Monday, 5 September 2011

Not In My Back Yard

There has been much discussion in recent days of the Government’s plan to ‘reform’ the planning system.

Broadly speaking, on one side we have the ever-fragrant Gideon Osborne and his svelte chum Eric Pickles, claiming that planning ‘reforms’ will boost growth. On the other side, we have everyone else – except, of course, the private companies that will significantly benefit from these ‘reforms’.

At this point I’m going to stop using their word – ‘reform’ – and switch to a more accurate word – ‘destruction’. Having failed to sell off the forests earlier this year, it seems the Tories are intent on selling off the rest of the country – whatever the long-term cost to this (soon to be formerly) green and pleasant land.

It’s not just sandal-wearing lefties, and NIMBY types opposing these plans. It’s mainstream establishment organisations like the National Trust and the RSPB. But the privatisation train rolls on. Nothing is not for sale. Not the NHS, not the prisons, not the schools, and not even the very hills and fields around us. Everything, and everyone, must subordinate their own interests to those of the corporations and the wealthy. It is “key” to economic recovery, claims Osborne – the man who has so far killed what little economic growth he inherited – to enable companies to build wherever they like, without regard to the old system of checks and balances.

As is often the case with Tory policies, particularly with this seat-of-the-pants Government, this plan doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As Martin Harper, the conservation director of the RSPB points out, “the [existing] planning system is intended to protect and represent the interests of the public in the face of complex decisions, and it will fail us all if one factor – economic growth – is set higher than any other.” Not least because, like slashing public spending down to two shillings and sixpence, it doesn’t work.

The Government claims, naturally – and correctly – that there is a severe housing shortage in the UK. But let’s not be fooled by this. There is no sudden concern on the part of the Conservative Party to help those who can’t get on the housing ladder, or those who can’t get housing at all. They’re not Tory voters, and they’re not represented by Tory policies. Never have been, never will be. You may think I’m being cynical and partisan here. I almost certainly am. But given that the Government plans to reduce the budget for building affordable homes by 60%, further exacerbating the housing shortage and driving the vulnerable into the clutches of predatory profiteering private landlords, and that the inevitable increase in rents that will ensue will have to be paid for out of taxpayer funds, it’s clear that this new policy is not driven by the shortage in housing but by the shortage in profits of those development companies who doubtless help fill the Party coffers.

All semblance of control and balance will be gone. It’s now a case of build what you like, where you like. Except, that is, if you’re an undesirable.

In the same week as the Government’s destruction of the planning law was rolled out, it was finally confirmed in the High Court that around 400 Irish Travellers living at Dale Farm in Essex would face eviction. These people have lived on this land for ten years. (Note that I don’t say they “lived illegally”, as much of the media does, as if their very existence contravened legislation.) They own it – because, when the last Tory Government removed the obligation for councils to provide pitches for Gypsies and Travellers in 1994, they were encouraged to buy land and settle on it. So they did. They bought an old scrap yard, filthy and polluted, and moved their homes there - next door to an existing Traveller settlement that already had planning permission. Technically, it’s ‘green belt’ land, but the only green on that land is oxidised copper. We’re not talking rolling hills and fields here. It was a dump. Now it’s the only home they have left. Or it was – until they were evicted for not having planning permission. If only they had been a massive corporation, instead of 80-odd families struggling to survive, and protect what remains of their culture.

The Travellers that now face eviction in the next two weeks are already starting to make homelessness applications – and, of course, the council are obliged by law to assist the elderly, infirm and very young. Which basically means all of them. Except, of course, the Government has already slashed spending on housing. So they’ve nowhere to go. No roadside. No legal pitches. Not even their own land.

One of the Government’s own Peers says the eviction is ‘stupid’. Even the UN is wading in. Those who continue to support the eviction claim, rather too often and too loudly for my liking, that it’s not about them being Travellers, it’s just about upholding the planning law. The same planning law that faces total destruction in the entire United Kingdom except this one small corner of Essex. This is disingenuous rubbish. It’s incredible to find that there are people across the country who care so much about upholding planning law hundreds of miles away, yet don’t seem to have any concerns about any other development in the entire country. Because the other developments are for profit-making companies, instead of a few families who aren’t from their culture. This isn’t enforcement, it’s a vendetta.

I have been to Dale Farm, and spoken to the families there. Like any other community, the vast majority of them just want to live their lives peacefully and within the law. Over the past ten years they have tried again and again to obtain permission for developing their small square of concrete and scrap metal, and time and time again they have been refused. This is by no means unusual. In England over 90% of planning applications by Gypsies and Travellers are turned down, compared to only 20% of planning applications from the general population.

Yet the eviction continues, despite the clear and obvious inequities involved. In 2006, the then Labour Government published a document on planning for Gypsy and Traveller sites. Notable extracts from this document include:

In some cases, perhaps involving previously developed (brownfield), untidy or derelict land, the establishment of a well-planned or soft-landscaped gypsy and traveller site can be seen as positively enhancing the environment and increasing openness.


Members of the gypsy and traveller communities have the same rights and responsibilities within the planning system as members of other communities. Planning permission is normally required for any changes of use of land. As with developments submitted by anyone the only times permission would not be required are;
i) if the land has already been granted planning permission for a particular type of land use; or,
ii) the use of the land has been established over a period of time without valid planning enforcement action having been taken by the local authority. This time period is 4 years for building or other similar physical works which do not represent a change of land use, or 10 years where the development has represented a change of land use.

It seems to me that under these criteria, Dale Farm is well within the bounds of acceptability. George Osborne claims that "sticking with the old, failed planning system puts at risk young people's future prosperity and quality of life". It’s a crying shame that the prosperity and quality of life that so concerns him does not extend to all of the population.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, discrimination against travellers is almost certainly a factor, but the equitable solution is not to allow the illegal (unlawful?) development to stand.

    I'm middle class. I desperately want to buy a plot of land to build on. Unfortunately, suitable plots cost about £200k, which after build costs is outside my means.

    I could buy a plot of agricultural land for £6k and build on it without planning permission. That would make me deleriously happy, except for one thing. I know the authorities would come and bulldoze my house.

    I don't expect anyone to sympathise with me. After all, were I successful I would have made an unfair profit at the expense of the former land owner and would have contributed in my small way to blighting the countryside (despite the fact that I have exquisite taste). So why are the Dale Farm residents in question deserving of sympathy in this instance?

    Anticipating certain objections to my point (i.e. an existing site with planning permission is adjacent, it is an ex-scrapheap) I would add that I would be happy to build my house on a former scrapheap, next to an existing development. So long as the plot only cost me £6k. But again, I would expect the authorities to bring in the bulldozers.

    That is the reality today. You say the planning laws face "destruction", but my reality remains that I cannot buy a cheap plot of land and build on it. I don't understand why the Dale Farm residents should expect otherwise for themselves.

    I don't doubt that the residents' status as travellers has a negative impact on the local council's view of them. As it happens, I also expect that has led to a certain amount of handwringing about discrimination. However, I believe the outcome (assuming eviction goes ahead) is the right one, based solely on the principles of democracy and equality.

    What's the equitable solution? I'll assume the residents have submitted planning applications in the proper way and that the council has dismissed them in the proper (and appropriate) way - I remain to be convinced otherwise. If this is the case, then the solution is for the residents to find alternative accommodation under their own steam and, where that is not reasonably achievable, the council should supply it.

    P.S. in all of this, my references to "Dale Farm residents" should be read as meaning those on the disputed plot. I appreciate that others are living on an entirely legal plot and, of course, I have no dispute with their position.