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Councils want to do the right thing – Planning maybe not as bad as feared

Ben Chastney's picture
By Ben Chastney |  September 20, 2016 |

Some good news, I think.  I just left a recent conference about Traveller site policy feeling relatively positive.  This is not because the national policy has improved; it hasn’t.  In the past year I and many others have talked about how recent DCLG changes to Traveller site laws will only make a bad situation worse.  That is still the case.  The good news though is that some Local Authorities are taking pragmatic approaches.  These efforts require encouragement and support.

Firstly, engaging with the debate is a positive first sign.  That over thirty Local Authorities were represented at this briefing session suggested there to be an appetite, at least from some within their Council, to seek out help and input on Traveller Site need.  Moreover, the questions asked from many, both during the main session and during the breaks, suggested a genuine desire to respond sensibly to the recent planning changes. 

 

Whether due to recognition of the legal value of avoiding a challenge, recognition of the ethical value of fair inclusion or recognition of the pragmatic value address unmet need, many of these Councils are wanting to work constructively.  That is, some are rightly being cautious about revising accommodation assessments too drastically in light of new qualifications about travelling practices and others are making progress on site allocations plans. 

 

We heard feedback of Local Authorities who have decided not to revise their assessment of need or who will be interpreting the conditions of travelling very broadly.  Others will look again at their numbers but will be particularly cautious on making any revisions without a strong evidence base.  We also heard of examples of sites finally being built or in the latter stages of obtaining permission.  I also got the impression that many attendees will be taking a more constructive course of action following the information they received, from planners, lawyers and community groups. 

 

Of course, there is much to outweigh these positive instances.  Whilst over 30 Councils were represented that of course means many more were not.  It is those not there who we know have been making drastic changes to their need figures and failing to make any site provision for decades.  Even attending and positively engaging does not translate into action.  As we know too well, those Council officers attending are rarely those who need convincing and that their enthusiasm or pragmatism will often been overridden by political pressures on return to the office. 

 

However, we need to build from rare opportunities.  Let’s help those Council Officers and elected members who do want to get Traveller site planning right.   I presented a best practice guide for carrying out assessments, a copy of which can be read here.  This a tool officers may use less to improve what they were already aiming to do but more to justify such an approach to powers above.  Similarly, attendees likely already recognised legal and practical risks of failing to calculate or provide Traveller site need but authoritative data will help support their arguments to overcome obstacles.

 

Our position continues to be cautious optimism alongside constructive challenge.  We will keep pressuring Local Authorities to improve assessments and start meeting identified need.  We will also keep challenging the national legal picture.  At the same time we recognise there are Councils who are seeking to make progress and will gladly support that work.  This recent conference reminded me that there are many such Councils wanting to work constructively and I remind them that it is not just ourselves but planners, solicitors and academics who can advise and direct – just ask nicely.

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