Confused about the new planning law and ‘gypsy status’? Then read this
Gypsy and Traveller site planning expert Alison Heine reports on the worrying uses by councils of THE ‘gypsy status’ planning definition following the new Planning Policy for Traveller Sites guidance released by this Government last August.
As many will be aware, on 31 August 2016 the Government updated the guidance in Planning Policy for Traveller Sites (PPTS). The definition of who is to be regarded as a Gypsy-Traveller for planning purposes was changed. The definition is far from clear but after years of encouraging Travellers to settle and travel less, it now says you have to travel to be allowed to remain settled. We are not told what sort of travelling you have to do or how much but before you check that your passport this is not an excuse to go and book ten package holidays. The supporting justification talks about the need to live a nomadic habit of life? We are not told what that is supposed to mean either. Confused? –you are not the only one.
Many will have seen this coming and will have been aware of the need to keep travelling for work to ensure their children retain Gypsy-Traveller status, even If you have a pitch to live on. But those who travel would do well to keep proof of this. Keep your petrol receipts, your M6 toll road receipts and your ferry tickets. Take photos of your caravan and vehicle on a caravan site, in a layby or on some waste ground to show where you have been.
But what if you are too young, ill, elderly, care for young children or are on benefits and do not work and cannot travel?. If others in your immediate family still travel for work, you will probably be OK. It is unlikely Councils will ask you to leave your plot if someone in the family still travels for work and you are dependent on them. Few Councils would have any alternative accommodation to offer you any way.
But if you have settled on a plot for many years and no longer travel much for work you might need to re-think what you do. The Courts have agreed that you only need to go away in your caravan looking for work for 6-8 weeks a year to retain your Gypsy-Traveller status. That includes trips to horse fairs. At the moment this is all it may take to be allowed to remain living in your caravan, on your family plot, with your family and friends.
‘But think about your children’
But think about your children. Many only know a settled existence. Many have never lived on the road like their parents or grandparents did. Most will not have led a nomadic way of life. If they do not go travelling for work with their family they will not have Gypsy-Traveller status for planning purposes when they want to set up on their own.
It has not taken some local authorities long to realise that this change to the definition could reduce the need for more sites if it is discovered fewer families comply with the new definition. Most Councils have failed to identify enough land to meet the need for more site. Few want to. Most are looking for any excuse to avoid the need to do so. One authority in Kent has lost no time going through their need assessments. They noted that most families said they did not travel and now they are telling their Local Plan Inspector that they will not need as many pitches as was first thought because few families in their area comply with the planning definition. No doubt they are also hoping no one will spot this when the main modifications are published. We have to remain vigilant.
‘When and for how long do you go travelling?’
Local authorities in Buckinghamshire (eg Aylesbury Vale) and most of Essex have instructed a firm called Opinion Research Services (ORS) to update their need assessments. You might find that surprising-after all they both did this in 2013 and most local authorities wait 5 years or more to update their evidence base. But check out Section F of the ORS form. It has questions about what travelling you do. Who goes travelling? How many trips do you make in a caravan? Why do you go travelling? When and for how long do you go travelling?. If you do not travel, when did you last travel and why have you stopped? Do you have plans to go travelling again in the future? Look back at the changed definition in PPTS and you will understand why they are asking these questions. This is for one purpose only: they want to establish if you are still a Gypsy-Traveller for planning purposes?
These question may sound quite straightforward-but what do you think they mean. What is a trip? What do you think they mean by travelling? Is that the same as a ‘nomadic habit of life’ which is what the Government is looking for? Are you being expected to leave your site and go back to living on the road again? If you say you travel all year round is someone going to say you do not need a site to live on? If you only travel in the summer, will that be enough? Will a few trips to horse fairs to be counted as travelling? Will it matter if the whole family do not go travelling together? Why does it matter what your reasons are? Does travelling for a funeral count, to a wedding or to a Mission meeting count less than travelling for work? Why would ORS think going to fairs is not the same as travelling for work? Why do you think they want to know your future intentions when it comes to Travelling?
‘They may doubt whether you retain ‘gypsy status’ status for planning purposes’
You do not have to answer these questions. You do not have to assist local authorities with their need assessments. If you’re Council want to check if you still meet the definition of a Gypsy –Traveller they should not do so on the back of a need assessment. But if you do not have a touring caravan, if your vehicle does not have tow ball, if you are on benefits and never go away, they may doubt whether you retain your Gypsy-Traveller status for planning purposes.
If you are asked questions about what travelling you do and are unclear and confused-do not answer them and get advice. Ask the interviewers to make an appointment and return when there is someone there who can help explain the questions to you. Ask them to leave the form so you can study it and answer it in your own time when you are sure you understand what is being asked of you. Think carefully and honestly about your answers. Most importantly of all, never feel pressured into giving answers to questions you are not sure about because there could be serious consequences if the Council decides your occupation of a pitch on a Gypsy-Traveller site is in breach of an occupancy condition which states that only persons who meet the planning definition in Government guidance can live there.