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Traveller Inquiry

Traveller InqiryThe Inquiry in Public into the appeal by Terrance Collins and others against a refusal of planning permission for a Traveller's site by FBC, and against Fylde's imposition of enforcement notices requiring the present site to be vacated and re-instated to farmland, opened today at the United Reformed Church Hall on St George's Road in St Annes.

Inspector (Ken updated 18/2) Karl Williams was ready to hear submissions and evidence in order to come to a decision on the matter.

The meeting started at 10am - but by 10 to 10, the big room was like a doctor's waiting room, muted murmurs and nervous glances in the public gallery. An aura pregnant with apprehension pervaded the hall.  By now, most of the 70 or so seats that had been put out were taken. We saw some faces we knew. Fylde Councillors Singleton, Pounder & Mrs Pagett, Cllr Ramesh Gandhi from Wyre. 

Also there was Wyre's head of Planning - partly because the entrance to the site is just inside the Wyre boundary and partly because Wyre has its own unauthorised Traveller site to deal with.

There was a low-key but highly visible uniformed police presence in the form of an officer at the back of the hall for the start of the meeting (He left shortly after the meeting started with no ' issues' as they say), and Fylde's Police Inspector also called in briefly just before the meeting started.

The Planning Inspector said he had been appointed to conduct the inquiry and to determine the appeal, but he also mentioned he had seen a letter from Ben Wallace MP who had written to the Rt Hon St Eric Pickles MP asking him to call-in the decision and asking St Eric to tell the inspector to make a recommendation rather than decide the matter himself. We understand Fylde's MP Mark Menzies has sent a similar letter.

The barrister for the Travellers was quick to his feet, saying he knew nothing of this and wanted a copy of the letter. He said he might have to ask for an adjournment of the Inquiry to consider whether his clients should institute a Judicial Review of the request.

The planning Inspector provided a copy of the letter, but said it was not (at least not yet) a matter for the enquiry. The request had been made by the MP and the Secretary of State had not yet responded. Much huffing and puffing followed from the Traveller's barrister.

Their barrister is Alan Masters, of the Pump Court Chambers at the Temple, London. He specialises in: Civil actions against the police; Housing; Judicial Review; Mental health; Planning; Offences against the person; Private laws; Human rights; and Social security.

By 10:04 there were more than a dozen people standing at the back of the room and extra chairs were being brought in.

The barrister for Fylde BC is Jonathan Easton of Kings Chambers in Manchester. This is the stable that Fylde mostly seems to use. He specialises in Administrative & Public Law, Environment, Local Government, and Planning.

As usual at Fylde's Inquiries, the radio microphones were struggling to work, (and at time screeching very unpleasantly)  so they are often turned off and hearing becomes difficult, so with that proviso, we'll report what happened on the first day.

There had been no Statement of Common Ground because of unsettled arguments about ecology and archaeology. However these had been orally agreed just before the meeting and a written SoCG was handed round.

After being advised which witnesses each barrister was going to call, the Inspector asked if there were any members of the public who wanted to speak. Usually, you get a dozen or more at these sort of do's but only one chap stood up to say he and two others would like to speak tomorrow.

We subsequently overheard two people saying that they were too frightened to speak, and one who had wanted to speak but had been told he couldn't, because what he wanted to say was racist. Whether that's true or not we don't know, but it did seem to square with the atmosphere of foreboding in the room. And if it was the case, we thought it a poor show that people could feel thus intimidated.

The Inspector said the main issues he wanted to address during the inquiry were: 1) Highway Safety; 2) The character and appearance of the area; 3) The residential amenity aspects; 4) The need for and provision of Gypsy sites in the area; 5) Ecology and 6) Cultural heritage (archaeology) if these were not  agreed before hand; 7) The issue of farmland quality; 8) The health and education of residents; 9) Sustainability.

Usually at a planning inquiry each witness called to give evidence takes anything from a couple of hours to a day and a half, but at this one they were expecting to need 20 mins or 30 mins for each witness, with the longest being an hour or so.

A bit of a hiatus blew up when Mr Masters said he couldn't do Tuesday next week - so the Inspector will look at sitting on Monday. That change was typical of what we thought was the most flexibly run inquiry we've seen to date. Mostly the inspector rules with a rod of iron (even if it is in  velvet, or in some cases comedic, glove) but here people were being allowed to set the time and date of their appearance. We also heard that both MP's would attend on Friday and expected to speak on the matter. The Inspector also advised the future days would start at 9:30 not 10am.

