Councillors recommend £500,000 budget for purchase of gypsy and traveller sites
The district council is to move forward with its plans to identify and secure accommodation for gypsies and travellers in East Devon after councillors approved officers’ recommendations at last night’s cabinet meeting (17 June 2015).
A study of gypsy and traveller accommodation requirements, commissioned in partnership with other Devon local authorities and completed in Spring 2015, has proved that there is a need for the council to allocate sites for these people.
These sites could appear in the Local Plan, but to avoid further delay the council will be asking the Local Plan Inspector for permission to produce a Gypsy and Traveller Plan, which will identify specific sites for gypsies and travellers, as well as travelling showpeople.
This document is expected to be adopted for use in 2016. While the Gypsy and Traveller Plan is being produced, planning applications for new or extended sites will be assessed against the Local Plan’s development management policies, which will ensure that there is no delay in decision making, which could otherwise put gypsies and travellers at a disadvantage.
Local authorities are required by the Government to assess the need for gypsy and traveller pitches in their respective areas and to ensure that there are enough sites to meet that need for the next five years.
If the inspector gives his approval to this approach, the council will canvass opinion among the gypsies and travellers communities, to ask them for their views on what the Gypsy and Traveller Plan should incorporate.
This could be followed by a call for sites, which have potential for accommodation use. It may be that the council has to become a site provider in its own right or partner with other organisations, to provide new sites.
There are numerous local examples, such as in South Somerset, where council-owned sites are operating very successfully and generating a profitable income stream.
Councillors have approved allocating a proposed budget of £500,000 to purchase one or more gypsy and traveller sites, which will need to be funded by borrowing from council reserves or savings.
However, funding may be available from the Homes and Communities Agency Affordable Housing Programme. Further sources of finance available to the council include a New Homes Bonus (£6,000-£6350 per pitch upon occupation), and grants from the Department for Communities and Local Government, which would also help contribute to funding.
Generating income South Somerset’s council owned sites have already shown that it is possible to operate gypsy and traveller accommodation at a profit. Their sites made a surplus of £32,400 in 2013/2014 and it appears that rents and utility bills are all paid promptly.
On this basis, East Devon believes there is no reason why its own sites should not be financially viable and provide a solid income, which together with grants and the New Homes Bonus would enable a significant part of the £500,000 loan to be paid.
Levels of need revealed by the study
- 37 additional gypsy pitches are needed between 2014 and 2034, with 22 of these being required in the first five years.
- Three new travelling showpeople pitches are wanted, with one of these needed in the first five years.
- Between four to five temporary/emergency stopping places in Devon with at least one in East Devon, within the first five years.
- 23 houses are required for gypsies and travellers, but this can be met through the council’s own general housing stock.
The most obvious place to search for new sites appears to be on the western side of East Devon, centred around the M5/A30. Clearly major housing developments such as Cranbrook’s expansion areas could provide suitable sites for gypsies and travellers, but this would be a matter for the Inspector to decide.
We have already seen a recent approach - similar to the one we are asking the Inspector to consider - used successfully in West Dorset. With this precedent already set, we will be visiting gypsy and traveller communities to look at different ways of expanding their accommodation.
It will not be easy meeting their needs. Finding privately owned sites, which are suitable for gypsies and travellers, is extremely difficult and is further complicated by the cost of buying and laying out new pitches. Gypsies and travellers have important and long historical links with this part of the country, so it is up to us to take the lead in assessing the needs of these people alongside the settled population and ensuring that everyone’s requirements are adequately met in our plan.
The experience of Maldon District Council, which was criticised for failing to allocate sites or specify the level of need for pitches, has shown how critical it is that we demonstrate to the Inspector the soundness of our Gypsy and Traveller Plan in providing sites. We must therefore give him confidence in the seriousness of our intentions about meeting gypsy and traveller accommodation needs.
It has recently been difficult to prevent encampments in East Devon because we haven’t met our needs. However, I am confident that our new strategy will meet the requirements of our gypsy and traveller communities and this in turn will put us in a strong position to defend our countryside - much of which is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - from unlawful camps.