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Tinkering With Policy

Tinkering with PolicyIn a backwater of Fylde, between Hardhorn and Singleton, there's upset.

The red area on the graphic marks a patch of land that lies along a track and is about a field-width from the Hardhorn - Singleton road (the one that goes under the narrow and low railway bridge).

Up to recently, it was just another bit of Fylde's agricultural land used for ponies or cows or whatever. Now it's a potential development site.

That's because it has been bought and occupied by people who have brought caravans onto the land, and provided roads and hardstandings using thousands of tons of hardcore. At present, it looks destined to become a permanent settlement. It seems the residents describe themselves as 'travellers' which we find a bit odd, given the permanent looking nature of the site they are developing.

Caravans at Hardhorn

Local people are angry about the development. When they want a home extension or a garage, they have to get planning permission before starting work.  And in such circumstances, it seems wrong that folk can just set up what is, in effect, a new community in the middle of a field with the planning system seemingly impotent to stop it.

So how can such a situation arise? How can the basis of a new settlement be established when others can't get permission for a dormer extension?

We thought we'd take a look at the planning aspects of this matter, and how policy changes have, (and will), affect people on the ground.

In 2006, the government introduced a new national strategy to address the shortage of accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers.

Circular No.1/2006 from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister provided 'updated guidance' on the planning aspects of finding sites for Gypsies and Travellers, and how local authorities could work with those groups to achieve this aim.

The Circular placed a duty on all local authorities to undertake an assessment of need (Gypsy and Travel Accommodation Assessment or  GTAA) in their own areas.

It also became a requirement for all local authorities to allocate land for Gypsy and Traveller sites within their local plans.

But, although they would have you believe that it was their idea all along, the UK Government was actually being directed in this matter by the EU. They provided the push to introduce such measures.

There has been a general failure in the UK to understand the depth and breadth of the scale under which the British electorate can no longer decide British law - because we've given away the right to rule ourselves.

As a result, the labour former Government often found itself acting against the wishes of the electorate.

Even worse, much of the Government, and in particular, Harriet Harridan, was comfortable to be in an ideological alliance with the EU - to do whatever she could to change the culture of Britain - typically by using, or seeking to use, diversity and equality laws to bring about cultural change.

So what are the EU policies in this matter?

Well, the policies that control the building on green land by travellers are actually framed and administered at the EU level, and 'forced' upon the citizens of all EU nations by ideologically aligned national and regional governments.

You can track the progress of some of these equality policies - and monitor the forces that drive them - by going to the EU's  'Fundamental Rights Agency' website , and reading through their archives on any particular area of policy.

For example with regard to travellers, just put 'Traveller sites' in their search box and you'll get an idea of the scale of the work this monster EU agency undertakes in just this one arena.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) is an independent body of the European Union. Its objective is to provide assistance and expertise on fundamental rights matters to the EU and its Member States, when they are implementing Community law. FRA's aim is to support them "to respect fully fundamental rights when they take measures or formulate courses of action".

FRA was established through Council Regulation (EC) No 168/2007 of 15 February 2007. It is based in Vienna and builds on the former European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC).

An example of their work was the study into Housing Conditions of Roma and Travellers done in March 2009, by Teresa Staniewicz of the Centre for Rights Equality and Diversity at the University of Warwick  This 109 page report looks into many aspects of the law regarding housing, crime, discrimination and so on.

Also relevant to the Government's consideration of this matter, though not strictly Planning Law, are the pronouncements of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights on other matters.

Their media releases help set the tone for national Governments to align themselves with agency policy. For example their press release of 2007  noted that the "Situation of Roma in Europe demands more rigorous action" and went on to say....

"The discrimination and disadvantage faced by Roma and Travellers in Europe is a well-documented fact. Solutions have been outlined in action plans and numerous strategies. What we need now is more action on the ground, the rigorous implementation of adequately-resourced policies, and specific measures that tackle deep-rooted discrimination and negative stereotypes of Roma and Travellers," said Beate Winkler, interim Director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, in a statement ahead of International Roma Day (8 April)".

Beate Winkler called on authorities at European, national and local level to step up efforts to address the entrenched discrimination of Roma and Travellers in education, employment, access to health care and services. She encouraged governments to make use of ‘positive action' to achieve equality in practice.