There's another little aside we noted here as well. The Inspector had come by train and had no transport here. So he said he would need to be taken to the site and brought back for the 'accompanied site visit.' Previous Inspectors of our acquaintance have used taxis. Obviously the cuts are beginning to bite everywhere, we thought.

Opening the case for the appellant, Mr Masters gave an outline of the history of Gypsies and Travellers. He said the term Gypsy has Egyptian roots and Travellers joined them as the other officially ethnically recognised group. Within Travellers some were traditionally from the Irish community. He noted that whilst some of the appellants in this case were not of Irish descent, they followed the traditions and had pronounced Irish Accents. He said they should not however, be regarded as foreign.

(We know people who will struggle with that concept, as they regard anyone from beyond Garstang as foreign - and indeed they believe that once beyond Garstang, it's still possible to fall of the edge of the earth).

Anyway, back to the topic, Mr Masters went on to say that before the war, Travellers and Gypsies were an essential element of the agrarian economy. They followed crop picking in summer and holed up in winter until next year.

But post-war farm mechanisation had changed their lifestyle. There was not the agricultural work for them any more, the road system no longer offered by-ways for them to hole up in, and even the common land had come under the control of local authorities.

He went on to describe the various legislation that had been enacted over the years to require Councils to provide the needs of Gypsies and Travellers. We covered this quite extensively in 'Tinkering with Policy' so we won't repeat it here.

Summarising the current position he said FBC believes the main need for sites is in Blackpool and takes the view that "We're alright, so go back to Blackpool" - and that wasn't good enough. There was a substantial need and no alternative sites because all Fylde's other land was green belt or SSSI or otherwise protected, so it was only farmland that could be used.

He said these families have been on the road for 15 years and this is the first opportunity they have had to purchase land and settle down.

 Opening for FBC,  Mr Easton said his case was dictated by the nine reasons the Inspector had outlined.

Most tellingly, he said the new Government's change in policy was likely to have a bearing on the appeal.

He said the Government had made it clear that the interests of the settled community and the travelling community needed to be rebalanced, and in future, more weight would be given to the needs of the settled community, and the Inspector would have to take this into account in this appeal.

Some people will tell you that whoever you vote for, "they're all the same". This example shows that's not true.

In what we see as a parallel universe to the issue of abolishing the Regional Spatial Strategies,  St Eric is about to abolish or revoke the "flawed" Government Circular 1/2006 that aimed to force Councils into finding sites for Travellers and Gypsies. Planning Authorities were being pushed to look at allocating such sites even before they had been instructed what numbers they had to work to.

But, as with the regionalisation agenda, St Eric is having none of this, and is going to abolish the previous Government's instructions, and do away with the top down approach to planning, letting local people decide how their area should develop. This man certainly understands people and what is important to them.

Mr Easton then went through each of the items in the inspector's list and put his view of them forward in summary - for example, highway safety where he said FBC had used standard national guidance for its advice, but the appellant had squeezed every ounce of possibility to create a situation that was only 'acceptable' and even then, only "on balance"

He said the latest Gypsy and Traveller Accommodation Assessment  (GTAA) survey which had informed the Regional Spatial Strategy showed there was no additional need for pitches, but in any case, the changing national policy context means the approach and situation needs to be reviewed in the light of the policy changes.

He concluded by saying he would invite the Inspector to dismiss the appeal.

During the morning there had been some allegations of improper or anti social behaviour made by both 'sides.' We haven't reported this because it doesn't have much - if any - bearing on a planning application decision. The Inspector evidently agreed saying he wasn't interested in allegations of anti-social behaviour, that was a matter for the police "I'm not closing the door on the matter of anti-social behaviour, but I can't see how it will come into my consideration" he said.

After that, the first witnesses were called. We couldn't stay for the whole day, but will be back - probably on Friday - to see and report how things are going, and we'll update this page as soon as we can after Friday.

We called in at the inquiry today. In the morning, the MPs - Ben Wallace and Fylde's own Mark Menzies both attended and spoke. Mr Wallace set out the Government's view and its stance on the Localism Bill and the removal of Circular 1/2006 which set much of the 'pro-traveller' equality legislation in place. (We've covered both these matters before, so we won't rehearse them here).  Mr Masters said he thought Mr Wallace was failing all his constituents by not protecting the interests of the travellers. Mr Wallace explained they were not his constituents, as his constituency was over Wyre, and didn't extend to those in the current  Inquiry. He was there merely to provide an insight into Government thinking.

