When is a traveller not a traveller?

As the echoes from Black Rod’s knocks on the Commons’ door at the opening of Parliament fade away, American tourists are about to be treated to another great British political tradition. One which is almost as venerable – the Passing of the Hot Potato.

No one is quite sure when this practice started, but for generations, as an election looms, successive Secretaries of State at DCLG have pushed less appetising political morsels to the back of their plate for their successors to chew over. Airports, HS2s, awkward planning applications for fracking badgers, all tended to slip to the bottom of the red box to await the inevitable reshuffle. Such has been the fate of DCLG’s consultation on proposed changes to planning policy and guidance relating to gypsies, travellers and travelling showpeople.

The consultation period ended on the 23rd November and students of Sir Eric Pickles’ 2010 Week One intervention into planning policy might have expected a Conservative-vote winning pronouncement in the run up to the election. That a decision has fallen to his successor may point to some major issues which will be a challenge for council planners and housing strategists – and not just in the arena of gypsies and travellers.

CLG’s consultation sought to remove travellers who had settled permanently from the statutory definitions of “gypsies and travellers” and “travelling showpeople”. In essence, if you don’t travel, you can’t be a traveller. The confusion between culture and behaviour is one for the sociologists. But the logistical challenges for local authorities to obtain legally robust definitions of need are jaw-dropping.

How can one prove someone has been travelling when they are not in your local authority ? How effective will projections of demand for pitches be, if there is a large reservoir of potential travellers impermanently “settled”?

The pressure for officers to get the supply of pitches spot on will increase if CLG’s aspirations to strengthen limitations on new sites in “open countryside” are agreed. This is all the more important as loopholes over sites within Green Belt and Areas of Natural Beauty are to be sealed.

If pitch supply fails to match demand, unauthorised encampments will increase – but under the consultation, meeting such unauthorised demand with permanent sites will be more difficult because “intentional unauthorised occupation” will be regarded as “a material consideration that weighs against the grant of permission". The creation of such Catch 22 situations will only create more uncertainty for officers trying to implement the law.

Unless all these uncertainties are resolved, our advice to help local authorities is simple.

1.  Make sure your assessments are up to date.

2.  Use good consultants who have good communication channels with communities that can adapt to different local conditions

3.  Keep good records – you’ll need them ! Robust evidence covering a range of issues about permanent sites and unauthorised encampments will put you in a strong position

Overall, CLG’s response to the consultation has wider implications for planning and housing strategies. For example, the lack of an up-to-date supply of deliverable sites being downgraded from a significant material consideration to just a material one for temporary permission may well spread into other areas where housing supply is contested. Whatever the basis for Greg Clark’s recent decision to call in Maldon District’s development plan, the implications may be far-reaching. How such precedents play out for other aspects of social housing could leave officers in a planning no man’s land.

So beware! A hot potato may be landing on your desk any day now.