"Nothing is more unfair than the equal treatment of unequals. To remove deep-rooted discrimination against Roma and Travellers, we need more than just equal treatment. Take the example of the labour market. The unemployment rate among Roma in several EU Member States is as high as 70-90%. The EU anti-discrimination law specifically allows for positive action. Employers could, for instance, run targeted recruitment campaigns or offer vocational training to Roma and Travellers. We need more such measures to enable Roma and Travellers to compete on equal terms with other job applicants," Beate Winkler commented.

She continued: "When, if not during this European Year of Equal Opportunities for All, will we make real progress in turning these principles of equality into reality? The Year must raise awareness of the ongoing discrimination against Roma and Travellers and encourage action to combat it."

So what we have here is an EU monster agency driving British Government policy, and a (former) New Labour Government that was a willing and compliant partner in implementing that policy in national law and in Statutory Planning Guidance.

Thus the 2006 Planning Circular (01/2006) showed how the accommodation needs of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers should be integrated into the Planning system.

It marked a shift away from a situation where most planning authorities did not have policies identifying suitable locations for sites, and thus did not help Gypsies and Irish Travellers to find suitable land.

The Circular set out how Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments should inform overall pitch levels in Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs), and how additional pitches are to be distributed amongst local planning authorities.

Using this evidence of need, local planning authorities had to identify specific sites suitable for pitches, and establish criteria to be used to assess planning applications for pitches as part of their Local development Framework (LDF).

Critically, paragraph 43 of the Circular said; “Where there is clear and immediate need… local planning authorities should bring forward DPDs [Development Plan Documents] containing site allocations in advance of regional consideration of pitch numbers, and completion of the new GTANAs”.

So Planning Authorities were being pushed to look at allocating such sites even before they had been instructed what numbers they had to work to.

Not all did of course.

Many, including Fylde, waited for the Regional Spatial Strategy to be published so they knew what numbers they would be required to work to.

So, in September 2009, Fylde's Director of Strategic Planning reported a Partial Review of the North West Plan to Fylde's Cabinet.

In summary this said that '4 NW' (that's the stupid 'Toys 'R' Us' name of the former the North West Regional Assembly) had prepared a draft Partial Review of the North West Plan (which is their name for the Regional Spatial Strategy), and consultation was sought on:

  • Accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers;
  • Accommodation for Travelling Showpeople;
  • Regional Parking Standards.

It went on to explain that the policies they were consulting on, would eventually become the Regional Spatial Strategy and, as such, they would become part of the statutory development plan for Fylde, and would "directly inform" Fylde's development control decisions on these matters.  (for which you can read they will require FBC to follow their instruction)

This happens because the Council's plans are subservient to the Regional Plan - which itself is ultimately set by the [former Labour] Government

We have a copy of the full agenda report if anyone wants it, but in essence '4NW' said that in 2008, an extra 45 pitches should be made available throughout Blackpool Fylde and Wyre (Government Office NW was intent on seeing us as a single area).

Fylde had objected to this on the basis that the figures were much higher than the survey of need they had undertaken themselves in 2007.

This had shown a need for an increase of just one pitch in Fylde, twenty-four pitches in Blackpool, and no increase in Wyre.

But the Regional people had come back and said they thought the distribution of the numbers was unfairly worked out in the survey, and their approach was going to be more 'distributive.'

In essence they said.....

Fylde had 2 authorised pitches for Gypsies and travellers, and they needed an extra 15 pitches to take them up to 17 'Permanent Residential Pitches' by 2016, and a further 5 'Transit Residential Pitches' would also be required

Wyre had no authorised pitches, and they needed an extra 15 pitches to take them up to 15 'Permanent Residential Pitches' by 2016, and a further 5 'Transit Residential Pitches' would also be required there.

Blackpool had 51 authorised pitches, and they needed no extra by 2016, but they did need a further 5 'Transit Residential Pitches'

In effect what has happened here, is that the numbers that *were* going to go to Blackpool, had been 're-distributed' to Fylde and Wyre.

Furthermore, in addition to these numbers, an annual 3% compound increase in the overall residential pitch provision beyond 2016 was recommended.

Fylde decided to formally object to the principle of achieving a wider distribution of gypsy families throughout the North West, but not to challenge the assumed annual 3% compound increase in the overall residential pitch provision beyond 2016 pending the completion of a GTAA review.