Mr Menzies spoke more generally about the problems that his constituents in Fylde had drawn to his attention regarding this particular site. He said he had been approached with concerns by many local residents, but none of the Travellers had approached him. Mr Masters wanted to know why he had not been to see the Travellers. Mr Menzies explained that an MP's representational role was to respond to the concerns and issues that residents raised with him and the Travellers had not done that.

Mr Masters also sought to raise the matter of the letters that both MPs had written to St Eric Pickles asking him to call-in the Inquiry and take the decision himself, but the Inspector was having none of this, and said it was a matter for the MP's and the Government, and not a matter that was within the competence of the Inquiry. He ruled it out of order.

The main evidence of the day was on highway matters, Fylde presented its evidence. What is essentially a farm track exiting partway down the brow of a hill was a terrible road safety issue - especially for sightlines at the junction.

Under cross examination by Mr Masters for the Travellers, highways specialist Miss France did her best but wilted a bit. It was evident Mr Masters had been through the evidence in detail, and he had a good grasp of it. Broadly, his technique was to push and probe at weaknesses and try to create a small hole then expand it to a balloon.

For example, he took Miss France on a convoluted walk between the finer points of difference between Highway Design Guidelines Version  1 and Version 2 and why 0.75 rather than 0.35 had been applied (don't worry, it didn't  make much sense to us either). He eventually persuaded her to agree that "hardly any" HGV's used the road because of the low railway bridge and other factors. This then became - So if no (as readers will see the "few "has already become "none") HGV's are using the road, the stopping distance you should use will be shorter, and if that's the case then the length of hedge that impedes visibility exiting the track to the right can be dealt with by a simple cutting back because the need for a shorter stopping distance has reduced the need for visibility splays by about 30m, so in effect there's no problem exiting to the right.

He then moved to turning left out of the track, and tried to argue that if you were sitting in the track waiting to exit, it didn't matter that you couldn't see a vehicle overtaking another one coming down the hill because no-one on their right minds would pull out in front of the vehicle that was being overtaken because they wouldn't have time to turn right before that arrived with them. Miss France went from 'hoping no one would take such a chance' to eventually agreeing that no-one would exit the track under such circumstances.

Fortunately the inspector was awake and suggested that might not be the case if the vehicle exiting the track was turning left and suddenly found itself foursquare in the path of a fast-moving oncoming vehicle on what would be the same side of the road as it overtook the one occupying the normal carriageway, leaving the 'exiting' vehicle nowhere to go.

We also thought the exiting vehicle turning right might have nosed out (and thus lost its nose) if it could only see the one that was being overtaken.

To us, Mr Masters was clawing at the edge of acceptability and trying to make that seem normal, when Fylde's case was based on firm solid ground. As it appeared to us, his approach was - look, we can ignore the rules and guidance, and with a bit of goodwill and pragmatic judgement we can make all this work.

We're not used to that being an acceptable approach with Planning Inquiries.

And there closed the first week. Much later than expected as far as time-tabling is concerned. It was supposed only to last another day, but we heard that it will re-convene at 9:30 on Wednesday and run for all of Thursday, with a  site visit on Friday. *UPDATE: 15 Feb*  we've now heard that the  Inquiry will reconvene on 16 MARCH

We heard from someone who knows about these things that the cost of the Inquiry would be about 75,000, but we guess that will also increase as the time taken extends.

As a lighter aside at this point, one of our readers who had also been at the inquiry sent an email pointing out we had the Inspector's name wrong (Now corrected with thanks) and asking if we thought Mr Masters resembled the man in the 'Go Compare' adverts. We'll leave our readers to decide. And for the sake of even-handedness, this is the Council's Barrister

We'll bring our readers more next week when the main topics of pure planning and landscape will take centre stage.

The hearing concluded after the participants finished playing out their parts.

But the key thing is that our own St Eric Pickles as decided to respond to the request of our MP Mark Menzies (and others), and he's going to Call-In the decision which means that the Inspector will only make a recommendation, and St Eric will make the desision.

We'd be amazed if he decided in any way other than refusing the appeal.

Dated:  8 February 2011


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