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What now for Gypsy and Traveller sites in Greenbelt, Mr Pickles?

Helen Jones's picture
By Helen Jones |  July 24, 2014 |

Eric PicklesI have spent the last three days in Leeds Civic Hall council chamber listening to a Planning Inquiry into Leeds City Council's application to extend its local authority Gypsy and Traveller site at Cottingley Springs on Gelderd Road.  I'm quite possibly a sad person but, in truth, I find the inquiry fascinating. The main reason for my fascination, despite my misgivings on behalf of potential  and existing site occupants, is because it is going to put Eric Pickles MP, notorious Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in a very difficult position. Mr Pickles' purported wish to allow local authorities, and indeed local communities, to be autonomous decision makers doesn't extend so far a making decisions about Gypsy sites.  Indeed, should such applications fall within the greenbelt Mr Pickles has given himself the option to personally decide the merits of every such application. Localism? One can't help wondering if Mr Pickles has really thought this one through.

Cottingley Springs is already a large site by national standards at 41 pitches.  The application by Leeds City Council (and its delivery partner Yorkshire Homes) seeks to provide a further 12 pitches.  For those that don't know the area, Cottingley Springs is located right at the edge of the city, beyond most housing settlements, industrial units and near to the waste disposal site.  The current site is made of up two parts, known as 'a site' and 'b site', each with a its own entrance and a separating earth bund between the two.  If you imagine two adjacent cul-de-sacs with about 20 individual fenced pitches, each with a small bungalow-like utility building, and surrounded on each curtilage by one or more caravans, you will have an adequate picture of the current site(s).  This proposal would create a further 12 pitch cul-de-sac, 'c site', albeit that it would share a busy entrance road with 'b site'.

This is an Inquiry of national significance given that SoS Mr Pickles MP (pictured), has issued a number of edicts to local authorities about attempts to build Gypsy and Traveller sites in the greenbelt.  Unlike perhaps the majority of such applications which fall within the greenbelt, this application is not from a private (often themselves Gypsy or Traveller) developer.  As with many similar, though private, applications, a recent modest application for 10 pitches on the outskirts of Wakefield (Stanley Gate) was refused on the grounds that, whatever its merits, and whatever the local need for Gypsy and Traveller sites, Mr Pickles  does not believe it outweighs the need to protect our greenbelt.

One might reasonably pause here to consider much discussion suggesting that our greenbelt must needs be breached in face of our overwhelming need for conventional 'bricks and mortar' housing.

So the case for Mr Pickles appears clear. Pressing, and long standing, need for Gypsy and Traveller sites, under no circumstances, outweighs the potential harm of such developments within the greenbelt. This must surely apply no matter who the applicant is? Surely, Mr Pickles? This application is from the Local Authority (Leeds City Council), whose Executive Board has agreed the development dependent on referral to the Secretary of State in line with his currently applicable 'call in' of site applications within the greenbelt. The City Council, is erudite in its argument for approval of the application, state that, at the time the application for funds from the HCA (Homes and Communities Agency) was made to develop a further, much needed, socially rented Gypsy site (or indeed sites) in Leeds, no other land was available, or deliverable, for such development in the whole city (or at least within the council's own land holdings).

The council further asserts that this development is justified because unless works to deliver the site extension are begun by April 2015, the HCA may withdraw its funding. Many private potential developers of Gypsy and Traveller sites have attempted to make this 'deliverability/pressing need' argument to the Planning Inspectorate and ultimately to Mr Pickles himself, and failed. The logical conclusion of this position however, given the criteria applied by the local authority on the 'deliverability' of sites, is that no sites will ever be available within the councils own land holdings. The main reason for this being the criteria applied by the local authority which indicates that any Gypsy and Traveller site provision will, of itself, devalue any surrounding land holdings and therefore vaporise any chance of developing the said surrounding land for regeneration, or releasing any equity in the land for benefit of the council to private developer (house builders).  Leeds City Council therefore state that the only 'deliverable' option is to further encroach into the greenbelt by extending Cottingley Springs.  So, we are obliged to ask Mr Pickles, 'Is what is good for the goose, also good for the gander? Or not?  It may be quite some time before we find out the answer to that question, the Inquiry is expected to last until 8th August and the Inspector must then draw conclusions and make recommendations to Mr Pickles, which he may or may not agree with.  We, and others across England, will await his decision with baited breath.

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