Last Thursday I attended the Rugby branch meeting of the Warwickshire and West Midlands Association of Local Councils (WALC) in Rugby. This was the annual joint meeting that the WALC Rugby branch has with Rugby Borough Council in order to discuss matters of joint concern and interest.
There were a number of different issues discussed, including fly tipping/litter, dog fouling and flooding. However, the issue that interested me most was an update from Rugby Borough Council as to recent developments regarding the production of the borough's Gypsy and Traveller Site Allocations Development Plan Document.
In May, I blogged that Councillor Tony Gillias had reported at the Shilton Annual Parish Meeting that production of this important planning document - that would identify where, within the Rugby borough area, provision for the 42 extra gypsy and traveller pitches that were needed between now and 2017 were to be located - had been delayed, and would not now be adopted until July 2012. At the time, I indicated how disappointed I was that this plan had been delayed from February 2011 to July 2012.
As with so much to do with local government, there is a long and tortuous history to the production of the Gypsy and Traveller Site Allocations Development Plan Document, and for a recap you should read my blog post from January this year. However, in summary, the plan would have allocated land for the 42 extra pitches that the West Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy said that Rugby Borough Council had to find. Each local authority in the West Midlands had to identify sufficient land within its area to provide for the number of pitches that the Regional Spatial Strategy required of it. Rugby's total was forty-two.
This was all well and good, until the incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government decided to abolish Regional Spatial Strategies. In fairness, this policy was common knowledge by everyone well in advance of May's General Election, but it's implementation has left local councils (including Rugby) with a fair amount of uncertainty. It was the Regional Spatial Strategy that said Rugby BC should provide for 42 extra pitches, but if the Regional Spatial Strategy has been scrapped, how many pitches should it now provide for? And because of this uncertainty, Rugby has actually decided to do.......... well, nothing.
It has formally decided to suspend any work on producing its Gypsy and Traveller Site Allocations Development Plan Document for the next six months, in which time it hopes to get guidance from the Government as to how many pitches it needs to accommodate. Which means, at the very earliest, there will be no Site Allocations Plan in force until January 2013.
I strongly believe that this is bad news for Shilton and Barnacle. A Site Allocations Plan would have ensured that traveller sites were located in areas where they were most suited, both for travellers themselves and the settled community. It would have given clear planning guidance to travellers as to where Rugby BC would support their applications for sites, and it would have avoided the "one rule for us and another rule for them" argument that can so damage community relations. As it is, we are no further forward in finding a planning solution to the siting of traveller sites in the borough than we've ever been. And there's now no realistic likelihood of any progress being made within the next year.
The Government thinks that local councils are best left making these sorts of decisions, without having to implement diktats "from above". I am all for giving local authorities more powers and responsibilities, but on this issue I have to say that I think the Government is wrong. The West Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy evened out the amount of pitches that each council had to provide, to ensure that sites were provided across the region and that no one council area was required to provide a significantly larger number of extra pitches than any other council area.
As I said in January, Rugby's original allocation of 66 extra pitches was revised down to 42, and the surplus 24 pitches were re-allocated to neighbouring authorities. But now with no Regional Spatial Strategy to enforce that re-allocation of pitches, have a guess at how many of Rugby's 'surplus' 24 pitches the councils in Coventry, North Warwickshire, Tamworth and Warwick will want to volunteer to provide??
The hope is that the Government, within the next six months, will issue clear guidance to local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate as to how they are to determine applications for traveller sites. And if the answer is to leave it up to each council to determine, and provide for, its own need (as most councils want), then Rugby will be a big loser. Anyone who thought that traveller sites should be allocated more evenly across the West Midlands should not be happy at the scrapping of Regional Spatial Strategies.
I'm hugely doubtful, given all of the other national issues that need to be addressed, whether anything will be forthcoming before Christmas. But until it does, Rugby Borough Council are not going to do any more work on developing its policies for the proper provision of gypsy and traveller sites within the borough.
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