BUT - and this is the crucial part - the stage had been set by national Government

So whatever Fylde wanted was mostly irrelevant.

They could refuse as many planning permissions for new traveller pitches as they liked - but with the Regional Plan saying otherwise, it was likely that any appeal to the Minister (against a refusal of planning permission by Fylde) would pay more attention to the Regional requirements, and the planning permission would have been granted on appeal.

But worse was to come.

In May 2010, the Daily Mail used the Freedom of Information Act to acquire private guidance given to the Planning Inspectorate by Government.

They said
".....Earlier this month guidelines to planning inspectors said travellers should be able to set up sites on protected land and in the green belt because of their minority status. They said rules that apply to everyone else should be bent on human rights grounds as many travellers suffer an 'aversion to bricks and mortar'."

This secret directive - dated from last year - but belatedly exposed under the Freedom of Information Act this May,- instructs regional planning officers to exercise discretion in favour of allowing travellers to establish rural sites, even where planning rules do not permit them; where local residents are protesting; in the green belt; or where no farmer would be permitted to build a house for his cowman.

They declare travellers an ethnic minority, entitled to special squatting rights, just as they are also alleged to deserve a right to jump queues for schools and health care.

That was not simply for green (agricultural or countryside) land, but formally protected 'Green Belt' - which most planners regard as 'sacrosanct.'

Within this maelstrom of conflicting policy, it's not surprising that people would chance their arm to see if they could land a planning permission for a new Gipsy / Traveller pitch somewhere. And the land at Hardhorn - Singleton ended up as being just one of several sites around the country where this policy conflict was being played out.

So, going back to our original question "How can such a situation arise? How can the basis of a new village be set up when others can't get permission for a dormer extension."

We hope our readers can now see.

In essence it's EU policy, driving a willing Labour Government, that itself was driving regional policy, that local councils had to implement or be overruled by planning inspectors working on behalf of Government.

Heads I win. Tails you lose.

So Fylde (and other agencies) have had to be very cautious about how they go about dealing with the planning situation at Singleton / Hardhorn, and this has been too slow for many in the local community who feel frustrated and impotent at what they have seen taking place.

We think that all the positions in this matter are understandable. But eventually, the present situation is not tenable.

At the root of all of this, (and as we have said be before), is the fundamental problem that the EU is damaging to Britain, (we know that assertion will upset some of our readers so apologies to them, but that's the way we see it)

For decades now, and thanks to the EU, we've been assaulted in our sense of who we are, what we are, whether we have a right to be, as a nation. We've been subjected to decades of intense immigration, and the free movement of labour within the EU area. This has brought many benefits, but it has also brought many negatives. But one of the things it has done has been to assault Britain and the British people as an identity - a situation set out in sharp relief by Peter Hitchens in his book 'The Abolition of Britain'

When our Government is compelled - or, as more recently with new Labour - is complicit, in this process, people get angry about the loss or dilution of their own cultural identity and sovereignty.

That's why the great European project will never work.

The aim is social cohesion enforced by promoting a social inclusion agenda. But when - as here with planning policy - well intentioned exceptions are made for some groups, who, in effect, move outside the established and accepted planning laws using 'human rights' as a trump card, it makes others very angry at the special treatment they have been given. It thus denies the original objective of social cohesion because the perceived adversity suffered, (on both sides) entrenches attitudes and promotes hostility.

It is a self-defeating policy, and, ultimately, it cannot work.

The EU has the unspoken, laudable, and (small L) liberal aim of preventing future wars by abolishing the nation state. But that will only create what, in effect, will become 'civil wars' within its boundaries.

As the EU tries to enforce a one-size-fits-all culture onto an unwilling people, they will eventually elect a 'strong' government promising to lead them back to nationhood. Hence the growth in support for what were, until recently, popularly called the 'far right' parties in the Netherlands, France and the UK and elsewhere. Over time they will become 'the right' - then right wing, and finally, mainstream.

So, whilst in the end we see Europe fragmenting back to independent nation status (and thus national governance), in the meantime the policy emanating from the EU is causing community tensions in the UK - as evidenced locally at Singleton / Hardhorn, even though it is intended to do exactly the opposite

In this particular case at Hardhorn, as we said earlier, Fylde has done its best to deal with the situation within the law, and within what government policy would allow it to do.

