Housing
Iain Wright MP

 Iain Wright MP

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State

Working together to deliver for Gypsies and Travellers

Date of speech 20 November 2008
Location University of Warwick
Event summary National Association of Gypsy and Traveller Officers Conference

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.

Introduction

Thank you, Sir Brian [Briscoe] for your introduction. And to all of you for giving me this opportunity to address you today. It's a really useful chance for me to hear from you about your experiences.

You are the direct link between local public services - whether they be accommodation, health, education or policing services - and Gypsy and Traveller communities. And I've no doubt that you have really useful ideas about how that link could be made stronger and better. Government can only benefit from listening to the views of both those responsible for delivering these services, and those to whom services are delivered. So I am here today to listen, rather than lecture.

And I want to start off by thanking you for all the work that you do with and on behalf of Gypsies and Travellers. I know that you have a tough and sometimes thankless job. But I would like to express my gratitude for your contribution.

There is a lot of good work being done within and for the Gypsy and Traveller community. There are examples of well run and maintained sites. Our Site Design guidance, for example, highlights success stories such as Abbey Close in Hackney where the residents have been integrated into and welcomed by the local community.

As well as hearing about the challenges you face, I would like to hear about success stories in your communities. In Whitehall we often never hear about good practice in our communities. But by building on the experience of success, rather than dwelling on failure, we can make a tangible difference.

The need to improve health, safety and wellbeing

We're here today to look particularly at improving health, safety and wellbeing among the Gypsies and Traveller communities.

The statistics will be familiar to you all, but it is worth repeating them again. Long term, limiting illnesses are more than twice as common among Gypsies and Travellers. Average life expectancy is anything up to 12 years shorter than it should be. Mothers in the community are eighteen times more likely to see their children die. The facts, and the implications, were set out last year by the Task Group that Sir Brian chaired, and they make for grim reading.

This is just not acceptable. The litany of statistics reads more like the facts about a developing country, not the progressive and just nation that we strive to be.

These problems require concerted, comprehensive and collective action at both a national and local level.

For our part, we in Communities and Local Government are working with other Government Departments to ensure that key issues around the social exclusion suffered by Gypsies and Travellers are identified, that the linkages between them are understood, and that they are addressed.

I know that representatives from the Department of Health and Leicestershire Primary Care Trust will be talking to you later this morning about the initiatives they are involved in to improve health outcomes for Gypsies and Travellers. They are making this a real priority. For example, through the Pacesetters programme that is about trialling different solutions suited to unique circumstances. One project will be piloting hand held health records. This will mean doctors get the medical information they need, and patients get a better service.

We are also seeking to ensure that local authorities consider Gypsies and Travellers in their work on the indicators that they have adopted through the local area agreement process. No local authority can afford to dismiss these issues - there are Gypsies and Travellers living in or passing through over ninety per cent of authorities.

Having enough, well-designed and managed sites from which to access health, education and other services, and where there is a sense of security in their residency, will underpin improvements to the health safety and wellbeing of the Gypsy and Traveller communities. This is what I want to focus on today.

Progress towards site provision

Our first priority has got to be to increase the number of sites to meet the needs of Gypsy and Traveller households in the 25 per cent of caravans that the caravan count consistently tells us have no authorised site on which to stop, as well as the emerging needs of these communities over the coming years.

Progress is being made. Nearly all accommodation needs assessments have been completed. The remainder will be completed by the end of the year.

As well as identifying the need for different types of accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers, I hope these will also provide valuable information that will help authorities plan improvements to health, education and other services for these communities.

We have recently seen Examinations in Public in the South West and East of England which are enabling Regional Assemblies to develop, for the first time, a detailed picture of how many pitches are needed, and where.

And local authorities' Core Strategies are ensuring that these sites will be near schools, shops, and services. This is not about developing isolated individual sites - it's about encouraging inclusion and integration with the wider community.

The Task Group has endorsed this approach, emphasising that new sites need to be delivered more quickly. As the report made clear, local authorities shouldn't be waiting around for the regional spatial strategies to be finalised to identify land for sites where there's a clear and immediate need.

Gypsy and Traveller Site Grant

Particularly when 100 per cent funding is available for new sites. Over the last two years we have allocated Gypsy and Traveller Sites Grant to schemes that will deliver over 400 additional pitches and refurbishment works on 120 sites. You'll know that responsibility for this grant is shortly going to be transferring to the Homes and Communities Agency, as part of their overall investment into sustainable communities.

The single conversation that the Agency will be having with local authorities and other delivery partners mean that it will be well placed to step up the pace of delivery for the benefit of both Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community.

Conflict resolution toolkit

Of course, I know that you continue to struggle against not just NIMBYism, but BANANAism - Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone - in your efforts to deliver new sites. And some of the headlines we saw in some of the papers earlier this week suggesting that the Government and councils would be grabbing land through compulsory purchase powers to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers do not help matters.

We've been developing a toolkit designed to assist local authorities to resolve the tensions that can often arise with the settled community when the provision and location of new sites is discussed. This should make the process work properly, fairly and transparently. We will be publishing it shortly and I hope you will find it helpful.

Site design and management

As well as providing enough sites, we need to make sure that both new and existing sites are well designed and managed places. Poorly designed sites with weak management can compromise people's health and safety, as well as entrenching, rather than overcoming, social exclusion.

We've published good practice guidance on site design, with guidance on management to follow shortly. This guidance will be a valuable resource to help ensure good practice is widely shared and high standards are maintained on local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites.

Changes to housing benefit

One thing that you have told us is threatening the viability of some sites is the way that housing benefit is currently paid for residents on county council sites.

The Department for Work and Pensions has now laid before Parliament regulations that will mean that rents on county council sites will no longer automatically be referred to the rent officer. They will only be referred if the local housing authority considers the rent to be excessive. This will bring arrangements for the payment of housing benefit on county council sites into line with those for registered social landlords. These changes will take effect in April next year.

Security of tenure

It's also important to make sure that Gypsies and Travellers feel secure on their sites, just as any of us do in our homes.

Earlier this year I led what is now the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 through the Commons, which will help to do just that. Although section 318 of the Act is only a little over two lines long the impact that it will have is much bigger than its size suggests.

As you know, this section will remove the specific exclusion for local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites from the Mobile Homes Act. This will provide the procedural safeguards to eviction that the European Court of Human Rights judged were lacking in the Connors case. It will also improve the other rights and responsibilities of Gypsies and Traveller on local authority sites - ensuring these are similar across all residential caravan sites.

During the consultation events that we held on these changes, many of you raised concerns about how some of the provisions of the Mobile Homes Act would impact on your sites - for example the right to assignment. We are now looking at resolving these issues through potential amendments to the Mobile Homes Act.

Melanie Sturtevant, from the Gypsy and Traveller Unit in my Department, will be talking a bit more about the formal consultation that is currently underway on these possible amendments this afternoon. I hope you will take this opportunity to have your say.

Conclusion

As you can see, a lot of work is going on in central government too - some of which you will hear more of later. I know that a lot of work is going on in local authorities to improve the health, safety and well being of Gypsies and Travellers.

Your programme for today should contain details of the Gypsy and Traveller Knowledge Network on the Communities of Practice website. Some of you are already using this resource. I would like to encourage more of you to get involved, to share your ideas and experience.

You are uniquely placed to help us make a positive difference to the lives of Gypsies and Travellers. I look forward to hearing more about your experiences and views; the challenges and the successes.

I hope that you have an enjoyable and productive day.

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