Eric Pickles accused of illegally blocking Traveller sites

 

Senior Reporter

Eric Pickles is acting illegally by repeatedly overruling the decisions of his own department’s planning inspectors to prevent the creation of Traveller sites across the country, the High Court will hear next week.

On Tuesday the actions of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will be challenged during a three-day judicial review hearing brought by one Romany Gypsy and three Irish Traveller families.

If Mr Pickles loses, dozens of his past decisions – which have often seen him overturning the recommendations of his department’s own planning officials – will be called into doubt and could prompt a flood of fresh appeals from Gypsies and Travellers demanding the right to settle on green belt land.

Lawyers for the four families will argue that the Government’s decision to impose a “blanket call-in” for all Gypsy and Traveller appeals over planning permission in the green belt – which allows Mr Pickles to decide on them personally – breaches their human rights and equality laws.

The new policy has been in place since last July. At the time Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said it would only last for six months to allow Mr Pickles to check that the Government’s planning policies were being interpreted correctly. But it has since been extended indefinitely.

Lawyers for the families will also claim that the Government’s Planning Policy for Traveller Sites, brought in by Mr Pickles in March 2012, is inherently discriminatory as it is targeted at specific racial groups rather than the population as a whole.

“The guidance singles out Gypsy sites in the green belt. It ignores other caravan sites and other residential development for the settled population in the green belt,” said Keith Coughtrie of Lester Morrill Solicitors, who is representing the families. “It singles out Gypsy and Traveller development on the grounds of race only and requires that no matter what the size or impact of the development is, all will be determined by the Secretary of State.”

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, will be challenged during a three-day judicial review Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, will be challenged during a three-day judicial review (Getty Images)
Due to a reluctance by councils to set aside specific plots on which Gypsies and Travellers can settle, many take matters into their own hands, buying patches of land around towns and villages. This often sparks a battle for planning permission with the local authority.

If their application is refused, the Travellers can appeal to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) Planning Inspectorate. While inspectors may then find in favour of the Travellers, Mr Pickles now has the power to “call in” the case and overrule the decision if he wishes.

Figures released last month under Freedom of Information rules and seen by The Independent show that in 2013, more than half of appeals were upheld when the decisions were left in the hands of DCLG planning inspectors – but that when Mr Pickles intervened, just 15 per cent were upheld.

Matthew Brindley, policy manager at the Traveller Movement charity, said: “We have a national shortage of Traveller sites, and we’re very concerned by what we’re hearing about the number of [planning] applications being ‘called in’ by the Secretary of State. We believe that there’s a focus on Gypsy and Traveller planning applications… which is causing a disproportionate impact on them.

“These families need somewhere to stay and this policy has a huge impact on them, in terms of health, the education of their children, on employment opportunities and on community cohesion.”

Mr Pickles has overseen a tightening of local planning laws during his time as Secretary of State. At the Conservative Party conference in 2012, he promised to “stop caravans in their tracks” by allowing councils to issue unlimited fines to people who ignore planning rules, in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the Dale Farm dispute in 2011.

Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said: "The Government has intentionally strengthened Green Belt protection, and we have taken action against unauthorised development to ensure fair play in the planning system. Planning policy issued in 2012 is very clear that both temporary and permanent Traveller sites are inappropriate developments in the Green Belt, in the same way that most bricks and mortar houses are deemed inappropriate in the Green Belt. Every planning application and appeal is considered with due process on its individual merits in light of the local circumstances.”

Case study

Bridget Doran is one of the Travellers challenging Mr Pickles in the High Court. She and her husband Tommy bought a plot of land outside the village of Platt near Sevenoaks, Kent, in 2007 and settled there with their sons and grandchildren.

She told the Travellers’ Times that her family had since “sunk every penny they had” into the site and were on the verge of winning a long battle for planning permission with the local council – but in March this year Mr Pickles overruled the inspector’s recommendation that it should be granted.

“We get on with everyone in the village,” she said. “All our children are in the primary school and the high school and when the news about our appeal was in the papers all the children were asking our little ones whether that meant they would have to move and how sad that would be.

“People in the village and the local shops and pubs are angry with Mr Pickles and offering to write letters to him asking him to let us stay. If we have to move it will be back on the road. We are not moving onto a local authority site. It’s too rough.”

She claimed that Mr Pickles overruled the planning inspector “because he doesn’t like Travellers”, adding: “He is being unfair to the local community as well – because they want us to stay.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins wins the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Davidson performs his comedy show at Edinburgh Festival 2014
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Finance Manager - Central London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Business Development Manager

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: IT Buyer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This award winning IT company are currently re...

Recruitment Genius: IT Account Manager

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor