and Travellers now live in settled accommodation—mostly in bricks and mortar—and do not travel, or do not travel all the time, but they do consider travelling part of their identity. The number of Traveller caravans is on the increase. In July 2018, the figure was 22,662—an increase of 29% since July 2008. There are concerns expressed by Select Committees of the House that this is leading to unsatisfactory conditions in unauthorised sites. It is also worth making the point that Travellers have the worst outcomes across a wide range of social indicators, so work to improve their life chances is welcome.

The Government have said that they will consider writing to local authorities that do not have an up-to-date plan for Travellers, to expedite the requirements of national planning policy and highlight examples of good practice. But this may be ineffective if the general view of councils becomes that, even if they prepare a plan and it is approved as part of the local plan by the inspector and the Secretary of State, such a plan can still be impugned within weeks in a retrospective ​planning appeal. I understand that the Government intend to publish further consultations on options for strengthening policy on intentional unauthorised development, but action is needed now to uphold the rule of law, provide a level playing field, and remove the stress and tension caused to local communities by intentional unauthorised developments.