In November last year, the Council's planning officers served a temporary 'Stop Notice' on the land to stop engineering works to create hard standing areas.

But this was ignored, and considerable work took place.

The land was owned by those occupying it, so only planning permission regulations were available for the Council to use. (The powers of the police and the Council that would have applied to an illegal occupation were not available).

By December, Fylde was seeking an injunction, and in early January it was granted. It stopped the travellers from bringing more caravans onto the land and from developing the site – although they were allowed to bring water to the site and to use power generators.

The Council's solicitor noted they had submitted an invalid planning application for the land last year, but they had been asked to resubmit it so that the matter may be decided by the council.

In February, Fylde applied to vary the order made on the 13th January, and an injunction was granted (with certain conditions) that prevented entry onto the land of any further caravans either in addition to, or in substitution for, the caravans stationed on the land at that time.

Furthermore, from 4pm on Wednesday 17th February 2010 no more than 30 caravans in total could be on the land. The injunction defines a number of other activities which are prevented or restricted.

A planning application for the land was received by FBC and validated on 25th January. The application (number 09/0830) is described as ‘change of use from former agricultural land to land for stationing of caravans for residential occupation by gypsy-travellers with associated development (hard standing, cess pools, fencing, utility buildings)’.

The injunction granted on 3rd February also requires that should the application be refused by the Council, any appeal be submitted within 4 weeks of any notification of refusal (as opposed to the normal limit of 6 months).

The officer's recommendation for that planning application says the proposed development would be contrary to a clutch of Fylde's planning policies as there is no proven need for a travellers site in this location.

They also say the proposed development would have a detrimental impact on highway safety, the character of the countryside & the surrounding area and would involve the loss of good quality agricultural land, and that it had failed to demonstrate that the proposal will not have a harmful impact on protected species and archaeological interests.

Now, whilst there are a few idiosyncrasies that could yet prevent this development (for example, the landowners don't own the access track and we understand they don't actually have a right to access their site, and there are issues with the highways anyway. There's also an issue with archaeology because a Roman road is adjacent to the site), the refusal of planning permission would normally just mean an appeal - with a Government Inspector who overrides Fylde's decision (based on the secret direction to give greater precedence to the 'human' aspects).

BUT

In the last few weeks, we've had a change of Government

And that might just make a big difference.

Eric Pickles is now in charge of 'Communities and Local Government' and he's not one to mince his words. Also, he's been very clear about handing power in the planning system to local Councils and local people.

Last week, he called on councils to crackdown on unauthorised bank holiday building, saying "This new coalition government will not stand back and allow a small minority of people to deliberately exploit the extended weekend and planning procedure to carry out unauthorised developments. That's why I'm calling on councils to take precautionary measures and make sure that they have planning officers ready to deal with any planning applications submitted over the weekend. We want to ensure fair play in the planning system and as part of this we will be strengthening the powers of councils to tackle unauthorised development."

So he's not for people doing things outside the proper rules.

Then on Friday last, he wrote to all Councils telling them to abandon the Strategic Housing Land Assessment process because he was going to abandon the Regional Spatial Strategy and hand decision-making back to Local Councils and local people.

This was reported as a 'Late Observation' at the planning meeting to decide the 'Traveller application' at Lowther Pavilion on Wednesday 2 June at 10:00 a.m.

About 200 people in the audience heard locals speak in the public participation part.

Ward Councillor Maxine Chew asked the Committee to refuse the application on planning policy grounds as set out in the order paper. She said there was no proven need for additional pitches, and these were not people with a connection to Fylde that might be thought to override the lack of need. She said the development would destroy the tiny hamlet of Hardhorn and urged refusal.

The first 'public' speaker said he objected under Policy HL8. He lived close to the site and cited disturbance from commercial vehicles used in connection with the traveller's business activities. He also noted that as many as 20 lorries a day had been queuing up to tip hardcore causing many near miss accidents. He urged refusal as this was not the right site for a Traveller pitch.

The second was a lady who lived 300 yards away. She said Hardhorn was surrounded by agricultural land that was required to keep the historically important settlement of Hardhorn distinct from Poulton. She had seen an increase in litter and dog excrement, and if the permission was given, there would be more travellers than the existing 70 residents of Hardhorn, and the village would be "overwhelmed"

Another lady spoke from the environmental and ecological angle quoting specific concerns about wildlife and the threat posed by sewage overflow to local watercourses. She claimed diesel storage on the site at present did not comply with proper practice.

