This evening, I attended a training session at Surrey Heath on the subject on gypsies and travellers within our community. As this was a private session, I won’t share the contents other to say that I hope that it enlightened local Cllrs on the actual reality rather than the urban myths circulating about these communities.
Surrey Heath have an interesting decision to make in the coming months along with many other local authorities. We have to find 19 new pitches for gypsies and travellers within the borough as there is a recognised community need. If we ignore this, then expect to see unauthorised sites cropping up almost anyway and if it is on private land then there will be little that could be done about it regardless of whether the locals like it or not. Even areas like school fields in the holidays will be difficult for agencies to evict.
So how many sites have we identified at present to address this pressing need and avert this problem? Well, absolutely none at all apart from one pitch from a redesign at a current site. So that means a gap of 18 pitches that needs to be identified with little idea at present as to how this will happen.
Now there are two options available to local politicians at this point.
1) Do nothing – put our head in the sand and hope it all goes away. The result of this will be unauthorised encampments will crop up anywhere, the Council will have little option but to grant temporary planning permission or lose costly court battles at the expense of the public purse and then the site will get permanent permission regardless of suitability.
2) Take a risk by being the community champions that we have been elected to be and actively challenging prejudice wherever it occurs. If this sounds tough and unpopular then think that for many years, we had prejudice and discrimination against women, then it was people of “colour” then it was homosexuals but every time, society moved on and eventually took a sizeable public opinion with them.
So what needs to be done? Well, the Labour and Independent Cllrs have already got together, realised the problem and come up with a rough plan following a recent public meeting in Chobham. It’s not perfect but in the absence of any other plan, it at least gives a framework and a way forward for us to push. Here it is..
1) A starting assumption is made that each of the 16 wards in the borough would provide 2 pitches.
2) The councillors for each ward should meet as a group with planning policy officers and on a map, identify every possible option within their own boundaries for small sites of 1 or 2 pitches.
3) The 3 wards where this process starts should be Windlesham, West End and Old Dean. These represent the wards of the current Council Leader, Regulatory Portfolio Holder and my own ward as the Leader of the Opposition. We need to do this first to set an example to other wards who would then follow shortly after. If any Cllr doesn’t want to have the conversation in their own ward, then I am sure the rest of us will be more than happy to do so for them with the officers!
4) Officers then undertake feasibility studies relating to all of the proposed sites in each ward identifying which options would be potentially viable or the steps that would be needed to make it viable.
5) Councillors then take a lead in public consultation within their own communities with the support of officers and therefore identify the preferred local site(s) in each ward.
6) The Council would then formally agree the final sites to be allocated through the formal decision making process with the planning applications to come in future.
Now is the time to do it because there will be no elections taking place until May 2015 and therefore no political advantage to anyone. If everyone looks to positively address the issue then we can do this by working together over the next 12 months. It would involve lots of community consultation both with the settled communities and the gypsy/travellers themselves but there are officers and agencies willing to help.
Will this be unpopular? Probably… but politics is the wrong place if you want to make friends. The real question is whether it’s the right thing to do and that is pretty obvious…