A man said he lived on the lane and spoke to represent thirteen farming families who could no longer safely graze their sheep in adjoining fields because of worrying by loose dogs. He was also concerned about damage to fields and hedgerows by the traveller vehicles and by threats and intimidatory actions.

Another lady spoke about road safety, and how the danger had greatly increased to the extent she no longer felt it was safe to let her children walk to Baines school. She said the sightlines were inadequate, and previous planning applications for development on this site had been refused because of highway concerns.

The final speaker against the application was Cllr Graham Cocker of Wyre Council said he had represented Hardhorn on Wyre BC for the last six years, and he felt very deeply for the residents of Hardhorn village. He said the planning officer's report was unequivocal in its recommendation for refusal and it was so strongly put that councillors on Fylde's DC committee would find the decision easy to make. He said that granting permission would send out a disastrous signal to travellers throughout the UK that Fylde was "a soft touch" and he urged refusal.

The Chairman then invited the applicant or their representative to speak in favour of the application. This was exceptional in that you normally have to register some days in advance of the meeting to be allowed to speak.

A lady came forward. She said she was representing the Travellers and worked in Chorley but lived in Bispham. She said she didn't have a prepared speech but that travellers were an ancient people. She couldn't understand the problems that had been spoken of by others, and it was not her experience of the travellers. She also said that as far as the visual impact was concerned, the site would he landscaped and hidden by trees.

There followed the presentation by the officers. This was a classic, steady, safe pair if hands job, and an even handed approach. Both the development plan and human rights were mentioned, as was the letter from Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles. The officer noted that the human rights for the travellers had to be balanced against the resident's rights. He also noted that an appeal and enforcement action by the Council could run concurrently, but that enforcement action was a matter delegated to officers, so it did not appear as a recommendation in the agenda.

Cllr John Bennett then spoke first from the chair and said he was happy to propose the officer's recommendation.

Cllr Albert Pounder of Staining stood to second it.

Cllr Howard Henshaw began by saying "As the only Liberal Democrat councillor on the Development Control Committee..." which brought a quick rebuke from the Chairman who said DC Committee was traditionally non-party political and he deprecated Cllr Henshaw's bringing it into the debate. Cllr Henshaw went on to say he had looked into the matter of Human Rights in detail and it applied to both existing residents and travellers. On balance, he thought the case for the residents was the more convincing.

Cllr Paul Rigby noted that the Travellers didn't seem to want to be travellers because they appeared to be setting up a permanent site.

Cllr Liz Oades said part of their job was to protect the countryside, and this was inappropriate development in the countryside. She would vote for refusal.

Cllr Eastham said they hadn't gone about the planning application in the usual way and that was unfortunate. He wondered whether the Chairman would like a proposition to effect enforcement action in the event of a refusal.

Travellers at Hardhorn

Cllr Trevor Fiddler said he believed this was nothing to do with Human Rights because rights means one person in conflict with another. He said the previous Government had promoted a social inclusion agenda and had allowed people to disobey the law, and when you allow people to be outside the law it makes people angry, and that fails to enable the social inclusion you were trying to achieve. He added that the Travellers could come in and speak with the Council about the need for additional sites.

There being no further requests to speak, the Chairman called the recorded vote and, one by one, until the end of the Committee was reached, there was just one word returned.

"Refusal".

This was not unexpected, the development flies in the face of all Fylde's adopted planning policies.

Under normal circumstances, the applicant would submit an appeal - confident in the knowledge that the (former) Government's Planning Inspectorate in Bristol would almost certainly have upheld the appeal and granted the development.

But as we showed above, the new coalition Government - and in particular, Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has hit the ground running, and has already abandoned the housing targets and the Regional Strategy, saying it is for Local Councils to decide applications.

The wind has changed.

There may still be an appeal of course, but if there is, and the Planning Inspectorate hasn't caught-on to the new direction blowing through Westminster, it's possible the Secretary of State could overrule them anyway if he doesn't like their decision.

Local residents might be forgiven for thinking there might be light at the end of their long, dark, planning tunnel.

But either way, the events of the last few weeks do go to show what can happen when a Government changes, and the new one tinkers with the policies.

Dated:  5 June 2010


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